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Moral Foundations of Constitutional Thought: Current Problems, Augustinian Prospects.

The title of Walker's book gives a felicitous summary of the content of the work as a whole. The book is mainly an analysis of contemporary difficulties in constitutional theory which, the author contends, rest upon some foundation in morals; and it proposes a solution to these difficulties purported to be found in the thought of St. Augustine. The chapter titles are, "Normative Impasses in Contemporary Constitutional Theory," "The Moral Anatomy of Contemporary Constitutional Theory," "Augustine's Political Ethics: Skepticism, Ultimacy, and the Good in Politics," "Augustinian Insight and Current Problems in Constitutional Thought," "Augustinian Tensions and the Constitution of Liberalism."

Walker begins his work by posing the following questions: "Why can't writers interested in constitutional jurisprudence just keep to law and to the Constitution? Why do they have to get tangled up in esoteric and unrelated subjects?" (p.1). His answers to these questions are that while the subjects in which these writers become tangled are at times esoteric, they are not at all unrelated; and that constitutional jurisprudence cannot simply "keep to the law" because all the important arguments in this field are normative (p.2). This point made, Walker proceeds to divide his work up into two books, "or at least into two arguments" (p. 5) (much in the same fashion that St. Augustine divided the domain of human pursuits into two cities). First, he attempts "to assess the ways of thinking that dominate the landscape of contemporary constitutional study." Second, he gives his "proposal for clarifying the fundamental and inescapable questions confronting constitutional thought--questions that remain unanswered" (p. 5). The Introduction and the first two chapters of the book assess the landscape of contemporary constitutional study as one dominated by what Walker refers to as "moral nihilism." As Walker points out, a "brief look at current thinkers is enough to establish my central point: They deny any moral reality beyond contrivances of convention." By so doing, Walker rightly asserts, such thinkers "cripple their own prescriptive arguments" (p. 17). At the same time, Walker contends that constitutional thinkers who opt for moral realism (such as natural law theorists [p. 6]) do not provide "satisfactory normative premises for constitutional theory" (p. 23). These premises, as Graham sees it, "would avoid the tendency to collapse law and politics into morality" (p. 19). To assist his reader in following his critique of the landscape of contemporary moral thinking, in chapter 2 Walker divides all such moral reasoning into four kinds: teleological or deontological, based upon whether the good or the right dominates moral thinking; and conventionalist or realist, based upon whether or not one's predominant moral principle exists or does not exist independent of human artifice. Then he examines the constitutional views of thinkers--such as Rawls, Dworkin, Ely, Michael Moore, Sotirios Barber, David Richards, Robert Bork, William Renquist, and John Courtney Murray--against the background of his division of moral reasoning. After this, Walker engages in an analysis of St. Augustine's moral theory, which he thinks generates an understanding of the rule of law that prevents law from ever mistaking itself for morality or the rule of virtue, and that is made possible by "the ontological footing of Augustinian political theory" (p. 6).

On the whole, Walker's text is a lucid summary of the condition of contemporary constitutional theorizing, and a handy introduction to anyone interested in this problem. His treatment of St. Augustine is, by and large, masterful--at times near brilliant. At the same time, the book does have some flaws. For example, as far as I can determine, the author provides no detailed understanding of what he means by "morals," or of what he means by a moral "norm." In addition, he seems somewhat unfamiliar with forms of moral realism and natural law doctrine directly indebted to St. Augustine (such as Thomist natural law reasoning). He therefore tends to see these as opposed to the views of St. Augustine rather than as continuous with Augustine's thought. This is evidenced by Aquinas's scant treatment of natural law, his frequent references to Augustine, and his talk about the moral virtues.
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Author:Redpath, Peter A.
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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