Constitutional Questions

Research output: Other contribution


Constitutional Questions
Professor John Morison MRIA School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast
How should we live together? Is there any ethical question more fundamental than this?
Is a constitution only about who does what in government or is it about what is to be done? Does a constitution provide the ground rules for deciding this or is it part of the answer itself? Is it the repository of fundamental values about how to live? What is the good life anyway? Is it about the preservation of life and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Or something more? What about preserving (or radically reordering) the distribution of property? Or ensuring that everyone has the same chances? Is it the job of the constitution to simply promise dignity, equality and freedom, or to deliver these values?
If the constitution is the place where the state undertakes “to promote the welfare of the whole people”, what does this actually mean in practical terms? And who pays for it? Should a constitution give us an entitlement to at least a basic minimum by way of a lifestyle? Or is it the job only of the political process to decide issues about the allocation of resources? What do we do if we feel that we cannot trust our politicians? Are there basic rules that should govern the operation of politics and are there fundamental values that should not be overridden? Are these “sacred and undeniable”? Or to be interpreted in line with modern conditions and within a “margin of appreciation”? Who decides on this in individual cases?
Who is entitled to any of this, and on what basis? Is everyone equal? Is the constitution about making it clear that no-one is better than you, and that in turn, you are better than no-one? Is a constitution about ensuring that you will always be an end in yourself and never simply a means to anyone else’s end? Or does it simply reinforce the existing distribution of power and wealth?
Are citizens to be given more than those who are not citizens? Is more to be expected from them, and what might that be? Can the constitution tell us how we should treat those from outside who now live with us?
What is the relationship between a constitution and a nation? Who is in the nation anyway? Should we talk about “we the people” or “we the peoples”? Should a constitution confirm a nationality or facilitate diversity? Is the constitution the place to declare aspirations for a national territory? Or to confirm support for the idea of consent? What about all our neighbours – on the island of Ireland and in Great Britain? Or in Europe? And beyond?
What is the relationship between a constitution and democracy? Is a constitution simply the rules by which the powerful govern the powerless? In what sense does a constitution belong to everyone, across past, present and future generations? Is it the place where we state common values? Are there any? Do they change across time? Should the people be asked about changes they may want? How often should this be done? Should the constitution address the past and its problems? How might this be done? What do we owe future generations?
Finally, if we can agree that the constitution is about respecting human rights, striving for social justice and building a fair and democratic Ireland – North and South – how do we make it happen in practice?
Original languageEnglish
TypeContribution to President of Ireland's Ethics Initiative
Media of outputRoyal Irish Academy website
PublisherRoyal Irish Academy
Publication statusPublished - May 2015

Publication series

NamePresident of Ireland's Ethics Initiative
PublisherRoyal Irish Academy

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