It is idle to expect any great advancement in science from the superinducing and engrafting of new things upon old. We must begin anew from the very foundations, unless we would revolve for ever in a circle with mean and contemptible progress.
— Francis Bacon
The ancients who wished to illustrate the highest virtue throughout the empire first ordered well their own states. Wishing to order well their states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their own selves. Wishing to cultivate their own selves, they first rectified their hearts. Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts. Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost their knowledge. Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things.
Things being investigated, knowledge became complete. Their knowledge being complete, their thoughts were sincere. Their thoughts being sincere, their hearts were then rectified. Their hearts being rectified, their own selves were cultivated. Their own selves being cultivated, their families were regulated. Their families being regulated, their states were rightly governed. Their states being rightly governed, the whole empire was made tranquil and happy.
Our culture and its institutions are riddled with unaccountable corruptions breeding pointless tragedies. The naive dismiss this observation because they refuse to believe it, and the cynical dismiss it because they think it’s inevitable. But practical idealists ask – How can we remedy the problem?
Many conflicting answers have been given to this question, and many heroes have spent their lives helping the victims of tragedy, but here we aim to strike at the root of the problem, to discern the right means of ultimately putting an end to avoidable tragedy. The basic answer comes easily to the modern mind, namely that the ideal institution is answerable to that ultimate authority: reason. In other words: How we order society should make sense! For absolutely every thing social institutions do to society, there ought to be a rational justification for why they ought to be doing that! But what is reason, and how does it apply to the institutions we would subjugate to it?
Assent is the lifeblood of institutions, and as Voltaire wrote: “As long as people believe in absurdities they will continue to commit atrocities.” We must cure the atrocities by uprooting the absurdities, and we uproot them when rational thinkers find and spread a common ground of the rational alternatives.
But can we come to a universal assent to these alternatives? That is the question this project aims to answer. If a significant number can unify around an authentic conception of reason, embodied in a small and well-chosen set of propositions, then there is some hope we can, over the long term, systematically remedy the corruption and impunity that plagues our institutions; if not, then perhaps the best we can hope for is muddling along until some major natural or man-made disaster, that our own follies have made us unfit to counter, strikes.
This is an experiment; we do not know how it will turn out. In any case, the point is not to fix the culture in this decade or even this century, but just to begin. When you’ve got a monumental problem you wish to solve, you’ve got to start somewhere, the only question is: where? Maybe here, or maybe we learn something here that helps us learn better approaches.
The proposed strategy is to:
- Identify a set of propositions that represent the kernel of understanding that should govern human institutions (this article). (These propositions are the culmination of a line of thinking, an outline of the principles that underlie the body of knowledge, not an argument or an education.)
- Register assent and dissent, aiming to eradicate dissent through rational discourse. Intelligent criticism of the strategy here is the most welcome, for pursuing a bad strategy is a waste.
- Seek out new participants in this discursive and educational project, for the key measure of success is continued growth in the number of people who are, more or less, in agreement with these propositions. Ideas do not apply themselves, but when a sufficient number of people find agreement, then that tends to create cultural motion in the direction of their agreement, as each individual will naturally carry his ideas to his particular ideas and activities, and a culture is nothing more than the sum total of individual ideas and activities.
Again, this is an educational and discursive project. We seek only to exercise our freedom of speech and freedom of association to educate ourselves about the ultimate political truths that should govern the future of humanity. Specialization and focus are important, and here we choose to specialize and focus on ideals, leaving the translation of these ideals to other movements. Regarding the latter, reasonable people prefer peaceful reform to revolution, and recognize that sometimes a reform ought to take place immediately, and sometimes gradually, depending on the difficulty of unwinding the relevant injustices without inflicting others.
Another way to view this strategy is to notice that the one thing that is missing from all prevailing institutions is a deep Socratic questioning of their respective aims and strategies. When they do offer rationales, they are only superficial, and this they sometimes justify on the grounds that “people are stupid, so we can’t expect them to understand rationales” or “there are no valid rationales or ultimate truths; we each merely offer ‘reasons’ that make us feel better”, or some equivalent thereof.
