The Analytic Problem with Personal Moral Relativism

I sat down to write a blog post about this, and realized that I had already done it.  Here’s the original: Personal Moral Relativism Collapses into Emotivism, via David S. Oderberg. But I can give a more succinct account here, for easy reference.

Here’s the basic point: Anyone who claims that moral judgments of the form “X is wrong”  reduces to personal opinion, personal belief, personal view, etc. seems to be saying something incoherent. That is, the attempt to reduce moral judgments to the status of personal belief or opinions fails because it ends up being incoherent.

Why is this the case?

(1) Anyone who makes a claim like “A proposition of the form ‘X is wrong’ (e.g. ‘rape is wrong’) stated by P means only that ‘P believes that X is wrong’ or ‘In P’s opinion, X is wrong’,” is claiming that ‘P believes that X is wrong’ or ‘In P’s opinion, X is wrong’ gives the analysis or meaning of the expression “X is wrong.”

This analysis necessarily fails because “X is wrong” is supposed to be explained as “P believes that X is wrong” which contains the the proposition “X is wrong” embedded within it—and so this embedded portion of “P believes that X is wrong” still needs to be explained. If it is true that “X is wrong” means “P believes that X is wrong” then the “X is wrong” embedded inside “P believes that X is wrong” means “P believes that X is wrong,” which yields the analysis “P believes that P believes that X is wrong.”  And “P believes that P believes that X is wrong” itself still contains the embedded “X is wrong” and so becomes “P believes that P believes that P believes that X is wrong” … which still contains the embedded “X is wrong,” which is therefore never explained at any level.  All that is done is to set off an infinite regress which explains nothing at any point.

So attempting to analyze or give the meaning of “X is wrong” as someone’s belief or opinion or view that “X is wrong” is failed pseudo-analysis of moral propositions, being both infinite and failing at every point to give the meaning of “X is wrong.”

(2) Alternately one could attempt to analyze “X is wrong” stated by P as “P disapproves of X.” But now one needs to give the analysis or meaning of “P disapproves of X”—it should be clear that “P disapproves of X” cannot mean “P thinks that X is wrong” because this analysis would be both circular and generate same infinite regress problem above.

(3) One could hold that “X is wrong” stated by P means “P disapproves of X” where “P disapproves of X” is treated as a brute psychological fact without any rational content—it need not be analyzed because it has no rational content. But if the relativist makes this move, he is embracing emotivism, which entirely removes moral judgments from the sphere of reason altogether, which is not what the relativist meant originally when he said that moral judgments were personal judgments.  He did not, presumably, mean at first to deny that they are judgments.  He only wanted to claim that they were “personal” judgments.  But clearly one cannot coherently hold that “all moral judgments are really only personal judgments and are also not judgments at all.”

The UPSHOT: The “personal relativist” needs to give a coherent analysis of moral judgments of the from “X is wrong” that (a) does not set off an infinite non-explanatory regress, (b) is not circular, and (c) does not collapse his position into a different position entirely, viz. emotivism.

Here is philosopher Davis S. Oderberg saying essentially the same thing:

First there is the semantic problem: A proposition of the form ‘Doing X is wrong’ uttered by P (for some action or type of behavior X and some person P) is, according to the personal relativist, supposed to mean no more nor less than ‘P disapproves of doing X’: the latter statement is claimed to give the meaning or analysis of the former. But ‘P disapproves of doing X’ cannot, on this analysis, be equivalent to ‘P believes that doing X is wrong’, since ‘Doing X is wrong’ is precisely what the relativist seeks to give the meaning of; in which case the analysis would be circular.

On the other hand, the relativist might again analyze the embedded sentence ‘Doing X is wrong’ in ‘P believes that doing X is wrong’ as ‘P believes that doing X is wrong’, and so on, for every embedded occurrence of ‘Doing X is wrong’, thus ending up with an infinite regress: ‘P believes that P believes that P believes . . . that doing X is wrong.’ This, of course, would he no analysis at all, being both infinite and leaving a proposition of the form ‘Doing X is wrong’ unanalyzed at every stage.

Such an obvious difficulty might make one wonder that any relativist should support such a way of trying to analyze ‘Doing X is wrong’; but if he is committed to the idea that morality is a matter of opinion or personal belief, it seems that he tacitly invokes just such a pseudo-analysis. The only other route the relativist can take is to assert that ‘P disapproves of doing X’ needs no further gloss: it is a brute statement of disapproval that does not itself invoke the concept of wrongness (or rightness, goodness and the like). But then personal relativism collapses into emotivism, the theory that moral statements are just expressions of feeling or emotion and only appear to have the form of judgements that can he true or false. Emotivism is a different theory from relativism, however, and more will he said about it in the next section. Unless the personal relativist can give an analysis of disapproval that is neither circular, nor infinitely regressive, nor collapses his theory into emotivism, he is in severe difficulty; and it is hard to see just what such an analysis would look like.

Personal Moral Relativism Collapses into Emotivism, via David S. Oderberg

I recently made a post to Twitter to explain why the simplest kind of moral subjectivism necessarily collapses into emotivism or moral non-cognitivism.  The basic argument is that one cannot coherently reduce “P is wrong” to a mere opinion or belief that “P is wrong” because, opinions and beliefs are propositional attitudes towards a proposition, in this case, the proposition “P is wrong,” which, if it is proposition, must necessarily have a truth-value. If it does not have a truth value, it is senseless to claim that the analysis of such judgements is to say that someone has a view about what its truth value is.

This point is made very cogently by philosopher David S. Oderberg in his magisterial Moral Theory: A Nonconsequentialist Approach, which I highly recommend to all my readers, as well as its companion volume Applied Ethics: A Nonconsequentialist Approach.

I here reproduce Oderberg’s analysis from Chapter 1 of his book, specially about the semantic objection to moral relativism—a case originally made by philosopher Peter Geach, whose work I also highly recommend to anyone interested:


Perhaps the most widespread form of relativism, again deriving from the philosophy of David Hume, is what I shall call personal relativism, more usually called subjectivism. The central claim of personal relativism is that the truth or falsity (truth value) of moral statements varies from person to person, since morality is merely a matter of opinion. Now there are various ways in which subjectivists have elaborated this basic thought, developing more or less sophisticated semantic theories linking moral judgements with statements of opinion. It is impossible to look at them all, but since the sorts of objection I will raise can be applied in modified form to different versions, let us take just one kind of subjectivist theory. It is one of the more simple varieties, and while many philosophers would say it was too simple, it also happens to be the sort of subjectivism that the vast majority of students of moral philosophy believe; and it is an approach that many will continue to believe even after they have finished studying philosophy!

According to this version of subjectivism, there is no objective truth to the statement, for instance, ‘Child abuse is wrong’: all that a person is entitled to claim is something equivalent to ‘I disapprove of child abuse.’ Instead of saying ‘I disapprove of child abuse’, Alan may say ‘Child abuse is wrong for me’, or ‘Child abuse is wrong from my subjective viewpoint’, but he is not then allowed to say ‘Child abuse is wrong, pure and simple’, since it might be right from Brian’s subjective viewpoint—he will say ‘Child abuse is right for me, though it is wrong for Alan, who personally disapproves of it.’ Generally speaking, moral judgements can never be considered apart from the question of who makes them. A moral judgement, ‘X is wrong’, made by a person P, can only be assessed for truth or falsity by relativizing it to P: the subjectivist says that ‘X is wrong’, uttered by P, is equivalent in meaning to ‘I disapprove of X’ uttered by P. If an observer were to report on P’s opinion, he would say, ‘X is wrong for P, or as far as P in concerned; in other words, P disapproves of it.’ But the observer can still say, ‘However, I personally approve of it, so “X is wrong” is not true for me.’

For the subjectivist, to claim that there is a fact about the morality of child abuse, which transcends mere personal opinion, is a philosophical mistake. Certainly, there are facts about what is wrong for Alan, right for Brian, and so on. These facts are genuine—they are reports of the opinions (or ‘sentiments’ to use Hume’s term) of individual moral judges—but since each judge makes law only for himself, he cannot impose his view of things on others. For the subjectivist, once the facts are in concerning the moral opinions of those engaged in a disagreement, there is no room for further argument. More accurately, there might be room for argument over other facts: Alan might claim ‘I approve of child abuse’ because he does not know the psychological damage it does to children. Had he known, he would have claimed ‘I disapprove of child abuse.’; and another person might change Alan’s mind by pointing out the relevant facts. But what the personal relativist holds is that as long as there is no dispute over the facts, two people can make opposing claims about the morality of a certain action or type of behavior with no room left for rational dispute. That have, as it were, reached bedrock.

As was said, the version of subjectivism just outlined is a simple one and all sorts of refinements can be added. Still, it is the view held by very many philosophy students, not to say quite a few philosophers (and certainly vast numbers of the general population), and should be assessed in that light. Further, as was also noted, the general kinds of observations that can be raised against it apply to the more sophisticated versions. We can only consider a few devastating objections here, but it should be noted that the validity of any one on its own is enough to refute subjectivism, whatever the strength of the others. Given the weight of all the objections, however, it is surprising that personal relativism is so widely held.

