Thursday, December 22, 2011


Fisher Ames
In 1795, Fisher Ames, a congressman from Massachusetts, perhaps recognized the indeterminate buy dynamic aspects of our system of government when he compared it to a monarchy in the following way.
“A monarchy”, he said, “is a merchantman which sails well, but will sometimes strike a rock, and go to the bottom; a republic is a raft which will never sink, but then your feet are always in the water.”

Friday, December 16, 2011

Language and Politics — George Orwell

“our economic system … is determined by constitutional and legislative political processes based on equality. ”
As George Orwell observed, totalitarian regimes often distort and invert the truth by corrupting the meaning of words and language. For example, totalitarian communist regimes have, at least in theory, advocated equality as the common ownership of the means of production, but have actually denied political equality as well as the moral agency of other people. Unfortunately, a great deal of intellectual energy has been spent on rebuttal, not by clarifying and defining the several aspects of equality and the moral foundations of our political system, but in attempts to justify capitalism, distributive justice, inequality, and our economic system in an isolated context.

It would be ironic to accept as a premise of public discourse on constitutional democracy the ideology of Marxism which portrays the economic system to be primary to and determinative of the political system, rather than just an integral and interdependent part of society and government. What is important to recognize is that our economic system, for example the extent to which we are a regulated capitalism or a social welfare state, is determined by constitutional and legislative political processes based on equality. Given such political processes based on equality, it is not irrational for a people to recognize defined property rights, reward production and merit, and incorporate several aspects of distributive justice.

I discuss George Orwell’s philosophy on political language in depth in the first chapter of Moral and Political Philosophy (2004).

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Equality as an Affirmation of Our Common Humanity

Our government rests in public opinion. Whoever can change public opinion, can change the government, practically just so much. Public opinion, or any subject, always has a “central idea, from which all its minor thoughts radiate. That “central idea” in our political public opinion, at the beginning was, and until recently has continued to be, “the equality of men.

— Abraham Lincoln 1856
At the time of a clash of civilizations it is not unusual for both sides to re-examine, define, and even sometimes codify their basic values and cultural institutions in order to both preserve and convey their basic values and traditions. At the time of the fall of communism in the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe, the United States did this poorly. It appears that we are making a similar mistake in our war against terrorism, which is very much a battle of ideas and ideologies and will have to be understood as such for any chance of a long-term resolution and reconciliation.

When asked about the battle of global ideas, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said “If I were grading, I would say that we probably deserve a D+ as a country.”
– he should know.
We are missing a defining opportunity in the history of the moral and political philosophy of the liberal tradition; first, by not defining our primary moral value as equality, understood as a respect for the dignity and worth of our common humanity; and second, by not defining our government as a constitutional democracy, which is the only way to convey both the substantive and the procedural concepts of equality that it incorporates.

At the time of the fall of communism, the media, the academics, and our government almost universally described the United States as a capitalistic democracy. This was in part because we allowed the Soviet Union to describe their communism to be primarily an economic system rather than a totalitarian political system, which denied any concept of moral or political equality. The primary alternative to communism should have been constitutional democracy. It is the constitutional aspects of our government, such as the Bill of Rights, that incorporate our substantive concepts of equality. The constitutional principles are placed beyond the usual majority rule of the legislative process. It is the democratic aspects of our government that incorporate the procedural aspects of equality, such as “one person, one vote.”

Jefferson, Madison, Tocqueville, and Lincoln all considered equality to be the primary moral principle of constitutional democracy. Since the events of September 11, 2001, however, I cannot recall one instance of even a mention of equality. The terrorist attack of 9/ ll was an attack on both our freedom and security and it is perhaps understandable that our values have thus been described primarily in those terms. In the Declaration of Independence, however, the first premise was that “all men are created equal” and that put everything that followed, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, in a moral context. Even the great reformers, such as the women suffragettes and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., did not repudiate these principles, but urged us to live up to them and place them into practice.

Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense, was recently asked how the United States was faring against the extremist ideology in the global “battle of ideas.” He said, “If I were grading, I would say that we probably deserve a D+ as a country.” We are indeed in a “battle of ideas”, in part, with a radical version of Islam. Islam, the religion of 1.2 billion people, is based on a submission to the will of God. Much of the liberty that we convey, on the other hand, is seen by others as the self-indulgence of our culture. We also unnecessarily lost much of the moral high ground with our initial waffling on the issues of torture and human rights.

During the current war on terrorism it may be appropriate that we emphasize freedom. To achieve our objectives we will also need the cooperation of many countries that are not constitutional democracies. To win the peace, however, we will need to understand and convey that our primary moral value is universal equality. It is such a recognition of our common humanity in a pluralistic world that makes the accommodation of a wide variety of attributes, cultural differences, desires, and beliefs possible without the use of coercion or being the cause of alienation.

James H. Rutherford, M.D.
Author of Moral and Political Philosophy

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

United States Constitutional Democracy and American Exceptionalism

Most nations have been historically based on a common ethnicity, language, religion, or history. The recent Constitution of the Maldives, for example, grants citizenship only to Muslims. In contrast to this, Seymour Martin Lipset, in the summary chapter of his book American Exceptionalism (1996), quoted from my own work, Moral and Political Philosophy, noting that in the United States: “The free and equal individual with moral responsibility is the basis of communal solidarity.”

