Institutions and the Limits of Human Purpose

Why does the heart pump blood throughout the human body? My biology teacher would have said something like “to carry needed oxygen to the cells of the body…” This explanation of the phenomenon implies that a biological system could have a purpose, which, of course, they do not have. Thus, aside from a discussion of metaphysical origins, it makes no real sense to ask why the body’s systems do anything. Yet we all know that this functionalist conceptualization is a convenient and harmless fiction in the biological context.

But functionalist explanations of institutional structures can be more problematic precisely because it is not so easy to spot the fiction. Human beings do in fact act purposefully toward the achievement of goals. Thus, many political consequences are certainly the result of human planning. But planning requires a foreseeable outcome to be obtained in the future from an actor’s present conduct. Since human cognitive limitations renders individuals only selectively attentive to the remote effects of their present political arrangements, there are necessary strict limits on the extent to which individuals could be said to intend the longer term consequences of today’s political maneuvers. As Paul Pierson puts it:

Functionalist interpretations of politics are often suspect because of the sizable time lag between actors’ actions and the long-term consequences of those actions. Political actors, facing the pressures of the immediate or skeptical about their capacity to engineer long-term effects, may pay limited attention to the long-term. Thus, the long-term effects of institutional choices, which are frequently the most profound and interesting ones, should often be seen as the by-products of social processes rather than embodying the goals of institutional actors. Paul Pierson, Politics in Time: History, Institutions, and Social Analysis (2011, 14)

As I may attempt to explore further in a later post, this observation may have significant implications for how we interpret the intentions of national founders with respect to the institutions they collectively establish. How an American Constitutional framer understood a given provision he set out may be less meaningful to us today as we attempt to apply the provision to changed circumstances. Even those of us who, for example, take the Second Amendment quite seriously may find it necessary to re-examine whether it is truly doing the work its authors intended or whether those purposes might otherwise be served. This might not mean an abandonment of that provision, but such an exercise is more productive and worthy of a free and deliberative people than the reflexive rhetoric we often encounter in the public square.



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