First there is the semantic problem: A proposition of the form ‘Doing X is wrong’ uttered by P (for some action or type of behavior X and some person P) is, according to the personal relativist, supposed to mean no more nor less than ‘P disapproves of doing X’: the latter statement is claimed to give the meaning or analysis of the former. But ‘P disapproves of doing X’ cannot, on this analysis, be equivalent to ‘P believes that doing X is wrong’, since ‘Doing X is wrong’ is precisely what the relativist seeks to give the meaning of; in which case the analysis would be circular. On the other hand, the relativist might again analyze the embedded sentence ‘Doing X is wrong’ in ‘P believes that doing X is wrong’ as ‘P believes that doing X is wrong’, and so on, for every embedded occurrence of ‘Doing X is wrong’, thus ending up with an infinite regress: ‘P believes that P believes that P believes . . . that doing X is wrong.’ This, of course, would he no analysis at all, being both infinite and leaving a proposition of the form ‘Doing X is wrong’ unanalyzed at every stage.

Such an obvious difficulty might make one wonder that any relativist should support such a way of trying to analyze ‘Doing X is wrong’; but if he is committed to the idea that morality is a matter of opinion or personal belief, it seems that he tacitly invokes just such a pseudo-analysis. The only other route the relativist can take is to assert that ‘P disapproves of doing X’ needs no further gloss: it is a brute statement of disapproval that does not itself invoke the concept of wrongness (or rightness, goodness and the like). But then personal relativism collapses into emotivism, the theory that moral statements are just expressions of feeling or emotion and only appear to have the form of judgements that can he true or false. Emotivism is a different theory from relativism, however, and more will he said about it in the next section. Unless the personal relativist can give an analysis of disapproval that is neither circular, nor infinitely regressive, nor collapses his theory into emotivism, he is in severe difficulty; and it is hard to see just what such an analysis would look like.

David S. Oderberg, Moral Theory: A Nonconsequentialist Approach; Blackwell: Oxford, 2000; pp. 16-18.


In case it adds something, I will also append the write-up I made for Twitter:


Troy Leavitt on GamerGate and the Religion of Identity Politics

Game developer Troy Leavitt recently released a video on YouTube called GamerGate — Thoughts of a Game Developer. It’s very good, and I recommend you watch it.

But the thing that most caught my attention was his extremely clear and concise description of what he calls “The Religion of Identity Politics”—which could just as well be called “The Religion of Social Justice” (as I would probably call it) or “The Religion of Political Correctness.”

And he understands GamerGate, correctly, as a revolt against this aggressive Religion.

His words are good, so I am going to share them, because that’s what I do.



My explanation is that GamerGate was a consumer revolt against the Religion of Identity Politics.  I think the word ‘religion’ is the right word here, because there’s kind of a central dogma in identity politics, and that is that you are defined not by your behavior, not by your character, but by your demographic identifiers. For example, you start with your sex, whether you’re male or you’re female; then you move on to your race, whether you’re white, or black, or asian, or indian or whatever that might be; and then your sexual orientation, gay, straight, bi, and so forth—and this is supposed to be your political group. It’s how you’re supposed to be IDENTIFIED. And the Religion of Identity Politics goes on to say that the more rare your particular instances of demographics are, the more oppressed you are, and hence, the more righteousness within the religion you can assume. Conversely, the more commonplace are your demographics, the more oppressive you are, and hence the more evil secretly resides in your very existence.

To me, this is very much like original sin. If you just happen to be born into a majority position, within the Religion of Identity Politics, you are automatically sinful. Your behavior doesn’t really matter. That’s what they mean by ‘privilege’—it’s your position, you’re just born into it. Note that this is the exact opposite of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s plea that people should be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Now also within the religion, the only way you can really be redeemed is to accept your inherent sinful nature as on oppressor—to whatever degree that is—and you confess your demographic markers. You say, “I’m sorry I’m white, I’m sorry I’m male, I’m sorry I’m straight!” and then you promise, you promise to do better, to have a change of heart, to strive to overcome your inherently sinful ways. And you do that be denigrating yourself, by putting yourself down, and elevating others who might be in a more oppressed state. It doesn’t matter if you’re a good person. Within the Religion of Identity Politics, it’s purely your demographic.

Go back and look at those articles [about gamers] that all dropped on the same day of August 28, and you can see pretty clearly that they’re evangelizing this religion of identity politics. And they’re saying “This is the solution to this scandal we see over here.” The authors, the press people, were kind of like priests and priestesses of Identity.

No! I reject your religion. I reject what you’re saying about me! And I’m going to push back. I’m going to fight back against anybody who says I have to suddenly buy into your religion to be a good person.” To me, that’s what GamerGate was all about and what it continues to be all about.

It’s a rejection of the Religion of Identity Politics.

Can an Atheist be Moral?

You sometimes hear this question, “Can an atheist be moral?”

There’s a fallacious line of reasoning that would lead one to answer “No.”

There’s a much more plausible one that would lead one to answer “Yes.”

I’m going to explore these two lines, and then add my own judgment, “Not fully.”

(1) The fallacious line of reasoning is this:

  1. The basis of morality is God.
  2. An atheist rejects God.
  3. ∴ An atheist rejects the basis of morality.
  4. ∴ An atheist rejects morality itself.
  5. One who rejects morality itself cannot be moral.
  6. ∴ An atheist cannot be moral.

This line of reasoning isn’t insane, but it is invalid.  The error is that 4 doesn’t follow from 3.  What follows from 3 is “If an atheist is rationally consistent, he will reject morality, since he rejects the basis of morality.”  A rationally consistent atheist indeed logically ought to affirm nihilism, as Nietzsche makes so very evident, or Sartre, or more recently, philosopher Joel Marks, a Kantian ethicist for many years, who was finally, inexorably, led to the conclusion that atheist entails nihilism. See here.  Also, see my own article on Why Atheism Entails Absurdism and Nihilism.

But even if one is a theoretical nihilist, which an atheist rationally ought to be, no one can actually, practically, existentially be a nihilist.  Human beings are irreducibly moral creatures, and regardless of what one thinks, one will have an ethos, a moral character.  It might be a bad, vicious character, but it is impossible to be a human being without one; thus, all human beings are “moral” in this loose sense, that is, their lives express preferences and beliefs about what is good and bad.

(2) Not all atheists manage to draw the conclusion that atheism entails nihilism.  They often simply short-circuit the reasoning process—I suspect that people like Joel Marks, a philosopher, simply couldn’t live with the cognitive dissonance.  Others, such as Nietzsche and Sartre (in their different and characteristic ways) manage to take a perverse delight (of a sort, one which usually lives alongside despair) in nihilism.

I think, though, for the most part, most atheists are intellectually content to simply hand-wave the question of the foundation of morality, and give absurd answers such as “The basis of morality is society” or “the basis of morality is evolution.”

This is, I believe, really just a kind of ad hoc patch.  The atheist really does accept morality, just like everyone else (expect the sociopath and the very rare true nihilist), he is aware of moral truths like everyone else, and since he is aware of moral truths, that is, since he knows that there is such a thing as objective moral truth, he assumes that his acquaintance with this fact is sufficient to justify his acceptance of it.  In a way, it is, since acquaintance is one way in which we come to be rationally justified in knowing something exists.  In another way, it is not, since his atheism entails that he ought not to accept it, but to discount it as a kind of illusion.  Of course, on atheism, one really ought to account all the deliverances of reason as illusory or delusional or at the very least, untrustworthy—but that’s another matter.  The point here is that while the atheist does indeed have rational warrant for believing in morality, via direct acquaintance with moral reality, he or she also has a defeater for this warrant in his or her atheism itself.  The atheist is essentially in the position of holding: “M requires F to exist. F does not exist. Therefore M cannot and does not exist.  But at the same time, I am directly acquainted with M; therefore M does exist. Therefore M both does and does not exist.” M here stands for “morality” of course, and it is obviously a self-contradictory position to hold that morality both does and does not exist.

There are only two logically consistent ways to meet this dilemma: (1) the atheist can embrace nihilism and deny that morality exists (although he might still say that it has a kind of illusory being, in the way that moral relativists and moral subjectivists are able to talk about “morality” in kind of fictitious sense); this is the path of most intelligent atheists, such as Hume, Nietzsche, and Sartre, or (2) the atheist could accept the moral argument for the existence of God, and become a theist, since the existence of morality entails theism.

For the most part, though, atheists seem to sustain the cognitive dissonance of holding views inconsistent with atheism, by the simple expedient of not conceptually connecting the two ideas. Although it is not logically consistent with his atheism, nothing prevents an atheist from nevertheless using his conscience to be aware of moral truths, and he can easily share many of the same moral motivations as theists, for example, the peer pressure of social approval or disapproval, the fear of legal or social sanctions, and so forth. [ADDENDUM: After listening to Jacquelyn Glynn talk, I note yet ANOTHER way one can be inconsistent: one can firmly declare that morality does not, in fact, exist (since this does follow from atheism) AND also simply keep on making moral judgments, as if one’s conviction that morality does not exist is simply irrelevant to making moral judgments and decisions. I assumed the disconnect would have to lie in a spurious belief that morality can somehow be justified non-theistically; but apparently, one solution is just to reject morality in words, and keep being as moralistic as one pleases.]

