Theory and Practice, Episode One

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I need to make a point about something, but as it turns out, it’s impossible to make this point in a single blog post. So I’ll have to do this on an installment plan.

Adventures In Comparative Legal Systems

When I lived in Canada, I used to hang out with a lot of law students. During that time, the conversation would inevitably turn to Canadian law. By this, I mean that they were often doing their homework right in front of me, and I was helping them with it. So it was a bit more than just casual conversation.

And in case you’re wondering, the answer is: Yes, my experience tells me that most law school homework is done in a pub over multiple pitchers of beer.

Anyway, one of the things that struck me about the Canadian legal system is the way human rights are organized, legally speaking. Canada has what’s called the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is analogous to the American Bill of Rights. It spells out what rights are guaranteed to the people by the government. The Canadian government, according to Canadian law, is permitted to violate the Charter in certain cases, as long as the details of those cases conform to certain legal guidelines, which are spelled out in writing and in jurisprudence.

As a fiery young, philosophical man, this used to incense me. After all, the Bill of Rights is a document that outlines things that the U.S. federal government is not permitted to do. In other words, the presumption here in the United States is that human beings hold certain inalienable rights that supersede any additional legal power. In Canada, subject to legal conventions, it is the government that grants all rights to the people, so government powers supersede the rights of the people.

I say it used to make me incensed. It doesn’t anymore. Why not? Because while studying the law alongside my friends, I eventually learned that in practice the Canadian legal system reaches the same important conclusions regarding human rights as the American legal system.

The only material difference in these matters is the language used to justify the conclusion. In America, our courts tend to use language that refers to what the government cannot do, and what the intended meaning of legislation is. In Canada, their courts tend to use language that refers to what the government is permitted to do and whether the intended meaning of the legislation provides sufficient justification for doing it.

But, as I said, when it comes to everything that matters on human rights issues, the two countries’ legal systems tend to reach the same conclusions, even though their justifications are phrased differently.

What’s the Point, Ryan?

I bring this up because one of the least attractive things about philosophy is that it tends to raise objections that need not be raised.

We see a homeless man shivering outside a coffee shop with an outstretched arm holding a cup. Most people I know who have spare change will drop a few coins in the man’s cup. Of those who do, some of them do so for reasons of faith, some of them do so for reasons of utility maximization, some of them do it for reasons of virtue. And, yes, some of them do it for reasons of guilt, shame, embarrassment, or to help clear their conscience.

I know a few people who would choose not to help the man. They all refuse to do it for various reasons, but no matter what their moral philosophy happens to be, they all justify their decision on moral terms. Maybe they want to give the man incentive to get a job. Maybe they think someone else is more deserving. Maybe they think the man will spend the money contrary to his own best interests, i.e. on drugs or alcohol.

Philosophy tends to raise objections that need not be raised. If you and I both give the man our spare change, there is no point arguing over which one of us had the better moral reasoning: the outcome was the same, ergo our reasoning was equal. You can say this however you like: what matter are results; actions speak louder than words; practice is more relevant than theory.

What matters outside of that coffee shop is not the spotless philosophical reasoning used to justify a particular course of action, but rather what we choose to do. If I give the old man my spare change for totally incomprehensible and inconsistent reasons “which, if taken to their natural conclusion…” would destroy the world I don’t care. Neither does the old man. Because the outcome of my moral reasoning was the same as if I had used a superior moral framework (or an even more inferior one): the man got his money and the world is still intact.

Now, if a particular philosophy fails to produce the right results, or fails to produce them consistently, then we have a good reason to evaluate the coherence of that philosophy and address its shortcomings. (More on that in a forthcoming post.) But if I’m giving my change to deserving old men, my friends and family are happy with me, and I am generally impacting the world in a positive way, whatever crazy and internally inconsistent moral framework I’m working with is working for me/paying rent.

If we raise objections to “wrong” thinking that consistently yields “right” results, then maybe it’s time we checked our premises.

One thought on “Theory and Practice, Episode One

  1. Jeffrey S.

    “Now, if a particular philosophy fails to produce the right results, or fails to produce them consistently, then we have a good reason to evaluate the coherence of that philosophy and address its shortcomings.”

    Fair enough — but given the wide disagreement about what exactly are the “right results” in many different situations, this is exactly the question that needs to be addressed. So I’m looking forward to the next post.

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