Month: August 2016

A Critique Of The US Declaration Of Independence

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

What are these “powers of the earth”, and how was this “separate and equal station” discovered among and between men, and how do we know this entitlement was derived from “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”? According to Jefferson and his collaborators, these questions need not be answered. They are axiomatic. They “hold these truths to be self-evident”. Specifically, in Jefferson’s view, for anyone who takes a moment consider the truth, it should be obvious to their common sense, that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Despite it’s fame, and although it is masterful prose, the Declaration of Independence is not a particularly groundbreaking piece of writing. In practice, it was simply a polemical indictment of George III, and an open declaration of war against Britain. What the Declaration is not, is a philosophical treatise. Jefferson takes his “self-evident truths” as an ex post facto rationale, but he does nothing within the confines of the document to justify his reliance upon them for the rest of his argument, even though he was fully aware of their origins (Jefferson was a practicing lawyer, and well read in English jurisprudence and political philosophy).

The Declaration is a political statement, and it is the last link in an intellectual chain stretching back at least two centuries before it. As we’ve seen from the readings of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, ideas of “Natural Law”, “Right”, and “Equality” (at least, as it exists in a “state of nature”) feature heavily in the book. But Hobbes was not unique. These ideas have been around since the ancient Greeks and Romans, and in vague forms, are a common thread in English Common Law jurisprudence stretching back to the 13th century.

So, why are we reading this (along with Hobbes), and not reading Locke’s Second Treatise, or Rousseau’s Social Contract? Both of these works directly address the question of justifying the social goods of Liberty, Security, and Happiness much more thoroughly than the Declaration itself, and it seems to me, that’s what we’re trying to do here, yes?

In any case, what if we were to distill the Declaration down into its actual arguments? Would it still be as convincing? I’m not so sure. But let’s give it a try, and see what we can come up with:

To begin with, I’m going to discard the first paragraph, as it’s really nothing more than introduction. Charity demands that we set this aside. This leaves us with the first sentence of the second paragraph to start with, as our first proposition:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

This is not so much a first proposition, as it is a list of starting assumptions. As I said before, he takes these assertions as axiomatically true. So, our starting assumptions are:

  1. There is a creator
  2. This creator has created nature, and imbued it with a set of universal “natural laws”
  3. This creator has created all members of the set ‘mankind’, as a part of nature.
  4. This creator has inculcated certain properties to those members, in equal portion
  5. Those properties are fundamental to (inseparable from) the nature of each member of the set ‘mankind’
  6. Those properties are called “rights”, and are enumerated as follows:
    • life
    • liberty
    • “pursuit of happiness” (aka property ownership)
    • consent
    • revolution

It’s a bit difficult to tell whether Jefferson intended the remainder to be considered also a part of the “self-evident truth” (that governments are instituted, that they derive their just power from the consent of the governed, etc). If I were to take the entire block of text preceding the “list of facts” as “self-evident truths”, it would require believing that Jefferson thought his entire statement was something that was as completely unassailable as the fact that the grass is green, and water is wet. This is uncharitable. So, we’ll take everything after the enumeration of basic rights to be his “arguments”.

What does that look like, exactly? Well, perhaps something like this:

  1. A justly constituted government is one in which its power is derived from “the consent of the governed
  2. The British government under “the present King of Great Britain” does not derive its power from the consent of the governed
    C1: Therefore, the British government is not justly constituted

And:

  1. (sp) All men desire to defend themselves against alienation from their inalienable rights. (from our assumptions)
  2. (sp) If government is not justly constituted, it is not an effective weapon of defense of the rights of all men.
  3. [C1] The British government is not justly constituted
    C2: Therefore, the British government is not an effective weapon of defense of the rights of all men.

And:

  1. It is the right (and/or duty) of all men to “to alter or to abolish” unjustly constituted governments.
  2. [C1] The British government is not justly constituted.
    C3: Therefore, the American colonists must “throw off such Government, and to provide new guards for their future security

Jefferson and his collaborators were not comfortable resting on these arguments alone, however. So, they included an enormous list of particular grievances as “facts” meant to “prove” George’s “abuses and usurpations”. But if your arguments are so strong, why would you need to do this?

Well, in fact, Jefferson (and most of his collaborators) knew the arguments actually weren’t that strong. One author (Bernard Bailyn) argue that the colonists were laboring under the belief that there was a massive conspiracy at play, working to undermine the British constitution (as it was understood in 1770), and that the colonists believed they were pawns in this conspiracy. He may be right. But I take a far less extravagant view, myself.

