On “Self-Evident Truths”

When one talks about a “self-evident truth,” what exactly is one talking about?

In one sense, it is “self-evidently true” that when one looks at an object — say, this pint glass next to me as I type — I see that it is a pint-glass.  It is “self-evidently true” that I am looking at a pint-glass (putting to aside worries of Cartesian demonic deception), because I do not perform an inference.  My perception of the pint-glass is not the conclusion of an argument, based on premises.  It is a paradigm case of non-inferential knowledge.

But in another sense, this perceptual knowledge is not “self-evident,” if by that we mean knowledge that does not depend on any further presuppositions.  For the contrary is the case: a great deal of background knowledge must be presupposed in order for me to see the pint-glass — for example, I must have the concept of “pint-glass” and know how to apply that concept.  Even the transparent cases of analytic propositions (“a vixen is a fox”, “the sum of the interior angles of a Euclidean triangle is 180 degrees”, “every effect has a cause”) presuppose as their respective background an adequate grasp of the concepts involved.

It is sometimes said that if a proposition is self-evidently true, then nothing can be done which would show it to be to true to someone who denied it.  But this is not quite right.  What is right is that a proposition is self-evidently true, then it cannot be demonstrated from some other premises nor arrived at through generalizations — it is not grounded in either deduction or induction, one might say.

But that does not mean that one cannot resort to all sorts of other arguments or thought-experiments that disclose that the proposition is self-evidently true.  A classic example of this is Descartes’s famous “I think, therefore I am.”   This is not the result of inference or observation, yet Descartes spends a great deal of time setting the stage to prepare the reader for this truth and to see it as self-evident.   For this reason, “I can’t convince of you of this, because it’s self-evidently true” should not be accepted without criticism.

Because of this distinction between non-inferential knowledge and presuppositionless knowledge, accepting the importance of the former does nothing to settle whether or not we ought to be committed to the latter.   The failure to see this is what Sellars called “the Myth of the Given,” which is the original sin of rationalism and empiricism alike.

76 thoughts on “On “Self-Evident Truths”

  1. Here I thought that “self-evident” truths were those that one, through testing, could demonstrate concise repeatable and predictable outcomes. For example, 2+2 is self-evidently 4 by demonstration – always and every time. It is self-evidently true that fire will burn unprotected fingers that contact said fire.

    Which is why – for example – I reject William’s claim of self-evident moral truths given that none can be described.

    Clearly, KN, based on your OP above, my understanding of “self-evident” is mistaken however.

  2. Here’s how I would put it:

    An assertion of self-evident truth is a rhetorical device.

    WJM has been overusing that rhetorical device, to the point where it has become trite.

  3. Robin,

    We’re definitely using the term in quite different ways, yes.

    In those examples — “2+2=4”, “fire burns unprotected fingers” — we’re considering propositions that are accepted as true, or where the question of justification usually doesn’t arise. (“How do you know?” seems like an odd challenge to either, and under what circumstances would it make sense to be skeptical?)

    Nevertheless, “2+2=4” can be proven from the more primitive axioms of logic and set theory, and “fire burns unprotected fingers” is a truth of experience.

    Whereas the sense of “self-evident” that is often at work in “philosophical” discussions is something else. Here’s another way of seeing the problem — an old problem called Agrippa’s Trilemma. The idea here is that any justification for an assertion will ultimately either:

    (1) end up relying on the assertion being justified, so you’re arguing in an unsupported circle;
    (2) end up with an unsupported assertion that has no reasoning or evidence behind it;
    (3) or else the chain of justifications will just keep on running off forever.

    This unpalatable set of choices then yields coherentism, foundationalism, and infinitism, respectively (the last one having very few advocates over the millennia).

    Defenders of the second one — “foundationalism” — have worried quite a lot about how the whole procedure of justification is going to get underway. The thought here is that the “foundational” premises must have some very special character: they are self-justifying justifiers. If they weren’t themselves justifiers, they couldn’t lend epistemic support to anything else; if they weren’t themselves justified, they would be arbitrary; if they weren’t self-justifying, they couldn’t be foundations, because they would need something else to justify them.

    Now, one candidate for a self-justifying claim is something that is self-evidently true — one whose truth doesn’t depend on anything else to be recognized as true. It is as if the proposition had a little neon light attached to it that flashed “I’m true! I’m true!”.

    So if there are any self-evident truths in this sense — that is, not just non-inferential truths that we are able to appreciate by virtue of having acquired the right conceptual framework and applying* those concepts in the right observational setting, but intuitions that don’t depend on any conceptual framework at all — they are going to have to be very special and very weird sorts of things.

    * Though it might not be worth getting into here and now, the “applying” here must be specified as an activity but not as an action — i.e. something that we do but not as something that we choose to do. Construing perceptions as actions leads to nonsense.

  4. Neil Rickert: WJM has been overusing that rhetorical device, to the point where it has become trite.

    At any rate, merely asserting that x is self-evident is a trite rhetorical device.

