By GENE HOWINGTON
In 1780, John Adams succinctly defined the principle of the Rule of Law in the Massachusetts Constitution by seeking to establish “a government of laws and not of men”. This reflects the democratic principles enshrined in the Constitution’s preamble: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” The very foundation of our legal system says that the law should work for us all, not just a select few.
This raises the question of what is a good law that serves the majority of society and what is a bad law that doesn’t serve the majority of society?
“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” The latter addition of the 14th Amendment as well as the Preamble of the Constitution both reflect the spirit in which this country was founded as set forth in the Declaration of Independence: “When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
Clearly, the pursuit of the Rule of Law under the Constitution as informed by the Declaration is a pursuit of the Utilitarian concept of the right course of action is the one that maximizes the overall good consequences of an action; what is in the best interest of greatest numbers of We the People is in the best interests of the country.
Utilitarianism is a quantitative and reductionist philosophical form. Utilitarianism, however, is not a unified philosophical view. It comes in different flavors with the two primary flavors being Rule Utilitarianism and Act Utilitarianism. Strong Rule Utilitarianism is an absolutist philosophical view and rules may never be broken. Like any absolutist view does not take into account that reality occasionally presents situations where breaking a rule results in the greater good. For example, the strong reductionist rule that murder is bad is countered by the exceptional example of murder is not bad if performed in self-defense or the defense of others. This result of practical application is reflected in what John Stuart Mill called Weak Rule Utilitarianism. It becomes apparent that since not all rules are absolutely enforceable when seeking the common good and exceptional circumstances require flexibility in the law, that the Utilitarian pursuit of the Rule of Law must be in Mill’s Weak Rule formulation of Utilitarianism. But is considering the greater good and circumstantial reasons for breaking or modifying rules the best way to judge whether a law is good or bad?
If one considers Kant’s Categorical Imperative – “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” – then any law not universally applicable should not be a maxim worthy of being recognized as universal. This is contrary to Utilitarianism in general as well as Weak Rule Utilitarianism specifically, but while Kant’s view takes subjectivity into account when dealing with circumstances it does not take into account that there can be objective differences in circumstances as well. It is part of the judiciaries role as a trier of fact to consider not only subjective differences but objective differences in circumstances in formulating the most equitable and just solution to a case at bar. In seeking to be universally applicable in defining maxims, Kant is an absolutist as surely as Strong Rule Utilitarians are absolutists. As a consequence of reality not being neatly binary in nature and thus not often compatible to absolutists approaches to formulating laws for practical application, what can be done to keep Weak Rule Utilitarianism from degenerating into Act Utilitarianism where actors will seek the greatest personal pleasure when presented with a choice rather than the greater good? Utilitarianism conflicting with the Categorical Imperative? Is there a unitary philosophical approach to evaluating whether a law is good or bad?
The answer seems to be no. If there is no single view, absolutist or otherwise, that leads to a practical system for evaluating whether a law is good or bad, then there is only one option for building a framework for evaluation. That option is synthesis.
Consider that absolutist systems as they are not applicable in reality should be confined to being considered theoretical boundaries rather than practical boundaries. This does not negate the value of considering systems like Strong Rule Utilitarianism or Kant’s Categorical Imperative, but rather puts them in the place of aspirational goals rather than practically attainable goals in every circumstance. Given that Mill’s Weak Rule Utilitarianism can degrade into Act Utilitarianism and that degeneration can be compounded by the number of exceptions there are to a rule, are there ways to minimize the defects of using only Weak Rule Utilitarianism to determine the societal value of a law? What supplements can be made to that framework?
I submit that one such supplement is found in the form of Negative Utilitarianism. Negative Utilitarianism is exactly what it sounds like; the inverse function of Utilitarianism. Whereas Utilitarianism is the basic proposition that the right course of action is the one that maximizes the overall good consequences of an action, Negative Utilitarianism is the basic proposition that requires us to promote the least amount of evil or harm, or to prevent the greatest amount of suffering for the greatest number. If one takes both into account in evaluation of the social value of a law (a synthetic approach), the test becomes a balancing act. On one side of the scale is the societal value of overall good consequences, on the other side is the societal value of preventing overall harm. This proposition suggests the following framework for evaluation of whether a law is good or bad.
- How many people benefit from the good consequences of a law?
- How many people benefit from the reduction of harm as consequences of a law?
- Does the benefits from promoting good consequences outweigh the costs of reduction of harm?
- Does the benefits from reducing harm outweigh the costs to the greater good in taking no action?
- Are the net consequences of a law perfectly knowable from either perspective or does the possibility of unforeseeable consequences exist? Can the unforeseeable risks be minimized either by construction of the law(s) to allow for contingencies or by regulating other risks or contributing factors?
- Do solutions from either perspective negatively impact human and/or civil rights? Do those negative impacts outweigh the positive effects to the greater human and/or civil rights of all?
This is but one way to evaluate whether a law is good or bad for society. What are other methods? Are there ways to improve this method? What do you think?
Note: This column was originally published at Res Ipsa Loquitur (jonathanturley.org) on July 16, 2001. This column has been re-edited for publication here. It was, and is, at the time of this reprinting the most commented upon column in that blog’s history.