Wednesday, April 07, 2010

We Hold These Truths To Be Self-Evident

Human nature being understood, and moral language being understood, one can make some observations.

Human beings are more likely to thrive under conditions of liberty. The chances of fulfilling a person's preferences by coercing him are much lower than his own chances of fulfilling his preferences by his own discovery of those preferences, decision as to how to fulfill them, and freely undertaking to act on his decisions. If his betters have wisdom on the matter he can seek it out by inquiring of them. If someone decides to control and coerce him, it will unlikely be his better and even if it is, it will unlikely be a man who could fulfill the preferences of his subjects as well as they could fulfill their preferences.

This is pretty close to self-evident. Anyone who understands human nature and history sees that this is so. This is part of the reason why it makes sense to say that it is self-evident that we are endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights.

The rest of the story is this. The terms of morality, "right," "just," "good," and so forth are defined in such a way that certain truths are self-evident, tautologies. "People have a right to the property they earn by labor." "People have a right to liberty." "People have a right to life." Also, "men are equal" in the sense that they are equal under the moral law is true because this is simply the statement that different moral evaluations require that there be relevant differences between the subjects of these different evaluations. If we judge person A's action to be permissible while person B's we judge to be impermissible, then we must be able to point to a morally relevant difference between their actions. In other words the concept of the moral law entails that all subject to it are equal under it. These truths are self-evident because there is nothing that would count as evidence that they were not truths. They are momentous tautologies subsisting at the core of the conceptual system of morality. Morality isn't about cheese or planets. It is about these things; they are the warp and woof of it.

This is why it is so that "we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Some Points about Human Nature

But to get back. I just have a few points about human nature.

Human nature includes a set of desires. These are wired in, with various degrees of intractability and malleability. The set is a cluster: a set with a set of sensible connections amongst its members. By “sensible” I mean reasonable, told in a cogent story, fulfilled in a way that can be explained, told as a fulfilling life. By “fulfilling” I mean a maximization of the fulfillment of the desires in this set.

The intractability and malleability: There are many conflicting possible lifestyles which human beings have selected and found fulfilling. The ascetic lifestyle and the life of the American middle-class family man are a pair of examples. Both can be fulfilling lives. This shows that a narrow and partial fulfillment of the set of desires may be found satisfactory, as well as a broader net fulfillment. The ascetic fulfills only a few desires, the family man many. On the other hand, there are varying degrees of likelihood of achieving a good life amongst these alternate paths. The lifestyle which fulfills only a few of the desires most intensely is less likely to be good. The drug addict, the astronaut who leaves earth alone forever to journey to another solar system, and the ascetic are less likely to have good lives than the family man who has his social life, his hobbies, his religion, his career, his health, etc. So, there is a human nature which constrains the range of possible good lives, even though that range is not narrow.

So, there are ways of life which fulfill human nature in various styles - subsets of the fulfillment of the larger set of desires. Each subset is a structured cluster which may be explained as a life which delighted its owner by fulfilling a large set of his desires in a delightful way. A subset of human desires which hangs together by mutually abetting each other’s fulfillment relies on a set of practices for just that particular fulfillment. This is a culture. Culture is an enormous source of good lives for human beings because it is a way of enabling human beings to fulfill their desires as a large set, including the benevolent ones and the sense of justice. This set of practices emanates from human experience through trial and error, through interaction with the set of desires which is human nature. (Notice that the drug addict, the astronaut who leaves society forever, and the ascetic need little of culture.)

If you make a plan for society, and you are not deeply wise about human nature, you will come up with ghastly austerities which contort our preferences. Top-down social planning requires a grasp of human nature. The rub is that human nature doesn’t mix well with top-down social planning. Such planning is therefore self-undermining. No one is wise enough to create a social plan for the fulfillment of human nature. No one is smart enough to create a culture worth preserving. The set of desires in human nature is too complicated.

Aiming to preserve a culture is a different matter. Naturally, one loves one's culture. It is good because it is a source of human fulfillment. It enables a person to fulfill a large set of his deeply held desires. It gives him pathways which will enable him to fulfill many of them. Naturally, a set of values needs to have mistakes ferreted out of it. But this is perfectly consistent with a devotion to its preservation. People are well-suited to recognizing good cultures, to improving them in small, piecemeal ways, and to preserving them by practicing them, advocating them, and passing them down to the next generation.

There is one more thing which we can see here and which is unfortunate. Those who like to partake in top-down social planning are not likely to be concerned with planning in a way consistent with human nature. Those who are so concerned are not likely to be interested in taking a role in government. In other words, the one who would control and plan society is more likely to be one who doesn't understand that he must let culture take the lead and not try to replace it with his plan. People who want power are usually like that. Human nature is suited to limited government. Societies are fortunate which promote to leadership people who do not wish to replace their society's culture.

As the Declaration of Independence says, we have inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. What this means is that human nature is such that a person's life cannot be good unless he is alive and is free enough to pursue the fulfillment of a large subset of the desires which make up human nature. Since it is self-evident to anyone who understands human nature and the concepts of right and wrong that human beings have a right to pursue good lives, it follows that human beings by nature have rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. (Notice that it is not strictly self-evident that we have those rights but follows self-evidently from a self-evident premise.)