While Christianity has a very definite moral teaching, the purpose of Christianity is not to foster moral behavior—indeed, Christianity tells us that we are fallen beings and that we will do evil, whether we think we want to or not.  Christianity is about salvation, and this is something that every human being needs, the moral and the immoral alike.

Two quotes are useful here.

First, Our Lord himself says in Luke 5:29-32

29 And Levi made him a great feast in his house; and there was a large company of tax collectors and others sitting at table[d] with them. 30 And the Pharisees and their scribes murmured against his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; 32 I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

And St. Paul says in Romans 2,

14 When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.

What do these two quotes together tell us?

Firstly, that it is sinners who are in the most dire need of the teaching of Christ.  We should no more be surprised to find the wicked among the Christians than we are to find the sick at a hospital.

Secondly, St. Paul’s quote points to the Christian teaching of the natural law, that all human beings have an awareness of right and wrong “written on their hearts” to which their “conscience bears witness.”

We have, in other words, a natural capacity to discern right and wrong (although this capacity is (a) darkened by sin, although not wholly obliterated, and (b) as enslaved by sin, we lack the power fully to do what we know is right and to refrain from what we know is wrong).

Now, a Christian may in some case receive a special grace of God which helps him or her resist temptation, but how could we say that God does not sometimes grant similar grace to atheists? God has His reasons for what He does.

I think the most we can say is that when normal motivations for right action and refraining from wrongdoing break down, an atheist will be left with considerably less to fall back on than a Christian.  Atheists, for example, are not known for their sustained efforts at charity: they have, like everyone else, an impulse to charity, but once it becomes a burden, the atheist has very little reason to persevere in it, especially when he realizes that much of what he does is, humanly speaking, futile.  Atheists often think they are trying to fix social ills, and should they conclude that a given problem is insoluble, they will often, “rationally” for a given value of rationality, stop trying to fix the problem; Christian charity, on the other hand, is not first and foremost about trying to solve or fix problems; we believe, in fact, that our deepest problems are simply not within our power to fix or solve.  That is not the task to which we are called.

(3) And this brings me to my answer.  An atheist should have a working conscience and can arrive at an understanding of the natural law without being a believer, so in what way would an atheist be at a disadvantage with respect to morality or virtue?

The only one I can think of is that an atheist cannot, eo ipso, have the virtue of piety.  An atheist will necessarily be vicious to a certain extent, since unbelief or infidelity is in itself a vice and a sin.

It follows that an atheist cannot ever be fully moral, no more than can, say, a thief.  A thief cannot be fully moral, because he is a thief; he steals, and stealing is, in itself, immoral. An atheist cannot be fully moral, because he is an atheist; he disbelieves, and unbelief is, in itself, immoral.  An atheist cannot properly honor God as God, nor grant Him the worship He is due, which is a violation of justice (to withhold something that is truly owed); an atheist must display the vice of ingratitude towards God, since he cannot be grateful to one whom he does not acknowledge even to exist.

An atheist will not, of course, consider impiety or unbelief a serious evil, or an evil at all.  But this very fact, properly understood, points not to the benignity of unbelief, but to a certain additional darkening of the intellect and corruption of the soul which is caused by unbelief.

I somewhat regularly post a remark of Fr. Josiah Trenham on Twitter, which is this:


Needless to say, this is not a remark that atheists like to hear.  But Father Josiah has very good reasons for saying this, not the least of which is that it is true.

Atheism is in itself a great intellectual and moral corruption and it leads to yet further intellectual, moral, and spiritual corruption.

So in this sense—which is not negligible—an atheist cannot be fully moral.

The Vices of Infidelity and Blasphemy

Some thoughts on Aquinas’ teaching on the vice of infidelity, by John Hacker-Wright, from the Florida Philosophical Review, Vol VIII, Issue 1, Summer 2008:

For Aquinas, disbelief or infidelity can arise in two ways, one of which is not blameworthy. Anyone who has not heard the call cannot be held accountable for failing to respond. Disbelief as a vice is the willed disposition not to believe. In the case of vicious disbelief, the truth is presented to the intellect, but the will turns the mind away from the truth (10, 3). For Aquinas, the most fundamental disposition behind such a refusal to believe is, of course, pride. Among the seven deadly sins, pride is, as Sirach 10:15 has it, the origin of all sin, for it is the intention to excel above God. Since this attempt implies at least one false belief about the nature and value of creatures, it leads to inordinate desires for temporal goods, namely, those goods whereby I would excel above God (1a2ae 84, 2).  Pride leads to contempt for God, whose greatness one wishes impossibly to surpass.

Now, blasphemy is associated with disbelief in that it consists of deliberately holding a false belief about God. The will and the intellect work together perversely in generating blasphemy. The will of the infidel who blasphemes is pridefully contemptuous of God. The infidel, because of this contempt, rejects the truth and embraces falsehoods about God. Even inwardly holding falsehoods about God is sufficient for blasphemy on Aquinas’ view (13, 1). Inwardly and intentionally forming a false proposition about God reveals a disbelieving disposition; it starts one on a course that, if continued, will render one utterly insensitive to truth, and thus, irretrievably separated from God. Blasphemy is therefore a major sin for Aquinas because it undermines an individual’s movement toward his chief end, the beatific vision. Of course, blasphemous thoughts that are published in any manner, whether through speech, writing, or artworks also perpetrate harm against others, on the assumption that the beatific vision is indeed their chief end and that their faith may be undermined in however small a way by the lies of the blasphemer.

In sum, for Aquinas, blasphemy is wrong because it is disorienting, both to the person who  articulates it (whether inwardly or outwardly) and potentially to others who come into contact with the blasphemy. The disorientation works like this: I start with a true apprehension of God, including his ultimate value, but I begin to want things, temporal goods such as money. If I sinfully give in to such desires, I gradually want to become the richest and perhaps the most famous; these ideals affect my beliefs about what is good in life. My choices have affected my intellect by giving me a false view of what is good. I am now disoriented. Gradually, I am won over by an ideal that involves wanting to be the best, but in my own manner as a creature; that is, I cannot, as a creature, be the greatest in the way God is, but I can be the greatest creature, and I want that way of being the greatest to be the greatest, period. The will enters here to sway the intellect to disbelief. I want to believe, and choose to believe that God either does not exist or is not good in the way that he is presented in scriptures. I make him out to be susceptible to the flaws of creatures. I will no doubt want others to share my false view of God, which I may eventually come to believe, in order that they might at least come to share my inflated vision of myself. I have come to base my life on a false vision of what is good. My will and my beliefs are oriented toward a hollow, illusory, and indeed, an impossible goal, and I strive to bring others to share these views and desires in order to shore up my own moral mirage. I have, in this case, made of my life a worthless sham, through rejecting a genuine end, and, worse yet, I may not even realize it.

Distributive Justice, Pattern Justice, Social Justice

Distributive justice is the kind of justice that is concerned with the distribution of goods.  Aristotle contrasts distributive justice with corrective justice, which “sets things straight” when there has been a violation of justice, either criminal or civil.

Aristotle further notes that distributive justice always involves some kind of idea of merit or desert, which will serve as the basis of the distribution.  Whether a distribution is regarded as just or not will depend on the standard of merit or desert brought to bear.

In some cases, a defective standard of desert will produce an obviously unjust distribution. For example, a racist might believe that his own race deserves more than other races (or that other races deserve less) just on the basis of using race as the criterion of desert.  Or again, in many legal situations (not all) Islam explicitly treats one man as worth the same as two women, so if a women deserves X, and man deserves 2X, just because he is a man.  Prima facie, these seem to be clear examples in injustice deriving from faulty standard of desert in seeking justice.

The philosopher Robert Nozick has argued that there are two basic kinds of theories of distributive justice, which I will call pattern theories and history of acquisition theories.

A pattern theory of distributive justice holds that a given distribution of goods, honors, wealth, income, and social opportunities is just if and only if it conforms to some sort of ideal rational pattern, e.g. “exactly equal for all” according to radical egalitarianism, or “whatever abstract pattern maximizes happiness” according to utilitarianism.

By contrast, a history of acquisition theory of distributive justice holds that a given distribution of goods is just if and only if all persons have acquired the goods they hold in the right way, e.g. via fair exchange.

Now, there is a good deal to criticize in Nozick, and I’m not endorsing him wholesale here, but this distinction seems cogent, as is the point he uses it to make:

Pattern theories of distributive justice are all necessarily incompatible with any significant amount of freedom or liberty for the simple yet profound reason that freedom disturbs patterns.

To illustrate this with an extreme example for clarity, suppose we adopt a radical egalitarian pattern theory and actually bring it about. We all have exactly an equal amount of wealth.  What am I free to do with my property? I cannot give away even the smallest amount of money to anyone, because the pattern would then be broken, and this would be, by definition, unjust.

And this will be the case regardless of what the pattern is: the free choices of agents will necessarily disrupt the pattern, which will then have to be restored, and for that matter, constantly maintained by coercive authoritarian force.

In other words, pattern theories of distributive justice necessarily destroy liberty and require authoritarian or even totalitarian policing to constantly force things to fit the pattern.

