Is and Ought

March 28, 2009

Certain concepts are irreducible, lexically explicable only by circular reference. Reality is one such, definable only in terms of itself. One may specify its proper scope (e.g. “what does not cease to be when one ceases to believe in it”), but not its essential meaning.1 Obligation, too, is irreducible: one may say that we have an obligation to do what is right, and the pursuit of good is right, but ultimately must return to say that good is what we are obliged to pursue.

Inherent to the notion of a fundamental concept is that it is explicable only in terms of itself. Therefore, all attempts to define the nature of reality are pointless: we may be able to find an intricately circular definition, but it will ultimately come down to “what exists, exists”. Cartesian demon presentations of skepticism miss the point: if that is the nature of reality, then so be it. It is still reality, still an environment beyond my control. It is possible to argue that nothing is real, that there is no environment, that everything we experience we actively create, but that seems quite implausible (try as I might, I cannot make myself believe that I am a tree).

Obligation is, like reality, a fundamental concept not explicable except circularly. No amount of reasoning can move from a statement of reality to a statement of obligation. Any such attempt must involve an implicit normative premise, and therefore begs the question as an attempt to define obligation in terms of reality. Utilitarianism, for example, is not a simple definition of the good as the greatest aggregate utility; it is a normative statement that the greatest aggregate utility should be pursued. All ethical theories must contain foundational normative premises that cannot be reduced to observation of reality.

Choice relies on both these realms, applying a normative major premise to a positive minor premise returning an ethical statement to guide action. No theory can avoid this: one can explain the actions of others by positive determinism, but by introspection, one must have some other principle to guide one’s own deliberation. One may attempt to act in conformity to the factors determining the actions of others, but this itself is an ethical belief, that it is right to do so. Amoral action is impossible. Furthermore, relativistic moralities are incoherent, relying on the absolute premise that one should follow whatever relative standard is proposed.

The seeming consequence of this is that one can never violate one’s principles, for all actions, insofar as they are willful, arise from normative syllogisms. Thus, what does it mean to do what one knows to be wrong? Not to forsake ethics, but to abandon one’s former ethical system for another. All wrongdoing is intellectual error. However, we must remember that thought and memory is not static. One can forsake one belief for another in a moment and revert as quickly, as when one afraid of insects but cognizant of their harmlessness starts on encountering one. He started because he feared harm, which fear he knows to be groundless. Nevertheless, he deserted that belief when it became important. Similarly, one who does wrong that he knows to be wrong does not act contrary to his beliefs, but rather temporarily forsakes those beliefs. One may, of course, also be continually wrong, without such a reversion to right beliefs; such are those who know neither repent nor regret. In any case, the fundamental error is in the intellect, not the will. One can never act contrary to what one thinks right at the moment.

1 Many argue that one cannot define the essence of any concept. I would agree that one cannot define any term without recourse to concepts not essentially definable, but I believe that derivative concepts may be so defined.


Freedom and Coercion

March 9, 2009

What does it mean to be free? Many, I think, would say that freedom is found in self-determination, the ability to choose one’s course of life. Interference with that choice is destructive of freedom, whatever its intention. To an extent, I would agree. However, we must remember that choice is not of results, but of actions. God, in creating nature, embedded in it a certain payoff matrix: certain actions bring certain results. Freedom is the ability to choose one’s actions and their inherent results, not the ability to choose results independent of action.

Thus, we may identify the first fallacious opinion regarding freedom, that it encompasses such things as “freedom from hunger”, or “freedom from want”. Freedom means the ability to choose a course of action that satisfies one’s hungers or wants, if one is available in nature,1 but does not mean the ability to have one’s desires met regardless of the course of life one chooses. Preventing someone from accepting a job offered him does violate his freedom; however, if he chooses to reject the job offered, his “right to a job” does not entitle him to some other. Freedom means only the ability to choose one’s actions, not the results one would like.

But this definition is incomplete, for it would seem to permit many seeming violations of freedom. The robber who offers the choice of “your money or your life” does not seem to restrict one’s options for action, yet any sensible theory of freedom would regard his action as a violation of freedom.2 Thus, I would add the provision that one may also not interfere with the natural payoff matrix: freedom entitles people not only to to choose their course of action, but also to reap the natural consequences of that action. We may, however, here distinguish between material and moral freedom: the robber’s dilemma infringes on his victim’s material freedom, but the actor still has moral freedom of will, and remains responsible for his actions. No amount of compulsion justifies commission of wrong.3

But by appealing to natural payoffs, I obligate myself to define naturality. Naturality does not mean what would happen without human interaction, for then the criterion would not apply to actions dependent on interaction with other men (as our contrafactual refers not merely to the contrafactual, but to the nonsensical “what compensation would one man owe for stealing from another if that other did not exist?”). I do, however, believe that naturality only involves reference to other humans when their existence is a logical prerequisite of the situation. The settler in a new land does not logically rely on others, despite any potential material dependence; consequently, the natural results of his actions should not depend on others. Similarly, the solitary worker does not depend on others, and his ability to enjoy the product of his labor is independent of others, and their interference would violate his freedom. But what if two men cooperate? We may renormalize, and say that their proceeds do not depend on the presence of others. But what of the distribution between them? I see no reason for preferring any particular distribution, at least on the grounds of freedom, other than that security in their own persons, that not being a product of their cooperation, must remain inviolate (thus supporting any agreement reached; the ethics of promises and future contracts is quite a mess, and I shall not address it here). This similar procedure may be applied, I believe, to all further questions. One case I would like to address, however, is theft (which may be generalized, mutatis mutandis, to other violences). The thief obviously has no right to the proceeds gained thereby, for they are not a natural consequence of his actions. Meanwhile, the goods gained thereby were the natural consequence of the actions of their owner, assuming his title to be just; therefore, he retains title, and the goods remain his. Similar reasoning will, I believe, show that one can similarly derive a right of recompense, although I shall not detail that here.

Thus far, I have only considered freedom with respect to external sources, yet perhaps there is also compulsion from within. Compelling someone to practice the piano for two hours a day clearly violates his freedom. What if, however, he wishes to become better, and disciplines himself to do so? His freedom is superficially restricted, in that he denies himself other options. But in the same manner, any action restricts one’s freedom, in that it entails not doing whatever else one might be able to do at the time. Thus, the pianist remains free.

This may seem trivial on its own, but bears importantly on Christian freedom. Christian freedom is of two types, which I shall call liberating and restricting. The first is the freedom from “slavery to sin” that enables us to choose to act rightly, which by definition is what is most in our interests. Restricting freedom, on the other hand, is the self-discipline to actually follow that course once it becomes available. These concepts must, I think, remain separate. Liberating freedom is external, for self-imposed bondage is not properly termed such. Restricting freedom, on the other hand, must be internal, for imposed action is amoral. Even though freedom only has value insofar as it allows us to follow a better course of action, it does not follow that “forcing someone to be free” by using compulsion to force him to adopt that course of action increases his freedom; quite the contrary, it restricts his freedom.

1 The necessity of this qualification is evident from the case of famine. If one proclaims a right to the availability of a course of action that satisfies one’s hunger, then a purely natural famine would violate people’s rights (as such a right could not be satisfied for all). By definition, rights are against men, not nature; therefore, the right is invalid.

2 Of course, not all theories do so: see Sen. Reid’s rather entertaining argument that taxes are voluntary at On the other hand, I see no reason to consider his theory sensible.

3 Further, given that one has no reasonable expectation of material freedom, given its dependence on the actions of others, one should care only for doing what is right, not getting what is due.