What Is Meant By Philosophy Of The Constitution?


It is believed by some people that a constitution merely consists of laws and that laws are one thing, values and morality, quite another. Therefore, we can have only a legalistic, not a political philosophy approach to the Constitution.

It is true that all laws do not have a moral content, but many laws are closely connected to our deeply held values. For example, a law might prohibit discrimination of persons on grounds of language or religion. Such a law is connected to the idea of equality. Such a law exists because we value equality. Therefore, there is a connection between laws and moral values.

We must therefore, look upon the constitution as a document that is based on a certain moral vision. We need to adopt a political philosophy approach to the constitution.

What Do We Mean By A Political Philosophy Approach To The Constitution?

We have three things in mind.

  • First, we need to understand the conceptual structure of the constitution. What does this mean? It means that we must ask questions like what are the possible meanings of terms used in the constitution such as ‘rights’, ‘citizenship’, ‘minority’ or ‘democracy’?
  • Furthermore, we must attempt to work out a coherent vision of society and polity conditional upon an interpretation of the key concepts of the constitution. We must have a better grasp of the set of ideals embedded in the constitution.
  • Finally, the Indian Constitution must be read in conjunction with the Constituent Assembly Debates in order to refine and raise to a higher theoretical plane, the justification of values embedded in the Constitution. A philosophical treatment of a value is incomplete if a detailed justification for it is not provided. When the framers of the Constitution chose to guide Indian society and polity by a set of values, there must have been a corresponding set of reasons. Many of them, though, may not have been fully explained.

A political philosophy approach to the constitution is needed not only to find out the moral content expressed in it and to evaluate its claims but possibly to use it to arbitrate between varying interpretations of the many core values in our polity. It is obvious that many of its ideals are challenged, discussed, debated and contested in different political arenas, in the legislatures, in party forums, in the press, in schools and universities. These ideals are variously interpreted and sometimes willfully manipulated to suit partisan short term interests. We must, therefore, examine whether or not a serious disjunction exists between the constitutional ideal and its expression in other arenas.
Sometimes, the same ideal is interpreted differently by different institutions. We need to compare these differing interpretations. Since the expression of the ideal in the constitution has considerable authority it must be used to arbitrate in conflict of interpretation over values or ideals. Our Constitution can perform this job of arbitration.

The Japanese Constitution of 1947 is popularly known as the ‘peace constitution’.

The preamble states that :
“We, the Japanese people desire peace for all time and are deeply conscious of the high ideals controlling human relationship”. 

The philosophy of the Japanese constitution is thus based on the ideal of peace.

Article 9 of the Japanese constitution states —

  • 1) Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.
  • 2) In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained…

This shows how the context of making the constitution dominates the thinking of the constitution makers.

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Constitution As Means Of Democratic Transformation

It is widely agreed that one reason for having constitutions is the need to restrict the exercise of power. Modern states are excessively powerful. They are believed to have a monopoly over force and coercion. What if institutions of such states fall into wrong hands who abuse this power? Even if these institutions were created for our safety and well-being, they can easily turn against us. Experience of state power the world over shows that most states are prone to harming the interests of at least some individuals and groups. If so, we need to draw the rules of the game in such a way that this tendency of states is continuously checked. Constitutions provide these basic rules and therefore, prevent states from turning tyrannical.

Constitutions also provide peaceful, democratic means to bring about social transformation. Moreover, for a hitherto colonised people, constitutions announce and embody the first real exercise of political self-determination.

Nehru understood both these points well. The demand for a Constituent Assembly, he claimed, represented a collective demand for full self-determination because;

  • First, only a Constituent Assembly of elected representatives of the Indian people had the right to frame India’s constitution without external interference.
  • Second, he argued, the Constituent Assembly is not just a body of people or a gathering of able lawyers. Rather, it is a ‘nation on the move, throwing away the shell of its past political and possibly social structure, and fashioning for itself a new garment of its own making.’ The Indian Constitution was designed to break the shackles of traditional social hierarchies and to usher in a new era of freedom, equality and justice.

This approach had the potential of changing the theory of constitutional democracy altogether: according to this approach, constitutions exist not only to limit people in power but to empower those who traditionally have been deprived of it. Constitutions can give vulnerable people the power to achieve collective good.

Why Do We Need To Go Back To The Constituent Assembly?
Why Look Backwards And Bind Ourselves To The Past?
Why Study The Intentions And Concerns Of Those Who Framed The Constitution?
Why Not Take Account Of Changed Circumstances And Define Anew, The Normative Function Of The constitution?

In the context of America — where the constitution was written in the late 18th century— it is absurd to apply the values and standards of that era to the 21st century. However, in India, the world of the original framers and our present day world may not have changed so drastically. In terms of our values, ideals and conception, we have not separated ourselves from the world of the Constituent Assembly. A history of our Constitution is still very much a history of the present.

Furthermore, we may have forgotten the real point underlying several of our legal and political practices, simply because somewhere down the road we began to take them for granted. These reasons have now slipped into the background, screened off from our consciousness even though they still provide the organizational principle to current practices. When the going is good, this forgetting is harmless. But when these practices are challenged or threatened, neglect of the underlying principles can be harmful. In short, to get a handle on current constitutional practice, to grasp their value and meaning, we may have no option but to go back in time to the Constituent Assembly debates and perhaps even further back in time to the colonial era. Therefore, we need to remember and keep revisiting the political philosophy underlying our Constitution.

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Bibliography : NCERT – Indian Constitution At Work

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