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Unity in Diversity - The Constitution presupposes a civil order based on moral consensus.

Francis Canavan, S.J., is professor of political science at Fordham University.

E pluribus unum--out of many, one--is the motto of the United States, and it describes our country well. We are a unity in diversity, a nation composed now of fifty states with a bewildering variety of regional, occupational, ethnic, and religious groups. That we have remained one despite our diversity and that, with the vast exception of the Civil War, we have managed it without resort to military force is an amazing accomplishment.

The accomplishment, however, raises some questions that have concerned us throughout our history: How much unity do we need? How much diversity can we stand? There is no answer to these questions to which we can expect all Americans to agree. Yet the questions are vital and it is appropriate at the bicentennial of the Constitution that we should reflect on them.

A colleague once assured me that the only bond of unity holding the American people together was an agreement on procedures. We agree to settle disputes that arise among us by following constitutionally and legally defined procedures and to abide by the results.

That is democracy as we understand it, and we need no other unity than agreement on the procedures of democracy.

That agreement may be, in fact, the only unity we can have as our cultural and moral pluralism spreads and grows deeper. A people who increasingly disagree on basic moral principles may be able to agree only on procedures. The May issue to Time magazine, reported with some alarm on the depths of such moral division in a series entitled, "Whatever Happened to Ethics?" Time was disturbed by a recent spate of revelations about law violations by officers of the government, treasonous conduct by Marines, insider trading on Wall Street, and womanizing by a presidential candidate and a TV evangelist. More shocking than the conduct, however, was the apparent lack of communal agreement on the moral standards by which to judge the conduct.

Time quoted some authorities as putting part of the blame for the disappearance of common moral standards on public education. U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett describes many public schools as "languishing for lack of moral nutrition." Robert Coles, a psychiatrist at Harvard, agrees that moral values should be a "topic in all aspects of a student's life." But Murray Nelson, an associate professor of education at Penn State, asks, "Who is to decide what are the 'right' values?" If we take that question as the clincher that stops the whole discussion, then no common moral standards are possible, and a pluralistic society can agree only on procedures. Whether people will continue indefinitely to accept the outcome of the procedures in the absence of common moral principles remains to be seen.

Carried far enough, pluralism can lead to that blend of libertarianism and egalitarianism that the liberal wing of the U.S. Supreme Court sees as the true meaning of the Constitution. According to these members, the freedom of the individual is our highest national value, but it is a freedom that must be guaranteed to all equally, without distinction of race, religion, morals, sex, or sexual preference. There may be and sometimes are social interests of a utilitarian nature that override individual freedom in particular cases, but they are never moral interests.

A recent clear example of this belief is the dissenting opinion that Justice Harry A. Blackmun wrote for all four dissenters in the 1986 case of Bowers v. Hardwick. In that case a 5--4 majority of the Court upheld the constitutionality of a Georgia law that made sodomy a crime. Blackmun and his fellow dissenters protested that the Court should have struck the law down as unconstitutional. In their view, that the majority of people for centuries and even thousands of years had condemned homosexual relations as immoral was irrelevant. What mattered was that sodomy was an intimate personal relationship and, in the words of Justice Blackmun:

"depriving individuals of the right to choose for themselves how to conduct their intimate relationships poses a far greater threat to the values most deeply rooted in our Nation's history than tolerance of nonconformity could ever do. "

Justice Byron R. White, speaking for the majority of the Court, replied that "to claim that a right to engage in such conduct is deeply rooted in this Nation's history and tradition ... is at best facetious." Furthermore, he said, no law is unconstitutional merely because it legislates morality:

"The law is constantly based on notions of morality, and if all laws representing essentially moral choices are to be invalidated under the Due Process Clause [of the Fourteenth Amendment], the courts will be very busy indeed. "

The underlying issue in this case and a host of others is whether the Constitution allows the political community to have a public morality supported by law. Libertarian-egalitarians say no. Ronald Dworkin, professor of law at New York and Oxford Universities, speaks for many when he says that "political decisions must be, so far as possible, independent of any particular conception of the good life, or of what gives value to life. Since the citizens of a society differ in their conceptions, the government does not treat them as equals if it prefers one conception to another" (Michael Sandal, ed., Liberalism and Its Critics, New York: New York University Press, 1984, 64). We are bound together, therefore, not by any shared idea of what constitutes a truly human life, but only by procedures designed above all to protect individual rights equally.

