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  • The Bible versus the US Constitution

    Believers of various stripes often herald their chosen tome of knowledge (or set of intellectual precepts) as the source for morality, or, alternatively, a binding agreement of some sort that dictates punishments for assorted trespasses. Often, those believers will argue that absent such a set of principles, people would run around fucking dead koala-babies or some such (or at least, imply the same). The general rebuttal is usually something along the lines of "If I could prove God did not exist, what atrocity would you commit first?".

    I think it is not untoward to say that the US Constitution, particularly with regard to the Bill of Rights and assorted other amendments, is a source of morality. Perhaps not necessarily for people, but certainly for governments, which, face it, are just large groups of people with guns and charisma. For the most part, it reports what the government permits itself to do by social agreement.

    In practical terms, though, the Constitution is held as a binding resolution. Not only is it reporting what was agreed upon, but the assorted Powers That Be are held accountable to that document in a myriad of ways. But the question I would pose is "Is the Constitution necessary?".

    There are those that would hold governments as being, at any given point in time, corrupt and rife with evil men intending evil deeds to profit only themselves. Certainly by the same token, we view corporations in a similar fashion. Yet, if I am being entirely honest with myself, I am forced to ask, "If it were not for the Constitution, what injustices would the government commit?".

    Already I can imagine talking heads and screaming voices from either end of the spectrum bandying all manner of accusations about. If the government is made up of average people, and the average person would not commit assorted atrocities even absent a deity or sacred tome or mystical cosmic law of cause-and-effect, why is a Constitution necessary?

    There are, of course, a few possible answers that come to mind, the first being that governments are not made up of average people, but exceptional ones on both ends of the spectrum, and that in order to ameliorate constantly swinging pendulum of who is in power, we need a document that represents a common middle-ground. Perhaps that a flaw with ever giving any one person too much power... I dunno.

    I suppose there's also a less rational but far more common argument that people as individuals are pretty nifty, but get enough of them together in a group and they're complete assholes.

    To a larger extent, though, I think that the Constitution as a source of morality, whether for individuals or for governments, has the inherent acknowledgment that it might not be right or accurate, and may not apply to all times and all events. It is a living, and more importantly, evolving document, unlike most any form of religious text, to which adherents cling to their preferred translation and interpretation with a vehemence usually reserved for Jets fans.

    What are your thoughts? Is the Constitution necessary, is a religious text necessary, and why? And perhaps more importantly, if the answers to those are different for you, why?
    Comments 7 Comments
    1. ChaosLight's Avatar
      ChaosLight -
      I'd like to actually dissect the constitution as an end result of four thousand years of political philosophy, because to try to look at it any other way seems to me to be laughable. The Constitution as an idea, and everything we'd consider an enlightened democratic republic is an attempt to redress everything that failed about every government that preceeded it.

      Plato understood the basic premise of sociology: People are flawed and will eventually fail at anything they attempt. In view of this, he described a five-step decay of government that ostensible naturally progress from one to the next, from greatest to meanest.

      1. Aristocracy: In a platonic aristocracy, the ruling class rules because they are best at it. They are rational, cooperative, intelligent, and work together for the common good. Eventually, however, there will arise those who achieve power because they are honored, not because they are wise. This leads to
      2. Timocracy: In a timocracy, the honored have achieved power without being wise enough to wield it properly. Plato saw this happening as a result of soldiers achieving power and being more concerned with defending personal honor than guiding society. Eventually, a few people rise above the others in an
      3. Oligarchy: A small group have achieved more power and wield it for their own good. They rose to power by manipulating the timocrats and now they hold it be stamping down everyone except their own little cabal. Soon the masses rise up in anarchy convinced there is a better life under a
      4. Democracy: Thinking that life will be better if they rule themselves, the unruly mob think they can make good decisions. In reality, though, they're perfect game for one man who raises himself above the rest in a
      5. Tyranny. He has gained control of the mob and rules solely for his own gain, and even though he may even run a tight ship, it's only for his own gain.