  5. Kantian Naturalist: they are going to have to be very special and very weird sorts of things.

    I am beating petrushka to the punch! Example, please! Though the sentence construction implies you know of no real self-evident truth. Would I be right?

  6. Alan Fox: I am beating petrushka to the punch! Example, please! Though the sentence construction implies you know of no real self-evident truth. Would I be right?

    Yes, that’s right. I think that foundationalism is badly mistaken; I don’t think there are any self-evident truths. More precisely, I do think that there all sorts of non-inferential truths — such as, when I see a pint-glass, I know that I am seeing a pint-glass, I don’t have to infer that that’s a pint-glass. Or, for that matter, knowing that two and two are four.

    But I don’t think that there are any self-evident truths in the demanding sense that Barry Arrington, KairosFocus, and William Murray insist upon. On the contrary: I think that their view involves the myth of the given and is utterly mistaken.

  7. Well, to me, the most intuitive definition of a “self-evident” truth would be something that I don’t need you or Alan, or some group ‘consensus’ to tell me is true for me to acknowledge it’s truth.

    More formally I might argue that only propositions can be true or false, and thus that what is being referred to is a proposition the truth of which does not depend upon the consent of he masses, or even the ‘anointed’ few.

    For example, those who survive and leave more offspring leave more offspring than those who do not survive and who leave fewer offspring would seem to be a self-evidence truth.

  8. Mung: Well, to me, the most intuitive definition of a “self-evident” truth would be something that I don’t need you or Alan, or some group ‘consensus’ to tell me is true for me to acknowledge it’s truth.

    I don’t see how that’s relevant — have I at any point indicated that I held a social consensus theory of truth? Not that you asked, of course, but for what it’s worth, it’s should be perfectly clear that a consensus theory of truth is everything that I completely oppose.

    Besides which, the important classes of true propositions — the logically deducible and the empirically observable — are neither “self-evident” nor based on “consensus,” because (of course) no truths are based on consensus.

    More formally I might argue that only propositions can be true or false, and thus that what is being referred to is a proposition the truth of which does not depend upon the consent of he masses, or even the ‘anointed’ few.

    As above, since neither I nor anyone here holds a consensus view of truth, quite off-topic. (Some people here seem to hold a consensus view of ethics, which I also regard as completely wrong.)

    For example, those who survive and leave more offspring leave more offspring than those who do not survive and who leave fewer offspring would seem to be a self-evidence truth.

    It’s a tautology, which is something of a red herring — but an instructive one. Tautologies don’t tell us anything about the world; they can’t be used to justify or ground any further assertions. They are epistemically and semantically idle. But we don’t want self-evident truths to be idle — not if they are to do any philosophical work for us. So the self-evident truths that are important for foundationalism cannot be tautologies.

  9. The tautology red herring as it applies to Natural Selection is frequently paraded. It can be expressed as a tautology – but then, 2+2=4 can also be expressed as a tautology (or rather, is a tautology, when you know what the symbols 2, 4 and = represent). More interesting is that in a finite population, types that possess intrinsic qualities that cause them to survive and leave more offspring than others will come to replace those others, to the point of their extinction, with an algebraically-expressible certainty, equals signs and all. Determining the extent to which this happens in nature is a different matter, one of empirical investigation. But (to Mung) the essence of the mechanism is not untrue simply because it is almost tritely ‘self-evident’.

  10. Kantian Naturalist:
    Robin,
    Now, one candidate for a self-justifying claim is something that is self-evidently true — one whose truth doesn’t depend on anything else to be recognized as true.It is as if the proposition had a little neon light attached to it that flashed “I’m true! I’m true!”.

    So if there are any self-evident truths in this sense — that is, not just non-inferential truths that we are able to appreciate by virtue of having acquired the right conceptual framework and applying* those concepts in the right observational setting, but intuitions that don’t depend on any conceptual framework at all — they are going to have to be very special and very weird sorts of things.

    Ok. I think I get your distinction now. However, given the distinction, I can’t come up with any intuitions that are self-evidently true. Is it really self-evidently true that “all men are created equal”? That we are endowed by our creator with the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? I certainly don’t see those things as self-evidently true, but rather assumed so for the sake of social and societal philosophy. What then is truly “self-evident”?

  11. Allan Miller,

    Some philosophers — Wittgenstein, most famously — have held that all analytic propositions are tautologies. I cannot see how this could be mistaken, but that’s just me. And yes, it’s easy to reduce a complex empirical truth, once it has been grasped, into a trivial (because tautologous) truth.

    Robin,

    I do find it fascinating that the Preamble to the Declaration does not say, “it is self-evident that . . . ” but “We hold these truths to be self-evident”. Why the latter and not the former? I’m no scholar of these matters, and I’m sure it’s been inquired into, but it strikes me as if Jefferson is saying something like,

    on the one hand, the self-evidence of this proposition cannot be shown; on the other hand, it is constitutive of our identity, as the kind of people that we are, that we regard this proposition as self-evident.

