The Panglossian Peril

The dangers of naïve optimism in thinking about constitutional constraint

In a provocative paper recently posted on SSRN (and based on the HLA Hart Memorial Lecture delivered last year at Oxford), Frederick Schauer challenges a fairly common tendency to argue that apparent conflicts between rights and important interests, or among rights, are illusory, and that, properly understood, these rights and interests can be reconciled so as to avoid the conflict. Prof. Schauer calls this tendency “Panglossianism”, after the obstinately and obliviously optimistic character of Voltaire’s Candide, and argues that it makes for muddled thinking that will end up compromising the rights that Panglossians purport to value. Prof. Schauer makes important points, although I am not persuaded by his takeaway.

* * *

Professor Schauer wants us to recognize that we cannot have it all ― socially desirable policies fully implemented and rights fully protected at the same time. He laments

the common but nonetheless troubling tendency of many people to perceive (or distort) the empirical aspects of various interests in a manner that eliminates the conflict between them and other interests, or between those interests and the rights with which they may conflict. And although people sometimes thus perceive interests in ways that make rights appear cost-free, they also indulge in the equally common tendency to define rights in a way that similarly eliminates the constraints that rights sometimes impose on legitimate interests. (1-2)

To relate just one of the examples he uses, when it comes to prohibitions on hate speech, those who oppose them will often insist that hate speech is not especially harmful, or is not harmful in ways that anyone should really care about, so that upholding the right to freedom of expression has no real cost. Conversely, many of those who support the criminalization of hate speech invoke the mantra of “hate speech is not free speech”, similarly insisting that their preferred resolution of this issue is costless. “Panglossianism” can accordingly involve either a reading of the data (or speculation) about the effects of policies that minimizes their impact on rights, or a redefinition of rights or other constitutional rules that narrows them so as to ensure that a favoured policy is not precluded.

Professor Schauer argues that Panglossianism is a mechanism people deploy to deal with the threat of cognitive dissonance that people might experience if they acknowledge that their preferred policies and constitutional commitments are in tension, and even in conflict. It is easier to believe, and to say, that such conflicts are not real, or can easily avoided, than to deal with them, which would mean taking sides, recognizing that one is wrong about rights or that one’s preferred policy cannot be implemented.

Yet Panglossiansim is a problem, for two reasons. First, intellectual honesty requires us “to avoid attempting to see the empirical world through the rose-colored glasses of one’s own normative desires”. (18) And second, rights are safer if they are not justified on the basis of empirical claims that are either  weak to begin with, or at best “temporally or culturally contingent [so that] the right may turn out to be weakened or inapplicable under different empirical conditions”. (19) Rights are stronger if they are grounded in pure moral principle than if their continued existence depends on whether it is, or is not, relatively harmless. Indeed, if only harmless rights deserve protection, then not much is going to be protected at all. Professor Schauer warns that policy-makers (whether in the legislative or in the executive branch) can Panglossians too; they will tempted to insist that there is no conflict between their preferred policy and constitutional restrictions on their action. But

[u]nlike the rights-concerned Panglossian commentator or advocate who interprets – or distorts – the empirical data so as to eliminate a conflict between policies and rights, here the official is more likely to attempt to eliminate the conflict between policy preferences and constitutional constraints by understanding the constraints in a way that makes them inapplicable to the issue at hand. (22)

Panglossianism, Professor Schauer notes, can undermine not only rights protections, but all manner of intended constitutional rules. Resorting to it may be psychologically comforting, but it will weaken the very idea of constitutional constraints on governments’ pursuit of their preferred policies.

* * *

I think that Professor Schauer describes a real problem. It is indeed tempting to say that the enforcement of one’s favoured right does not compromise the attainment of valuable policy goals or the respect of other rights; it is similarly tempting to insist the implementation of one’s preferred policy conflicts with no real rights, properly understood. Debates about free speech are one area where this dynamic is especially visible, as Professor Schauer notes, but there are any number of others. It is arguable (which is not necessarily to say true) that the controversy over the federal government’s demand that religious groups “attest” to the compatibility between their “core mandate” and (some) Charter rights, about which I’ve written here, also involves Panglossian arguments on both sides.

