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The Constitutional Ideal Lecture Series

As part of the “Technology, Technocracy, and Human Rights” lecture series, the Human Rights Program at Bard College, in conjunction with the Science, Technology and Society Program and the Bard Prison Initiative, will present a year-long lecture series on the “The Constitutional Ideal.” Can the constitutional tradition, the series asks, act as a counterbalance to the technocratic tendencies of modern law and society? Constitutions are now essential parts of modern political democracies. The South African Constitution has come to be a model constitution, one that offers legitimacy and national identity to a deeply divided country. In Iraq, the effort to adopt a constitution is understood to be an important step towards the founding of a legitimate and just national government. However, a constitution is a guarantee of neither stability nor justice. France, for example, had 14 separate constitutions between 1789 and 1875. And the former Soviet Union's constitutional guarantee of rights was wildly ineffectual. A constitution, as John Adams has argued, may be a "standard, a pillar, and a bond when it is understood, approved, and beloved. But without this intelligence and attachment, it might as well be a kite or a balloon flying in the air."

The lectures in this series will explore the aspirations and the perils of constitutions. If technology now names humanity's vast powers to control and improve the world, constitutions seek to limit that power. Constitutions, therefore, are both part of the legal order and a limit to the scientifically founded authority of law. Indeed, since Leibniz and Grotius, law has been closely connected with the rise of modern science. As a science, law is thought to be justifiable according to basic social-scientific principles, from sociological norms of legitimacy to economic norms of efficiency. Modern law, therefore, forms a 'technocracy,' or bureaucratic administration by experts. At the same time, the constitutional limitation on law's power provides one of the most sophisticated critiques of the limits of instrumental rationality in democratic society.

Against the increasingly technocratic conception of constitutions as a criteria for judicial review, these lectures offer an alternative ideal of constitutionalism grounded in creative and foundational political action. They probe the ideal of constitutional government as a practice of political and legal engagement, one grounded in a respect for the dignity of persons and the forbearance of others different from ourselves. In doing so, these lectures will raise questions about the current confidence that a constitution can be made by experts and that a constitution can be imposed upon another people. And they will explore the hope that constitutions, as Hannah Arendt argued, are not merely technical acts of a government, but rather ethical actions by which a people constitutes a government.

Developed by the Bard Prison Initiative, Human Rights Program, and Science, Technology and Society Program, this series was developed in response to U.S. Public Law 108-447 establishing September 17th as a constitution day to be recognized by all educational institutions receiving federal funding. HRP, STS, and the BPI would like to thank visiting Professor Roger Berkowitz for planning and helping to organize the “Constitutional Ideal” series.

Lecture Dates, Fall 2005, "The Constitutional Ideal":

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