    As I said in my response to Alan Fox, I don’t think there are any. In fact, I’d go further and say that there cannot be any, and that pragmatism provides a powerful argument against the very idea of “self-evident propositions”.

  12. Blas,

    If you are suggesting that I endorsed the view that “consciousness is an illusion,” I am beginning to have serious doubts about your level of reading comprehension. I thought it perfectly obvious that “the semantic apocalypse” as an idea to be seriously explored, not one that I personally endorsed. William Murray made the same error of basic literacy.

  13. Here’s another way of proceeding, covering the same terrain as before but from a somewhat different angle.

    To take the example that has been used so much in these discussions that it risks becoming trite, “it is always wrong to torture a child for one’s personal pleasure”. We would all say that this is true, and indeed, obviously true. That’s hardly the issue. The issue, rather, is how to explain the obviousness of this truth.

    The proponent of ‘foundationalism’ might say that we just see that it is true, and that our seeing that it is true is independent of one’s conceptual framework, culture, language, etc. It is “self-evident”. And how do we know that it is self-evident? Well, we just see that it is. It is self-evident that it is self-evident. (I run the risk of being accused of parody in order to bring out the deeply confusions that attend the foundationalist approach.)

    The alternative, which I endorse, is to regard the ‘obviousness’ of such moral truths as requiring explanation — in my terms, they are explained in terms of how someone who has been raised in a post-Enlightenment culture has acquired a certain conceptual framework, such that when they see or imagine a child being tortured, they immediately — without engaging in any inference or moral calculus — judge it to be wrong.

    That’s not an emotional reaction or personal preference, contra Murray, Arrington, et a. — it is a judgment and as such involves the application of concepts and is the sort of thing for which reasons can be given. But the judgment is embedded within a specific conceptual framework — indeed, a framework that is rich enough to include a narrative about why it is the right framework.

    (On terminology: I have various reasons for resisting the term “moral subjectivism” for my view and quite different reasons for being unhappy with “moral relativism”, but with certain caveats I would be comfortable with “ethical pluralism”.)

  14. KN channelling Thomas Jefferson,
    on the one hand, the self-evidence of this proposition cannot be shown; on the other hand, it is constitutive of our identity, as the kind of people that we are, that we regard this proposition as self-evident.

    Is that consensus view of truth? Or does the conditional avoid that?

  15. velikovskys: Is that consensus view of truth? Or does the conditional avoid that?

    I’m not quite sure I understand the question.

    In my account, Jefferson appealing to the language of “self-evident truths” in order to express a collective decision to create a different kind of political reality that itself institutes or makes possible new kinds of truths (political, legal) but which is not itself “founded” on any truth — it is the undertaking of a collective existential commitment.

    (Granted, this a ‘romantic’ way of thinking about the American experiment with democracy, that owes more to Emerson, Whitman, and Dewey than to what Jefferson actually said. I’m not an expert on Jefferson and I certainly don’t propose that my understanding of Jefferson is how Jefferson understood himself or how he was understood at the time.)

  16. Kantian Naturalist:
    But the judgment is embedded within a specific conceptual framework — indeed, a framework that is rich enough to include a narrative about why it is the right framework.

    (On terminology: I have various reasons for resisting the term “moral subjectivism” for my view and quite different reasons for being unhappy with “moral relativism”, but with certain caveats I would be comfortable with “ethical pluralism”.)

    I’d certainly be interested and find it enlightening if you had the time to explain the framework in more detail, why it is right (and I guess what right means in this case), and how we have made moral progress since the Enlightment over previous societies because of this framework. If you’ve already answered this in your exchanges with W. Murray, I can find that instead, if you can point me roughly to when you think you wrote it.

    To make it specific, if it would help: what would you say to an Aztec to explain why it is wrong to perform child sacrifice (assuming you would try to do that, of course).

    I have a strong aversion to moral relativism or subjectivism, but find it challenging to find arguments to discount them and instead support moral progress within and between societies. Pragmatic acceptance of basic starting principles for rational moral conversation is the best I’ve got. (I try to avoid the question of whether these are pragmatic principles are “objective” moral truths.)

  17. KN –

    (On terminology: I have various reasons for resisting the term “moral subjectivism” for my view and quite different reasons for being unhappy with “moral relativism”, but with certain caveats I would be comfortable with “ethical pluralism”.)

    As always you are right about almost everything and express it very clearly. I find it convenient to use the term moral subjectivism in debating those who believe that there is some kind of transcendental moral objective standard independent of humanity. It captures the essential difference in our beliefs. However, I recognise that in practice moral statements have a prescriptive and a descriptive element. Phillipa Foot drew attention to moral terms like brave which both describe a sort of behaviour and applaud it. I think this is also true of “purer” moral terms like evil. There is so much agreement in most societies about the kind of things that attract moral disapproval that there is no need to decide whether evil is a description of the actions or an expression of disapproval of those actions. It is both. This seems to be the source of much confusion in these debates.