Right from the start, George and his court lawyers would have taken issue with Premise 1 of the first argument. What’s more, they probably would have used both Locke and Hobbes themselves, in order to defend George’s right to rule. By the 1700’s, the court really didn’t need to make reference to Divine Right, in order to claim legitimacy. This much had already been settled in the dispute with Cromwell (if you actually read all of Leviathan, Hobbes is aggressively defending the right of an absolute monarch, of precisely the kind that George III imagined himself to be).

Then, there’s premise 2, of argument 1. Ah, rights. Those ineffable properties of mankind, endowed to us by our creator that are at once both inalienable, and yet alienable. It’s amazing to me, how almost three hundred years later, the concept of “rights” is almost as muddy and unjustifiable now, as it was in 1776. In some ways, the founders of America had it easier, though. They, at least, could appeal to a Supreme Creator, whose magical powers could make them a part of our “nature”. Today, secular analytical philosophy doesn’t have that luxury. It has to pretzel itself into all kinds of intellectual knots to make them seem real, let alone justifiable.

But let’s take them for granted, as Jefferson asks us to do in this polemic, and let’s assume also (as he seems to here), that they are properties that can be, by force or fraud, alienated from individuals. Let’s also take the implicit assumption from Hobbes (which Jefferson silently assumes here) that mankind is incorrigibly self-motivated. By this reasoning, no sane man would consider a government as the surest weapon of defense against the usurpation of his rights.

Why? Well, precisely because the state is a weapon. It is the weapon. A weapon of both physical force, and moral authority, that a self-interested man could use with great efficiency to his own advantage. The very thing that Jefferson and his colleagues are charging George III with, in this document. Jefferson and the signers were well read, and well aware of the perils of the institution of government. If you read the Federalist Papers, it is clear that they knew full well that you cannot create a huge weapon, enshrine it in moral armor, put it into the hands of men, and then expect them to not use it to their own advantage. Instead, they dissembled, vacillated, and rationalized into existence a Rube-Goldberg machine they believed would turn the weapon into a tool — and then further insured that they were the ones who got to use that tool. How convenient.

Getting A Handle On The Truth

What is truth?” ~ Pontius Pilate

This is an interesting and surprisingly difficult question. If you look in the OED, what you’ll find there are entirely circular and self-referential explanations: “the quality or state of being true“, ” that which is true or in accordance with fact or reality“, and “a fact or belief that is accepted as true“.

So, the poor souls that rely on the dictionary are left with, essentially, “truth is what’s true”, and “what’s true is what we agree are the facts of reality.” But what if we’re wrong and we still agree? Or worse, what if we disagree, but one of us is right? This can’t be the last word on this topic. What can we say with any confidence about truth, as such? To put it in the words of Bertrand Russell:

“We may believe what is false as well as what is true. We know that on very many subjects different people hold different and incompatible opinions: hence some beliefs must be erroneous. Since erroneous beliefs are often held just as strongly as true beliefs, it becomes a difficult question how they are to be distinguished from true beliefs. How are we to know, in a given case, that our belief is not erroneous? This is a question of the very greatest difficulty, to which no completely satisfactory answer is possible. There is, however, a preliminary question which is rather less difficult, and that is: What do we mean by truth and falsehood?” — The Problems of Philosophy (p. 77)

Thinking on the question a bit, I realized I’m not quite sure what I mean. So, I decided to take a brief look at what what philosophy has had to say on the subject over the centuries, to see if I might find something I’m willing to accede to, at least in the short term.

As Russell is careful to point out in the book I just referenced, any real understanding of truth must start first with understanding what knowledge is. But even this is tricky. I wanted to simply stipulate to the classical definition, in order to shorten this post. But what we find in the traditional definition of knowledge, is yet another circular reference: knowledge is Justified True Belief. In other words, that which is known is that which satisfies all of the following three conditions:

  1. It is believed
  2. That belief is justified
  3. That belief is true

For the sake of brevity, I’ll let the Stanford encyclopedia explain these three conditions in detail, and I’ll set aside common objections to this formulation of knowledge for a later post. Nevertheless, in spite of Stanford’s assertion that “the truth condition is largely uncontroversial“, I think the fact that truth is present in the definition of knowledge is a serious problem for philosophy because it makes the two terms fundamentally dependent upon each other: truth is that which is known is that which is the truth.

