Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Start From the Beginning

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jun 07, 1999

Posted to XCobra's List, 07 June 1999

I applaud the proposal to start at the beginning. It is clear that I do not share some basic assumptions with this group. This becomes clear when we look at the foundations. wrote: All theories of politics must start with a postulate, an agreed-upon assumption that serves as a foundation for the whole of the theory. I propose to start with this basic assumption: Life (survival) is good; death (extinction) is bad.

The difficulty with starting with a basic postulate is that the people being discussed - humanity in general - do not share that postulate. For myself I am happy to say that life is good and death is bad. However this may change over time, perhaps, say, were I to contract a painful terminal disease. Certainly there are people in the world who feel life is not good - people who contemplate and actually commit suicide, for example.

I don't think that political discussion can be conducted by merely asserting that such people are wrong. For they are not only the disputants in our enquiry, they are also the subjects. As John Stuart Mill comments, the best way to find out what people desire is to study them and to see what they actually desire. And here we find that there is no common ground for even such a basic statement as, "life is good".

It has been commented in previous posts that there can be some objective moral or political truths, some foundations upon which the rest of moral and political dispute may be based. Even were it the case that there are such foundations - and I doubt that, myself - there remains two fundamental questions:

1. How can we be sure that we have identified and described them correctly? There has, for example, been some discussion of rights in our exchange. It is taken as obvious by some, for example, that people have the right to own and keep property; others even have argued that this right is absolute, and that any philosophy which denies that right is by that fact wrong. But upon what does such a right exist? It is not derived from a state of nature; even assuming rights can be derived from a state of nature, it seems clear that, in the absence of society, there is no security of personal property. It is not dervived from human nature; we are born into this world without property and leave it in the same state. No, it seems to me that in the absence of a metaphysical fiat, there is no way to determine once and for all whether we have correctly identified and described our moral and political foundations.

2. Even were there to be objective moral foundations, and even were they to be described correctly, there remains the issue, that other people in the world may not agree. It is almost a truism in political discourse, that it is almost without merit to be right, when that right is not manifest in the maintenance of the political economy and culture. Christians face this dilemma: being convinced of the nature of God and of his moral guidance, they conduct their own lives in the manner of absolute good, but day by day, are confronted with unbelievers, people of other faiths, perhaps, or athiests or agnostics, who deny the metaphysical foundation, and the moral and political universals which follow. In any discussion of morality or politics, we must contend, not only with those who agree, but with those who don't agree, and who will not be convinced.

So too we encounter the principles that ;life is good' and 'death is bad'. Even were this to be established as some founding principle, even were we in a position to know that this is correct, we would be faced with people who do not agree with this statement, who do not interpret it in the same manner, who feel that in some cases, death is good, life is bad. Even in our own lives, we may see the doubts and exceptions creep into the dictum, as we consult our personal wishes in a variety of cases. Would we prefer death in the pace of a painful existence? Is one life equal in value to a dozen? Are some lives, say, Hitler's, not as valuable as others, say, Gandhi's? Is the sacrifice of a life justified in the pursuit of an ideal, say, democracy, or freedom, or religion?

1) Is it too much to ask that we agree that "good" represents that which we prefer, and "bad" that which we abhor? If not, then I move to further agree that the postulate is true, since those disagreeing with it must either be about to commit suicide, or have already done so.

The 'good' is what we prefer, and the 'bad' is what we abhor, by definition, for those terms amount to the same thing. Where the definition begins to fail, however, is in our understanding of what we prefer and abhor, and what is meant by the term 'we'.

For it seems clear that there is no sense to be made of any 'we' which prefers and abhors the same set of things. Indeed, for example, even though a person may prefer life in his own case, he may feel that life of some sort is bad, and set about terminating individual cases. Clifford Olson, for example, felt that the continued existence of oys he had raped was bad, and therefore set about murdering them. All of us except Olson would agree that Olson was bad; but consider the case where a man who while attempting to save his family, perishes in a housefire. We would consider his actions good, though the consequences bad, even were he to fail in the attempt. It is not so straightforwardly the case that, to all people, at all times, all lives are good. Lives, when viewed from the point of view of what people actually value, have more or less goodness, depending on personal preference and the state of affairs.