  18. Mark Frank: However, I recognise that in practice moral statements have a prescriptive and a descriptive element. Phillipa Foot drew attention to moral terms like brave which both describe a sort of behaviour and applaud it. I think this is also true of “purer” moral terms like evil. There is so much agreement in most societies about the kind of things that attract moral disapproval that there is no need to decide whether evil is a description of the actions or an expression of disapproval of those actions. It is both. This seems to be the source of much confusion in these debates.

    Ethical theorists call these “thick concepts”, where there’s both a descriptive and evaluative component, in contrast with so-called “thin concepts” that are purely evaluative. Examples of “thick concepts”: lewd, crude, rude, brave, arrogant, courteous, deceitful, kind. Examples of “thin concepts”: good, evil, bad, right, wrong.

    The main problem with “thick concepts” is that, since they are embedded in cultural activities, in political and economic structures, and so on — they don’t seem to be “universalizable”, holding across different cultures. And then the (inevitable) question about the Nazis (or the Aztecs) comes up.

  19. BruceS,

    OK, so here’s a rather new way I’m experimenting with on this very old questions, but it seems like the right way to go: under what conditions does the fact of pluralism becomes a problem?

    The ‘natural’ starting point for thinking about the basic problems of ethical theory requires rejecting psychological egoism as the default setting for normal human psychology. We are social animals, large-brained primates, with communities held together by complex and intense emotional bonds. We are tribal beings. As long as the different tribes don’t infringe on each other, the fact of pluralism doesn’t become a problem.

    The fact of pluralism becomes a problem, in the first stage, when the tribes invent civilization — in the words of Stanley Diamond, civilization begins with slavery at home and conquest abroad. (Daniel Quinn has a nice way of putting it: you know you’re in a civilization when the food is locked up and you have to pay to get it.) The history of civilization is the history of slavery and conquest whereby one tribe imposes its particular norms on the other tribes. Some tribes learned that the way to prevent rebellion is to rule with a light hand; others didn’t learn this lesson. (Here a comparison between the slavery in the Roman Empire and in the antebellum American South would be instructive.)

    What we seem to have figured out over the course of “the Enlightenment” — which I’m treating very simplistically, even though it is far from simple! — is how to distinguish justice from the other virtues, such that we can say that the political ideal is to have a shared framework that allots to everyone more or less equally the necessities for forming for his or herself a conception of the good life. (Yes, I’m a Rawlsian, for those who know the jargon.) In other words, what conditions must be satisfied for pluralism to be accepted and accommodated, differences appreciated and acknowledged, in a peaceful resolution to the problem of pluralism?

    Now, the question will arise here, what justifies the Rawlsian approach to justice? On what grounds, for example, could a Nazi soldier or an Aztec priest be persuaded to accept what I am calling here “the Enlightenment view” of ethics? I think that we are asking too much of reason to expect that the Aztec priest could accept that there are universal human rights and that children are protected by them. For that matter, it is asking too much of reason to expect that the Nazis could be persuaded to abandon their mad dream of genocide. At a certain point, coercion must be applied, and we can hope that our coercion will turn out for the best. And since it usually doesn’t, if history is any guide, we should turn to coercion only when necessary (as stopping the Nazis was).

    I feel as though there’s much more I could and should say, but since I don’t know how exactly to proceed, I’ll stop for now.

  20. Kantian Naturalist,

    Very interesting. I think that you are in the end admitting that there is no objective foundation to morality. There is no method of proving to the Aztec priest or Nazi that they are wrong. The Rawlsian approach cannot be justified. You just like it!

    It is very worthwhile to investigate when pluralism is a problem (and this is partly empirical social science, not philosophy). But it will be a problem for different people under different conditions. We all have limits on the other kinds of society we will tolerate and those limits differ. So there isn’t going to be an objective answer. Any kind of pluralism is a problem for some extremists.

  21. Mark Frank: I think that you are in the end admitting that there is no objective foundation to morality. There is no method of proving to the Aztec priest or Nazi that they are wrong. The Rawlsian approach cannot be justified. You just like it!

    Mostly “yes”, with just a touch of “no”.

    Yes, there’s no “objective foundation” to morality, because there’s no “objective foundation” — in the really demanding sense — to any knowledge. The notion of “proof” only holds for purely formal domains, such as logic and mathematics. When it comes to science, I think that Sellars had it exactly right:

    One seems forced to chose between the picture of an elephant which rests on a tortoise (What supports the tortoise?) and the picture of a great Hegelian serpent of knowledge with its tail in its mouth (Where does it begin?). Neither will do. For empirical knowledge, like its sophisticated extension, science, is rational not because it has a foundation but because it is a self-correcting enterprise which can put any claim in jeopardy, though not all once.

    On Sellars’s pragmatist view, not even the rationality of science depends on its having a “foundation”. So the absence of a foundation for ethics does not diminish its rational character, if we can see our way clear to disentangling the very notion of rationality itself from the illusory and misbegotten quest for “foundations”.