It goes without saying that Marxism is a paradigm case of a pattern theory, both in theory and in practice.

I also note that Social Justice is a pattern theory (not surprising, since it is cultural Marxism)—even if SJWs can never manage to say what the end state pattern is supposed to look like exactly.

Let me give another example. I’ve been playing a lot of Fallout 4 recently (fun game, highly recommended), and one of the things you do is manage a number of Settlements, assigning your settlers to different jobs.  You need food providers and guards, and you can have stores, including a general store, clothing store, weapons store, a medical clinic, and a bar.

Let’s say I have the following set-up

2 slots for farmers

3 slots for guards

1 each of the 5 types of store.

Suppose I have 10 settlers, 5 men and 5 women.

And now suppose I want to use a feminist pattern theory of justice that requires 50/50 representation in all jobs.

It should be obvious that I can’t have a static pattern. The guards can’t be 50/50 male/female because there’s 3 slots: it would have to be 2 men and 1 woman, or 1 woman and 2 men.  As for the stores, each is unique, so there can’t be 50/50 representation there either. Each merchant must be either male or female.  I can have 1 male farmer and 1 female farmer; that’s about as static as I can get.

So, to achieve “feminist pattern justice” I would have to rotate jobs around such that the male settlers and the female settlers changed jobs 50% of the time.

The math would get somewhat complicated, but let’s assume for the sake of argument that I could indeed do it. (It wouldn’t be that complicated: my famers are already 50/50, I keep one full-time male guard, and one full-time female guard, which leaves 6 jobs: I just make 3 sets of 2, and switch them back and forth between a male and a female.)

I would now have ACHIEVED feminist pattern justice in my settlement where every job is worked exactly equally by men and woman, either full-time or 50% of the time.

Now suppose that my settlers were real people and not video game characters who will do whatever I tell them. Suppose I have it set up as described above: both farmers and two guards static, the others switching 50% of the time, including a male and a female who switch between the weapon store and the clothing store.

Okay, now suppose this: My full-time female guard would rather farm and my full-time male farmer would rather guard, and they WANT to switch jobs (which would leave me with only female famers and always more male guards than female guards!  Also, my 50/50 weapons store/clothing store minders talk it over, and the woman wants to work at the clothing store full-time (rather than half the time) and the man wants to work at the weapons store full-time rather than half.

May I allow them their “liberty” for their “pursuit of happiness”?

I may not. To do so would necessarily to be to disrupt the pattern as dictated by feminist pattern justice.  It would not only not be morally allowable for me to allow these deviations from the pattern, it would be morally obligatory upon me to force my settlers to fit the pattern.

And what if they grew angry and resentful at me for thwarting their freedom to make life choices which they (rightly) believe to be in their personal best interest, in their interests of happiness and a maximally good life? What justification can I give for my totalitarian interference with their liberty and my deliberate thwarting of their happiness?

Why, justice of course! Specifically, SOCIAL JUSTICE.

Under the rubric of Feminist Pattern Social Justice I not only may act in totalitarian matter, crushing the freedoms of others and significantly impairing their happiness, I MUST DO SO.  


Yet it seems evident that by controlling the choices of others in a directly totalitarian manner in order to force actual living individuals to conform to an abstract pattern is extremely unjust. It is, in fact, evil. Obviously evil. It would deny what some have described as self-evident truths that all persons have unalienable rights to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Following the ideal of Feminist Pattern Social Justice morally requires that I disregard the rights of others to liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Nozick regards this as reductio refutation of pattern theories of distributive justice. The argument in simplest form would be:

  1. Pattern theories of distributive justice entail an unjust from of authoritarian control to force people to fit the pattern and the eradication of whatever freedoms that would disrupt the pattern, including rightful freedoms.
  2. No theory of distributive justice can be correct or just if it entails unjust authoritarian control over people and the eradication of some or all of people’s rightful freedoms.
  3. Therefore, no pattern theory of distributive justice can be correct or just.

This seems basically sound to me, and a fairly obvious point. If justice requires distribution according to an abstract pattern, then a great deal of coercive force will be needed to implement the pattern (I’m thinking of Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot as real world examples) and an extreme and perhaps total curtailment of liberty will be necessary in order to prevent persons from using their liberty to make choices that disrupt the pattern.

And so I return to one of my perennial themes: ‘social justice’ is ethically wrong, because it violates justice, justice in its ordinary sense, without need of a qualifying adjective.

Therefore, I will continue to fight against social justice and SJWs in word and deed, wherever and however I can.

Material Fallacies and the Consensus Gentium

Aristotle always begins his philosophical investigations with a consideration of two starting points, the consensus gentium, that is, the consensus of mankind (if there is one) and the consensus of the wise, the consensus sapientium (if there is one).

Aristotle takes these as starting points of inquiry, not as end points, and he is not unreasonable to do so.

The consensus gentium is not an infallible guide to truth, as I noted in my last post about particles moving apart at the speed of light. On the other hand, as I also noted there, the consensus gentium is often “in the neighborhood of truth” and in a certain sense, represents nothing less than common human experience, which at some point must be foundational for human inquiry.

This point seems important to make, that while the consensus gentium is not an infallible demonstration of truth, it can serve as powerful evidence of truth.

Take an example: it belongs to the consensus gentium that time is linear and has three divisions, past, present, and future, and that it “moves” or things move in it from past to present to future.  The future does not come before the past, nor are things “in the future” before they are “in the past.”

Of course, the philosophical analysis of the nature of time is no easy matter. Almost all of you probably “seemed to yourself to understand” (a lovely Greek phrase) what I just said above, but what exactly did I mean by “before” when I said that the future cannot come “before” the past? Does talking about time always end up involving a kind of self-referential speech? It very possibly does, at least if Heidegger is correct that Being and time are always intertwined in the human cognition of Being—because talk about Being is (IS!) always necessarily self-referential.  Of course, self-referential discourse is not necessarily irrational, and it would be an error to cry “circular reasoning!” at every case of self-referential discourse.  Epistemology, for example, involves thinking about thinking or attempting to know about knowing, both of which seem entirely reasonable and possible to do.

To return to time, for a moment, it would seem that any theory of time which denied that time is linear and is made up of past, present, and future, would have to be a very compelling account indeed, to make it reasonable to reject these beliefs about time.  Our common human experience of time is simply too strong to reject easily.  Some of you may remember the “Hopi Time Controversy” in which linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf argued the Hopis have no concept of time (on the basis of the fact that the Hopi language does not have tensed verbs).  It created a sensation precisely because the idea of a people without an understanding of time is virtually unthinkable for human beings.  If some human beings could be that different from other human beings, human beings must be almost infinitely variable. So much for the idea of human nature! In the event, the fact that the Hopi do not use tensed verbs to express past, present, and future events was rather underwhelming; needless to say, the Hopi do understand time, and are perfectly capable of understanding and expressing distinctions of past, present, future, short time, long time, long ago, soon, not yet, just now, etc.  They just don’t do it by tensing their verbs. “Some languages do not express time by means of verb tenses” is not nearly as shocking a thesis as “some human communities do not have a concept of time.” The former is true, and only mildly interesting; the later would be amazing, if true—but it isn’t. The consensus gentium stands. All human beings understand time, and regard it as linear and dividing into past, present, and future.

It would certainly be fallacious to cry “ad populum fallacy!” at every appeal to the consensus gentium, just as it would be fallacious to cry “appeal to authority fallacy!” at every appeal to a consensus sapientium.

Suppose I wish to argue that “Einstein’s theory of general relativity is a sound theory in physics” and to demonstrate this, I point out that it is overwhelmingly accepted by contemporary physicists, and especially by those who do work in sub-field of cosmology, in which the theory of general relativity is most often required. Have I committed an appeal to authority fallacy by appealing to the consensus sapientium of physicists?

I have not. An appeal to authority can be fallacious, but it need not be.  It is perfectly reasonable to appeal to the scientific consensus on an issue, when there is one. The reason for this is one I have stated many times, but which cannot be stated often enough:

A material fallacy, i.e, an informal fallacy, is a fallacy because of its content (its “material”) not because of its form.  

And this leads to the following corollary:

Not everything that has the form of a material fallacy is fallacious; whether or not something that has the form of a material fallacy is fallacious or not depends on the content.

This is a pretty basic logical point, but you would be surprised how often people think that pointing out that something has the same form as a material fallacy is enough to show that it is that material fallacy.  If pointing to the form were sufficient, the fallacy would be formal, in the way any argument of the form

  1. P ⇒ Q
  2. ¬P
  3. ∴¬Q
  1. If the President is in the White House, then the President is in the United States.
  2. The President is not in the White House.
  3. Therefore, the President is not in the United States.

is invalid.  This is denying the antecedent.