It is easy to assert at this juncture that such people who disagree are merely wrong, that people who do not value life with the full and proper fervour and therefore 'bad' or even 'evil'. But if such as assertion is to be made, we must enquire as to the grounds on which this assertion is made, and if we are here discussing a foundational principle, it follows that there can be no such grounds, for then the principle we are discussing would not be foundational. What then? Do we merely assert that such people are 'bad' or 'evil' by fiat, and proceed from there? No - without a justification, we cannot fairly enforce sanctions against such people, and yet when justification is attempted, the reasoning becomes necessarily circular, for it is a fact, a state of the world, that people's preferences vary, and there is no principle, foundational or otherwise, upon which they will all agree.

2) The postulate holds in general, that is it applies to both the population at large, and in most individual situations. Exceptions are not necessarily disproofs. For example, if someone loses his life defending his family, it means that he values the lives of his family members more than his own, not that he has suddenly changed his mind and decided, "death is good."

Agreed, however, there my be instances where such a person, entering the flaming home, knows that the effort is futile, and that his sacrifice will be in vain, and yet enters the house anyway; honour would forbid that he do any less, or, life as a father who has lost his whole family to his own inability is not worth living. Even though those people who have made such a decision are no longter with us, it is clear, that some people do choose death before dishonour, and that many among us, though not currently faced with such a choice, would, were the moment to arise, invoke the fatal, rather than the cowardly, option. It is not that such people merely change their minds; rather, it is the instantiation of a fixed opinion, that in some cases, life is not the ultimate good.

What do we say to such people? Do we automatically assert, that a person who would die rather than live the life of a coward, is in some sense morally reprehensible? On what grounds? Again - while it may be the case that not just any counterinstance disproves the general theorem, there are sufficiently robust alternatives that it is unreasonable to dismiss them out of hand, yet they leave us in the position of defending what ought to be a self-evident pinciple.

3) The postulate holds individually. A person tacitly agrees with the relationship between "life" and "good" as evidenced by the fact that he has the means to kill himself, and has not availed himself of those means.

Again - that someone has not killed himself is evidence only for the assertion that 'life is good now' and not for the assertion that 'life is always good', and the evidence, that the two statements are distinct, is shown by the fact that people who kill themselves for some period of time fail to kill themselves, and then, when the fatal conditions arise, assert the belief they have always held.

For humans are capable of complex and conditional beliefs: "It is better to win if you don't cheat", "It is better to eat cake if you have had enough bread", "It is better to be well read if there is something worth reading". So too our estimation of the value of life: "It is better to live if one is not in extreme pain", "It is better to life if one is not by that fact deemed a coward", "It is better to live "if one may maintain his honour, dignity or freedom".

In fact, most people, if pressed for an evaluation of the value of life, would admit one or more of these conditional statements, and it is in the multiplication of these conditional statements upon which our primary premise fails, for if an absolute foundation admits of a condition, then that foundation is no longer absolute, for we must debate the conditions, and whether they obtain, and even though there may be some people who assert the foundation without condition, such people must still contend with the others who do not hold that truth universally and univocally.

4) The postulate is also objective. Although the assumption arises out of a human being's inherent subjectivity, objectivity itself is a uniquely human concept, applying only to human thought and reason. Therefore, only human beings, and furthermore only living human beings can define objectivity. If every human being agrees with a given judgment about reality, then such a statement about that reality as "life is good" becomes objective. While strict logic cannot rule out any and all opposition to that proposition, common sense can and does support it. Anyone who disagrees with "life is good" can go drink some Drano. Since we are talking about a postulate, any attempt to discount it solely on the basis of subjectivity amounts to nihilism.

As a matter of observation, if every human agrees with a statement, that statement is regarded to be right and true. However, the unanimity of humankind cannot confer on a statement a degree of certainty which is beyond the capacity of humans. That there are physical objects, that we live in a world bounded by space and time: these are statements to which all humans would agree, and yet we are not able to eliminate doubt raised by sceptical enquiry: we could be wrong, each and every one of us, just as humanity in general was wrong about the flatness of the earth or the divinity of celestial objects. And common sense tells us equally, that even though one may believe that life is not good in all cases, such a person is not obliged - or even likely - to commit suicide. A person may remain alive because the conditions of an appropriate death have not been met, or because there is an overriding social sanction, based on religion or morality, which opposed self-inflicted death, or a variety of other circumstances. People do not always live to the creed they profess; for one or a myriad of reasons, what we live may be distinct from what we believe.

