Shayne Wissler
Imagine a world where we figured out the right direction to push, and then we pushed in that right direction…

A New Civic Foundation

December 05 2020


“But if mistakes be often, be inevitably committed, let us register these mistakes; let us consider their causes; let us weigh their importance; let us enquire for their remedies. When from this we have fixed all the rules of conduct, we are philosophers: When we have reduced these rules to practice, we are sages.”

— David Hume

While the corruption of our institutions has been ever more obvious in our era (ca. 2020), there has always been a significant corruption in all major human institutions throughout human history. The eternal battle to imbue them with some semblance of moral decency, as fought in traditional terms and via a variety of methods, is a good one, and it must continue for the foreseeable future. However, we should inquire into ways to eliminate such waste. Human life should be about forging real progress, not waging an eternal war on gross corruption. It is of course true that human evil will always exist. But such evil should not be systematic. It should be the exception, not the rule. So we should ask ourselves what sort of institution, if it existed, could root out this systematic evil over time. And then, we should set out to build such institution. Even if we ourselves can make only tiny steps toward this goal, we should begin making them, for “The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.” (Lau Tzu)

To define “moral decency” is part of such project. The traditional virtues such as honesty and integrity are at the core of this. Politically-speaking, it is morally indecent to violate someone’s consent, to violate their “human rights.” While these are all generalities that countless books have tried to explain, they are a fine starting point. If we interpret them with a strict honesty, they will lead us in the right direction. Indeed, we will find that it is precisely in our deliberate practice of permitting dishonesties that we have allowed evil to gain systematic foothold. As a farmer who deliberately mixed the seed of weeds with the seeds of his crops would be ruined, so too this lack of institutional curation, one that would select honesty and dispel dishonesty, is our bane.

There are many projects one might imagine that would benefit from a deliberate practice of systematic honesty. But none are so momentous as the field of politics, for if you interfere with a society politically, you block every form of progress. So: How, if we were to be honest, might we begin to create a society and government out of real consent instead of illusory consent or overt rights usurpation?

A society based on real consent cannot mean that everyone agrees with everything, or even with just the legal code. That would be impossible, since (1) not everyone will be up to speed on the laws and rationales behind them, and (2) we are always perfecting and improving things, and some of us will rightly think that some laws should change while most of us are not up to speed yet.

Rather, such society is based on the good faith commitment, possibly embodied in an oath or pledge, to evolve in the direction of universal and authentic consent among its members. Members really are aiming to do the right thing civically, whatever it is, and each member trusts that the other members have this aim as among their highest civic purposes. Integrity is paramount.

Since one cannot serve two masters, such a rule prohibits from membership any person whose religion commands a preemptive duty, such as those religions that preach that it is morally acceptable to deceive those who do not belong to it in order to further the goals of such religion. Those who believe such dogmas have no place in an institution of government whatsoever, for even if such zealots create their own government separate from everyone else, they are still a menace, not only to their own descendants but to their neighbors.

The principal precondition of real consent is rationality: the commitment to (1) root beliefs in evidence, not mere imagination; (2) be logical (obey the Law of Noncontradiction); (3) examine things from all relevant perspectives, reconciling them. Where there is no rationality, there can be no consent, since consent requires a meeting of the minds, and the only means human beings have of actually doing that is through the rational process.

Due to the sophistry of our era, the foregoing could be dishonestly interpreted in a number of ways. For example, someone might claim that there are many different and conflicting kinds of logic or pretend that the meaning of logic is some esoteric complication rather than something all honest people can very naturally do. But as Locke wrote, “God has not been so sparing to men to make them barely two-legged creatures, and left it to Aristotle to make them rational, i.e. those few of them that he could get so to examine the grounds of syllogisms, as to see that, in above three score ways that three propositions may be laid together, there are but about fourteen wherein one may be sure that the conclusion is right; and upon what grounds it is, that, in these few, the conclusion is certain, and in the other not. God has been more bountiful to mankind than so. He has given them a mind that can reason, without being instructed in methods of syllogizing: the understanding is not taught to reason by these rules; it has a native faculty to perceive the coherence or incoherence of its ideas, and can range them right, without any such perplexing repetitions.” If such were not true, then no amount of education would cover the defect, for this education can only be understood given that there exists a natural faculty of reason which can properly receive and interpret it. It should therefore be a given that those who create dizzying complexity out of simplicity, those who say such things as “it depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is” are sophists, they are operating in bad faith.