    Once we’ve done that, then we will see the rejecting the very need for foundations does not imperil the rational character of either science or ethics. Hence we need not conclude that science or ethics amounts to merely personal preference, arbitrary subjective imposition, or the other bogeymen with which the rational absolutists like to admonish pragmatists.

  22. Kantian Naturalist (quoting Sellars): For empirical knowledge, like its sophisticated extension, science, is rational not because it has a foundation but because it is a self-correcting enterprise which can put any claim in jeopardy, though not all once.

    Science uses experiments to put claims in jeopardy; how would one do that for ethics?

    My guess based on your previous replies would be that ethical claims could be put in jeopardy by measuring them against the situation which would obtain in a society which met the Rawlsian ideal. Is that fair? If so, would that ideal not constitute an objective standard (once accepted) in the similar way to the way nature is an objective standard for a scientific claim.

    Such could also be used to measure moral progress or to compare the moral standards of different societies.

    (I am proposing this as my understanding of your position, not what I currently think. I have concerns with some aspects of Rawls as I understand him, such as the de-emphasis of being entitled to the fruits of one’s talent and hard work. I’m also unclear on how he deals with the reality of people favoring their families over other in the society).

    I also was a bit surprised you did not propose a Kantian justification for why you were a Rawlsian.

    As a small point on your post to me: I am not sure how serious you were meaning to be in your comments on the evils of civilization, but my understanding is that inter-tribal slavery and conflict over resources originate not in civilization, but rather in the type of social primate that man is. Evidence would include the existence of these practices in hunter-gather tribes as well as in chimpanzees.

  23. BruceS,

    Yes, the Rawlsian ideal (or something like it) would be (if you like) “functionally objective”, except that there’s no way to vindicate convergence in ethics as there is in science. So the analogy couldn’t be pushed through all the way. That’s why the best we could hope is a mutually accommodating, coexisting set of many different ethical frameworks.

    The Kantian framework within which Rawls presents his view neglects its own historical conditions of possibility — it is a historical accomplishment to regard each and every individual as bearing the two moral capacities of reasonableness and rationality. So at the end of the day, I’m actually much closer to a neo-Hegelian like Jurgen Habermas or Richard Rorty than to a neo-Kantian like Rawls.

    I am not sure how serious you were meaning to be in your comments on the evils of civilization, but my understanding is that inter-tribal slavery and conflict over resources originate not in civilization, but rather in the type of social primate that man is. Evidence would include the existence of these practices in hunter-gather tribes as well as in chimpanzees.

    I wasn’t denying the existence of intra- and inter-tribal conflict and war in hunter-gather tribes, but only saying that “civilizations” are distinct by virtue of the sheer scale and institutionalization of slavery and conquest. This is an empirical claim based on the smattering of anthropology I’ve read, and if I’m mistaken, then I’ll rescind it.

  24. Kantian Naturalist:
    So at the end of the day, I’m actually much closer to a neo-Hegelian like Jurgen Habermas or Richard Rorty than to a neo-Kantian like Rawls.

    OK, thanks for making that clear (!).

    But seriously, I appreciate the time you take to express your ideas for someone like me who has does not have an academic background in philosophy. (But I do understand why you punted when I asked about obscure (to me) continental philosophy in a different thread.)

    I wasn’t denying the existence of intra- and inter-tribal conflict and war in hunter-gather tribes, but only saying that “civilizations” are distinct by virtue of the sheer scale and institutionalization of slavery and conquest. This is an empirical claim based on the smattering of anthropology I’ve read, and if I’m mistaken, then I’ll rescind it.

    Possibly Pinker attempted this empirical analysis in his latest to some extent and I understand he may have argued against the idea that civilization has increased violence (not sure about slavery). But I have not read the book and am just basing that on a smattering of book reviews..

  25. “civilizations” are distinct by virtue of the sheer scale and institutionalization of slavery and conquest.

    That is a bit like saying technology (agriculture, public health) has resulted in unprecedented numbers of people dying.

  26. Mark to KN:

    There is no method of proving to the Aztec priest or Nazi that they are wrong. The Rawlsian approach cannot be justified. You just like it!

    That’s right. The idea that fairness is morally desirable is itself a moral axiom with no underlying justification.

  27. keiths:
    Mark to KN:

    That’s right.The idea that fairness is morally desirable is itself a moral axiom with no underlying justification.

    There are lots of ways to justify fairness. Just no way to make it a self-evident moral principle.

  28. BruceS:

    But seriously, I appreciate the time you take to express your ideas for someone like me who has does not have an academic background in philosophy.(But I do understand why you punted when I asked about obscure (to me) continental philosophy in a different thread.)

    You’re very much welcome!

    Possibly Pinker attempted this empirical analysis in his latest to some extent and I understand he may have argued against the idea that civilization has increased violence (not sure about slavery). But I have not read the book and am just basing that on a smattering of book reviews.

    Well, I haven’t read Pinker either, but you might be interested in this recent review of Jared Diamond’s The World until Yesterday.

    petrushka: That is a bit like saying technology (agriculture, public health) has resulted in unprecedented numbers of people dying.