5) Each individual has the right to live for his own sake (this is hereafter known as "self-preservation"). That includes the right to self-defense. The group is nothing without the collection of individuals. All individuals are equal in ability to judge and act on that judgment. That is not to say each has equal capacity to act with identical force of will or physical strength. It is only to say that each has a conscious subjectivity that is distinct and not dependent on the will of another conscious entity. If it were otherwise, anyone whose will were dependent on that of another would instantly stop functioning the moment that other person died.

On what grounds, we may ask, does a human - any human - aquire the right to maintain the good. It is clearly not the fact of the existence of the good itself, for in some theological points of view, the maintenance of the good is reserved for the divinity - judge not lest ye be judged - and to humans is left the more mundane task of maintaining our own moral standing. On other theories (as expressed, say, by Hobbes and Lockes), the task of maintaining the right is left to civil authorities, whether placed in office by the grace of God (as the medieval monarchies were constituted), by right of arms, by popular sentiment, or even by chance and circumstance.

It is not clear and obvious that it is for each of us a duty, much less a right, to maintain the moral and political order, even in our own case. It is not clear, for example, that our lives are our own, to do with what we please: through history, the public and corporate enterprises of slavery and indenture have resulted in cases where one's life belongs to another, to which all maintenance of the right was conferred; and while we may argue that institutions such as slavery are bad and evil, such an argument cannot be without grounds or foundation, and yet moreover, such an argument does not even follow from the foundation that 'life is good', for in analysis, we see that such institutions are essentially the transferrence of maintaining that moral precept, from the self, to the other. The slave owner just as surely as the slave may value the life of the slave, and while slavery may be wrong, it is not wrong on the basis that the slave's life is not valued.

Indeed, it should be clear and common sense should tell us that the maintenance of the right should not be placed into the hands of each and every individual, for it is manifestly not the case, contrary to the above, that "All individuals are equal in ability to judge and act on that judgment." Infants, for example, are not in a position to make moral judgements, nor either are the deranged, nor perhaps those people who do not believe that (say) life is good. Other people may be of sound mind and character, and yet not be in a position to defend the right: the elderly and infirm, for example, are unable to enforce their sanctions, nor are the sick, the fully pregnent, the disabled, and the otherwise preoccupied in a position to check on and enforce the social aherence to a moral or political right.

For these and a variety of other reasons, humans have historically confered the right to maintain the good, and punish the evil, into the hands of kings, magistrates, or other officers: the purpose of such a delegation has been to stay the hand of those blinded by rage, of those consumed by mental disturbance, and to act as the strong arm for those unable to life the sword or the firearm. There is no inherent right to the maintenance of the good, even to the protection of oneself, and though history to the present day societies have defined and allocated such rights as the constitution and structure of society.

Now it may be the case that some people disagree, that some people argue, not only, that a right to one's life is inherent, but also, that one has an inherent right to defend one's own life: but the defense of this relatively recent innovation in human society must consist of more than the assertion of the correctness of that view, for common sense is not our guide here (certainly not, given the fact that no society allows such an unqualified right), and neither is historical precedent. Some ground must be given, for the presupposition of individual vigilanteism, for that's what it amount to.

6) All efforts directed at self-preservation (whether individually, or as a population) are inherently "good" or righteous. Those efforts that threaten life amount to forceful taking of that which is "good" from someone else. That threatens or weakens his ability to survive, which he has as much a right to do as any other person, including the one threatening him. Therefore, the initiation of the use of force against another human being is "bad", or evil.

As we move further and further away from foundational principles, the more absruse the reasoning becomes. On what grounds, for example, do we defend an individual in the possession of 'the good'. Notwithstanding my own objection to capital punishment, the consequence of this principle seems to be that all uses of force, even in retaliation to similar force, are evil, that one must act in such a way as to defend one's own life, but also in such a way as to take another's.

For it is a different proposition, to say that one's own life is inherently more valuable than another's, than it is to say, that life is good. If we say only that life is good, then all lives are of equal value, and thus the taking of another life, even if in the defense of one's own, cannot be justified. It needs to be established by what right we place maximal value on our own life, and indeed, to ask such questions as, is one's own life of greater worth than two other lives? A dozens other lives? A thousand?

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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