Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The American Promise: An Introduction

Before the American Dream there was the American Promise, a promise first articulated in the Declaration of Independence and ultimately subsumed within the Constitution of the United States of America, the social contract between the American people and their federal government.  That promise, made by the government, is to protect certain unalienable Rights of each of its citizens, including the rights of Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Like most early Americans, the American Promise was an immigrant.  Born in England as a republican political philosophy first asserted by Algernon Sidney and John Locke and more broadly outlined by Cato's Letters in the early 18th century, the philosophy resonated with the American colonists of the late 18th century as they faced what they viewed as inequities at the hands of an arbitrary and capricious King George III.  Although drawing upon the language of Natural Law theory, this political philosophy was, more than anything else, a negative response to the assertion of the Divine Right of Kings and offered a republican alternative to it. In many ways, the natural rights language of the American Promise is misleading because Nature is only introduced as a tool for recognizing the maximum limits of the sovereign power of each individual given the absence of any other individuals.  The moral theory underpinning the American Promise thus uses individualism as the organizing principle of the collective, implying the relative rights and responsibilities of each individual and the government with respect to one another.

The American Promise and, therefore, the Constitution rest upon a system of ethics in which the morality and correctness of governmental and individual action are determined by a set of simple rules that flow from the recognition of each person as a sovereign over himself and that which he owns.  In the field of moral philosophy, this system of ethics is known as a deontology.  I will explain why this matters in my next post.