We all have the prerogative to choose to either buy into rationales such as these or to choose to question them. If we choose to allow unending questioning, then we may as well ignore institutional problems and become professional philosophers; but if we choose to condemn questioning beyond a certain arbitrary point, then we might as well openly advocate dictatorships. Therefore, our first question is: Is there a legitimate point at which questioning must stop, where we find that further questioning is truly counter-productive (revealing either ignorance, foolishness, or insincerity) and thus where we have found a ground of truth we can build upon? In asking and answering this question, we recapitulate Aristotle.
- THE AXIOM AXIOM. Knowledge is grounded in interdependent axioms. An axiom is a basic truth, expressed in propositional form, and which is presupposed by all propositional knowledge. For example, the axiom “I can mean” (as in, your words and statements have meaning) is presupposed by any statement, including by the statement “I can mean”. Axioms have the property that to deny them is to tacitly accept them. For example, if someone denies the axiom axiom, then inquiry into their reasons for denial will lead one to their own (bogus) axioms, which contradicts their denial.
- MEANING. The source of propositional meaning is in the individual biological capacity of human beings; this axiom can be expressed as “I can mean”. If one lacks the capacity, it can’t be conferred to them through discourse. Each individual means what they mean, having the ultimate prerogative to decide what they mean. There is no “collective meaning”, except by virtue of a common meaning created from individual assent. Unity and coherence of meaning within or among individuals is a hard-won achievement, not a given.
- KNOWLEDGE. To recognize any axiom is to tacitly recognize the axiom “I can know” or “knowledge is possible.” To assert that “I only know that I know nothing” is absurd, for in order to know that one knows nothing, one also needs to know that how one “knows nothing” is legitimate, which would constitute a knowledge extending beyond the original proposition.
- REASON. “Reason” is that faculty that causes or allows us to know, i.e. it is how we know. That there must be a “how” – a legitimate process whereby we come to a legitimate understanding – is axiomatic; that we give the name “reason” to this “how” is an established convention.
- DEFINITE MEANING (LOGIC). Meaningful discourse is grounded in the classical laws of thought: a person means what they mean (law of identity); to advocate conflicting meanings is to be illogical and therefore improper (law of non-contradiction); what a person means either does or does not correspond to what, in fact, is (law of excluded middle).
- REASON IS UNIVERSAL. To participate in discourse is to tacitly recognize that reason is universal; it is a common “how” that we can all employ in order to gain knowledge. This axiom is what makes all legitimate disciplines and discourse possible.
- UNIFORMITY. Certain knowable principles underlie the behavior of what is a unitary existence; in other words, our universe is knowable in at least some significant respects (this axiom does not imply that it’s knowable in every respect). If existence were not uniform in this sense, then knowledge, meaning, communication, and reason would be impossible, thus making the assertion “existence is not uniform” unjustifiable. This, again, is the hallmark of an axiom: either affirmation or denial of uniformity presupposes it.
- INDUCTION. Induction is that aspect of reason which infers the knowable principles of existence from experience. Induction is thus the axiom of uniformity, viewed from the perspective of a rational agent’s thought processes, rather than from the perspective of the nature of existence.
- EMPIRICISM. To follow reason is to: 1) root beliefs in evidence; 2) be logical; 3) examine things from the fullest available variety of perspectives, logically reconciling them.
- NEWTON’S FOURTH RULE. We are to regard propositions that the available evidence supports as true, until such time as contrary evidence is actually found. While thought experiment is a valid technique when used properly, mere speculation, imagination, or fantasy do not constitute a counter-argument, and have no place in the body of knowledge. Such is the foundation of the venerable burden of proof principle: that the party bringing a new proposition to the body of knowledge has the burden of also providing the proof of its veracity; that no proposition shall be accepted to the body of knowledge without such proof. This is the means by which that bane of human progress – myth – is uprooted.