As such, I find it hard to blame the dictionary for its circularity when it relies for its definitions on an academic discipline that can’t seem to provide a clear answer to this question. What’s more, I think it’s a little disingenuous for “serious” philosophers to scoff at Ayn Rand for her insistence on unjustified “axioms” like “Existence Exists“, or to laugh at Christians who, facing no real alternative, rely on Jesus’ pronouncement that actually it is he personally who is “…the way, the truth, and the life…” (John 14:6).

To be completely clear, my aim here is not to argue that there is no such thing as truth, or that we cannot know things or cannot justifiably claim to know the truth — or worse, that we should just throw our hands up and simply declare it to be whatever we want it to be. To do so, I’d have to employ the very tools of thought that I’d be condemning. All I am suggesting is that maybe we’re not as sure as we think we are, and that maybe we need to rethink some of these fundamental questions.

What Everyone Else Thinks

As one might expect, given what I have stated above, there are actually numerous philosophical theories of truth. The most popular among them, the “correspondence theory“, offers the greatest appeal to common sense. This theory is probably where the OED gets it’s turn of phrase “in accordance with fact or reality”. The theory states that “a proposition is true provided there exists a fact corresponding to it.” But what does “correspondence” mean? And what, exactly, are facts? Russell makes a lot of hay on this second question, in his own conception of correspondence. In short, this definition “works”, but it’s not entirely satisfying (as Russell notes in the above quote).

Some argue for something called “coherence“, in which each new statement is compared to a complete set of beliefs, and rejected if it does not “fit” within that collection. This theory seems to fail on two grounds: first, that it is not necessary for the collection of beliefs to have any relation to reality, and secondly, as Russell again points out, because of the first problem, there can be many equally “coherent” belief systems existing side by side. How do we know which one to choose? The problems point to a third problem, that I think also plagues the pragmatist, constructivist, and consensus theories of truth. Namely, that they all elevate mere belief to the ontological status of a fact, by virtue of some ex post facto rationale. What’s more, this equivocation seems to go unnoticed (or worse, dishonestly ignored) by the theories’ adherents.

What I think

I find Kant’s idea of the conjunction between the noumenal and phenomenal world somewhat compelling. Although, probably not for reasons Kant would approve. Science shows us that there is a reality that is outside the reach of the senses. Perhaps truth, then, is the extent to which we can apprehend these non-phenomenal parts of reality, and reconcile them with the phenomenal parts. Already, science has provided us with all sorts of tools for doing this (telescopes, microscopes, sensors, meters, etc.). If this is true (somewhat ironically), then the way to the truth is through scientific inquiry. This is certainly a different route to truth via science than the pragmatists propose, but I think the destination may be the same.

On the other hand, although I don’t quite understand his theory, Alfred Tarsky‘s emphasis on semantics got me to wondering.

I have heard truth described by some as a relationship between physical reality and conscious awareness. This is not quite the same thing as correspondence, because the focus here is not on the objects in the relation, but the relation itself. It’s an interesting idea, but I think this isn’t quite complete. Because, if conscious awareness of reality is all that is necessary for a “truth” relation, then beavers and ants and birds would be capable of apprehending the truth. Clearly, then, it must something more.

That difference is language. Truth is as much a semantic concept, as it is a metaphysical one. Like knowledge, the definition of truth is concerned with the objects of mind and reality, and primarily with the nature of the relationship between them. But what is it about the nature of this relation, that makes it truth? I think it is the meaning we assign to that relationship, and the value discovered in the contents of that relationship.

In short, truth is a kind of semantic value judgment of the perception of reality as it is apprehended, by a mind capable of apprehending and valuing. But what does this mean, in practice? Is this just another way of formulating correspondence? Not quite. Is it the same as claiming that the truth is whatever we want it to be? Not quite. Is it pragmatism in another suit of clothes? I don’t think so.

But I’m struggling to find the words necessary to develop the idea any further. And perhaps that’s a clue to the problem with all of these theories. Maybe the problem lies precisely with the fact that our language is woefully lacking, when it comes to the task of describing these sorts of relationships. This is why I am beginning to wonder if we don’t need a new language, or a new way of thinking, or of describing our thoughts, before we can properly answer this question.