I apologize for insulting your intelligence with this diagram, but this point really does need to be hammered home at this level of simple-mindedness:


A few examples might also help:

  1. “Every brick in the wall weighs 2 kg; therefore the walls weighs 2 kg” is a fallacy of composition. “Every brick in the wall has mass; therefore, the wall has mass” or “every brick in the wall is red, so the whole wall is red” are not instances of the fallacy of composition.  Sometimes it is legitimate to argue from parts to the whole; sometimes it is illegitimate. Only the illegitimate cases are fallacious.
  2. Appealing to the scientific or philosophical consensus about an issue (if there is one) is not a fallacious appeal to authority but a legitimate appeal to authority when the authorities appealed to really are authorities in the relevant subject.
  3. Some slopes are slippery.  In some cases the argument, “We ought not accept A, because A leads to B, which leads to C, which leads to D, which is very bad” is entirely sound.  A slippery slope argument is fallacious only in cases where B, C, and D do not necessarily follow upon A or do not follow with very high probability.    No one would think that “pointing a loaded gun at someone’s head and pulling the trigger” doesn’t reasonably lead to “the gun discharging a bullet into the person’s head” which leads to “the person shot in the head being killed.”  Someone crying “slippery slope fallacy!” at basic causal chains is an idiot.
  4. If I reason that M is a cat because M is the offspring of two cats, I have not committed a genetic fallacy.  Genetic reasoning is perfectly valid in many cases, since the efficient cause of something often does tell us what that thing is in essence.  This is true of ideas as well as material beings. If I know that Lysenkoism is a false and thoroughly discredited biological theory (which it is), I can reasonably dismiss all biological arguments which take Lysenkoism as their theoretical basis.
  5. Similarly, to argue that “Smith is a Lysenkoist and Lysenkoism is false, so Smith’s theories are false” is not to commit a fallacy of guilt by association.
  6. An ad hominem argument is merely a “personalized” argument, in which I argue from a proposition held by a given person P to a conclusion rejected by P, thereby showing that P’s beliefs are inconsistent. Socrates did this all the time, and although it may well be unpleasant to undergo, it isn’t fallacious.  Demonstrating that a given person’s beliefs are inconsistent is not a personal attack, because it suffices to show that at least one of the inconsistent beliefs is necessarily, objectively false. Similarly, to argue that “Alice has trouble attracting men because she is physically ugly and has a very unpleasant personality” is not an ad hominem attack on Alice.  It might not be the correct explanation of Alice’s trouble attracting men, and it might not even be the case that Alice has trouble attracting men—but it isn’t an invalid argument form.  Again, if Ken is a very stupid man who regularly makes invalid arguments using false premises, because he prefers to rationalize his narrow worldview rather than genuinely reason about the world, it is not an ad hominem argument to point this pattern out, and not unreasonable to stop taking Ken’s arguments seriously. Finally, insults and unwelcome or unflattering descriptions of a person don’t even have the form of an ad hominem and so cannot be instances of an ad hominem fallacy.  You would be amazed how many people on the internet think that an insult is an ad hominem fallacy.
  7. Next, if Jorge was born in Belize, to parents who are both natives of Belize, neither of whom has any ancestors who were Scottish or indeed ever visited Scotland, and Jorge has never been to Scotland, nor does Jorge speak a Scottish dialect (Jorge does not, in fact, even speak English), and indeed, Jorge has never heard of Scotland, then Jorge is not a true Scotsman.  Or, to put it succinctly, there are non-Scotsmen.  It is obvious lunacy to attempt to use the “no true Scotsman” fallacy to claim otherwise, that “Necessarily, all human beings are Scotsmen, since anyone denying that a given person is a Scotsman always necessarily commits the no true Scotsman fallacy.”
  8. A reductio ad absurdum is a valid form of refutation. It can appear to have the same form as a fallacious appeal to the consequences of a belief.  “If P is true, then I would be sad; therefore, P is false” is fallacious. “If P is true, then Q is true, and Q is absurd; therefore P is false” is valid.  It is in fact just modus tollens: P ⇒Q; ¬Q; ∴¬P.
  9. I’ll give one more, because it comes up so often in debate about God. Special pleading is a fallacy wherein one makes an exception to a general rule for someone or something on the basis of an irrelevant characteristic of that person or thing. It gets its name from the action of pleading, without sufficient justification, that a given case be treated as special, that is, as different from all other relevantly similar cases.  One is not engaging in special pleading when one can give sufficient justification that the case in question should be treated differently: my standard example of this is the special exception to speed limits that the law affords police officers in pursuit of a criminal, ambulances racing to the emergency room, and fire trucks racing to a fire; one is not engaging in special pleading when one argues that these exceptions to speed limits are legitimate: one can rationally justify these exceptions to the general rule.  Concerning God, atheists should accept that if God is what theists say God is, then God is utterly and completely sui generis, that is, completely in a category of His own with respect to everything else and in all cases.  As far as I can tell, by the very definition of God, it is impossible to commit a fallacy of special pleading in respect to God.  The essence of special pleading is to treat something relevantly the same as something else as if it were different or special; but God is, necessarily, completely different from everything else, and so is, by definition, a unique and special case in all respects. This is the concept of God that theists are using. It is not special pleading to treat something special as special; it is only special pleading to treat something not special as if it were special. That’s the fallaciousness of the fallacy. An atheist cannot reasonably object to theists using such a concept of God, even if it does have the effect of immunizing God from special pleading.  So what? That is not the reason the concept is used.  The concept is used because that is what we theists mean by God.

Bill Vallicella, The Maverick Philosopher, makes our next point, which is actually just my point, plus some good practical advice:


Since material fallacies are not always fallacious, it is very useful to try to determine under what general circumstances something that has the apparent form of the fallacy in question is not fallacious.

Vallicella does this with the No True Scotsman fallacy in this post. Ironically, one of the circumstances Vallicella correctly points out is

4. When the original assertion specifies the content of a belief-system or worldview. Suppose I point out that Communists are anti-religion, believing as they do that it is the opiate of the masses, an impediment to social progress, the sigh of the oppressed, flowers on the chains that enslave, etc. You say you know people who are Communists but are not against religion. I am entitled to the retort that such ‘Communists’ are not Communists at all; they are not true or real or genuine Communists, that they are CINOs, Commies in Name Only, etc. I have not committed the fallacy under discussion.

Back to the Muslims. A Muslim is so-called because of his adherence to the religion, Islam. There are certain core beliefs that are definitive of Islam, and thus essential to it, and that a Muslim must accept if he is to count as a Muslim. To take a blindingly evident example, no Muslim can be an atheist. Also: no Muslim can be a trinitarian, or a pantheist, or a polytheist, or believe in the Incarnation. And of course there are more specific doctrines about the Koran, about the prophet Muhammad, etc., that are essential to the faith of Muslims.

Now suppose I point out that Muslims deny that Jesus is the son of God. You reply that your Muslim friend Ali accepts that Jesus is the son of God. Then I commit no fallacy if I retort that Ali is no true Muslim.

I call this ironic because the “No True Scotsman” fallacy was discovered or invented or first articulated and named by Antony Flew.  Antony Flew, as some of you know, was probably the most influential atheistic philosopher of the 20th century, and his three most noteworthy accomplishments were:

  1. Identifying and naming the No True Scotsman fallacy.
  2. Attempting to redefine “atheist” to mean “one who lacks a belief in God” rather than “one who believes there is no God,” a move that became ubiquitous in professional philosophy for a couple decades (the 70s and 80s, roughly), but which was undone almost single-handedly by the work of Alvin Plantinga at Notre Dame.  This trick doesn’t actually give the atheist the epistemic advantage he seeks—it gives only a rhetorical advantage and so is intellectually dishonest, a piece of sophistry.  Alas, Flew’s legacy is alive and well among “garden variety” atheists, especially on the internet, even if the maneuver has been thoroughly discredited among professional philosophers of religion. On the other hand, philosophy is often stochastic, and thus a reliable predictor of intellectual debate in the future. “Lack of belief” atheists, your days are numbered. Enjoy your rhetorical trick while you can. The same arguments that crushed it in philosophy will eventually make their way into popular discourse, where it will be crushed for the second time (something which has happened time and again in the history of ideas).
  3. And finally for discovering, in his eighties, through a careful study of Aristotle, that there is, in fact, a God; and for openly declaring this, thus proving himself in this instance at least, a true philosopher.  It takes true philosophical courage to admit that the position that one has literally dedicated one’s entire life and philosophical career to defending is wrong. Flew’s change of mind would be comparable to Richard Dawkins’ announcing his conversion to Catholicism.  Well, perhaps slightly less shocking, because Flew understood that he needed to base his atheism on sound reasoning.

Back to the matter at hand. Vallicella’s point about the No True Scotsman fallacy is ironic because Flew primarily wanted to deploy it against adherents of belief-systems or worldviews, specifically against adherents of various religions.  But that is one of the places where it won’t WORK.  Being a Christian or being a Muslim is not like being a Scotsman.

As I have pointed out before, there are such things as XINOs, or “Xs in name only.”

