Saturday, February 18, 2006

Polity Values Thought Experiment

Fellow Bloggers,

I invite my fellow bloggers to reflect on the following matter. Admittedly this topic strides the boundary between legitimate political philosophy and mere fanciful daydreaming.

Say in some hypothetical democracy they carve text that expresses the polity’s normative ideals and values into the inner wall of the legislature. In this way policy makers are constantly reminded of the core political values that they serve, or that they can appeal to to make the hard decisions, or to settle collective doubts.

The obvious question is what should that text be? The idea is to coherently express, in as few words as possible, the core ideas of the good and just polity. One rule of this game is to limit your text to between 25 and 40 words. Here is my first attempt, followed by some very brief commentary.

1. Teamwork to make dreams come true.
2. Resolve conflict with constructive innovation and fairness.
3. Maximize the value of personal autonomy and responsibility.
4. Prevent the suffering of the innocent.
5. Avoid practices that degrade character.

The first principle or ideal is straight forward utilitarianism, but with a twist. Instead of maximizing welfare, maximize the satisfaction of dreams. This allows elements of ideals, inspiration, and sophisticated life planning.

#2 expresses the notion that conflict should be an invitation to reinvent and uplift deep assumptions and possibilities, not an invitation to violence. Failing that, just split the difference of burdens and move on.

A lot is going on in #3. I say liberties are practices that protect the value of autonomy, our ticket to the dignity-invoking kingdom of ends. This ideal also implies the good of political participation. Protecting responsibility can imply, at a minimum, desert values and personal development.

#4 is consistent with utilitarianism, maximin, dignity and virtue.

#5 is consistent with virtue and dignity as well.

I invite others to either attack my attempt at general polity-guiding text, or better yet, to submit your own!
Adam White


  1. Is your "general polity-guiding text" supposed to be the constitution of this society? Or to guide the interpretation of its constitution? Or would it take the place of a constitution without itself being a constitution?

  2. Why not simply, (1) maximize happiness, and (2) kill off utility monsters should they appear? [(10 words!) or if you just do (1) then only 2!]

    This isn't a view I hold Adam, but why think you need so many principles when they all fit so nicely into maximizing happiness.

  3. Matt,

    I would say sub-constitutional, say as are a bill of rights.

    More specifically, if we say a liberal polity can be thought of a cooperative venture between free and equal persons, rights express the 'free and equal' part, and my text tries to express the 'cooperative venture' part.


    I reject utilitarianism, for reasons I have shared elsewhere on the blogg.

    More specifically for the case at hand, I might say your ten words are under-determined for specific guidance. (The rules of my game require between 25 and 40 words just for this reason.) Why focus on utility alone when additional ideals and aspirations can be expressed, especially should they cover for utilitarianism's intuitive failings?

  4. I don't understand how my 10 words is undetermined for specific guidance. Sure utilitarianism's got it's problems, but we're talking about general guiding principles to be engraved on a wall. I just figured all the principles you cited would be great, but only because they made most everyone happier. Why not simplify and say make everyone happier. That way you leave room for more beautiful engravings, albiet, "Make Everyone Happier" is pretty beautiful. (And I'm not even a utilitarian.)

    But if I must shift my view, then I will follow in the foot steps of two most excellent sages of the late 80s, encrave, "Be excellent to each other" and "party on, dudes."