The moral force of the US Constitution

Why should we revere our constitution as the fundamental set of political and moral principles underlying our democracy? Is it simply because it was written and adopted by the “Framers”? Is it because it has legitimacy as a whole by having been democratically ratified through our history? Or, most fundamentally, is it because there are compelling arguments of political morality for various of the individual stipulations of the constitution and the Bill of Rights? This latter view is essentially the position advocated by Ronald Dworkin as a fundamental premise of constitutional interpretation in Freedom’s Law: The Moral Reading of the American Constitution. Here is a clear statement of Dworkin’s view of the moral interpretation of the US Constitution:

The book … illustrates a particular way of reading and enforcing a political constitution, which I call the moral reading. Most contemporary constitutions declare individual rights against the government in very broad and abstract language, like the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, which provides that Congress shall make no law abridging “the freedom of speech.” The moral reading proposes that we all–judges, lawyers, citizens–interpret and apply these abstract clauses on the understanding that they invoke moral principles about political decency and justice. The First Amendment, for example, recognizes a moral principle–that it is wrong for government to censor or control what individual citizens say or publish–and incorporates it into American law. So when some novel or controversial constitutional issue arises–about whether, for instance, the First Amendment permits laws against pornography–people who form an opinion must decide how an abstract moral principle is best understood. They must decide whether the true ground of the moral principle that condemns censorship, in the form in which this principle has been incorporated into American law, extends to the case of pornography. (2) 

Dworkin formulates this idea at the level of constitutional interpretation; but his view also extends to the issue of legitimacy and authority of constitutional provisions as well. 

Christopher Peters characterizes this topic as the problem of “constitutional authority” (link), and his major law review article on the subject is well worth reading. Constitutional authority is important because it is the feature that gives us a reason to consider a constitutional provision normatively and legally binding. Peters argues for a procedural theory of constitutional authority: a constitutional provision has authority if it was enacted in a procedurally correct way, and lacks authority if it was not so enacted (439).

I contend that the only plausible justification of constitutional authority is not substantive in this sense, but rather procedural: it requires obedience to the Constitution, not because of what it commands, but because of how it commands us—that is, because of the process by which constitutional commands are generated. (439)

He contrasts this with the “substantive” theory of constitutional authority exemplified by Dworkin, which he emphatically rejects. In particular, he argues for a condition of “content-independence” for constitutional authority: “An authority’s right to be obeyed also exists regardless of the moral content of what the authority is commanding…. A command possesses authority if it imposes a defeasible content-independent moral obligation to act as the command directs” (442, 446).

For a variety of reasons, I like aspects of both substantive and procedural theories about the authority of constitutional provisions. There is a special force to provisions like freedom of speech or freedom of religion that goes beyond the force of merely reasonable institutional stipulations. So it is pertinent to ask about the moral status (as does Dworkin) of various constitutional provisions. We might say, most generally, that there ought to be consistency between our constitution and our best understanding of the requirements of a just society.

If we take the moral interpretation of constitutional authority seriously, we are faced with a potential problem. What if we discover for one or more stipulations, that there is in fact no underlying moral consideration for that provision? What if one or more constitutional provisions appears to be entirely arbitrary from a moral point of view? And in fact, when we consider this question, we find ourselves in exactly this position. Some provisions — freedom of speech and religion, procedural protections against search and arbitrary arrest — can be justified on the basis of a more fundamental conception of the requirements of a society consisting of free and equal moral beings. Other provisions may be justified as reasonable institutional arrangements — right to a jury trial, right to stand for president at the age of 35, which seem to derive authority from the kinds of substantive reasoning Peters describes. These are provisions that Peters describes as legitimate procedural specifications. But others — like the right to bear arms or form a citizens’ militia — have no such basis. They are morally arbitrary, much as might have been a constitutional right to live near a grocery store. And yet other provisions are now seen to be flatly immoral — for example, the Fugitive Slave Clause (Article IV, section 2). The inclusion of arbitrary or immoral provisions in the Constitution, we might say, was a mistake on the part of the Framers, and it should now be corrected.

Peters considers the constitutional authority of the Second Amendment in extensive detail through the case of District of Columbia v. Heller, the controversial Supreme Court case concerning the constitutionality of restrictions on firearms in the District of Columbia. He believes that a constitutional provision without authority simply does not bind citizens or lawmakers: “The Second Amendment thus brings front and center the question, not merely of how the Court should interpret constitutional rights, but of why— indeed whether—those rights ought to bind us at all” (438). His most extensive argument about constitutional authority is flatly contradictory to the idea of a moral justification for constitutional provisions (Dworkin’s position). So he considers instead whether there is a procedural justification for the Second Amendment.

The procedural approach requires showing that the provision reduces or resolves important public conflicts by reducing bias or entrenchment by powerful majorities. Applying this approach to the Second Amendment, Peters finds that, on the central public interpretations of the meaning of the amendment (individual self-defense and resistance to tyranny), there is no such justification. The first concern should be addressed through ordinary majoritarian legislation, and the second is self-contradictory. (How could there be a constitutional right to disobey the constitution?) Peters does find a procedural justification for the amendment, however, in Justice Stevens’ dissenting opinion in the majority ruling. Stevens ties the amendment to the “public militia” part of the language, and argues that this entails that the amendment serves a narrow scope: to ensure that states are empowered to maintain their own armed “militia” forces. This interpretation would lend constitutional authority to the amendment; but it would strip the amendment of the implication that democratically elected legislators lack legal authority to regulate or limit individual ownership, possession, and use of firearms.

This line of thought leads to a fairly remarkable and simple idea: the citizens of the United States ought to amend or abolish the Second Amendment. We respect the Constitution as the law of the land, but we also stipulate a process for revising or amending the constitution. And we might hold that only those provisions that hold up as justified moral requirements should be sacrosanct. There is no moral basis for the right to bear arms, it does not express a reasonable institutional arrangement, and it has shown itself to lead to deleterious social effects.

There is another moral consideration for the authority of existing constitutional provisions that has force — the idea of loyalty to the constitution as the fundamental governing document of the United States’ democracy. Our democratic obligations as citizens entail our commitment to the rule of law, and the constitution represents the most general framework of law in our system of government. Therefore we are morally or normatively bound by existing constitutional provisions — which means that even though we may think that the Second Amendment is morally ungrounded and institutionally perverse, we are bound to accept its authority until amended. This does not mean we are compelled to accept the extreme reading offered by conservatives about the scope and implications of the amendment concerning unfettered gun ownership and carrying; this is precisely the question of interpretation that constitutional lawyers argue about. But the general line of reasoning has force; it is part and parcel of the idea of being bound by a system of law that citizens within a democracy are subject to the authority of laws (including constitutional provisions) that have been duly enacted. Individual citizens or legislatures do not have the legal option of picking and choosing the constitutional and legal principles that they will accept. And the remedy to constitutional provisions that we find morally or socially odious is clear; it is the mechanism of constitutional amendment (as the Thirteenth Amendment largely negated the Fugitive Slave Clause in Article IV, section 2 through its abolition of slavery throughout the nation).

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