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Monday, August 25, 2008

The Constitution's Moral Design: A Review

Is the Constitution any good?" That's the question Paul R. DeHart considers in his new book Uncovering the Constitution's Moral Design. It may seem like an odd question or, at least, an incomplete question: good for what? Ensuring peace and stability? Protecting civil liberties? No; DeHart is after something deeper. He wants to know if the "Constitution's normative framework [is] philosophically sound. Does it make moral assumptions that correspond to moral reality, whatever that reality happens to be?" For DeHart, the Constitution is good if it embodies true moral principles.

While the title might suggest that the book is primarily about constitutional interpretation, what emerges is a much broader discussion of analytic philosophy, metaphysical and moral realism, natural teleology, and moral theory. An assistant professor of political science at Lee University, DeHart builds on the work of Hadley Arkes, J. Budziszewski, and the analytic philosopher Robert Koons. The result is a unique blend of Budziszeski's What We Can't Not Know approach to natural law thinking, Arkes's "logic of morals" going Beyond the Constitution, and Koons' philosophical Realism Regained.

DeHart begins his investigation by discussing methodology. The intellectual historian, he argues, might approach these questions by looking not only at the text, but to the arguments the framers made in defense of the Constitution, their other political writings, and the political theorists they referenced. By understanding the framers' larger worldview, we would understand the moral framework they presupposed in writing the Constitution—and thus that the Constitution must presuppose as well. DeHart rejects the historian's approach, however, because the "Constitution's meaning is distinguishable from the framers' meaning or intentions." As DeHart sees it, we need to look at the Constitution's content and structure and ask what philosophical positions one must assume to make sense of it. A logical examination of the Constitution itself reveals "an objective, institutional arrangement that embodies normative presuppositions and ends." To uncover these, DeHart proposes a new method for analyzing constitutions using the philosophical device of "inference to the best explanation."

Noting that the historian will try to classify the Constitution as classical, modernist, or positivist, DeHart argues that a constitution's moral presuppositions will not necessarily fit into any one of these categories. Instead, he says, we should "disaggregate" the contents of the labels by distinguishing and examining conceptual categories: the Constitution's implicit views about sovereignty, the common good, natural law, and natural right. The investigation of these topics forms the core of the book.

Read it all here.

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