“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” – L.P. Hartley
In his book, Constitutional Fate, Philip Bobbitt lists various “modalities of constitutional argument” – that is, methods of constitutional argument that are compatible with the institution of judicial review. His typology includes the following: textual, historical, doctrinal, prudential and structural arguments; the categories are largely self-explanatory, and we have discussed a few of them before on this blog. But then, Bobbitt adds one final “modality” – ethical argument. Here is how Bobbitt defines the term:
“By ethical argument I mean constitutional argument whose force relies on a characterisation of American institutions and the role within them of the American people. It is the character, or ethos, of the American polity that is advanced in ethical argument as the source from which particular decisions derive.” (p. 94)
Bobbitt sees the case of Moore v. City of East Cleveland as an example par excellence of the use of ethical argument in constitutional law. In that case, an Ohio zoning ordinance that limited occupancy of a dwelling unit to members of a “single family” was struck down as a violation of due process clause. Justice Powell wrote:
“Our decisions establish that the Constitution protects the sanctity of the family precisely because the institution of the family is deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition… the tradition of uncles, aunts, cousins, and especially grandparents sharing a household along with parents and children has roots… venerable and… deserving of constitutional recognition… conditions of modern society… have not erased the accumulated wisdom of civilisation, gained over the centuries and honoured throughout our history… that supports a larger conception of the family.”
Similarly, Bobbitt highlights the case of Meyer v. Nebraska, where, in striking down a statute that criminalised teaching foreign languages to children below the eighth grade, Justice McReynolds defined “liberty” to include “… those privileges long recognised at common law as essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.”
Let us pause and consider the language used by the Justices. “Deeply rooted“, “history and tradition“, “accumulated wisdom… over the centuries“, “long recognised“, “at common law…“: these terms bring suggest, above all, the legitimation of values by virtue of their source in folk wisdom, and their enduring validation under principles of stability and continuity. Now, whatever might be the abstract merits of such an approach to determining the right and the good, we must also enquire about their place in constitutional argument; and that, in turn, requires us to to investigate the purposes of Constitutions themselves.
A Constitution, naturally, is something that “constitutes”. Political constitutions “constitute” the basis for the distribution of political power in a polity by setting up governing institutions and structuring their relationships with each other and with the people. But the very idea of “constituting” implies birth: and birth, in this context, can occur in two situations: the creation of something where nothing existed before, or the comprehensive replacement of what used to exist with something entirely new. A brief look at some of the important (written) Constitutions in the modern era proves instructive: consider the American Constitution, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, and the Indian, South African and Irish Constitutions. All these occurred at the cusp of a historical fissure, at a moment when a decisive break was being made with the past, whether in the case of the violent overthrow of an ancien regime, the (relatively) peaceful transition of power from a colonial government to an independent one, or the end of apartheid.
Yet, it would be a mistake to assume that a decisive break with the past is necessarily a complete break with it. As Will Kymlicka demonstrates eloquently in his book, Multicultural Citizenship, our being embedded and located within an enduring culture, with its set of defined values and traditions, is often an essential precondition for living an autonomous and fulfilling life – and common sense tells us that no break with the past can sweep away everything that came before. To borrow some helpful terminology from John Rawls, let us define a political transformation as a transformation of the basic structure of the political institutions of society; and a comprehensive transformation as a transformation of its moral vision of the good, and its ideas of what it means to live a good life (Rawls makes this distinction in the context of political liberalism and comprehensive liberalism). Our discussion shows that constitutional moments normally presuppose the first kind of transformation, but it is an open question whether and to what extent they presuppose the second.
I now introduce a second typology: let us label those aspects of a Constitution that seek to preserve parts of the existing order as “conservative“; and those that it seeks to replace as “transformative“. I suggest that the impossibility of absolute change implies that every Constitution must have both conservative and transformative elements; what combination it will have them in is a contingent matter, dependent upon history and circumstance.
