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Hillel Steiner’s Original Rights and Just Redistribution (Summary)

May 2nd, 2009 No comments

In Original Rights and Just Redistribution, Hillel Steiner attempts to answer three questions: to what sorts of things do we have original property rights?; how do we distinguish these sorts of things to which we have non-original property rights?; and finally, who counts as being one of ‘us’ with these rights? He begins with the concept of self-ownership: for someone to have any rights at all, he must not be part of another’s bundle of possessions. After establishing that laboring within’s one domain produces products within one’s domain, he asks how initially unowned things outside of one’s domain becomes justly ownable. He concludes that our equal original property rights entitle us to an “equal share of (at least) raw natural resources.”

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Nozick on Locke’s Theory of Acquisition, the Lockean Proviso, and Collective Assets

April 30th, 2009 Comments off

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[Readings come from Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Part II, Sections I & II]

Locke’s Theory of Acquisition

Nozick’s goal in this section of AS&U is to, in his words, “introduce an additional bit of complexity into the structure of the entitlement theory. ” To do this, he uses as a starting point Locke’s approach to justice in property acquisition—namely, that ownership of an object originates in one’s mixing of labor with that object. Nozick then proceeds to ask the standard gamut of questions calling attention to some difficulties in Locke’s theory of acquisition, like whether dumping a can of tomato juice in the ocean constitutes “mixing one’s labor” with the ocean. Essentially, the questions seek the strict boundary between what constitutes a mixing of labor sufficient for just acquisition and what does not. Under the Lockean notion of acquisition, it seems that one naïve interpretation would say that improving upon an object entails full ownership of the object. Of course, as Nozick points out, if the stock of improvable unowned objects is limited, this view is unfeasible. He uses the appropriation of a grain of sand as an example of one’s appropriation removing another’s liberty (as Hohfeld uses the word) to act on a previously unowned object, but intuitively suggests that this particular removal is not problematic. The central concern, he says, “is whether appropriation of an unowned object worsens the situation of others. ”

Here, Nozick introduces a principle aimed at addressing that notion, which he terms “Locke’s proviso”: that an appropriation must leave ‘enough and as good left in common for others. One version of the proviso, if applied consistently, would make all past appropriations disallowed under Locke’s proviso once a single person’s situation were worsened by an appropriation. Nozick interjects that this argument actually depends on how stringently the proviso is interpreted. Further, he asks whether persons in a world where there are no more “accessible and useful unowned” objects are indeed worsened, citing numerous empirical considerations favoring private property vis-à-vis its satisfaction of the proviso. The difficulty of the argument, however, lies in answering the question “Lockean appropriation makes people no worse off than they would be how? ” Nozick says answering this question lies beyond the scope of his work; he suggests that discovering the baseline could begin by estimating the general economic importance of original appropriation (say, by the percentage of income based on natural resources rather than human action). He closes with a note that these questions not only must be faced by advocates of private property; all theories of property (like collective property) must still, too, provide a theory of property rights legitimately originate.

The Proviso

Nozick starts off by assuming that any reasonable theory of justice must have some sort of proviso similar to a weak version of Locke’s. In short, if the position of others no longer at liberty to use an appropriated thing is worsened, a permanent bequeathable right to that thing can not be conferred by any valid process. The emphasis on the mode of worsening is important here, as the proviso does not encompass other modes of worsening, like worsening due to more limited opportunities to appropriate or “worsening” of one seller by another due to an appropriation leading to more market competition. Nozick also suggests that compensation of the appropriator to those whom he is worsening can satisfy the proviso.

Nozick then shifts the focus to justice in transfer, asserting that any theory of just acquisition must account for justice in transfer. Quite centrally, he posits, “If my appropriating all of a certain substance violates the Lockean proviso, then so does my appropriating some and purchasing all the rest from others who obtained it without otherwise violating the Lockean proviso. ” Unlike the earlier argument in which the original appropriation violated the proviso as well as the appropriation which actually left a person worse off, it is only the combination of the original appropriation and the later transfers that is sufficient to violate the Lockean proviso.