The opposing view is held by writers who are coming to be known as communitarians. According to them, community is as natural to man as individuality. We are obviously all individuals, but the human individual is by nature a social and political animal. It does no violence to his nature to live in community. On the contrary, he can realize his nature as a human being only by taking part in the life of a community.

But a community is not merely a mutual protection association that individuals join for the sake of security in pursuing their essentially private goals. A community is constituted of shared beliefs and values. It is a community because it rejects certain conceptions of the good life (although it may tolerate them) and accepts others as the basis for its public moral judgments.

Both sides in this dispute will agree that the political community, or state, is not the only community, and that the ends of government are not coterminous with the ends of human life and human society. On any view that is compatible with our Constitution, human beings have individual and social goals that go beyond the legitimate goals of government. Constitutional government is limited government, and this means that not only are the powers of government limited but that government serves limited purposes. The state is the highest community in its limited sphere, but it is not the only community and its purposes are not the only or the highest goals of human society.


Furthermore, when speaking of the Constitution of the United States, we must remember that it is the constitution of a federal system. It presupposes the existence of the constituent states of the union. These states draw their powers and their purposes not from the Constitution but from the distinct peoples of the respective states. The federal Constitution creates a more perfect union among the states by establishing a federal government. It confers on that government not all the powers, but only certain powers that a constitutional government may have. The Tenth Amendment is not part of the original Constitution, but it only states explicitly what was implicit in the whole original Constitution: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

Our Constitution, therefore, is the legal framework of a political unity in diversity. Its preamble states in broad terms the purposes for which "we the people of the United States" established this framework: "to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquillity, provide for the common Defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity." Broad as these terms are, however, they do not include all the ends that men historically have pursued through government (the propagation of religious truth, for example, is omitted). Nor are the Blessings of Liberty the only end of the national Constitution.

The Constitution is our legal framework as a nation, but no mere legal document can create or maintain unity in diversity if the necessary social conditions for it are lacking. Cyprus, divided between Greek Christians and Moslem Turks; Lebanon, rent by multisided strife among Christians and Moslems and their subdivisions; and Northern Ireland, where the legitimacy of the state itself is a political issue, prove the point. Even such stable political systems as those of India, Canada, and Belgium illustrate the difficulty of uniting people sharply divided by religion and/or language. The constitution of a country can be a potent force in unifying it, but there is an antecedent unity upon which it must depend.

The authors of the Federalist, that first and classic commentary on our Constitution, were well aware of this truth. John Jay, who later became the first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, argued in Federalist 2 that America needed and was suited to "one federal government" because it already was one country both geographically and socially. America was "not composed of detached and distant territories" but was "one connected, fertile wide-spreading country," inhabited by "one united people--a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs." Jay's emphasis on the cultural unity that the American people already enjoyed may seem to have been contradicted by later American experience of massive immigration from all over the world, but it points to a dimension of the problem of maintaining unity in diversity that we cannot ignore: Diversity cannot be so pronounced that it makes unity impossible.

Jay may also seem to have been contradicted by his coauthor, James Madison, in the latter's famous Federalist 10. Madison's argument for ratifying the Constitution and thus establishing a large republic under a single national government was precisely that liberty depends on pluralism. Republican liberty, he said, inevitably breeds what he called factions and we call interest groups. In a republic, factions are dangerous to the rights of other groups and to the general interest of the community when they become large enough to form majorities, win elections, and impose their self-serving will upon minorities. The remedy, said Madison, is to make the republic so large that it will include so many factions that it is unlikely that any one of them can become a majority. Since we cannot avoid having factions if we mean to be free, the more factions--economic, political and religious--the better. The very multiplicity of factions will prevent them from tyrannizing.