And we often have pretty clear criteria to differentiate between Xs and non-Xs (XINOs and pseudo-Xs are non-Xs).  For example, anyone who rejects the Shahada, who rejects the claim that “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammed is His prophet” is NOT a true Muslim.  Similarly, I would say that rejection of the Nicene Creed or embrace of an anathematized heresy such as Arianism or Pelagianism or Docetism makes one NOT a true Christian.  There are also MINOs and CHRINOs, “Muslims in name only” and “Christians in name only” who claim to believe the Shahada or the Nicene Creed respectively, but who do not, merely giving it lip service to fit in with their surrounding culture; such people are not true Muslims or true Christians.  Neither are Christian heretics true Christians.  It is, in fact, virtually the definition of a heretic that he or she is a pseudo-Christian (“pseudo” means “false” or “fake”); we call them Christian heretics not because they are Christians, but because they are, specifically, pseudo Christians; that is, they look like Christians but are not.  The word “Christian” in the phrase “Christian heretic” works exactly like the word “gold” in “fool’s gold.”  The fact that CHRINOs and Christian heretics CLAIM to be Christians is beside the point; it is also beside the point that some of them may even BELIEVE they are Christians.

I doubt it is an accident that the No True Scotsman fallacy was discovered in our time, when we have decided that anyone can be anything at all, if only they “identify” as that.  A few years back, there was a woman who was a Christian minister who “converted” to Islam—but wished to keep her job as the minister of a Christian church, on the grounds that she was still a Christian, despite her conversion to Islam. She was, she declared, BOTH a Muslim and a Christian. I hope I don’t need to spell out why it is, in fact, impossible to be both these things.

I’ve drifted away from the point I set out to argue in this post, which was going to be that theism ought to be regarded as the rational default position on the basis of the consensus gentium, and that the onus probandi, insofar as there even is such a thing outside formal contexts wherein it is stipulated, falls on the atheist.

Atheists are fond of the phrase “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Fair enough. They go wrong, however, in thinking that the existence of God is an “extraordinary claim.” On the contrary, it is the ordinary claim of all ordinary persons in all times and places. On the basis of the consensus gentium, which has been overwhelmingly in favor of theism in all times and places, it is the non-existence of God or the divine that would be a very extraordinary claim, and would indeed require truly extraordinary evidence.

As far as I can tell, the only evidence ever offered is “I, personally, do not believe in God or the divine,” which of course proves nothing, and to which my normal mental response (if not always my verbal one) is: “What’s wrong with you then? Are you just ignorant, or are you cognitively impaired in some way?” It is usually one of those two. In my experience, the majority of atheists either don’t know what it means to think there is no God (they think it is to lack a belief in a “noisy mythological entity” like the Tooth Fairy or a god such as Thor or Horus). But there are some atheists who seem to have a genuine hole in their soul which renders them completely blind to the numinous.  Atheists, it seems to me, are thus comparable to moral relativists or to sociopaths: the former almost never believe what they say, and do in fact know the difference between good and evil and right and wrong, even while claiming not to at a purely abstract theoretical level; they are simply ignorant of the fact that their concrete beliefs are inconsistent with their “grand theory” (this is extraordinarily common among college freshmen—all one needs to do is do some sort of injustice to them, and they well begin to complain loudly, having discovered they do, in fact, believe in justice, when it is denied them. ADDITION: You don’t even have to do that much: the same students will happily check a box which says “All morality is subjective” and one which says “Rape is always morally wrong, for everyone, everywhere, at any time.” The don’t even KNOW that they have conflicting beliefs.).  Sociopaths, on the other hand, really do seem incapable of distinguishing good and evil, right and wrong, and this because of a radical cognitive deficiency on their part. Some atheists seem to have a comparable sort of cognitive blindness with respect to the divine.  Much consideration and experience has led me to the view that many atheists are not atheists because of faulty reasoning, but because of a deeper fault in their cognitive abilities.

Since it would be virtually impossible for a cognitively blind atheist to be a believer, I can only assume that this issue will be addressed by God upon the atheist’s death, in whatever way is best.

I’ll have to take up the case for the consensus gentium as the rational default position another time. The things about material fallacies needed to be said, so my time was well spent, even if not quite as I planned.

Werner Foerster, Assata Shakur, and Black Lives Matter

We begin at a grave.


Werner Foerster’s Grave in New Jersey


This is the grave of New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster.

Werner Foerster was born in 1939, in Leipzig, Germany, under the despotic Nazi regime. His earliest years were colored by the horror of Hilter’s Germany, and when the Nazis fell, in 1945, Foerster continued his lesson in tyranny, living under the police state that was communist East Germany. At age 19, he knew he had to take his chance for freedom, and escaped to West Germany, part of the flood of East to West German refugees that provoked East Germany in 1961 the year after Foerster’s flight, to build the infamous Berlin Wall, one of the great monuments of tyranny and oppression in the 20th century.

Foerster worked as a welder in Wilhelmshaven, in West Germany, where he met Rosa, the woman who would become his wife and the mother of his son. He rarely talked about his life in East Germany, not wishing to burden his wife with his memories of life first the communist dictatorship.  Eventually, the couple decided to move to the United States, to New Jersey, where they were married in 1964.

In 1970, two things happened in Werner’s life. He and Rosa had a son, and Werner joined the New Jersey State Police. He understood the difference between a land in which the police are a tool of oppression, as in police state East Germany, and a land in which it is the duty of the police to serve and protect the people from those who would harm them.

His memorial reads, in part:

“His service with the division was characterized by loyalty, fearless performance of duty and faithful and honorable devotion to the principles of the New Jersey State Police.”


Fearless Dedication of Duty and Service to the Citizens of New Jersey

His “End of Watch” occurred on May 2, 1973.

He died responding to a call for backup from a fellow office, who had pulled over a vehicle with three black people, who the officer rightly recognized as potential dangerous.  Werner Foerster went to give aid to his fellow officer.

The two officers were on alert, ready for trouble, but were attacked with a suddenness and extremity of violence that nevertheless caught them by surprise.  One of the men managed to get Foerster’s gun away from him and shot him dead with his own weapon, leaving Rosa a widow, and Forester’s 3-year-old son fatherless.

The three suspects the officers had had the misfortune to pull over that day were radical domestic terrorists, members of the Black Panther Party and the even more radical Black Liberation Army, Sundiata Acoli, Zayd Malik Shakur, and Assata Shakur.

Zayd Shakur was killed in the gunfight.  Sundiata Acoli and Assata Shakur were captured and sent to prison to await trial the murder of Officer Foerster.  Assata Shakur escaped prison and fled to Cuba, where she remains to this day, listed on the FBI’s Most Wanted List, never having paid for her part in the murder of Officer Foerster. Acoli was sentenced to life in prison, although there has been sustained political pressure to free him.  He was granted parole in 2014, although has not yet been released, as the State of New Jersey is appealing the ruling at present.

The racial situation in the United States being what it is, attempts are constantly made to portray Acoli and the Shakurs as victims and heroes.  You can read one such tendentious portrayal here.

Assata Shakur, terrorist, criminal, accessory to the murder of a good man and a brave officer of the law is nowadays best known as the direct inspiration of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Her words have become one of the most commonly heard mantras not only of Black Lives Matter but of Social Justice Warriors on campuses throughout the United States. Anyone who follows the doings of Black Lives Matter or the regressive left in general will have heard these words, whether being spewed from a megaphone in the hand of multi-millionaire Jonathan Butler at Mizzou or students holding hands in a circle at Claremont Mckenna or Yale or Smith or a dozen or hundred other colleges and universities across the United States:

“It is our duty to fight for our freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love each other and support each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

“Nothing to lose but our chains” is a direct quote from the Communist Manifesto, so we have an idea what the “freedom” being fought for here is.  It is the false freedom that Werner Foerster and millions of others risked their lives to escape in East Germany, not the real freedom of rights and laws that Werner Foerster dedicated himself to protecting when he took up the uniform and duty of a police officer.

“Love each other” is parody of Christ’s teaching “love one another.” Unlike Christians, however, who are also told by their Lord to “love your neighbors” and even “love your enemies,” this particular injunction to “love each other” is perfectly compatible with hating those who aren’t part of “the movement,” and being perfectly willing to call for their deaths, or to bring those deaths about.

Black Lives Matter draws its fundamental political inspiration from a women who advocated the violent killing of police officers, who took part in the violent murder of Officer Werner Foerster, as well as dozens of other crimes, who escaped justice for her crimes by fleeing to the protection of a dictator, and is a vile and evil human being.

It should surprise no one that Black Lives Matter frequently both advocates and celebrates the killing of cops, the official statements of various BLM propagandists notwithstanding. In our age of ubiquitous phone cameras, it is all too easy to catch the members of Black Lives Matter saying what they really think and believe.  Indeed, they often shout it, in mass chants such as “What do we want? Dead cops! When do want it? Now!” or “Pigs in a blanket, fry ’em like bacon!” or in the explosion of celebration at the murder of five polices officers in Dallas in 2016 across social media—officers who, ironically, were present to provide security for a Black Lives Matter protest.  In the event, it turned out it was not Black Lives Matter protestors who needed protection, but the police themselves—from a member of Black Lives Matter.

So when ever you hear the above chant, please see past the empty rhetoric of “freedom” and “duty” and “love” and “losing our chains.”  That’s all air. “Words are wind.” It says nothing concrete, nothing specific.  If it means anything, it means what Marxists always mean, the opposite of what they say:


Instead, when you hear it, turn your mind to this brave man, who lived through the horrors of Nazism and the worst kind of Communist tyranny, only to escape to freedom and a new life of family and public service in the United States.  And only to have his hard-won new life in freedom taken from him by black Marxist domestic terrorists.

