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Human nature and how it shaped our Constitution

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Jemy Gatdula

Being Right

Human nature and how it shaped our Constitution

As we move closer to possible changes to our Constitution, now is a good time to reflect and remember its philosophical and historical foundations. The Constitution was not made and does not exist in a vacuum. There is a context to it and much of that context is all too human.

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Because the logical (really, natural) starting point when thinking about the Constitution is man and his nature.

Some people, of course, would deny that human beings have a nature. And they are very well entitled to that belief or thought. But the Constitution does contain a particular view of human beings and — like it or not — one that is peculiarly Western and Christian.

The first is that human beings are entitled to “dignity”. We see this in Article II. They then have certain inherent rights and these are found in Article III.

Chief Justice Reynato Puno speaks of the basis of these dignity and rights in his brilliant concurring opinion in Republic vs. Sandiganbayan. Thus, they “belong to every human being by virtue of his or her humanity. The idea superseded the traditional concept of rights based on notions of God-given natural law and of social contract. Instead, the refurbished idea of human rights was based on the assumption that each individual person was entitled to an equal degree of respect as a human being.”

The idea here is that man is a rational creature, endowed with almost god-like gifts: the ability to reason, to create, and to know truths. Hence, man is separate and of a different class from other creatures. Human beings, unlike animals, are never means but always ends.

With the intellect comes freedom to choose. And with it, by dint of practical reason and experience, the ability to determine acts leading to fulfillment of his being (“human flourishing or “happiness” or “eudaimonia”) and those that lead him away. Logically, the choice should be one that leads to that flourishing (i.e., the “good”) and not to acts that prevent it (i.e., the “bad”). Human morality is essentially the study of those choices.

Most of our laws, criminal or civil, are based on that idea of freedom and that ability to choose good from bad.

Hence, criminal laws punish those willfully committing malicious acts (or the grossly negligent), with concomitant reductions in liability if such freedom be diminished (i.e., aggression, insanity, etc.). The same with civil laws: contracts (including marriage) are only valid if freely and knowingly entered into.

Yet, our constitutional system also acknowledges that we human beings are not perfect, that our character and intellect is inherent flawed.

Thus, James Madison: “What is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

And thus, the idea of checks and balances and the separation of powers: “A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions. This policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public.”

Princeton’s Robert George puts a nonreligious explanation for man’s imperfect nature: that we are actually not entirely free. Citing Plato: “the project of a human life is overcoming what is perhaps the most abject form of slavery — the slavery to one’s own desires, the slavery to one’s self.”

Thus, government’s role is to set up the “common good”, i.e., the environment allowing people to achieve for themselves the “good life.”

But not only government.

As George points out (and may I add, our constitutional principle of “subsidiarity” actually places primacy the following over government), “our parents, and our religious institutions, and our schools (when they are healthy) are all about the business of soul-shaping. The goal of those institutions is getting the little baby, who is all absorbed in want satisfaction, to grow to be a responsible human being who is master of himself, who has control over his own desires. And when that works, then you have got human beings who are fit for freedom in the full political sense, who can be entrusted to be the guardians of their own liberty, who can be entrusted with republican government, who have the virtues that are necessary for ordered liberty.”

It has worked well for many countries, particularly the United States. The question we must ask ourselves is: Has it worked for us? And if not, why not?

Things to be pondered before we even think of changing our Constitution.

 

Jemy Gatdula is a Senior Fellow of the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations and a Philippine Judicial Academy law lecturer for constitutional philosophy and jurisprudence.

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