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. (He does not appear to be pragmatic about waterboarding or torture, more generally!) 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 faiths. And while the sciences are often in dispute, also, at least 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. I am thinking here of the principles of logic. Very few people, very few 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 US 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. (Consider a recent book by the Harvard psychologist, Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate. It defends the idea of a reasonably permanent human nature. And consider common sense, also. After all, we still read the works of human beings from centuries ago, just as if they were working from within the very same frame of reference, with but minor variations, from which we work!)
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, manufacture, 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 minds. And some of these principles may be economic ones, so being entirely pragmatic about economics, as Mr. Obama insists on being, is not a good idea − it tosses overboard centuries of learning in that field of human knowledge.