And Professor Schauer is quite right to point out that Panglossianism can affect thinking about structural constitutional rules, and not just rights. Indeed, I would suggest that in Canadian constitutional law, Panglossianism is an especially strong danger in federalism jurisprudence. In Charter cases, section 1, which authorizes the imposition of “limits” to rights, channels the analysis into a more explicit consideration of the conflict between rights (which tend to be defined in broad and abstract terms) and policy reasons for restricting them. By contrast, the movement towards the erosion of the exclusivity of federal and provincial heads of power under the banner of “co-operative federalism” proceeds from the Supreme Court’s unwillingness to acknowledge the existence of conflict between what it sees as desirable policy and the federal division of powers. Federalism analysis simply makes no room for the acknowledgement of this conflict. This is not to say that we should change the way we approach it ― but we should beware the Panglossian dangers inherent in what we do.

Yet while I think that there is a great deal of truth to Professor Schauer’s diagnosis of the pathologies of Panglossianism, his prescriptions against it may not be especially salutary. Professor Schauer does not tell us much about how to assess what he sees as potentially-Panglossian claims about the effects of policies or the scope of rights. He warns against thinking, for instance, that not punishing hate speech is costless because such speech does not really cause any social evils. Fair enough ― those of us opposed to bans on hate speech on normative grounds will be tempted to downplay its effects. But what if it really doesn’t have any? Conversely, if hate speech really is socially harmful, that happens to align with the preferences of those who want to ban it. Both sides in this particular debate cannot, I think, be wrong at the same time. The mere fact that an empirical claim aligns with someone’s prior normative preferences cannot mean that the claim is wrong. The same applies to claims about the scope of rights (to the extent that these can be said to be correct or incorrect at all).

So while we should be wary of the dangers described by Professor Schauer, he has not convinced me to give up on empirical or otherwise contextualized thinking about rights in favour of a priori philosophizing. This is all the more so in the numerous cases that concern what might be described as marginal (possible) infringements of rights. Perhaps the hate speech question, which is about whether people can be prevented from saying certain things at all can be sufficiently resolved by an a priori insistence that such bans are never permissible. Note, though, that the argument wouldn’t work the other way: a case for banning hate speech can only be made if one is allowed to rely on empirical considerations (unless of course one takes the position that there is no right to free speech at all and anything can be banned). But what about, say, restrictions on financing political parties? Most people accept that at least some restrictions are acceptable (most people in North America, anyway; New Zealand has no limit on how much one can give, and seems to be doing just fine!); many ― most, I hope ― would also agree that some restrictions are too extreme and cannot be justified. The issue is where to draw the line, and where to err in doubt. I don’t think that we can give remotely interesting answers to these questions without knowing something about the current practices of political fundraising and the likely effects of raising or lowering the existing restrictions. Again, Professor Schauer’s warnings about Panglossianism are relevant, but his suggestion that we resolve our questions by reference to first principles alone is not helpful.

Now, Professor Schauer is right, of course, that any empirically contingent answers might be inapplicable under different circumstances. He might be overstating the extent to which this is a problem: I’m not sure, for instance, that cultural contingency of rights protections is objectionable; it’s not obvious that rights must be the same everywhere and at all times. However, to the extent that, within a legal order, rights are implemented through judicially articulated constitutional doctrine, this doctrine risks being destabilized if the empirical or normative premises on which it is based are challenged by the evolution of society and of what we know about it. How to deal with this risk of instability (and its converse, the risk of a static doctrine divorced from reality) is a difficult question, to which I have no very good answers. But I doubt that we can avoid trying to get at some answers, at least, if only mediocre (and contingent!) ones.

Thinking about constitutional rules and their relationship with policy is a difficult business. Professor Schauer is right to remind us that we are too often tempted to oversimplify it by pretending that contradictions between our normative commitments and policy preferences are less significant than they really are. Unfortunately, he doesn’t offer us much by way of useful advice for identifying the exact situations where our thinking is so sidetracked, and his suggestion that we think more about abstract principle than about the real-world effect of policy does not strike me as especially helpful. Nevertheless, Professor Schauer’s warning is an important one, and we should heed it even if we conclude that we must continue exposing ourselves to the dangers he highlights.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

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