Morality, Political Economy and American Constitutionalism

Morality, Political Economy and American Constitutionalism

Timothy P. Roth

The Founders of the American Republic set up a remarkable experiment in self-government. Today, debates rage as to the philosophical legacy of this ongoing experiment. In this fascinating study, Timothy Roth offers a critical analysis of modern liberalism and the economic theory to which it is conjoined – social welfare theory.

Chapter 3: Autonomy Ascendant

Timothy P. Roth

Subjects: economics and finance, political economy, public choice theory, politics and public policy, political economy, public choice


3.1 Some Preliminaries I have argued that the Founders’ republican project was informed by a Smithian/ Kantian prior ethical commitment to the moral equivalence of persons (S1.5). This commitment, in turn, implies an equal treatment imperative; an imperative that finds expression in the Constitution’s ‘auxiliary precautions’ (SS1.2 and 1.6), in the Founders’ political economy (S1.7 and Chapter 2) and in the Founders’ concern that respect for the moral law be cultivated (S1.5). Interest centers in Chapter 3 on a preliminary discussion of the problems attendant to the equal treatment imperative. My point of departure is a claim made above (S1.5), that the Founders’ insistence that the autonomy, agency, independence and dignity of morally equivalent persons be respected does not gesture toward the modern conception of the transcendental, autonomous self. At issue are the following questions: First, how has the concept of autonomy evolved? Second, is the contemporary understanding reconcilable with the Founders’ republican self-government project? 3.2 The Ancients’ Question As is well known, Western moral philosophy began with the ancient Greeks. For Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, man is a social being for whom the fundamental question is, ‘[H]ow should a man live, in order to achieve [happiness]?’ (Rowe, 1993, p. 123). The answer depends, of course, on the meaning of ‘happiness’. While, for the Greeks, ‘happiness’ is variously identified with ‘pleasure’, living a ‘moral life’ and ‘the life of the intellect’, this much is clear: it was understood that ‘one had obligations to one’s city, and one’s fellow-citizens,...

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