Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Principles - Vague vs Specific

After spending four weeks discussing Sean Faircloth's new political strategy for atheists, I am going to start looking at his list of policy objectives.

However, before I do, I would like to make some general comments about policy objectives.

It is politically useful not to make them too specific. The more specific you make them, the smaller the audience you can appeal to in defending them. Every specific claim will peel off a set of potential supporters who do not like that interpretation, but who thinks a different interpretation still fits the general principle.

By keeping one's policy objectives vague, one can continue to appeal to a larger audience. People will tend to fill in the gaps with their own ideas. This means that different people with incompatible beliefs can all claim to be obeying the same vague principle.

We find an excellent example of this in the Bill of Rights. These items are vague - intentionally so. That is how the authors got the votes to get these amendments passed.

"Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech."

What does this mean?

I have given and defended an interpretation in my last post. However, nothing of that interpretation shows up in the First Amendment itself. Somebody else could offer a different interpretation with key elements that conflict the one I gave, and can still claim to be defending a right to freedom of speech. Both of us may have reason to vote for the vague and general principles, even though, in practice, we would be at odds on a number of issues relevant to that principle.

One relevant point to make is that only an absolute purist defends the idea that the First Amendment implies that Congress shall make no law abridging libel, slander, or revealing military information to the enemy. Nor does the right to freedom of speech invalidate all laws against fraud and misrepresentation when spoken or written.

None of these points are covered in the principle itself. There is no way either I, or the purist, can appeal to the principle itself and say, "This is how it must be applied". We must bring in other facts - facts outside of the specific wording - to make our case as to what the wording actually allows or prohibits.

Some people believe that we can examine the words and actions of the original authors - in this case, the founding fathers - to determine its meaning. This option fails for three reasons.

First, it follows from what I have already written that the vagueness of the Bill of Rights allows people with different and conflicting views to support the same bill. To use the intentions of the original author is to use a conflicting mix of attitudes, each of which the holder could somehow shoehorn into the principle that was passed. The idea that all of the founding fathers had exactly the same thoughts in their head regarding each of these principles, and that we can determine what that common shared belief was, is simply absurd.

Second, nothing can be more clear than the fact that, for the founding fathers, there is sometimes a huge gap between principle and practice. Slavery and the denial of voting rights to women provide the clearest examples of this. When their practice deviated from their principles, we have a question we need to answer. Are we going to follow their practices and abandon their principles? Or are we going to preserve their principles and adopt a more consistent set of practices?

Third, the founding fathers believed that there were moral truths independent of the opinions of mere humans. This is an opinion that I share. There exists, in the objective world, certain moral rights and a just government is one that respects those rights. When the Bill of Rights says that certain rights may not be abridged, they are not saying, "My opinion of what these rights are shall not be abridged". They are saying, "The rights that exist must not be abridged". From which it follows, "If my opinion about these rights deviates from the truth - because I am mortal and prone to error - the Constitution tells you to ignore my opinion and go with the moral facts."

All of these elements leaves open the possibility of different people, with different political and moral beliefs, supporting the same vaguely worded general principle. These elements allows each of them to draw the conclusion that, "In the end, through debate and discussion, my interpretation will win out. So, yes, I can support this principle."

It is politically useful to have a set of vague general principles.

However, this is not a political blog. In the confines of these blog pages, I care nothing about political advantage. I wish to report on the moral facts of the matter - even where some if those facts might be politically unwise.

I will leave it to the politicians to denounce any politically harmful elements, as they see fit.

Starting tomorrow, I will look at Faircloth's policy objectives, and examine, specifically, what they should allow and prohibit.

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