      In essence the social contract as an abstract concept is an attempt to stop the degeneration of society into a tyranny. Over the course of history, we've seen that any form of government can be usurped by a single man or a corrupt group. The lines of kings in England get progressively stupider until King John, who was such a terrible ruler that the aristocracy actually manage to force him to sign the Magna Carta.

      In the line of French kings, this is even more pronounced. The peasants cut off the head of their government, then descend into six weeks of anarchy and civil unrest that practically destroyed the country. They were eventually able to get a constitution based partly on the American one, but the descent was a long time coming.

      Enter the American constitution. Not the Amendments, but the constitution itself. It's a masterpiece of contract work that describes exactly what the various powers belonging to different branches of government are. Each branch is arranged in opposition to the other with overlapping powers so that as power-hungry people rise to government, everyone winds up getting in each other's ways. Until social mores change on a massive, society-wide level, everyone just winds up butting heads to maintain the status quo.

      As far as the amendments go, there's an important trend to notice. Of the twenty-seven amendments to the constitution, there are only eight that don't grant or protect the rights of the citizenship, and only one that removes rights from the citizenships. That one was shortly thereafter repealed. None of those eight are of the original ten. Regardless of the arguments over specifics, it's very hard to argue that the bill of rights is intended to do anything other than protect people from abuses of power by the government.

      Furthermore, since the government only rules by the consent of the people, (barring a military coup) there's a limited amount of damage that even an insane leader can do. Attempts to seriously damage the rights of the people can be summarily deemed illegal by the judicial branch. Our armed forces are sworn to defend the constitution, not the president. The person of the president is not held sacred by law. As a social contract it seems to be a fairly effective one. Even Dubya was president for less than a decade. The damage he did will fade. It's not like he was king for a generation.
    1. Nox's Avatar
      Nox -
      FEAR OF VIOLENT DEATH, OR VAIN-GLORY?
    1. Legion's Avatar
      Legion -
      If the US constitution is a source of morality, does that mean the US can deny me the use of weaponary because I'm Dutch? Are those who do not live in the US, and therefore probably don't know what the Constitution is about exactly (like me - I know it's like 'grondwet' we've got here, but not much beyond that) and don't live by it, immoral?

      For those who care, the 'grondwet' is basically the constitutional law which limits the power / might of our goverment and consists of the basic rights a dutch citisen has and stuff like that. I dunno what's it called in English.
    1. ChaosLight's Avatar
      ChaosLight -
      Interestingly, by a strict reading, no. The constitution never actually limits its protection to citizens only, or even Americans only. In practice, it can't protect those under another regime without essentially declaring war, but it limits what the US government can do to any person, not just Americans.

      Of course, this just means the american government is not permitted to limit your freedom of speech or incarcerate you without cause.

      The constitution isn't really a moral code, though. It contains no proscriptions for the citizenship, no commandments for everyday life. Only protections against the government.
    1. Sr Gregor's Avatar
      Sr Gregor -
      I think it can be easily viewed as a moral code for governments, or, ostensibly, how a community should interact, without necessarily commenting on how individuals should act with one another. Applying it to individuals is where it gets tricky, and largely depends on the amount of power the individual wields over the masses.

      Who says a moral code needs to dictate what duties one should perform on a daily basis? One could be, I suspect, broadly-enough defined to allow for a wide range of variation within, and not fall short of being "a moral code".
    1. ChaosLight's Avatar
      ChaosLight -
      I have a harder time seeing it as a moral code for communities in general than for governments. With governments, there's an implied element of asymmetry, that is not always present in communities. While the thought process that led to it's formation could easily be used to come up with a moral code for various different social organizations, but I don't think it works in general without heavy modification.
    1. Sr Gregor's Avatar
      Sr Gregor -
      "Government", in my mind, refers to far more organization than I think large bodies of people necessarily interact. For instance, I think you could easily substitute the term "community" in the first amendment and it stands up fine on its own:

      The comunity shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the community for a redress of grievances.