Constitutional Reductionism
Oct 1, 2010

Constitutional Reductionism

The question is this: can we expect the solutions to our disparate political problems all be found within a small set of guiding principles? I argue both that the answer is 'no' and further that this is precisely what the tea party and constitutionalists are arguing for. In their case the set of guiding principles is of course the constitution and declaration of independence - or more precisely a small subset of these that dominate the political rhetoric.  There is a related consideration when considering the merits of a similar moral reductionism attempting to solve moral problems through a limited set of guiding principles contained in religious books. In both, I argue for rationalism over reductionism to all inclusive first principles.

The simple reality is that our political problems are very difficult and complex. The ramifications of, say, an economic policy are usually very poorly understood and even debated extensively among experts.  To expect that a small itemization of principles would be sufficient to apply to our complex and disparate problems of the day is at the very least a rather extreme position. Take a simple example of freedom of speech - core in our liberal democracy - yet it contains many nuanced exemptions such as regulations on advertisers, slander, inciting harm etc. The exemptions don't reduce the praiseworthiness of the principle, but they demonstrate how a focus entirely on direct, literal application of these first principles doesn't solve the complexity of the problems faced.  Furthermore, even if we accepted a reductionist standpoint for the sake of argument, society changes enormously over centuries and the same set of reductionist principles may not extend to the new problems. Social issues such as gay rights or a women's right to choose were simply not prevalent questions a couple hundred years ago. The ability to give twenty first century universal health care didn't exist. The result is we should have a healthy amount of skepticism about the attempt to argue for or against a given policy today based entirely on the merits of a  constitutional principle. The context and complexity of the situation and a rational consideration of the consequences need to dominate an appeal to first principles.


As is particularly prevalent in the Tea Party, I feel there is a strong movement to applying a narrow set of principles to every situation. For example, "government is bad" is really at the core of the message and that the government should stop interfering in SS, healthcare, finance industry and whatever else. The problem is that such a guiding principle has no capacity to deal with the subtleties  of any given question and consider the various factors it is just a blanket appeal that presents no alternative or even any real analysis of the issue. It paints the world in a fundamentally black and white way.

A similar thing can be said about religious morality. Likewise, moral issues can be enormously complex and nuanced. We ought not to expect that a limited prescription of moral values be sufficient for solving a large set of moral problems. Yet most religions codify explicitly a set of core values in their religious dogma deemed not only sufficient but devine in their absolute ability to ultimately determine moral issues. I have discussed previously how morality should not be determined by constitutions, and this idea of not resorting to reductionism when determining morality strengthens this point. 

This basic point is motivated by considering formal mathematical systems that consist of a short set of assumptions or axioms and then logically deduce a body of theorems from that point forward. However to claim that the collection of all possible true statements overlaps precisely with the collection of derivable statements in the axiomatic formal system is an extraordinary claim requiring considerable justification. In the case if political policy or morality, an attempt to define a limited set of axiomatic principles and expect that they are sufficient for logically determining the answers to all political or moral problems is likewise a very extraordinary thing to maintain.

One difficulty that harms the reductionist approach is the balance of generality and specificity. If one wants the axiomatic system to apply to a sufficiently broad set of problems the axioms must be relatively general. However one wants the axiomatic system to be sensitive to nuances and the various considerations of a specific case one needs there to be specificity in the axiomatic system. For example, the US constitution lacks a specific and clear definition of human life to adequately determine the abortion debate within the system instead leaving it to be a highly debated and contentious legal dispute. The need for both sides results in it being very hard to come up with an axiomatic principled system that is both comprehensive enough to have all the various political and moral questions in its scope but be precise enough to adequately answer any specific question.

This general inadequacy of an entirely principled political or moral code that ignores pragmatic and rationalist considerations extends to many proposed social systems. Their are a lot of highly idealized utopian social orders out there ranging from Austrian libertarianism to communism to anarchosyndicalism. Advocates of such systems usually find a couple key principles that they find particularly important such as "freedom from government" or "freedom from capitalist greed" and extend them as far as one can. The result is almost by definition a reduction to absurdity. Goals such as "reducing human suffering" which we can all probably agree on as a loose, nonprescriptive goal get superseded via prescriptive claims like "freedom from government" which transform from a "means" to reducing suffering to being an "end" in its own right.

The alternative to this reductionism in politics and morality is rationalism where one has a commitment to dealing with an individual problem and determining the best solution based on reasoning through the nuances opposed to just applying a broad perspective. Now I should be clear, this rejection of principled reductionism is not a nihilistic perspective nor an appeal to complete moral relativism. I have no problem with general moral ideals as part of ones outlook on life and indeed in a formal mathematical system one needs assumptions on which to logically reason. However, opposed to specified, codified, prescriptive and absolute principles it ought to be a broad and loose context for discussion based on empathy and compassion for humanity.

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