Next, Nozick argues that one’s title to his holding includes the “historical shadow” of the proviso; namely, the title-holder may not transfer it into an agglomeration that violates the proviso, nor may he use it in a way that violates the proviso by making others worse than their baseline situation.

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Nozick on Locke’s Theory of Acquisition, the Lockean Proviso, and Collective Assets (Part 2)

April 30th, 2009 Comments off

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Thus, one may not only not appropriate the only water hole in a desert and charge what he pleases, but he also may not charge what he pleases if it just so happens that circumstance destroys all other watering holes. Nozick briefly deviates for a moment to clarify that the owners’ rights are not eliminated in these cases, but simply “overridden to avoid some catastrophe” (not, however, in some ad hoc way, but internal to the given theory of property).

Delving into further exposition, Nozick asserts that someone owning the entire supply of something necessary for others to remain living does not always mean that appropriations leading up to this ownership left some people in a situation worse than the baseline. In service of this assertion, he cites the case of a medical researcher who finds an effective treatment for a disease but refuses to sell it except on his own terms; the researcher does not violate the proviso because he did not appropriate the chemical materials he used in a way that, through causing scarcity, violated the Lockean proviso. Ultimately, this demonstrates that the Lockean proviso is not an “end-state principle”; the structure of the situation that results is not relevant, but the nature of the actions taken to reach that result is. Following this, Nozick puts forward his belief that a free market system would not actually come into conflict with the Lockean proviso, making the “empirical historical” claim that people’s concern for the possibility of the proviso’s violation above other possibilities is only due to the effects of previous illegitimate state action, ending his exploration of the “complication in the entitlement theory introduced by the Lockean proviso. ”

Nozick then moves on to address what he earlier labeled “the negative argument”: “the use of the claim that people don’t deserve their natural assets to rebut a possible counterargument to Rawls’ view. He has us consider the following counterargument to Rawls (“E”):

1. People deserve their natural assets.

2. If people deserve X, they deserve any Y that flows from X.

3. People’s holdings flow from their natural assets.

Therefore,

4. People deserve their holdings.

5. If people deserve something, then they ought to have it (and this overrides any presumption of equality there may be about that thing. )

Because Rawls would rebut this counterargument by denying the first premise, the connection between natural assets being morally arbitrary and the statement that distributive shares should not depend on natural assets is clearer. Here, Nozick attempts to show that the concept of “desert” needn’t be present in an argument of this sort for it to properly follow. He starts with a new counterargument, “F”:

1. If people have X, and their having X (whether or not they deserve to have it) does not violate anyone else’s (Lockean) right or entitlement to X, and Y flows from (arises out of, and so on) X by a process that does not itself violate anyone’s (Lockean) rights or entitlements, Then the person is entitled to Y.

2. People’s having the natural assets they do does not violate anyone else’s (Lockean) entitlements or rights.

The argument would then proceed to argue that people are entitled to the fruits of their labor and to what others voluntarily give or exchange with them. Nozick, quite succinctly, phrases his objection to holding equivalence between desert and entitlement:

It is not true, for example, that a person earns Y (a right to keep a painting he’s made, praise for writing a theory of Justice, and so on) only if he’s earned (or otherwise deserves) whatever he used (including natural assets) in the process of earning Y. Some of the things he uses he just may have, not illegitimately. It needn’t be that the foundations underlying desert are themselves deserved, all the way down.

Thus, since people can be described as entitled to their natural assets even if they can not be labeled as deserving of them, then an argument parallel to argument E with ‘are entitled to’ replacing ‘deserve’ throughout will be valid. Returning more explicitly to Rawls, Nozick then implies that Rawls’ argument is in a bind. Recognizing people’s entitlements to their natural assets could be necessary to avoid a strict application of the difference principle that would entail even stronger property rights than wealth-redistributive theories usually yield.

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Nozick on Locke’s Theory of Acquisition, the Lockean Proviso, and Collective Assets (Part 3)

April 30th, 2009 Comments off

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Nozick cites Rawls’ counterargument that he avoids this dilemma, “because people in [Rawls’] original position rank the principle of liberty as lexicographically prior to the difference principle, applied not only to economic well-being but to health, length of life, and so on. ” One of Nozick’s footnotes calls our attention to the discussion of collective assets later to further this objection.