Madison had a view of human nature that we may call either jaundiced or realistic. People are selfish and we well know that "neither moral nor religious motives can be relied on as an adequate control" on their selfishness. Nonetheless, he did not regard human nature as entirely depraved or deprived of a knowledge of elementary public morality. "Justice," he declared in Federalist 51, "is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit." This passion for justice was the reason for Madison's confidence in the beneficent effect of multiplying factions:

"In the extended republic of the United States, and among the great variety of interests, parties, and sects which it embraces a coalition of a majority of the whole society could seldom take place on any other principles than those of justice and the general good."


That proposition, however, makes no sense unless the American people, or at least the larger and sounder part of them, are capable of recognizing and accepting certain "principles of justice and the general good." Madison relied heavily on certain mechanical structures to maintain liberty: the division of sovereignty between the nation and the states, the separation of powers and checks and balances in the national government, and, above all, "the great variety of interests, parties, and sects" that the extended republic would embrace. He thought that liberty needed these devices, which check the greed and ambition of some by setting the greed and ambition of others against them, because neither religious nor moral motives were strong enough to make people consistently control selfish passion. But neither did he think that a nation of radical skeptics or moral relativists could make the structures work. Beneath the necessary pluralism there had to be a degree of moral unity sufficient to make a workable agreement on justice and the general good possible.

In Federalist 55, Madison goes so far as to say that republican government depends more than other forms of government on the virtue of its citizens:

"As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form. Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousy of some among us faithful likenesses of the human character the inference would be, that there is not sufficient virtue wrong men for self-government; and that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another. "

It would be easy to multiply passages from other writers in the republican tradition, both European and American, who insist that democratic republics cannot survive without citizens imbued with an adequate degree of civic virtue. No one, however, put it better than Edmund Burke, who emphatically was not in the republican tradition, but who states the reason for the necessity of virtue in his Letter to a Member of the National Assembly in terms that the republican classics would all approve:

"Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites; in proportion as their love to justice is above their rapacity; in proportion as their soundness and sobriety of understanding is above their vanity and presumption; in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves. Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters. "

If this be true, we must ask where the citizens get the virtue necessary for civil liberty and self-government. Another question may be asked: How do we determine what virtue is? Given that individualism is so strong a strain in our national character, we find this second question particularly difficult to answer. Yet the American people historically did answer these two questions more or less satisfactorily by drawing on a common tradition composed of the two strands of faith and reason.

A distinguished Catholic theologian once remarked that old-fashioned Protestantism was the bedrock on which the republic was founded and that Catholics should not rejoice at its disintegration. Protestantism has always been an individualistic religion founded on the principle of private judgment. The private believer was to judge, however, in accordance with a Scripture that all Christians held to be the inspired word of God. The arrival on these shores of masses of Catholics and Jews, although it diluted the nation's Protestantism, did not change substantial agreement on biblical morality. There were Ten Commandments, and all denominations of any numerical importance knew what they were.

There never was a Golden Age, of course, in which everyone lived by the Ten Commandments, but there was a time in this country's history when Americans generally acknowledged that they were God's commands and therefore the supreme standard of moral judgment. Our pluralistic society has traded on a widely shared religio-moral tradition. This tradition told citizens what virtue was and how to acquire it though prayerful obedience to God's law.

At this point many writers will rush to remind us that in the eighteenth century Deism was taken among the educated class to be "the religion of all sensible men," and that a good number of our Founding Fathers subscribed to it. Deism, or natural religion as it was often called, rejected biblical revelation as superstition, and held that unaided human reason could attain to all that men needed to know about God and their duties to Him. Although later history was to show that Deism was a halfway house to atheism. Deistic "natural morality" did not differ dramatically from biblical morality on matters of public concern and was in fact a secularized version of traditional Christian morality. The secularization eventually undermined the morality, but that consequence was not immediately obvious to most people.

Confidence in the ability of reason to arrive at moral truth was the companion strand (for Deists the only strand) to religious faith in the moral tradition. The political thought of the time also indicated an enormous confidence in reason. The men of the eighteenth century, and not only the Deists among them, regarded their century as uniquely the Age of Reason. Reason, as they understood it, supported their morals and dictated their liberal political theory.

