Saturday, December 25, 2010

A constitution of no slogans

A thought on Christmas Day:

Life is more complex than we might have expected. Human beings turn out not to share a uniform genetic heritage -- some of us are the product of interbreeding with Neanderthals, others (according to this week's news reports) of interbreeding with a hitherto unknown offshoot of humanity called the Denisovans. Human beings are also notoriously plastic -- our children are born knowing almost nothing, and take 20 years to achieve adult knowledge, while simpler creatures are fully equipped for their lives much more quickly, but the result is that we can adapt to far more varied and challenging circumstances than we could if we were born set in our ways. Even in adulthood we are constantly shaping the people we ourselves will become, and so we can become many things. William James said something to the effect that we should choose those beliefs that best serve our interests, and -- though the process is surely not so willful or simple as that -- we do have some ability (sometimes too ready an ability) to follow his advice.

All of which says that the sphere of fixed certainties is pretty modest. That doesn't leave us rudderless, but it suggests the need for a certain measure of restraint as we encounter the complex realities of how lives work. Just to pick up where my last post left off: how does customary law work? What are the currently governing rules of customary law? What are people's actual customs? These are questions with no simple answers, and there are likely many more such difficult questions, in the United States as in South Africa. The beginning of wisdom, I think, is to acknowledge how much we don't know, and how much may indeed never be settled, and to try to listen as hard as possible to people so that we can understand their actual needs and desires and principles as well as we can. I know that there is no listening without framework, but there are more and less open frameworks, and we need to try to be as open as we can. In that sense, though we need a constitution that protects against the real dangers of oppression and needless suffering that are part of life in society, we also need a constitution of no slogans.

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