Continuing, Nozick professes his inability to find a cogent argument to help support that variations in holdings caused by variations in natural assets ought to be eliminated or minimized. He connects the idea of the “moral arbitrariness” of natural assets to Rawls’ construction of the original position by pointing out that there must be an argument to “shape” the original position to exclude natural assets from the participants’ knowledge (i. e. there must be a justification for the veil of ignorance). Nozick argues that if a particular feature being arbitrary from a moral point of view is sufficient to fall under the veil of ignorance, then those behind the veil of ignorance should know nothing about themselves, because each of their features (like rationality, the ability to make choices, having a life span of more than three days, having a memory, ability to communicate) will be based on morally arbitrary facts (that the sperm and ovum that made them were genetically composed in a particular manner). However, Rawls’ construction of the original position has persons know some of these things.

At this point, Nozick stops to qualify his argument. He calls our attention to an ambiguity in the statement that “a fact is arbitrary from a moral point of view”: in one sense, it could mean that there is no moral reason why a fact ought to be; in another, it could mean that a fact is of no moral significance and has no moral consequences. Nozick states that rationality is not morally arbitrary in the second sense. Nonetheless, if rationality escapes exclusion for this reason, it now has a “partner in guilt”—natural assets—which must also escape exclusion for that reason. Thus, an entitlement theory similar to Rawls’ that holds that entitlements arise from or are at least dependent on such facts is called into question.

“Collective Assets”

Later in the book, Nozick aims to tackle Rawls’ seeming notion of “collective assets,” specifically referring to the idea that “everyone has some entitlement or claim on the totality of natural assets (viewed as a pool), with no one having differential claims. ” He argues that a theory separating men from their talents, assets, abilities, and so on can only be adequate if one “presses very hard on the distinction between men [and those things],” noting that whether any conception of a coherent person remains when this distinction is made is an open question. Further, he states that talents and abilities are an asset to a free community, and are not part of a constant sum game, then asking whether extraction of more benefit is what justifies treating natural assets as a collective resources, leaving open the question of what justifies the extraction.

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Summary and Critique of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract (Part 4)

April 1st, 2008 Comments off

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Certain questions must be asked: is joining in the social contract a necessity for moral liberty? Are equal terms and conditions in the letter equal for every individual? Does a man who is self-sufficient and who produces a surplus always stand to gain by entering into an obligation which can often require sacrificing a disproportionate amount of his property on behalf of others? What about someone who produces art or otherwise expresses himself in a way that would result in his censoring under the general will? Rousseau seems to presuppose a set of “right” values with relation to virtue, one’s opinions, etc. There is nothing wrong with this in itself, of course, but this certainly presses Rousseau to provide us with a convincing account of these values which holds as objective. The argument here rests on the validity of his answer.

Epistemic Critique

These objections are virtually trivial in comparison to the most critical problem with Rousseau’s work and works of a similar breed. Generally, they envision the existence of things which lie beyond empirical observation and meaningful rational analysis: in the case of Plato, it was the forms; with Hitler, it was the goodness of the Fatherland and the intrinsic deservingness of the Aryan race; in Rousseau’s case, it is the general will. In testing these theories, we can only observe a world in which people act as though those things exist, and another in which they do not, and then compare results. Yet by what standard do we gauge these results? For what are we exactly testing? For The Social Contract, we can not gauge it by pragmatic standards, because doing so would not be in accordance with Rousseau’s true theory, which states that the good is the general will. Yet we can never directly experience a form, magical Aryan goodness, or the general will. Lacking any epistemological reason to accept that such a thing as the general will exists, we have no other reason to accept it except, perhaps, as a “noble myth” which serves some other end (order, respect for tradition, etc.