    Though I am a socialist of some variety, I also appreciate — as Marx certainly did, and rather few Marxists have — that a distinctive and morally important feature of capitalism is that it has established the basis for civilization that is not fundamentally based on slave-labor. The question that socialists wish to pose is whether we have good reason to believe that a economic system based on self-exploitation is the only feasible alternative to one based on slavery.

  29. petrushka:
    Some would call it self actualization.

    Fair enough. I suppose the ‘orthodox’ Marxist response is that the self-actualization of the owners is purchased at the expense of the self-exploitation of the workers. As Marx puts it, formal equality conceals real inequality.

    More generally, though, I think it is a profound error to allow a romanticized or sentimental picture of entrepreneurial capitalism obscure our understanding of corporate capitalism.

  30. I think it is a profound error to allow a romanticized or sentimental picture of entrepreneurial capitalism obscure our understanding of corporate capitalism.

    But those in power, regardless of ideology and regardless of the political system that got them there, eventually work only to keep themselves in power.

    I am in no way a romantic. I am a skeptic and a pessimist. The only political ideal I believe in is opposition to power. The more centralized the power, the more I oppose it. When I say “ideal” I am really talking about the idealization of pragmatism.

    I approve pretty much of any and all experiments in social structure, to the extent that they are voluntary. There’s been some discussion of cultural and moral diversity. I approve. I can accept any social or political organization provided there are alternatives available (or at least not forbidden).

  31. More generally, though, I think it is a profound error to allow a romanticized or sentimental picture of entrepreneurial capitalism obscure our understanding of corporate capitalism.

    Speaking of experiments in running economies, let me take the opportunity to mention Spufford’s Red Plenty which is a fascinating look at the mathematicians and technocrats who tried to use techniques from operations research (which they had invented earlier) to run the Soviet economy in the late 50s and early 60s. That was a time when it seemed the USSR’s economy was growing much quicker than the American economy and would soon surpass it.

  32. Kantian Naturalist: You’re very much welcome!

    Well, I haven’t read Pinker either, but you might be interested in this recent review of Jared Diamond’s The World until Yesterday.
    whether we have good reason to believe that a economic system based on self-exploitation is the only feasible alternative to one based on slavery.

    Thanks for that. I’d seen lukewarm reviews of Diamond’s latest before and I was aware of the controversy in anthropology about whether some tribes were as violent as some they have been made out to be by some reports.

    Having spent some time in the low-carb, ancestral-diet blogosphere, I was also familiar with the the view that grains are evil.

    But I’d never seen all that brought together from an anarchist perspective.

    However, the polemic in the concluding paragraphs seemed to rely to heavily on a single explanation for slavery and warfare (states, especially capitalist states) and one-size-fits-all explanations for human affairs do not sit well with me.

  33. Kantian Naturalist:
    For that matter, it is asking too much of reason to expect that the Nazis could be persuaded to abandon their mad dream of genocide.At a certain point, coercion must be applied, and we can hope that our coercion will turn out for the best.And since it usually doesn’t, if history is any guide, we should turn to coercion only when necessary (as stopping the Nazis was).

    Just to be clear, I understand you to be saying that the existence of universal human rights trumps ethical pluralism, and that we have a duty to confront other societies which violate these rights with a view to stopping violations. In some situations violent confrontation would be acceptable.

  34. BruceS: I understand you to be saying that the existence of universal human rights trumps ethical pluralism, and that we have a duty to confront other societies which violate these rights with a view to stopping violations. In some situations violent confrontation would be acceptable.

    That is indeed my view. I am aware of my inability to justify it sufficiently to meet the demands of the rationalists.

  35. I hope this isn’t a misuse of the forum, but I’d like to cross post a comment currently awaiting moderation at UD; Arrington will probably suppress it, so I’d like there to be some record of it.

    Barry Arrington,

    Pro Hac Vice, I notice that you dodged the questions in my 24. Into the moderation que with you demonstrate you are willing to argue in good faith by answering them.

    In fact, as I explicitly stated in 33 this morning, I’m trying to concentrate on work. No dodging, just prioritization. You have cultivated a nasty reputation as being unable or unwilling to have civil conversations with people who disagree with you; this is certainly consistent with that tendency. It is also a transparent attempt to save face and distract attention from your failure to answer criticisms of your position.

    There aren’t many questions in 24, and I’ve more or less answered them already. (That’s one thing that indicates that this isn’t a significant point of discussion, but rather a tactical excuse for redirecting the conversation from criticisms you can’t rebut.) Let’s address them:

    The set “self-evident moral truths” is not empty if there is at least one self-evident moral truth. There is at least one-self-evident moral truth. Therefore, the set “self-evident moral truths” is not empty. Not circular in the slightest degree.

    That’s not a question, but let’s pause to observe the circularity here. The set of X is not empty if I can find at least one X. I assert without argument that at least one X exists. Therefore the set of X is not empty. That is circular.