Ayn Rand Is Still The Boogeyman

The following quote is from a discussion of Plato’s dialogue “The Republic”, from this course on Coursera. The professor, a Dr. Meyer, is explaining the interactions early in the book between Glaucon, Adeimantus, Socrates, and Thrasymachus, wherein the group is debating the subject of whether it is more advantageous to be a just or an unjust man. Dr. Meyer, in this quote, is attempting to compare the vulgar egoism of Thrasymachus to Ayn Rand’s Virtue Of Selfishness, in a throw-away line clearly intended to virtue-signal, and intimidate younger students:

“…They want some sort of justification for their belief that it is better to lead a life of justice than one of injustice. We might say, in the vocabulary of the Meno, that they have a most true belief that justice is good. But without an explanation of the reason, the sort that ties down a true belief they don’t know that this is the case. And under the pressure of questioning from skeptics like Thrasymachus, they’re vulnerable to having their true beliefs wander away. We might compare this to the situation of many young people today, who have been raised by their parents and their communities to value generosity and altruism. But then they pick up the writings of Ayn Rand, which extol the virtues of selfishness. And then they’re tempted to abandon the ethical values in which they’ve been raised. Glaucon and Adeimantus are unimpressed with the usual sorts of reasons that their parents or their communities give them to recommend justice.”

If I were being entirely cheeky, I might ask if Dr. Meyer was accusing Ayn Rand of corrupting the youth.

As someone who has actually read The Virtue Of Selfishness, Philosophy: Who Needs It, The Objectivist Ethics, and Peikoff’s Objectivism, I always find these sanctimonious little jabs simultaneously hilarious, and tiresome.

Hilarious, because it’s clear from comments like these (and I’ve seen hundreds), that Dr. Meyer has only read the title, and wishes to dance a straw-man around in front of us. Tiresome, because I’m constantly finding myself in a situation of defending a philosopher with whom I don’t even share much agreement. Even Hannah Arendt doesn’t get this kind of petty hatred anymore.

It’s a little disappointing, too. This particular class is all about making a careful, close reading of Plato, in order to understand exactly what it is he’s trying to say. Whether or not we agree with his conception of ideas, or with his conclusions about the ideal state or the ideal man, we’re supposed to be able to address them as Plato intended (or as close as we can get to a reasonable interpretation). As Dr. Meyer points out, this is the “principle of charity”.

Why is it that this principle never applies to Ayn Rand? Is it because she’s not a “real” philosopher? Well, then why even bring her up? Just leave her lie, along with the Robert Pirsigs of the world. Is it because her arguments really are as horrible as Dr. Meyer says? Well, then, since Dr. Meyer is raising the comparison to Thrasymacus, it should be an easy matter to actually include a few fair quotes, to show how this is true. Is doing that a distraction from the class? Then again, why even bring her up at all?

To anyone reading this, I would highly recommend you actually go read The Virtue Of Selfishness. Don’t do it because I tell you it’s all true, or great, or wonderful (there’s plenty there to criticize). Do it, precisely because it’s a well argued position you’re not going to find in academia. Put yourself in Socrates’ shoes, and explain to Rand exactly why she’s wrong. It will, at the very least, strengthen your capacity to reason critically, and will give you the ammunition you need to properly argue with criticisms of concepts like egoism, altruism, sacrifice, and the value of self.

As it turns out, The Virtue Of Selfishness can easily be found online, right here. If you do take the time to read it, you’ll find that nowhere in it, does Rand defend Thrasymachus’ cynical opportunism, and moral confusion. In fact, she likely would have counted Thrasymachus among the very people she is condemning in this essay.

Now, you could take her to task for her conception of “rational self-interest”, and how exactly it is to be maintained. Or, you could demand she fully justify her position that “The Objectivist ethics holds that the actor must always be the beneficiary of his action and that man must act for his own rational self-interest. But his right to do so is derived from his nature as man and from the function of moral values in human life…”. Or, you could speculate what she would say about Frans de Waal’s research (the principle of reciprocal altruism). And there is much to say, on the topic of contemporary egoism, as a philosophy.

But to do this, would be to engage her directly on her moral theory. And that would take some effort, to actually read her, and to apply the same principle of charity to her, that we do to Plato.

What’s truly unfortunate about the ignorant dismissals, is the loss of an incredibly valuable opportunity to really see Plato in stark contrast.

