Nihilism with a Happy Ending? The Interstate Commerce Commission and the Emergence of the Post-Enlightenment Paradigm

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This Article examines early Supreme Court opinions about the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC)—the first federal administrative agency—in an effort to identify the intellectual roots of the modern administrative state. The Article argues that the Court's effort to explain and justify the function of the newborn ICC shows the traces of a post-Enlightenment crisis in the field of moral philosophy—i.e., the growing conviction that it is no longer possible for reasonable people to agree on what constitutes a true, objective, universally valid standard of reasonable or just conduct. From this essentially nihilistic starting point, the Court helped to fashion a new post-Enlightenment paradigm under which the function of an administrative bureaucracy such as the ICC is to impose order on a market consisting of individuals pursuing their non-rational interests and preferences in the absence of an objective, shared moral framework. The Court thus gave its imprimatur to what has become our way of understanding who and what we are, namely, individuals who require bureaucratic supervision and bureaucratically imposed order as we pursue our non-rational wants and needs in market-based interactions with other individuals. Our need for some kind of order is the sole rationale for this bureaucratically imposed order because, by hypothesis, there no longer exists a true, objective, universally valid standard against which any such order can be measured. This Article's account of the post-Enlightenment paradigm, its genesis, and its implications builds on the work of philosopher and social theorist Alasdair MacIntyre as well as on two recent publications by the author examining the intellectual framework underlying U.S. and European Internet privacy regulation.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)113-187
JournalPenn State Law Review
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jul 1 2008


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