Due in part to the tragic influence of John Locke’s “A Letter Concerning Toleration” and the pernicious influence of works such as Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People”, we now live in a society where many are deathly afraid of judging someone a sophist and thereby excluding them from our institutions. Therefore, we live in a society decimated by sophists. But no system of rules, however well-intended or well-written, can survive this, for it is not the rules that implement themselves, but only the real human beings charged with such duty – their true intent will manifest in spite of any rules they claim to be following. They may swear an oath to uphold the Constitution, but given that they also claim that there are “many kinds of logic”, such swearing is meaningless.

A society that lacks a reliable means of excluding sophists from the halls of power is like a body without an immune system. Like an immune system, the virtue of being able to identify sophist cannot only be central, it must be distributed throughout the body politic. And like an immune system, it must do this while avoiding autoimmunity, the paranoid overreaction to substantively innocent human foibles and errors. We must be tolerant of the latter, while also being utterly intolerant of the former, and we must not confuse the two.

It is not as if absolute tolerance ever happened in any society. We’ve never tolerated babbling incoherent insanity in the halls of power (however, we are approaching that). Anyone preaching tolerance as a principle can only be a hypocrite, for they are always intolerant of those who disagree with such principle. The question then isn’t about whether we shall be tolerant but about what we should be tolerant of. And clearly, since we are all human and all make mistakes, we should extend a wise measure of tolerance of such mistakes, while being intolerant of sophistry.

There are various ways to identify sophists, but doing that is an art: no articulated principle or rule will implement itself, you need skilled practitioners. A formal system can only be applied by a sound judgment. Ergo the eternal dilemma: who judges the judgers? There is no escape from the fact that real institutions are governed by real people, and that if these people become debased and disordered, if they fail to promote merit to its proper hierarchical position, no amount of virtue in the founding rules can avert its decay. Still, even while virtuous rules are no guarantee, they will tend to foster a virtuous institutional body. But such rules should be written to be simple and clear to the honest, they should not attempt to make the dishonest honest. Simplicity and sincerity go hand in hand, and as Cicero wrote, “The more laws, the less justice.”

In order for a social order to reliably exclude sophists, its individual members must have such strength of character to be able to handle probing and criticism. If their first brush with it causes them to fold and flounce rather than to rationally engage, they are too weak to support the necessary immune function of excluding sophists (which indeed requires such probing and criticism), they will not learn from their mistakes, and they will tend to conceal their true beliefs from the other members. Indeed, such weakness is itself a cause of sophistry, and is therefore a sign of sophistry (albeit an unreliable one – the person’s character may really only be weak).

The capstone of such work would concludes in the creation of a living consensus around substantial civic principles, forging both a body of knowledge and an example for how to institute it in real civic bodies. This is a completely novel kind of civic movement, for no past civic movement has ever endeavored to create a truly rational consensus concerning its propositions. The spirit of such movement is indeed directly informed by methods and aims of science in its truest sense. In other words, as the Scientific Revolution brought about a reliable body of scientific knowledge, this movement aims to bring about a reliable body of civic knowledge. In such work we are only pursuing the long neglected purpose original to Francis Bacon (1561-1626), a key founder of the Scientific Revolution: “[Some may raise the question] whether we talk of perfecting natural philosophy alone according to our method, or the other sciences also, such as logic, ethics, politics. We certainly intend to comprehend them all.”

Such civic principles, like all true scientific principles, must be particularized, comprehensive, substantial, universal, and open to rational scrutiny and revision. By “particularlized” I mean they must have specific legal effect useful for adjudication of real civic matters. By “comprehensive” I mean they must be aim for a complete system whereby a complete body of law can be created therefrom. By “substantial” I mean that the authority of explicit rational argument must vivify them. By “universal”, I mean that these are federal principles, common to all governments everywhere, regardless of local variation, which is another way of saying that they would institute universal human rights. And of course, due to being founded upon rational method, they would admit of rational correction.

Such body of civic principles would be animated by a growing body of advocates, whose ultimate aim would be to convince governments of the Earth to gradually institute them by way of public education and consensus.

It’s irrational to expect corrupted institutions to fix themselves, we must actually build an alternative institution that has learned how to properly govern itself, and then it must teach these other institutions how to reform themselves. Such institution does not exist, we must build it.

This concludes my introductory to civil propositions. If we wish to have at some point in the future a social order that truly aims to respect the “consent of the governed”, its members must:

  • Use reason as the sole means of selecting and justifying civil propositions.
  • Have full good faith, trust, and transparency of relevant beliefs.
  • Exclude sophists and arbitrary complexity.
  • Possess strength of character in the face of criticism.
  • Build a consensus around particularlized, comprehensive, substantial, and universal (federal) civil propositions.
  • Build a movement around such civic propositions, educate the public on them, and pursue their institution through existing systems of consensus.