- SIMPLICITY. Since the human mind is limited in scope, the power of knowledge is diluted in proportion to the arbitrary complexity that is introduced into the body of knowledge. Indeed, a hallmark of sophistry is to swamp the limited human capacities with arbitrary complexity. We therefore strive to reduce complexity to the bare required minimum, or as Leonardo da Vinci (allegedly) said: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Thus, the cutting edge of philosophy consists in brightly illuminating as completely and correctly as possible the crucial and impactful fundamentals of human knowledge, while ruthlessly eradicating all superfluity.
- PRECISION. One should have at least as much interest in the precision of the statements of principles that govern human relations as one has for the correctness of one’s bank statements, for the principles are more comprehensive, and indeed, govern the rules of banking. But in our era, while most everyone is very concerned with the correctness of their bank accounts, they have little concern in accounting for how the rules of society are formed. On the contrary, our legislators are allowed to whimsically create a mountain of arbitrary laws, that transfer wealth from person to person, or thrust legislation upon society of far greater impact than economic, as if they are subject to no other principle than those which determine a nation’s favorite sport. As a bank statement is either correct or not, so too is a statement of principle either true or not, and so too is a rationale offered for a principle legitimate or not, and so too is either an application of principle correct or not. The generally alleged “inherent” imprecision of human language is mere manifestation of and cover for a vast chaos of criminal unaccountably. No civilization can be just, that has such reckless disregard for the meaning of words.
- HIERARCHY. Knowledge grows from a foundational base of truths directly apprehended by the individual, through his own senses or through his reflection on his own use of reason (such as when apprehending the above axioms). Many develop their hierarchy of knowledge into such expertise that it is difficult for others to understand the entire hierarchy and validate their claims – thus follows the problem of determining who is an authentic expert and who is a charlatan. In principle, we discover the difference by inquiring of the alleged expert the reasons behind his abstract claims, following his rationale to its base, and then judging whether or not authentic principles of reason govern his beliefs or not. We also note certain signs, such as that a charlatan makes too many appeals to the fact that things are not always as they appear; or he beats his chest about how many years of training he has had while wagging his credentials; or he ignores, insults, or threatens you while making too few illuminating explanations of why what he is saying is actually true.
- BODY OF KNOWLEDGE. The integrity of our body of knowledge depends on expressing it in propositional form, justifying those propositions through the correct use of reason, reconciling each proposition with the total body of knowledge.
- VIRTUE. In order to further the good, one must first be good. But to “be good” is not to be perfect, for as human beings we always have room to improve. Thus, what virtue demands of human beings is not perfection, but rather, a good faith commitment to rational virtues and values, whatever those happen to be. To be good is to sincerely strive to have integrity to our best understanding of rational virtues and values, and paramount to these is the virtue of rationality, which means we also strive to improve that understanding: at every juncture of our beliefs, we are always open to rational criticism, including to the criticism that the virtues and values we have embraced might not actually be rational.
- RATIONALITY. Since ethical principles are a form of truth, and since reason is our means of finding all truth whatsoever, then to be ethical is to be rational. Rationality is the art of following reason, the primary virtue, and leads to being able to understand and apply all other virtues.
- SINCERITY. To be rational is to be sincere, which is to embrace the responsibility for one’s own meaning, which is to never knowingly advocate contradiction. Insincere parties are not proper participants in the creation of the body of knowledge. Actively engaged and sincere parties will ultimately tend to find unanimity in their basic beliefs.
- CLARITY. Sincere and rational people do not conceal their well-considered and relevant appraisals from one another – a rational and sincere exchange of ideas is an open and free exchange of ideas, which does not sacrifice clarity upon the altar of decorum, politeness, or loyalty.
- ENGAGEMENT. As Justice Louis D. Brandeis said: “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.” A hearty engagement about differences of opinion, aiming at correction and ultimate agreement among rational parties, particularly regarding opinions on laws and public and policies, and particularly by those who have been granted authority in the public sphere, is essential to a healthy society. Contrariwise, the evil of unaccountable authority prefers to lord over its subjects with impunity, not answering when notified of its errors and abuses. At all levels of society, we should aim at setting the proper example: to engage rationally and sincerely about why what we advocate is true.