The Dangers of Rousseau

Put in a historical context, Rousseau’s ideas can be said to be responsible for much bloodshed. On one hand, it may not seem fair to say that Rousseau himself was directly to blame for the brutality that ensued in the name of his or at least a mockup of his ideas. However, personal blame is not the thrust of the criticism of Rousseau’s ideas whose ideological cousins often result in death and destruction nor is it at all important. If not specifically attributable to Rousseau, many ideas similar to his have been at the root of acts of violence around the world, whether in the form of civil war between factions, or the more subtle “civil war” of members of the state against its citizens. When an analytic light is shined upon the work of Rousseau and similar works, that this occurred is not surprising.

When goodness is placed outside the realm of the empirical and the rational – as when the concepts of state, the people, etc. are made primary, ignoring the instances from which they were derived – the currency upon which morality trades becomes spiritual and intrinsic, generating similar phenomena to those of religious beliefs: martyrdom, persecution, atrocity, or otherwise a climate of self-proclaimed just violence. In such a situation, the nature of goodness is not accessible to everyone, but only to the “enlightened”: the philosopher kings, the popes and bishops, or the politicians. There is no scientific reason to believe that these human beings have a sixth sense that gives them greater access to such knowledge, yet they are perceived to have it. What phenomenon is capable of explaining how biologically similar human beings can be elevated to separate moral categories in people’s minds when there is no evidence to believe that it is the case? There is one lying in plain view which has pervaded most instances of human conflict, especially of this kind: the exercise of power. Rousseau’s theory lends itself to such a world; for this assertion we have not only the immediate evidence from the French Revolution and its many succeeding Republics, but the indirect evidence of the millions of lives ended by collectivism.

Instinctively, one may object that Rousseau believed that every person composing the Sovereign must play a role in the determination of the general will. Still, so long as there are both disagreement and forceful commitment of all participants to the decision ultimately rendered, the problem persists.

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Summary and Critique of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract (Part 5)

April 1st, 2008 Comments off

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The category of the “enlightened” simply shifts from the popes and politicians to some arbitrary proportion of the people, be it a plurality, a majority, or a supermajority. The point remains quite the same: democracy without unanimity is just as much an exercise of power as is philosopher dictatorship, popery, or decree.


[1] Book I, Chapter 6. P. 9.

[2] Book II, Chapter I.

[3] Perhaps this objection is a commentary on Rousseau himself.

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Summary and Critique of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract

April 1st, 2008 Comments off

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At the foundation of modern moral justifications for the establishment of a coercive state is the voluntarization of that coercive power – in other words, the implication that obedience to governments is in some way chosen and thus morally binding. The philosophical construct that has come to embody this approach is described by the term “social contract. ” Though the works of important philosophers like Hobbes and Locke employed a version of the social contract, the work which came to inhabit and popularize the phrase was Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s influential 1762 treatise, Du Contrait Social (“The Social Contract”). –more–>Summary (where not specified, statements are written in the voice of Rousseau)

In Book I, Rousseau begins his exploration of politics by pondering the source of the legitimacy of political authority. He rejects that its source is found in nature, because such a position implies the inherent natural superiority of the rulers over the ruled, though the superiority that may exist is only sustained by force. In turn, he argues that force is not the basis for legitimacy either: the idea that “might makes right” is nonsensical because it can not imply that the less strong “ought” to follow the stronger, since who is stronger is always determined by who triumphs. There would be no political authority since those who can do, will do. Instead, legitimate political authority is based on a kind of “social contract” created between society’s members. Unlike the argument of Grotius, which proposed a kind of covenant between king and people based on “a right to slavery,” one’s freedom can never be surrendered in a fair exchange. Furthermore once freedom is surrendered, then all rights are forfeited which eliminate any demand for something in return.

Why should such a contract ever be necessary? In short, there comes a point in the state of nature at which society must be formed in order for mankind to survive. The social contract’s purpose is to resolve the problem of how to bind people to each other without infringing upon their freedom, and it does this by requiring the unconditional surrender of the individual’s freedom to the whole community. The important implications of this definition are that the contract will impose the same conditions for all, creating no interest for one person making the conditions difficult for others; there will be no rights that remain that stand in opposition to the state, because the contract is formed unconditionally; and finally, because each person enters the contract on equal terms, no person loses their natural freedom. The ultimate reduction of the social contract can be described thus: “Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole. ”[1] The new entity, the whole, that is formed as a result of this contract comes to be known as the “Republic” or “body politic,” or, depending on the context, the State, the Sovereign, or the Power. Those who formed the contract come to be collectively known as the people; when sharing in the sovereign power, citizens; and in being under the laws of the state, subjects. The contrast between nature and civil society is important here: though in joining the contract we lose the physical freedom to act upon our personal appetites, we gain liberty via the limitations of reason and the general will being placed upon our behaviors.