In classical liberal theory, the political community was composed of autonomous, self-governing individuals who, by the use of their individual reasoning powers, could recognize and accept certain eternal and absolute moral truths that were independent of individual will and desire. John H. Hallowell explains in his The Decline of Liberalism as an Ideology (Howard Fertig Publisher, 1974, 50):

"Liberalism ... espoused freedom for the individual under the impersonal authority of law. It conceived of law as being eternal, universal, and rational, and as containing substantive limitations upon subjective interest and will. To an anarchic conception of society as composed of autonomous individual units, liberalism opposed the conception of an order transcending individuals, and placed the responsibility for realizing this order, potentially embodied in eternal truths, upon individual reason and conscience. The link between the subjective will of the individual and the objective order transcending individuals was reason and conscience. "

Reason furnished the cement that held an individualistic and pluralistic society together. As previously indicated, the reason in which classical liberalism had such confidence traded upon a moral tradition of which revealed religion was the vehicle, if not the source. The current disintegration of this tradition is as much due to a loss of confidence in reason as to a decline of faith in divine revelation. Millions of Americans are no longer sure that either faith or reason can tell them what virtue is or how to acquire it. They are left with the uneasy feeling (or the passionate belief) that all individual opinions and appetites are morally equal and should be equal in the eyes of the law. Such currently topical issues as gay rights, surrogate motherhood, abortion, and euthanasia can hardly be resolved by reason in a nation in which "Whose reason?" is the first and final question because it is assumed that there are no objective moral truths that individuals can recognize and agree upon.


Yet a lack of moral consensus engenders certain risks for the future of democracy. If democratic politics comes to be seen as nothing more than a struggle among pressure groups, regulated by no common standards of justice, people will tend to lose faith in the democratic process. They will regard politics as a game in which winning is the only thing, nice guys finish last, and the good of the community is merely a slogan to deceive the gullible into making sacrifices for the unscrupulous. They may also come to feel that an unending assault on public standards of decency and morality, justified in the name of pluralism and tolerance, leaves them with little community and less common good to merit their devotion.

"Justice," said Madison, "ever has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit." If he was right, it is essential that most citizens most of the time should believe that on the whole and in the long run democratic procedures produce just and good results. Faith in procedures, to that extent, therefore depends on faith in substantive standards of justice and virtue that transcend procedures.

We return, then, to the question: How do we as a political community determine what justice and virtue are? Historically, we have relied on a consensus derived from both faith and reason. It is not necessary to assert, and it is certainly not suggested here, that we ever made a formal national commitment to a particular religion or philosophy. All that is suggested is that as a matter of social fact we were able to carry on political debates and arrive at political decisions within a framework of commonly accepted moral principles. If we have lost that framework, as to a large extent we seem to have done, the question then is whether we can get it back again.

Insofar as a moral consensus depends on religion, it is the business of the churches, not of the political order, to restore it. The churches render a service to the political order by supplying moral underpinnings, but they will serve it all the better if they concentrate on teaching their faith for its own sake and not for the sake of its political consequences. For its part, the political order enables religion to perform its social role by guaranteeing the free exercise of religion, not by striving to drive religious influence out of public life by spinning out all possible implications of the phrase "an establishment of religion."

The role of reason in politics is more properly a political question, but again not one that can be answered by formal acts of government. We as citizens, however, may take a first step toward restoring confidence in reason by refusing to let skeptics and relativists beg the question with their a priori assumption that reason can tell us nothing about what is good for human beings. Human good is the ultimate object of and justification for politics, and we should not easily or lightly admit that reason can lead us to no agreement on it.

More than thirty years ago, in his The Public Philosophy (Little, Brown & Co., 1955, 95), Walter Lippmann held up the ideal of a rational order of politics as the necessary condition of a viable democracy:

"The rational order consists of the terms which must be met in order to fulfill men's capacity for the good life in this world. They are the terms of the widest consensus of rational men in a plural society. They are the propositions to which all men concerned, if they are sincerely and lucidly rational, can be expected to converge. "

Lippmann was not widely listened to in the 1950s and the prospects for his being listened to today are even more bleak. On the other hand, if individual rights and civil liberties are used to keep rational minds from converging on the substantive principles of order, the prospects for unity in diversity may also be rather bleak.n
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Author:Canavan, Francis
Publication:World and I
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2003
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