When you hear that odious chant, see this.


Officer Foerster’s Funeral in 1973

This is the casket on which Black Lives Matter is built.

George Carlin on Rights

Someone didn’t like my post on Hohfeldian rights on the grounds that there are no such thing as rights.  He cited a monologue by George Carlin on the issue.  Now, George Carlin was a great comedian, one of the best of all time probably.  And comedians often say things which are absurd and untrue, because they are funny. They often also say things that are true, and also funny.

It might be a disservice to Carlin to pretend his comedic monologue is meant to be philosophically coherent statement of his view on rights, but Carlin does seem to mean what he says, at least much of the time.

Unfortunately, like most things George Carlin says, while he is very funny, his view won’t hold up to a philosophical examination.  I found a transcript of the relevant monologue:

Here’s one more item for you, the last in our civics book: Rights. Boy, everyone in this country is always running around yammering about their fucking rights. I have a right, you have no right, we have a right, they don’t have a right… Folks, I hate to spoil your fun but-there’s no such thing as rights, okay? They’re imaginary. We made them up! Like the Boogie Man… the Three Little Pigs, Pinocchio, Mother Goose, shit like that. Rights are an idea, they’re just imaginary, they are a cute idea, cute… but that’s all, cute, and fictional. But if you think you do have rights, let me ask you this, where do they come from? People say, well, they come from God, they’re God-given rights… Aw fuck, here we go again… here we go again. [laughing] The God excuse. The last refuge of a man with no answers and no argument, it came from God. Anything we can’t describe, must have come from God.

Okay, so Carlin is making two fallacious arguments here.  The first seems to be something like “Rights are ideas; therefore rights are fictions.”  He seems to be assuming the principle that everything that is an abstract entity is made up or imaginary.

But this is obviously false.  Mathematical entities are abstract entities or ideas, and yet they are not made up or imaginary.  Logical entities, such as propositions, are abstract entities, “ideas” if you like, and are not made up.  Scientific entities, such as the laws of nature are abstract entities, but they are not made up or imaginary.  Metaphysical entities such as essences are abstract entities and are not made up or imaginary (unless you are a nominalist, but no one has ever figured out how to be one of those in a rationally coherent way).  The only abstract entities that are made up or imaginary are imaginary things.

Perhaps what Carlin has in mind is that it is possible to falsely assert a right where none exists. In this sense one can attempt to “make up” a right.  But from “some rights are falsely asserted” you can’t logically get to “all rights are falsely asserted.”  To see that, consider the parallel logical cases “Some accusations of rape are false; therefore, all accusations of rape are false” and “Some assertions are false; therefore, all assertions are false.”  The fact that someone can attempt to assert a right they don’t really have no more proves that there are no rights than someone uttering a falsehood proves there are no truths.

Next, Carlin is making an atheistical straw man argument, in claiming that any appeal to God is an “excuse” made by those “with no argument.”  He certainly hasn’t said anything yet to back that up.  One could just as easily dismiss all of science by simply declaring that appeals to “nature” are “an excuse” made by those who don’t have any arguments.

Consider these venerable words:

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.

Are the American Framers really so desperate and irrational as Carlin makes out? I doubt it.

There seems to be a core of truth in Carlin’s line of reasoning, which is the connection of rights to God, the grounding of rights in God, which Carlin uses as a premise:

  1. If rights exist, then God exists.
  2. God doesn’t exist.
  3. So, rights don’t exist.

But as we say in philosophy, “One man’s modus ponens is another man’s modus tollens.” Carlin’s modus tollens can be answered by a modus ponens, thus:

  1. If rights exist, then God exists.
  2. Rights exist.
  3. So, God exists.

In fact, the “argument for the existence of God from natural, universal human rights” seems to be a version of the argument from objective morality, which is one of the stronger arguments for God, since few atheists are actually courageous enough to draw the full consequences of their nihilistic position.


Carlin laying claim to one of those rights he says don’t exist.  This is a funny riff. It leaves me thinking he’s not serious about there not being any rights.

Personally, folks, I believe that if your rights came from God, he would have given you the right to have some food every day, and he would have given you the right to a roof over your head, God would have been looking out for you. [applause] God would have been looking out for you. [applause] You know that? He wouldn’t have been worrying about making sure you have a gun so you can get drunk on Sunday night and kill your girlfriend’s parents.

This is a very common atheist fallacy. It is an argument that goes something like this

  1. If I were God, I would do X, Y, Z.
  2. God doesn’t do X, Y, or Z.
  3. Therefore God doesn’t exist.

The trouble with this, of course, is that it presumes that a finite mortal mind can understand the actions of God, which we are not in a position to do.

Next, Carlin is taking a comedic swing at the Second Amendment, but it’s a miss. The right to have arms has to do with the basic human natural right to self-defense, of one’s life, liberty, and property, or the lives, liberty, and property of others.

Thrasymachus and Machiavelli notwithstanding, might does not make right. Might does, however, allow those who are willing to trample the rights of others to do so—unless those whose rights are attacked have sufficient might or force to defend their rights.  No one has a right to murder me or to rape me, but the state can only protect me to a limited extent.  I have a natural right to protect myself to the best of my ability from a would-be murderer or rapist, and arms—guns in particular—are a damn good way to do it.  A relatively small woman doesn’t have much chance in a physical contest with a large man.  A gun can change that power dynamic real fast and completely.

There’s a Latin saying that Carlin needs to be advised of: abusus non tollit usum.  This means “abuse does not take away use.” Many things can be abused. It does not follow from this that they have no legitimate use.  Guns are a particular case in point.  You can also abuse a hammer to murder someone, or as happened recently in France, drive a truck into a crowd in an act of mass murder.  But murder isn’t what hammers or trucks or guns are for (although guns are  at least in part for killing things).

But let’s say it’s true, let’s say God gave us these rights. Why would he give us a certain number of rights? The Bill of Rights of this country has ten stipulations, okay? Ten rights. And apparently God was doing sloppy work that week because we had to amend the Bill of Rights an additional seventeen times. So God forgot a couple of things. Like… slavery! Just fucking slipped his mind. [laughing] But let’s say, let’s say God gave us the original ten. He gave the British thirteen, the British Bill of Rights has thirteen stipulations. The Germans have twenty-nine, the Belgians have twenty-five, the Swedish have only six, and some people in the world have no rights at all. What kind of a fucking goddamn god-given deal is that? No rights at all? Why would God give different people in different countries different numbers of different rights? Boredom? Amusement? Bad arithmetic? Do we find out at long last after all this time that God is weak in math skills? Doesn’t sound like divine planning to me. Sounds more like human planning. Sounds more like one group trying to control another group. In other words, business as usual in America.

This is an obvious straw man.  No one thinks the Bill of Rights is directly divinely inspired, even if God is the ultimate foundation of human natural rights.

Carlin seems confused in other ways too. He seems to have forgotten the 9th Amendment for example:

Amendment IX

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Amendment IX says flat out that we have more rights than are listed in the Bill of Rights.

Also, we have amended the Constitution seventeen times.  Not the Bill of Rights.  The Bill of Rights is an informal name for the first 10 Amendments of the Constitution that were adopted simultaneously with the Constitution.  The other Amendments are the ways we have changed our Constitution.  That is why the Constitution has provisions on how to do that.

Amending the Constitution ≠ creating a new right.

And of course many of the Framers of the Constitution were perfectly aware that slavery was directly contrary to the principle of an unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  They were also aware, however, that had they tried to abolish slavery in the Constitution, the Constitution would not have beet ratified.  They chose the path of a lesser evil, doing the best they could do, and it isn’t really fair to demand of someone that they do better or more than they can do.

They were well-aware that eventually the American principles of equality and liberty and the practice of slavery would come into direct collision, which they did in the American Civil War, one of the bloodiest human conflicts of all time, which finally removed the cancerous stain of slavery from the Americas.

Now, if you think you do have rights, one last assignment for you. Next time you’re at the computer, get on the Internet, go to Wikipedia. When you get to Wikipedia, in the search field for Wikipedia, I want you to type in “Japanese Americans 1942,” and you’ll find out all about your precious fucking rights, okay? [applause] All right. You know about it. You know about it. Ya.

In 1942, there were a 110,000 Japanese American citizens in good standing, law-abiding people, who were thrown into internment camps simply because their parents were born in the wrong country. That’s all they did wrong. They had no right to a lawyer, no right to a fair trial, no right to a jury of their peers, no right to due process of any kind. The only right they had, “right this way” – into the internment camps. Just when these American citizens needed their rights the most, their government took ’em away. And rights aren’t rights if someone can take ’em away. They’re privileges, that’s all we’ve ever had in this country, is a bill of temporary privileges. And if you read the news even badly, you know that every year the list gets shorter and shorter and shorter. [applause] You see what I was saying…

This is a non sequitur.  The failure of the American government, or any government, to honor or respect the rights of its citizens or the natural rights of all human beings doesn’t lead to the conclusion that rights don’t exist.

If there were no violation of justice in the interment of Japanese Americans, no violation of justice in slavery, why on earth is Carlin upset? Without the ideas of justice and right (ius is just Latin for “right”), all that happened is that some people forced others to be their property, and at another time, some people forced an minority into internment camps for not very good reason that they shared an broad ethnicity with the people of a country with whom we were at war.