In book II, Rousseau’s conception of the state begins with the idea that society functions in correspondence to the interests that people hold in common. Hence, the ultimate end of any state is “the common good. ” Acting on the general will expressed by the Sovereign is the only way to achieve this common good. Incidentally, the general will can never coincide with a particular will.

The expression of the general will ultimately takes the shape of law. Law must be made by the people as a whole (i. e. made by the sovereign) and applicable to the whole. But how can the people, especially a large number of them, jointly create a set of laws? Rousseau proposes the lawgiver: an intelligent and selfless individual who will create laws in an unbiased fashion, who lies outside the authority of the Sovereign. However, Rousseau himself admits that “Gods would be needed to give men laws. ” Furthermore, what will compel people to follow the laws? Besides textbook coercion, such as the death penalty for those who break the law and thus break the social contract, Rousseau suggests that an appeal to the supernatural origins of laws (much as Moses claimed that the Ten Commandments were given by God) is one way of convincing men to follow them.

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Summary and Critique of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract (Part 2)

April 1st, 2008 Comments off

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The end of Book II consists of Rousseau’s exploration of the kinds of circumstances under which law is most effectively made, specifically in reference to the people for whom the law is to be made, and the nature of those laws. For example, he explains that states are ideally small-to-medium-sized: small enough to be effectively manageable, but large enough so as not to be overrun by neighboring states. The creation and implementation of laws must be timed perfectly, as a people may not yet be ready to be guided, or may have become prejudiced and resistant to the positive changes brought about by good laws. Also, the state in which laws are being established must be in a condition of at least relative peace and plenty, because of the temporary vulnerability and instability caused by a period of laws being implemented.

The goal of any system of law is reducible to two ends: liberty and equality. Here (chapter 11), equality is understood to mean not the complete absence of differences in wealth, but the absence of such differences that would damage the balance of citizens in the state: “but that power shall never be great enough for violence, and shall always be exercised by virtue of rank and law; and that, in respect of riches, no citizen shall ever be wealthy enough to buy another, and none poor enough to be forced to sell himself. ” Overall, the general criteria for how laws ought to be made depend on circumstances that differ from people to people and place to place.

At the beginning of Book III, Rousseau explains the executive powers of government in terms of will and strength:

Every free action is produced by the concurrence of two causes; one moral, i. e. the will which determines the act; the other physical, i. e. the power which executes it… The body politic has the same motive powers; here too force and will are distinguished, will under the name of legislative power and force under that of executive power. [2]

The government is, importantly, to be distinguished from the Sovereign; in fact, confusion of the two is dangerous. The government deals with particulars (decrees) while the sovereign deals with the general (laws). Somewhat similar to the contract in Hobbes, the government itself is not a party to the social contract; somewhat different from Hobbes, this is because the government is an intermediary body that is created by the general will and can be freely disbanded by the general will.

As to possible forms of government, there are three primary kinds: democracy, when all or almost all the citizens are magistrates; aristocracy, where less than half are magistrates; and monarchy, where few or one are magistrates. However, there is not one universally superior form of government. In the previous chapter, Rousseau notes that the larger the population of a state, the fewer magistrates there should be. Hence, large states are best suited to monarchy, medium to aristocracy, and small to democracy. Though he personally preferred democracy, Rousseau expresses ambivalence toward democracy as well as monarchy. While he explains his concerns about monarchy’s dangerous efficiency and potential for corruption, he also claims, “there has never been a true democracy, and there never will be. ” Only small states with simple and unambitious citizens could remain stable under democratic rule. Overall, though simpler forms of government are preferable to Rousseau, he suggests that mixing forms of government may dissipate the powers of the government relative to the Sovereign.