- BOLDNESS. A timid rationality is the impotent vestige of a mind shrunken by the cowardly fear of irrationality; and as there would be no America without the signers of The Declaration of Independence, there will be no better future without those willing to proclaim the important truths of our own time. There was a time when thinkers risked their necks to speak the truth, and unless contemporary thinkers boldly stand for the hard-won ground of these heroic predecessors, it may be lost again.
- PRIDE. Pride is the virtue of actively honing all virtue. The contrary of pride is the vice of incorrigibility or of impunity – that sort of person who will not accept rational criticism and who proceeds in his actions in spite of knowing that they are vicious. As pride is the crown of all virtues; incorrigibility and impunity is the depth of depravity.
- INSTITUTIONS. As people combine, the power of their virtue and their vice multiplies; so as the hallmark of a good person is one who practices the virtue of pride, the hallmark of a good institution is one that constantly actively reforms itself through rational criticism of its declarations, policies, and practices. The greatest evil of the world is the institution that acts with impunity, and the source of this evil is the incorrigibility of the individuals that make it up.
- PROGRESS. Progress is a gift of nature to mankind, conferred by degrees through the right use of our faculties, and withdrawn by degrees with a betrayal of them. Or as Francis Bacon wrote: “[T]he empire of man over things is founded on the arts and sciences alone, for nature is only to be commanded by obeying her.” The individual alone has little control over progress, which is a social consequence of institutionalizing the right use of reason, of passing not only the knowledge and wealth gained thereby down to descendants but virtue as well. Herein lies the virtuous cycle of reason: virtue breeds progress; progress breeds prosperity; prosperity breeds hope; and hope breeds virtue.
- HUMAN ACTION: RIGHTS VS. CRIMES. The empirical substance of human life is action, and all such action can be classified according to two mutually-exclusive classes: those actions which do not infringe the non-infringing actions of others, and those that do. The former we designate as “rights”; the latter as “crimes.” From this principle we can derive a variety of divisions of natural individual rights. These are “natural” because they constitute real non-infringing actions, and are “individual” because only individuals act, groups are mere aggregations. We also call them human rights.
- RIGHTS AS CONCRETE. To be rightly convicted of a crime, proof of a locus of interference must be identified; it must be proved that the defendant took a particular action and that that action constitutes infringement upon the non-infringing actions of another party. The particular infringing act, whereby one life harmed another at a particular time and place, is the empirical locus of interference.
- RIGHTS AS ABSTRACT. To “live in one’s home” is the abstract act of ownership, and one owns one’s house whether one constantly occupies it or not, and when a thief enters and takes an object, the locus of interference is the concrete acts of entering and theft, even if the owner was not present at the time. On the other hand, there are many possible abstract claims to ownership which, when scrutinized, are unjustified. Herein lies a rich complexity of rights philosophy: we must rationally vindicate each abstract act, to see where and why an alleged infringement constitutes actual infringement, or whether it is only one of the many instances of rights counterfeiting. The guiding light of such an examination is the prima facie case:
- PRIMA FACIE CASE. Concerning the judgment of human action, what appears to be the case on first examination must be taken to be the case, until evidence is offered to demonstrate otherwise. (This is the burden of proof principle, applied to the judgment of human action.) For example: Suppose we come upon two parties who seem to be at relative peace. Then, party A physically threatens or attacks party B. A is then rightly be regarded as the criminal, as a default, unless he provides or refers to proof to the contrary. Critically, what happens to have been arbitrarily declared to be the law has no weight in determining guilt; that one “appears to have broken the law” is irrelevant unless that law is well-founded.
- REASON AND LIBERTY. As the proper operation of reason demands that the mind be free from arbitrary constraint, so it follows that the proper governance of human action demands that we be free from arbitrary interference, for to be free to conclude is to conclude that one be free to act upon such conclusions. In other words, all that is not specifically prohibited by rationally justifiable law, ought to be allowed; or, human action should be left free, unless it has been proven that such action constitutes a legitimate crime; or, human action should be considered innocent until proven guilty. (The legal formalisms of a well-ordered society that follow from this, such as due process and probable cause, are beyond the scope of this article.)