    Do you admit that it is impossible for you to be wrong if you believe the statement “error exists” is true?

    Here’s the first question. Yes, I think it’s impossible for the statement “error exists” to be incorrect. I don’t think that does your position any favors, though; “error exists” is trivially true because to deny it is inherently self-refuting. Denying your assertions is not self-refuting. You have to insert lots of additional assumptions, such as your definitions of “absurdity,” to pretend otherwise. And you were unable or unwilling to answer my questions about how the refutation of your principle was “absurd.” Instead you abdicated all argument and fell back on the inherent inerrancy of your own beliefs. Somewhat ironic in light of your earlier statement, “the smug certitude so many materialists display on these pages is unwarranted.”

    Do you disagree with the statement “error exists”? Do you admit that if anyone disagreed with that statement they would be wrong? How do you know?

    I already answered these questions, but I think you’re looking for an excuse to ban me in order to save face, so I’ll try to be as complete as possible. No, yes, because denying the statement is inherently self-refuting.

    Your argument fails because the self-evidence of the assertion “torturing babies for pleasure is evil” does not rest on my assertion. It rests on the fact that the statement is in fact self-evidently true.

    Your position isn’t just that it’s self-evident, but that it’s self-evidently objectively true. Self-evident truths can be subjective truths, such as “heights aren’t scary” or “I have five fingers on each hand.” Those aren’t true statements for an acrophobe or an amputee.

    And of course, we do have only your assertion supporting these “self-evident” truths. Unlike logical self-evident truths, your assertions can’t be objectively tested and denying them isn’t inherently self-refuting. Your assertion that they are self-evident is nothing more than the report of your personal feeling that they are true combined with an inability to support that feeling with external logic. But you could of course be wrong—your inability to articulate an argument could be because you’re only reporting subjective feelings.

    2+2=4 has a physical dimension? Do tell.

    My thinking was that if someone doubts that 2+2=4, we can test it by putting two items with two items and counting the result. That’s the sort of test that’s impossible with your self-reported moral truths.

    MF’s example of mathematical error has me rethinking this, though. Complex math problems are both “self-evident” and subject to error, and lots of math problems can’t be represented in the physical world. We can still do the math, though, to objectively test the assertion. That’s something we can’t do with your semi-divine pronouncements. So rather than “physical dimension,” I’d say that “self-evident” logical truths are testable.

    The test would be, I think, that the denial of a truly self-evident logical truth is self-refuting. Your “self-evident” truths fail that test.

    I’m no philosopher, so I’m working this out to a certain extent as we go. Kantian Naturalist is leading a higher-level discussion of some of these ideas at TSZ. I may cross-post this response there in case you suppress this response to further save face.

    Now I really have to get back to work.

  36. Welcome Sir!

    Seems we were a bit premature. Barry has rethought his strategy and resurrected you from moderation.

  37. Pro Hac Vice,

    I hope you stick around here, Pro Hac Vice (PHV), since you seem like an interesting conversant and I refuse to engage with the pseudo-intellectuals (in fact anti-intellectuals) at Uncommon Descent. (I take it that their anti-intellectualism is evident whenever they sneer “sophistry!” at someone rejects their simplistic way of framing the issues and proposes a more complex set of distinctions. If that’s what they think sophistry is, they’ve never read Plato, let alone any other serious philosophers. But since the only “philosopher” they seem to have read is C. S. Lewis, one should not be terribly surprised.)

    Arrington & Co are confused on a number of points, not the least of which is that if a proposition is self-evident, then it cannot be argued for. This isn’t quite right, and it’s important to see why.

    Firstly, if the self-evidence of a proposition is beyond the scope of all rational persuasion, then it must be self-evident that it is self-evident. The self-evidence is itself self-evident. It’s trivial to see that this results in either an infinite regress (but is it self-evident that it is self-evident that is self-evident?) or a sort of truculent foot-stomping (it’s self-evident, dammit!). Arrington and Co., sensing the incoherence of the first option, settle on the latter. One would have to appeal to something like the sensus divinitatis of the Calvinists. (And given how much Arrington & Co lean on Plantinga for their epistemology of religion, perhaps this is not far off the mark.) And as Mark Frank quite nicely shows in his discussion of arithmetic, what one takes to be self-evident is often (always?) a matter of what one has learned to take as self-evident.

    Secondly, that a first principle must be self-evident — otherwise it would not be first — results from a slightly muddled line of thought. I take the thought here to be, “in order for a principle or proposition to be first, it cannot, in its turn, rely on any propositions for its justification.” And that is quite right.

    But the error is to say, as they seem to, “since it cannot be justified on the basis of any other propositions, there aren’t any rational considerations relevant to the assessment of a first principle”. All that a first principle requires is that it isn’t justified, either deductively or inductively, from other propositions. But that still leaves open another form of rational assessment, which is practical reasoning. For example, we can ask, “what would be the necessary, as well as non-necessary but still likely and foreseeable, consequences of acting on the basis of this principle?” Posing that question doesn’t infringe upon the first-ness of the principle but still opens it up for collaborative & rational assessment.