Neither slavery nor the Japanese Interment seem like anything to get upset about … if there are no rights.  If there are no rights, as Carlin is saying, or rather, if rights are made up, there seems to be nothing wrong with making up unequal rights.  Why not, if you have the raw power to do so? Carlin, oddly for him, seems to be endorsing the core principle of fascism: rights are simply arbitrary conventions imposed by anyone with the will and power to do so.

But in fact his moral outrage over slavery and the Japanese Interment gives the game away.  He thinks these were clear cases of injustice, and they make him seethe with anger.  And he’s not wrong to. But since justice is giving each their desert, injustice is either giving someone something they don’t deserve or taking something from someone they don’t deserve. In other words, all cases of injustice can be formulated as a violation of rights.  But slavery and interment self-evidently violated their victims’ rights to liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

“Rights aren’t rights if someone can take ’em away.”  Strictly speaking, no one can take away a right from someone.  But they can violate the rights of another person. Carlin is emphatic (and correct) than the Japanese-Americans did nothing wrong. But that presupposes there is such a thing as wrong. Carlin seems to be admitting that it would not be unjust to lock up, for example, an actual traitor.

I think this statement is Carlin’s basic confusion about rights.  He thinks the fact that rights can be violate means they weren’t really rights.  “If a right can be violated, it isn’t really a right.” But consider these parallel claims:

“If a truth can be denied, it isn’t really a truth.”

“If property can be stolen, it isn’t really property.”

“If a belief can be false, it isn’t really a belief.”

Carlin seems to committing a kind of Nirvana fallacy, where he holds that rights should be somehow built into reality not as the are, as OUGHTS, but as NATURAL LAWS.  He seems to think the only way I could have a right to life is if I were unkillable, or a right not to be raped if I were unrapable.

That sounds nice, but it isn’t the reality we live in.  We are all subject to violence and violation of our rights.  How on earth does it follow from the fact that our rights, just by themselves, can’t protect us from those who are willing to violate our rights, that they aren’t rights? It obviously doesn’t follow.  Carlin is setting up an impossible standard, and then pretending to be indignant that the standard is not met.

Yeah… sooner or later the people in this country gonna realize the government does not give a fuck about them. The government doesn’t care about you, or your children, or your rights, or your welfare, or your safety, it simply doesn’t give a fuck about you. It’s interested in its own power, that’s the only thing, keeping it and expanding it wherever possible.

“The government” isn’t the kind of entity that can either give a fuck or not give a fuck.  Governments are creations of imperfect, flawed, human beings, to try to establish a community to the best of our ability.  Let’s go back to the Declaration of Independence:

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. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

According to the American Founders, the primary function of Government is to secure our natural rights.  Note that the Government does not give or take rights. The rights are there regardless. But Governments can go bad and “become destructive to these ends.”  In the fact of the prospect of a Government that is violating the rights of the People, or simply failing to “secure” them, the Founders assert a Right of the People “to alter or abolish” the Government in question.

Maybe Carlin is correct to think that the American Government has become corrupt.  Even so, this wouldn’t be evidence that rights do not exist. The failure of the Government to secure the rights of the People is how we know it is corrupt.  And the People always retain a right to fix it.




Hohfeldian Rights

I want to talk a bit about rights theory. The most widely accepted schema for understanding the nature of rights was developed by American jurist Wesley Hohfeld.

The Hohfeldian Schema is extremely useful because it seems to be exhaustive and because it allows us to map the logical relations between different kinds of rights.  According to the Hohfeldian Schema, there are four basic kinds of right:

Liberties (liberty-rights): A liberty or liberty-right (sometimes called a privilege) has the following form: A has a liberty to φ if and only if A has no duty not to φ. For example, I have a right to use my own possessions, if I so choose and as I so choose.  This is a liberty-right.

Claims (claim-rights): A claim or claim-right has the following form: A has a claim that B φ if and only if B has a duty to A to φ. For example, I have a right against everyone not to be murdered by them. Children have a claim-right to be taken care of by their parents.  And in contracts, I have a claim upon the one I contract with to fulfill his part of the deal, on the assumption I fulfill mine, e.g. I have a right to require a person P who has hired my for services, which I have rendered, to be paid for services rendered.

Powers (power-rights): A power or power-right has the following logical form: A has a power if and only if A has the ability to alter her own or another’s Hohfeldian right. For example, a sailor may have no particular duties to fulfill at the moment, but the ship’s captain has the power-right to order the sailor to do things, e.g. scrub the deck.  When someone has a power-right he has an ability to alter another’s situation from e.g. not-having-a-duty-to-φ to having-a-duty-to-φ, or from having-a-liberty-to-φ to not-having-a-liberty-to-φ.  The sailor had no responsibility to scrub the deck until he was ordered to do so. His situation was changed by the captain’s order, because the captain of the ship has the power to give such orders. Similarly, everyone on the ship might have a liberty to be on deck, unless the captain orders everyone off the deck.

Immunities (immunity-rights): An immunity or immunity-right has the following form: B has an immunity if and only if A lacks the ability to alter B’s Hohfeldian rights. For example, no one has a right to command me accept Islam; so, I have a general immunity-right not to be forced to accept Islam.

An immunity of A is a disability of B to alter A’s situation, just as a power of A is an ability of A to alter B’s situation.

Hohfeldian rights can be expressed in the following schemata with regard to A alone and as between A and B:


  1. If A has a Liberty then A lacks a Duty.
  2. If A has Claim then A lacks a No-claim.
  3. If A has a Power then A lacks a Disability.
  4. If A has an Immunity then A lacks a Liability.


  1. If A has a Liberty then one, some, or all persons B have a No-Claim.
  2. If A has a Claim then one, some, or all persons B have a Duty.
  3. If A has a Power then one, some, or all persons B have a Liability.
  4. If A has an Immunity then one, some, or all persons B have a Disability.

Remember SJW Mizzou professor Melissa Click ordering members of the media out of the “safe space” which the protestors had set up on public property?


What she did wrong can easily by explained in Hohfeldian terms.  She was giving orders.  She was asserting a power-right over another person’s liberty-right.  She was, in effect, acting as if she had a Power to (rightfully) revoke a citizen’s Liberty to be in a public area.  If she really did have such a Power, then she could generate a Claim over the reporter, who would have a Duty to obey.  For example, people have a Liberty to be in their own cars; however, police officer has a Power to order you to “step out of the vehicle.” Since a police officer has lawful authority, that is, he really does have a Power to in this case, your Liberty can be suspended and replaced with a Duty to the order.

The core issue with Melissa Click is that she had no authority whatever to order a fellow citizen out of a public area, much less to threaten to back up her spurious claim-of-a-Power with force.

Like most SJWs, Professor Click goes on endlessly about “privilege.” Well, this is what that  looks like: she is essentially acting as if she were a member of an aristocratic class that has a Power to order around the commoners.  But as it happens, we Americans, just as citizens, are all EQUAL under the law.  Therefore, nobody as any Hohfeldian Power to alter another’s Hohfeldian Incidents.  You can’t simply cancel or override my rights, at your pleasure. And neither can Melissa Click.  She was eventually fired over this incident, and entirely rightly so.  The fact that she made a threat was actually criminal; her actions generated a Claim-right on the part of the threatened reporter to have her answer for her actions by law.  The point to notice, though, is that her wrongdoing was not simply in the threat (although that is an even more severe kind of wrongdoing)—but in the bogus attempt to exercise a Hohfeldian Power over someone, a Power she did not and does not have.

A lot of SJW nonsense involves attempting to lay claim to bogus Hohfeldian Incidents, particularly Powers and Claims. They seem to believe that being offended gives them a Power-right to revoke someone else’s Liberty-right of free speech, or a Claim-right to limit other people’s Liberty-rights, such that other people have a Duty not to say or do certain things that the SJW personally deems bad or offensive. Fortunately, it is still the case that all free citizens in the Western world have an Immunity-right to these bogus claims (and in the traditions of natural rights, everyone has such, even in places where these rights are not actually recognized).  If someone objects to your Liberty-right to be in a public place with them, they have a Liberty-right to leave; they do not have a Power-right to revoke your Liberty-right to be there, or a Claim-right to have you leave the area.

Positive and Negative Rights

Some rights theorists distinguish between positive and negative Rights.  A positive right is a right to something, e.g. some good or service, whereas a negative right is a right to non-interference.  The problem with this simply binary distinction is that it seems to fail to capture all the Hohfeldian rights and has far less logical power in mapping relations between persons.  Additionally, it seems that Hohfeldian powers or liberties are neither positive or negative, since they involve one’s rights as pertaining to one’s own actions, whereas the positive/negative distinction always involves interaction.  My liberty-right to use my computer as I see fit is correlated with all B’s no-claim on me, but it is not identical to my right not to be interfered with; rather my liberty-right to φ gives me a claim-right that B not interfere with my φ-ing and a duty of B not to interfere with my φ-ing.

All things considered, the positive/negative distinction adds nothing of value to the Hohfeldian Schema of rights, and is therefore unnecessary.