By Tibor Machan: Freedom columnist
Some of President Obama’s recent speeches have raised a vital issue
that often lies in the background of particular policy discussions.
For example, the president has made it abundantly clear that he is a
pragmatist, especially about economic matters. And there is a perennial
question involved here: Are there any permanent, lasting, stable
principles of human life, including ethics and politics?
Some, of course, will immediately invoke God and Biblical
pronouncements. But this doesn’t settle anything since among human
beings there are really quite a few religions and some have very
different ideas about morality and politics.
Which of these is to be treated as fundamental? Within each religion
the answer is easy enough, but when we have numerous religions facing
us, how do we choose? Some answer this by talking about faith.
Yet faith, sadly, varies too much among us and has the problem of
not offering a common basis. Which is why there are so many different
And while the sciences are often in dispute, in principle they
adhere to a common method, one accessible to anyone who isn’t afflicted
with some malady.
Apart from religion, then, are there fundamental truths? Over the
long history of human thought few principles have remained unchanging
except for a few.
I am thinking here of the principles of logic. Very few people,
schools of thought dispute that logic is fundamental to everything. In
every discipline, in every concern of ours, if one makes a logical
mistake one’s case crumbles.
Just think of the courtroom where if a witness is caught in a
contradiction, his or her testimony is immediately discredited. Why?
Because a contradiction is impossible — reality will not tolerate it. A
thing is what it is, no exception! Nothing can both have and at the
same time lack a property or feature — it’s got to be one or the other.
But logic is so general in its scope that it doesn’t point to very
specific information. All it says is that whatever we know, it cannot
violate the laws of logic.
Is there anything more specific that is stable, lasting? For
example, what about the principles of ethics? Or the U. S.
Constitution? Are these simply some matters that hold fast for some
people but others are exempt?
For example, is torture really altogether unacceptable, evil? Or is
that only given American values? Are those values applicable to all
human communities? Why?
The answer the American Founders and their followers have given is
that the basic principles laid out in the Declaration of Independence
and the Bill of Rights are pretty close to being indeed applicable to
all human communities because, well, they rest on human nature,
something that is stable, lasting in the world.
Yes, there are disputes but they are all conducted with the expectation that some right answer will be found.
So long as we are considering human affairs, there will be some
principles that will be basic simply because we are dealing with a
fairly stable part of the world.
And that’s so, also, with other fields of inquiry and knowledge; we
may be quite ignorant about much of what makes up the world, some of it
we have managed to grasp pretty well — at least when we make use of the
knowledge we seem to meet with considerable success in, say, medicine,
farming, manufacturing, building, even child-raising.
So, yes, there are some principles we have managed to identify over
the span of human history that are stable, lasting enough, so we should
hang on to them unless there are very, very good reasons to change our
And some of these principles may be economic ones, so being entirely
pragmatic about economics, as Obama insists on being, is not a good
idea — it tosses overboard centuries of learning in that field of human
Tibor Machan advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at: TMachan@link.freedom.com