The Sovereign can maintain itself by meeting in periodic assemblies. Though an impractical demand on the face of it, ancient cities such as Rome managed to do it to some degree. The assemblies are critical because within them, all citizens are as powerful as the magistrates. Because of this, the government may take actions to dissuade such assemblies, which over time may erode the freedom and authority of the Sovereign. At this juncture, Rousseau makes sure to point out that sovereignty can not be represented: “…The moment a people allows itself to be represented, it is no longer free: it no longer exists. ”

As part of a set of entailments of the general will, the latter half of Book IV expresses some specific ideas Rousseau has about the state. In some cases, dictatorship is necessary to avert the collapse the state, though the dictator does not represent the people or the laws; the dictator only acts in accordance with the general will so long as the avoiding the collapse of the state is in it.

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Summary and Critique of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract (Part 3)

April 1st, 2008 Comments off

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The establishment of a censor’s office is also put forward, as the vanguard of public opinion. Because public opinion is connected to public morality and virtue, and those are connected to law, the censor’s office upholds the laws by influencing public opinion. Finally, Rousseau recommends that people be free to pursue religion as they please so long as it does not conflict with public interest, but also recommends that they be required to adhere to a civil religion with essential qualities: belief in the existence of a just god, belief in the afterlife, faith in the sanctity of the social contract and its laws, and emphasis on tolerance to reduce civil strife.

Critique

The most obvious problem in Rousseau’s argument is the mostly unaddressed question of how the general will is to be determined. In a world with no gods and only men, there is no ultimate and authoritative arbiter of truth and justice. Evidence may stand on one side, but there is no guarantee of an impartial and fair supreme force that binds persons to the correct judgment. This is a phenomenon that applies to all things, even the physically tangible and empirically observable. When it comes to something very abstract and complex like the general will, the problem is amplified further as evidence one could possibly appeal to for his position is necessarily indirect and intuitive at best (see: epistemic critique), lending greater power to those of stronger expressive faculty. [3] Of course, that the determination of physical fact or right and wrong is subject to this uncertainty is not an objection, since this can be leveled against any theory. However, what is questionable is the insistence that every person must be subjected to a violence-backed decision making process that may often not agree with their own judgments. If this poses a problem, there is really no way out: Rousseau makes it clear that The Social Contract is not there merely as a suggestion for those who accept it; it is intended to be a factual and categorical description of human nature and the good society. Thus, even if we accept the general will as real, the question is still left open as to whether the general will is best achieved by organizing society into government as outlined in The Social Contract.

Another development of interest in this particular work is that Rousseau insists on a sharp distinction between nature and civil society, holding that the latter is not part of the former and is instead “artificially” created. This is essentially connected with his notion that “this [the social contract’s] act of association creates a moral and collective body composed of as many members as the assembly contains voters, and receiving from this act its unity, its common identity, its life, and its will. ” In other words, Rousseau makes the metaphysical claim that the Sovereign forms a whole greater than the sum of its parts, essential to the idea that the state can not only solve problems that individuals could not possibly solve voluntarily amongst themselves, but that there is a goodness which always supersedes the good of the individual. “Artifice” enters the equation here: once society organizes along the lines of the social contract, civil society becomes possible where it was not possible before. This is critical to Rousseau’s argument, because it is the means by which the individual is given an ethical demand to consent to the social contract and all its entailments, or, conversely, the means by which force is ethically justified against the individual.

Problems with the Social Contract as a Moral Obligation

Without this metaphysical and meta-ethical foundation, Rousseau’s argument would be a non-sequitur the moment he leaps to the conclusion that one has a rational obligation to participate in forming the social contract. The social contract’s “resolution” of the problem of binding human beings together is suspect: Rousseau holds that the freedom of individual human beings is maintained by entering them into a contract on equal terms that imposes “equal” conditions on them. However, this is only so because of Rousseau’s definition of freedom, which downplays freedom of action in nature as largely meaningless due to unenforceability, reflecting the somewhat Hobbesian notion that such freedom is trivial compared to civil liberty, which is the guarantee of lesser freedoms always being protected by the community. More importantly, Rousseau places a great deal of significance upon his idea of moral liberty, which is the freedom from one’s appetites attained by obedience to “self-prescribed” laws.