Consider, for instance, the American Constitution: the entire raison d’etre of the American War of Independence was that the American colonists felt that the King was denying to them the traditional rights and liberties enjoyed under common law by Englishmen. The Declaration of Independence, for instance, makes explicit reference to “the rights of the people“; the eighth amendment to the American Constitution borrows its language from the 1689 English Bill of Rights; Article IV makes reference to the “privileges and immunities” enjoyed by Citizens; and the Ninth Amendment holds that the enumeration of express rights does not mean the denial of others “retained by the people“. Thus, while the American constitution is transformative in its establishment of a new system of governance based on an idea of individual suffrage and functional separation of powers (See Articles I – III), its Bill of Rights is conservative in the sense that it seeks to write into law the “traditional” liberties enjoyed by the People, and seek recourse to established values in interpreting the scope of those liberties. We can now understand why it made eminently good sense for Justices Powell and McReynolds to engage in the kind of argument they did (and see also District of Columbia v Heller (Second Amendment) and Crawford v Washington (Sixth Amendment).
But if the American Constitution sought to entrench existing societal values of a largely homogenous culture against governmental invasion, the Indian experience is radically difference. Our constitution was framed at the moment when two centuries of colonial rule were coming to an end, when the break was being made not only with an alien ruler, but also, in some sense, with an alien ethos imposed upon society. Our bill of rights, therefore, isn’t conservative in the sense that the American bill of rights is, quite simply because there was nothing to conserve.
The case of post-colonial Constitutions raises a more complex issue, however, because as we well know, nationalist independent movements (and ours is no exception) are substantially motivated by a narrative that seeks to regain a pre-colonial past, whether real or imagined. Now, if the objective of an independence movement is a call to return to the values that animated such a past, then this is one sense in which a potential post-independence Constitution could be conservative – seeking to conserve not its colonial heritage, but the heritage that existed before colonisation; i.e., a return to the past, but a discontinuous past. The classic example of this approach is found in South Africa. In S v. Makwanyane, the South African Constitutional Court held the death penalty to be inconsistent with the new Constitution, and referred, in particular, to the constitutional value of “ubuntu“; ubuntu has been defined as an “ancient African worldview” that approximates what we would understand as “solidarity”. The Constitutional Court’s invocation of it, therefore, is precisely the call to the past and a reference to societal values that we have found, in a different avatar, in the American.
Now the case of India, I submit, is even more difficult, because not only does our Constitution mark a decisive repudiation of the colonial past by establishing a parliamentary democracy, but many clauses in our Bill of Rights also seek to abolish especially pernicious and invidious aspects of our society that were distinctly non-British (Ambedkar was particularly expressive on this point). See, for instance, restricting entry to temples and other public places (Article 15(2)), untouchability (Article 17) and bonded labour (Article 23), to name just three.
What, then, does our Constitution seek to conserve, and what does it seek to transform? Let us begin by noting that the question is vitally important, because Bobbitt’s ethical argumentation has found its way into some of the Supreme Court’s important opinions. We saw, earlier on this blog, how in Rangarajan the Supreme Court made express reference to enduring “Indian” values in the context of film-censorship; and how, in Ranjit Udeshi, it read Article 19(2)’s morality exception to free speech as referring to “public morality“, and accordingly upheld a ban of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. And we have seen how the same arguments relying upon “Indian culture” and “Indian values” have been made before the High Court – and then the Supreme Court – in the ongoing Naz Foundation litigation. I do not argue here that the Court’s conclusions were wrong: I argue only that before invoking the values of an eternal, unchanging India (and entering the minefield of defining an “India” and “its” values in the teeth of near-unanimous historical skepticism), the Court needs to establish the legitimacy of that form of argument. It needs to show that a Constitution which is expressly transformative in its abolition of “Indian” values such as untouchability and religious discrimination (imagine a law that stifles the free speech of untouchables, which the government then attempts to justify on 19(2) grounds of public morality!) is nonetheless conservative where values coming from an identical source pertain to homosexuality or pornography. And that, in turn, requires a detailed excursion into the history of our independence movement, and more importantly, into the philosophy (or philosophies) of the Constituent Assembly Debates. In other words, we cannot have a satisfactory interpretive theory of our Constitution without understanding its conservative and transformative aspects, and that in turn requires an understanding of history and of the political theory of the Debates. As Lord Denning recognised long ago, good constitutional lawyers must also be good historians and good political philosophers!