This post may stray a tad away from my usual topics here, but this speech strikes me as so important, and so aligned with my own values, that I felt compelled to share it here. Justice Souter is a long-time intellectual hero of mine, and so it is exciting to see him addressing my own alma mater at an event I have often attended, Harvard’s Commencement.
But more importantly, it is the content of his speech which compels me to share. Far too often, in every arena of leadership and decision-making, we fall into the mental trap of believing that we are choosing between right and wrong, good and bad, or better and worse. But that trap is so dangerous: we are not doing so. We are choosing between good and good, right and right, better in some ways and better in other ways. To accuse or criticize justices for refusing to honor the “original intent” of the constitution, for instance, is absurd: the original intent itself reflects the conflicts of multiple goods and aims, and the genius of the constitution is that allows each generation to draw upon it to reconcile competing goals as best we can in our era.
Linda Greenhouse writes brilliantly about Souter’s speech in the Times:
The “notion that all of constitutional law lies there in the Constitution waiting for a judge to read it fairly” is not only “simplistic,” he said; it “diminishes us” by failing to acknowledge that the Constitution is not just a set of aphorisms for the country to live by but a “pantheon of values” inevitably in tension with one another. The Supreme Court may serve no higher function than to help society resolve the “conflict between the good and the good,” he suggested:
A choice may have to be made, not because language is vague, but because the Constitution embodies the desire of the American people, like most people, to have things both ways. We want order and security, and we want liberty. And we want not only liberty but equality as well. These paired desires of ours can clash, and when they do a court is forced to choose between them, between one constitutional good and another one. The court has to decide which of our approved desires has the better claim, right here, right now, and a court has to do more than read fairly when it makes this kind of choice.
We who are educators are not interpreting the constitution, of course, but we are nevertheless similarly choosing all the time between competing goods, competing values, competing aims. Choose we must, but we will always choose better when we recognize as we do, as Justice Souter did, that choices come with costs, and that we will be working away from one goal and positive end even as we stride toward another.