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Ludwig Wittgenstein’s On Certainty, and how G.E. Moore Fails to Respond to the Skeptics

March 20th, 2008 Comments off

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Beginning with Descartes, traditional forms of epistemology have attempted to create a foundation of knowledge that can not be doubted. The skeptical tradition, employing and developing Cartesian doubt among other variations of it, has sought to undermine the possibility certainty about the external world and, more generally, all knowledge. The philosopher G. E. Moore attempted to respond to skepticism by directly demonstrating his certain knowledge of the external world. As a response to skepticism and to Moore’s attempted refutation of it, Wittgenstein essentially argues that while there is no valid means to actually answer the skeptic, the skeptic’s claims are nonsensical in the first place. The skeptic can only have functional claims when the propositions they doubt are removed from all possible contexts, rendering them meaningless and requiring an invocation of logic external to language and human understanding. Fundamentally, Wittgenstein replaces the response to skepticism’s “you cannot know” by Moore’s “I do know” with what ultimately reduces to, “I do not need to ‘know’. ”

Skepticism and logical possibilityWhile skepticism takes many different forms, the primary form of skepticism under consideration can be described by single, general argument. This skepticism’s basic premise is that we are unable to logically disprove possible states of affairs in the world that would undermine our claims to knowledge about reality (“skeptical possibilities”). Generally, arguments for skepticism take the form of a modus ponens argument, such as,

  1. If I can not distinguish between dreaming and being awake, then I can not be sure I have a body.
  2. I can not distinguish between dreaming and being awake.
  3. Therefore, I can not be sure that I have a body.

Support for the second premise derives from the possibility that, for any empirical proposition we form at a point in time, events could follow that would provide evidence to falsify that belief. If this is true, no empirical proposition is verifiable and thus none are certain.

Wittgenstein does not disagree with this, to an extent; he grants that such subsequent falsifying events are indeed always a possibility. For example, one may have very good reasons for believing his old friend is standing in front of him, but it is imaginable for that person to suddenly start behaving as though he was not that old friend after all (613). [1] However, Wittgenstein challenges the notion that such events transpiring would undermine the relevant prior empirical beliefs about the situation. In other words, he argues that such possibilities do not undermine “knowledge,” in the meaningful sense of the word, but merely fail to satisfy the conditions of a notion of logic removed from practitioners of logic (human beings).

On Doubt

In the second paragraph of On Certainty, Wittgenstein elucidates the role of doubt, almost spelling out immediately what will become his objection against skepticism: “from its seeming to me – or to everyone – to be so, it doesn’t follow that it is so. What we can ask is whether it can make sense to doubt it [emphasis added]” (2). Though the skeptics are correct in questioning the assertion of seeming or “common-sense” empirical fact, such doubts fail to (meaningfully) endorse their assertion that all knowledge can be undermined.

Primarily, the skeptics make the error of conceiving logic as an empirical statement – as something independent of the agent in question – that is subject to the possibility of falsification. The Tractatus, though earlier in Wittgenstein’s philosophical development, is particularly illustrative of this problem with skepticism: “Propositions cannot represent logical form: it is mirrored in them. What finds reflection in language, language cannot represent. ”[2] Moreover, we cannot sensibly falsify (or take any other action standing outside of) logic, since we can not describe what a non-logical world would look like. [3] Yet this is precisely what skepticism demands.

Skepticism, by externalizing logic, thus encounters serious error when it casts extreme doubts upon common-sense propositions, which are necessary for establishing language (and hence the use of logic). When someone says, “There are trees,” he is presupposing the existence of objects. This is not to imply an epistemological assertion that there are objects in a specific sense of the word, but it simply reveals the absurdity of saying “objects do not exist. ” If one holds that to be true, he runs into the intractable problem of explaining of what it is that one is speaking when one says “there are trees.

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