- ETHICAL SYMMETRY OF GROUPS AND INDIVIDUALS. Since groups (including governments) are merely aggregations of individuals, then if a given action is criminal when an individual takes it, then it is also criminal when taken by groups. Being part of a group doesn’t confer extra privileges or rights; it either exercises already existing rights, or if it goes beyond these, then it commits crimes.
- LAND. As ownership is constituted of our actions and not of our intentions, authentic ownership of land is not based on sweeping claims or treading or bordering, but rather with “mixing our labor” (John Locke) with the land. When we have improved and are using the land, it is ours; when we merely take things from nature, the rest remains a part of nature, free for others to take from as well. An intensive transformation and continued use of land is part and parcel of ownership, for such is what it means for the land to actually part of one’s actions (and thus a legitimately defensible property right), rather than merely of one’s intentions. To “defend” land that one does not so own constitutes a crime, unless one is defending a rightful claim, i.e. a well-defined parcel of natural land one can prove is in the well-defined process of its transformation into owned land.
- FRIVOLOUS PURSUIT. The earth’s resources are are both incalculably valuable and limited, and we have a ethical responsibility to intelligently steward these for both our sake and the sake of future generations, until we achieve such scientific prowess as we can reproduce these resources at will. As our numbers increase, it is natural that foraging, hunting, and fishing should be replaced by farming; and that mining should be replaced by recycling and synthesis. We should be free to individually claim and use natural resources, but to exploit them to extinction and exhaustion is a frivolous destruction, for a civilized mind seeks not merely satisfaction of tomorrow’s needs at the expense of all future needs, but a sustainable increase in the power to satisfy needs. To arbitrarily ban a use of nature by the individual is a tyranny; but it is also a tyranny to unilaterally decide for the rest of humanity that a given natural resource will no longer exist. The wisdom needed to walk the line between mindless exploitation on the one hand, and arbitrary tyranny on the other, is a very complex kind of institutional wisdom, rooted in the good faith of actually rational scientists, jurists, and politicians. Such is the reason why it is so critical to address our problems of institutional corruption, which breeds a lack of competent assessment of natural resources, a consequent distrust of experts leading to lack of political will, anxiety about the future of human life on Earth, failure of our natural resources, and a degraded quality of human life.
- CITY-STATES. As one who owns determines the manner of use, a landowner can define “man-made laws” of his land, arbitrary rules that anyone who enters it must follow, so long as instituting those laws does not constitute a violation of natural rights. Usually, this means that those who enter must explicitly consent to be governed by these laws in order to be subject to them; or if they do not so consent and are asked to leave, the landowner may rightfully demand that they leave. From this principle emerges the possibility of “city-states”: jurisdictions of individual landowners united by a common man-made law. History confirms this principle as the natural emergence of government, but also warns that ill-defended city-states will inexorably become the victims of usurpation in the form of subjugation to arbitrary rule, theft, exploitation, slavery, decimation, and so on.
- FEDERATIONS. The principal weakness of city-states means that they must either join together in common cause for the mutual defense of the natural rights of their citizens from outside forces, or they will eventually be exterminated; however, history demonstrates that all such federations have become usurpers. But where there are new ideas, there is yet hope. At no point in history has any large number of people identified and rallied behind the correct principle that would restrain federations to their proper place: the defense of natural rights, properly defined through the right use of reason. Federations are in a sense the final culminating test of institutional integrity: they arise only out of other institutions, and yet have the raw power to rule and overwhelm them. Therefore, every necessary intellectual force must be brought to bear, to define their proper boundaries and restrict them thereto.
The best way to support this project right now is to send an email to me at email@example.com with the subject “JOIN RLS”, and I will add your name to a low volume email list. Rational criticism is also welcome.
version 12; 12 May 2016; by Shayne Wissler (firstname.lastname@example.org)