Rand was no fan of Plato (she labeled him a mystic). However, if you compare The Republic to Atlas Shrugged, there are innumerable similarities. Just a couple examples: The ideal man, with a soul that is well tempered by a harmonious balance of virtues constituting true justice, in the form of John Galt; The “city of the virtuous” that Socrates constructed with Glaucon and Adeimantus, in the form of Galt’s Gulch.

Looking more closely at the early books of The Republic, what you can immediately see, is that Rand is looking for a third way between Thrasymachus and Socrates.

Thrasymachus says: justice is (that is to say, the standard of justice is) that which benefits oneself.

Socrates replies: No, justice is what benefits another, when that benefit is education.

Rand is arguing with both of them, in The Virtue Of Selfishness, saying instead: The standard of justice is not who is the beneficiary, but rather, something else entirely. It is the intrinsic worth of mans life ‘qua man’, by virtue of his unique capacity for reason. That an action must benefit the actor, is necessary for justice, she says, but it is not sufficient. The action itself must be guided by a principle of reason, since reason as it manifests itself in man, is the standard (in her view).

This, to me, is absolutely fascinating. Because Socrates himself agrees that man is in some way exceptional to animal, by virtue of his capacity to reason (as In Republic). It is this faculty that provides him with access to the true form of the good, and with the capacity to recall it (as in Meno), and in doing so, perfecting it in preparation for its next iteration (as in Apology, and Phaedo).

So, Rand’s view is actually incredibly similar to Plato’s. But her task, as she saw it, was to bring the discussion back to earth, back to reality, and out of the realm of imaginary things like “true forms”. And her solution, such as it is, was an attempt to establish the value of the individual, as such, in the fact of rational consciousness.

Now, any follower of Hume might want to ask Rand, “How is it, exactly, that you get from an arbitrary fact about human consciousness, to his moral worth?” This is something Rand never quite answers in a satisfying way (at least, not for me). And it’s been stuck in my craw since I first read The Objectivist Ethics. One could argue that Plato had the easier job, since all he had to do was to refer to his theology, but Rand had to find some anchor in physical reality. But, this is all a subject for another post.

The point I’m trying to make here, is that reading this book will actually enrich your view of the dialogues, not diminish it. It will give you a modern voice that argues with Plato constantly (and quite forcefully), and will give you an opportunity to clarify your own thinking about the dialogues.

And this is why I get so angry, when I hear instructors – authority figures – attempting to ward students away from that opportunity.

Because what is the cost, in doing this? We reinforce the incurious, the prejudiced, and the cynical impulses in students, rather than inspiring the opposite. That is the cost. And it is an enormous cost.

In other words, we create precisely the world that Plato was railing against, in the dialogues.

Knowledge, Certainty, And Logic

The Epistemic Regress (specifically, the Skeptical variety) is a little out of my depth at the moment, but what is plainly obvious by various presentations of the problem, is that at it’s core lies the Problem of Knowledge. The key question that arises in the examination of major premises in any deductive argument, is “how do you know?” This suggests that something essential about the nature of the premises needs to be discovered, before we are going to solve the riddle.

Perhaps the root of the question actually lies in an unconscious equivocation of analytic and synthetic statements, when we ask it? The latter being knowledge derived from sense perception, the former from “pure reason” (as Kant might have put it). To that end, some suggest that we probably need to revisit the classic problem of Cartesian skepticism yet again. This paper from someone at the University of Alabama discusses a theory called “Foundationalism“, which despite the numerous objections to it, seems somewhat appealing.

However, I think the problem lies precisely in the form of logic itself. It is a tool designed around a positive conception of knowledge; one that presumes that certainty is reasonable and achievable as a standard of knowledge, and requires assertions that are absolute. There’s even a term for it: “Justified True Belief“, in which absolute certainty is the gold standard defining what “knowledge” really is. A view that drove Descartes to his maxim, Cogito Ergo Sum.

But I take my view more from Karl Popper, than from René Descartes: the regress exists, because the tool we’re using and the thing we’re trying to achieve with it are incompatible. We need a new form of critical reasoning, and a new conception of knowledge, that is capable of coping with degrees of uncertainty, and degrees of probability.

Traditional deductive logic (and even some forms of induction) rely too much on a conception of knowledge that demands of its users something that seems, upon very close inspection, to not exist and to not even be possible. We need to get out of the classical playpen of Aristotle and Plato, and grow up a little. What that will look like, is a bit beyond me right now. But maybe someone, somewhere has already beat me to the punch. I hope so. Maybe tentative uncertainty is the most anyone can hope for.