In April, 2009, Barack Obama missed the historical point of American Exceptionalism when he stated:
“I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”
Jefferson, Madison, Tocqueville, Lincoln, and the great reformers such as the women suffragettes and the Rev, Martin Luther King, Jr. all considered equality to be the primary moral concept of our government. Our democracy incorporates a quantitative concept of equality with ‘“one person — one vote.” It is the Constitution with the Bill of Rights, however, that incorporates qualitative and substantive concepts of freedom and equality that protect the individual from the possible abuses of majority rule. Even the Constitution, however, can be amended by a super-majority of two-thirds of the Congress and three-fourths of the states. Concerning this ability of a super-majority to change the Constitution and the the Bill of Rights, James Madison thus wrote that he hoped the Bill of Rights “might acquire by degree the character of fundamental maxims of free government, and as they become incorporated into the national sentiment, counteract the impulses of interest and passion.”

It would help us to both understand and convey our values if our government officials, the media, and academics began to refer to our moral concepts as including both equality and freedom, our government as a constitutional democracy, and American exceptionalism as being based at least historically on the free and equal individual with moral responsibility as the basis of our communal solidarity. This was unique or "exceptional" at the time of our founding.

James H. Rutherford, M.D.
moralfoundations.com

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Universal Equality

In 1856, before his presidency or the beginning of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln said:

Our government rests in public opinion. Whoever can change public opinion, can change the government, practically just so much. Public opinion, or [on?] any subject, always has a “central idea,” from which all its minor thoughts radiate. That “central idea” in our political public opinion, at the beginning was, and until recently has continued to be, “the equality of men.” (Basler 1953, vol. II, 385; see also Jaffa 1982, chap. XIV).

A few years ago we celebrated the one hundredth anniversary of the Statute of Liberty, and many would consider liberty, or freedom, as the fundamental moral concept on which our government was founded. Freedom, however, has little meaning outside of one’s moral concept of justice.

“It is indeed the self-imposed ethical or moral foundations of government that change mere obedience to the coercive powers of government into a sense of consensual responsibility for a moral duty, a just order, the common good, or human rights. ”
Freedom can mean, simply license, the absence of any social obligation or moral constraint. Being a free moral agent does not necessarily mean that one will choose to be moral. Freedom does not address the need to maintain order, establish justice, or provide for the general welfare. Nor does freedom provide much protection from the coercive powers of government unless it means “liberty for all” (Basler 1953, vol. IV, 168–69). Indeed, what we often desire is freedom from the arbitrary will of others.

Morality, on the other hand, provides a context of responsibility for freedom. Morality even implies a degree of freedom of choice and, to the extent of that freedom, responsibility. Freedom by itself implies a type of existential or subjective responsibility but not necessarily any other type of moral acknowledgement. When Jefferson put forth the ideals of our country in the Declaration of Independence, his first assertion, his primary self-evident truth, was that “all men are created equal.” The unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were thus put within an ethical context of equality and reciprocity. Jefferson and Lincoln both understood universal equality to be the primary moral concept of American constitutional democracy.

Others have also understood universal equality to be the primary moral concept. Marvin Meyers in his book on James Madison, The Mind of the Founder, concluded that, “in Madison’s view of man,” equality was the fundamental term (1981, xxii). Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America (1835–1840), “advanced the influential thesis that equality is the fundamental theme and characteristic of American civilization” (Davis 1990, 11).


Alexis de Tocqueville
Tocqueville noted that even tyrants value freedom, but only for themselves. He also understood that equality is not an extrinsic leveling term but conveys an inherent mutual respect which also implies an equality of political freedom. David Brion Davis, a prominent historian of the institution of slavery, has even concluded that the real anthesis of slavery is not freedom but equality (Davis 1990, 29). Even the great reformers, such as the women suffragettes and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., did not repudiate these principles, but urged us to live up to them and place them into practice.

G. K. Chesteron wrote, however, that the belief in human equality is not “some crude fairy tale about all men being equally tall or equally tricky” (see McWilliams 1979,184). It is not like a Procrustean bed of Greek mythology into which all persons are forced to fit by stretching them on a rack or cutting off their legs. For Jefferson, universal equality was instead a moral assertion—an assertion that affirmed both his own humanity and his own individuality against tyranny. Using fable and analogy, in the manner of George Orwell, one could say that if you are a mallard and don’t like ducks or duckhood, then there is going to be an inherent problem with your own self-affirmation by definition. This is one sense in which Jefferson’s assertion that “all men are created equal” could be considered a self-evident truth. It is an affirmation of our own humanity.

It is this recognition of his own humanity, however, that allowed Jefferson to also assert his own individuality, not by a will to power and coercion, but by inverting that to a resistance to the tyranny of others. By recognizing the moral agency of others, as well as asserting our own mature responsible personality, there opens up the possibility of deciding political issues by the deliberation of democratic constitutional and legislative processes, rather than by simple coercion, domination, or privilege.

The future of American government still rests on public opinion. It rests on our understanding and support for the moral foundations of constitutional democracy and our ability to communicate and preserve such an understand effectively. This is important, for the enjoyment of individual freedom and the progress of human liberty are not inevitable. They are contingent, to a large degree, on our willingness and ability as moral agents to place our free will within ethical constraints. It is indeed the self-imposed ethical or moral foundations of government that change mere obedience to the coercive powers of government into a sense of consensual responsibility for a moral duty, a just order, the common good, or human rights. In United States constitutional democracy these ethical concepts all relate historically to the “central idea” of universal equality.

Complete Essay with references from my book, Moral and Political Philosophy.