  38. I deleted Arrington’s posts because they contained personal attacks on my character. I know that Lizzie has a “come, let us reason together” mentality, but I am more than willing to be a bully in order to prevent a bully from taking over a space that I enjoy using for philosophical discussions. I’m not claiming any moral high ground here — I’ll leave that to Lizzie — but rather a “my boat ain’t the rutting town hall” approach.

    Any one here have a problem with that? Good. I didn’t think so.

    Update: both Neil and Mark have pointed out that I was wrong to delete Barry’s posts here, and I agree. Next time the posts here devolve into personal attacks, I’ll ask Neil to move them to Sandbox, and in general, I’ll try to abide by Lizzie’s standard for moderation.

  39. Kantian Naturalist,

    I hadn’t been following this thread until Barry’s tantrum.

    To be fair I think A&Co do justify supposed first principles on the basis of the consequences of acting on the the principle. The standard move is to say that denying a first principle leads to absurdity – although there is some confusion about what kind of absurdity. This seems to me reasonable when the consequence is logical absurdity – reduction ad absurdum is a perfectly legitimate form of argument – not so when the consequence is simply something like “if everyone believed it then it would be chaos”.

    I think the larger error is to use “self-evident” to cover all sorts of different things as I tried to explain in this comment. I particular it can mean incorrigible (if I understand it then my belief must be correct) or axiomatic (it is true because to deny it would lead to absurdity). The key point with respect to moral judgements is that they don’t lead to logical absurdities. Subjective statements can lead to practical absurdities and also be incorrigible – so proclaiming they are self-evident (whichever meaning is intended) does not prove they are objective.

  40. Mark Frank: I think the larger error is to use “self-evident” to cover all sorts of different things as I tried to explain in this comment. I particular it can mean incorrigible (if I understand it then my belief must be correct) or axiomatic (it is true because to deny it would lead to absurdity). The key point with respect to moral judgements is that they don’t lead to logical absurdities. Subjective statements can lead to practical absurdities and also be incorrigible – so proclaiming they are self-evident (whichever meaning is intended) does not prove they are objective.

    I agree that “self-evident” is being used there to mean any different things, everything from “it doesn’t make sense to me how anyone could think otherwise” to “there is no possible world in which this isn’t the case” to “I have a strong intuition that this is the case, but I don’t have a really good argument for it right now”.

    There’s a similar equivocation about “subjective” and “objective”, where “subjective” sometimes means “from the perspective of embodied and finite creatures who live and die in space and time” (as distinct from the absolute or transcendent perspective) and sometimes it means “from the perspective of any specific individual” and sometimes it means “with regard to the idiosyncratic preferences and desires of any specific individual.”

    So when someone says, “there’s no objective moral standard, just subjective ones,” sometimes that means,

    (a) as embodied and finite creatures who live and die in space and time, we have no reliable cognitive access to propositions (moral or otherwise) whose truth-conditions depend on seeing the universe from a transcendent perspective.

    but then the objectivist, seizing the word “subjective,” reads the same statement as meaning

    (b) if there are no norms or rules that are binding on all rational creatures, then “morality” becomes a matter of brute personal preference, and so there aren’t any standards by which we could adjudicate conflicts between ‘better’ or ‘worse’ moral systems.

    but where the second interpretation does, I think, open up the flood-gates to nihilism and “might makes right”, the first interpretation does not and there’s no argument that leads from the first interpretation to the second. (b) simply does not follow from (a).

    So far as I can tell, the objectivists want it to be the case that (b) follows from (a) because they have an authoritarian conception of what norms are, because they confuse norms and conventions*, and because they have a deep psychological craving for fixity and permanence. So they exploit the equivocation in “subjective” to make it seem that (b) follows from (a), when in fact it doesn’t — or, more precisely, to get to (b) to from (a) one needs to introduce further premises which are highly controversial at best.

    Of course, every time I point this out, the objectivists accuse me of “sophistry” or whatever — as if that’s supposed to be a serious response to my objection that they are committing a fallacy of equivocation.

    *Granted, it’s pretty easy to do that, and not easy to see why norms cannot be conventions. Basically, it’s because social conventions — such as, who goes first at a four-way traffic stop — depend on shared beliefs, but having shared beliefs in the first place depends on accepting the same norms for attributing compatible and incompatible propositional contents.

  41. Kantian Naturalist,

    You have phrased (b) as a hypothetical statement which I find slightly confusing. Do you mean:
    (b)
    There are no norms or rules that are binding on all rational creatures, therefore “morality” becomes a matter of brute personal preference, and so there aren’t any standards by which we could adjudicate conflicts between ‘better’ or ‘worse’ moral systems.

    I pretty much agree with this although I am not sure about the phrase “binding on”. To me this implies some kind of contract or at least consequences for failing to conform. I would phrase it as “accepted by”.

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