On First Principles

Abstract Principles Taken to Their Logical Ext...
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In a recent conversation with Facebook ” Anarcho”-Capitalists I’ve been asked to provide an explanation of my beliefs starting from “First Principles”. As my initial answer didn’t seem to be enough, the same question was later posted, once more, in a location I couldn’t access1. I think this deserves an explanation on why it is entirely the wrong kind of question to ask when trying to understand Libertarian Socialism.

The confusion I believe starts from the way the Propertarians start to build their worldview. From what I understand about this point (and of course, I may be wrong – but concise information on this is not easy to find online) they declare a few particular normative propositions as inviolable or “true”, call them axioms or “first principles” and then build their ethical system from there. There’s no clear agreement on this but the axiom of Self-Onwership seems to be the primary basis on which the ideology is built. There are others like the Non-Aggression principle (Also called Zero-Aggression principle. NAP or ZAP) which may follow from Self-Ownership or may be asserted standalone.

I won’t go into details on why those “first principles” are flawed at the moment (soon though). The point is to explain why such propertarians expect someone to state their first principles initially so that they may grasp the concept. They just can’t contemplate a different way to reach a social framework than by starting from such “axioms” and when Anarchists point out that we don’t have any, they are unable to compute, as can be seen from the quote (from the discussion I linked above)

The implication is that logic is optional. She’ll deny it, of course, and say that she’s just not doing logic in the way that the oppressive capitalists demand, but it still amounts the the notion that logic itself is seen as a kind of oppression. It’s a religion.

The obvious flaw in this reasoning is that it is asserted that those first principles are the result of pure logic and therefore impossible to be flawed (thus the label of “axiom”). Of course if one starts from this assumption it is understandable that when someone else denies the necessity of “axioms” to base a socioeconomic theory on, they can be seen as denying logic itself.  But this is merely begging the question.

And this is where the biggest problem lies in this perspective. Using scholasticism (i.e. pure logic) to understand reality has been discredited for a while now and empiricism and inductive reasoning took its place. No matter how perfect one’s logic can seem, it’s very likely that some small errors or wrong assumptions have entered into it at some point, therefore leading to the wholly wrong results. Without empiricism thus, it impossible to find logical errors as there is nothing to compare the results with.

Thus (many? most? Well me at least.) Libertarian Socialists reject this perspective in favour of what has been shown to actually work in understanding and predicting reality. Science and Materialism. Talking for myself here, I find no reason to start from a principle of self-ownership (even if it wasn’t inconsistent) when I have the far better option to start from a (meta?)ethical question: “What bring the best results for the maximum amount of people?”. Starting from this question and then using scientific knowledge (on how humans behave and how human societies tend to work) we can try to compile a socioeconomic system which will achieve this result.

Adding a “first principle” such as the NAP or self-ownership would thus only come into the picture if it followed from the original question. Looking at it this way, one could call the Anarchist opposition to hierarchy and authority as a sort of “first principle” but not in the same absolute way as the AnCap ones are asserted but simply as means to an end.

And this is in the end why it’s completely misguided to ask an Anarchist what their “first principles” are. The most likely answer would be “Why do I need them?” and this is a perfectly valid response. To preempt those who would express the sentiment that having “First Principles” is obvious: It is not. The burden of proof is on people who assert that such principles are necessary to prove why this is so. An argument from obviousness just does not cut it as it’s far from obvious to me and many others.

I get the impression that people who assert that such first principles are necessary, are those who saw them expressed somewhere and immediately latched onto them as something that made obvious sense. Yes, it may make obvious sense but this does not make it an absolute or an objective fact of reality. There’s always the chance that there’s holes in the reasoning, or it does not make sense in some contexts. What I’m trying to say that even if something is making sense, it still does not validate the concept of “first principle”. This is akin to saying that because the golden rule makes sense, the Christian god exists.  It simply does not follow.

It is similarly  flawed thus to accept only a different set of first principles in order to counter your own ideology. It’s like a Christian asking someone trying to explain evolution to him, to first state which other deity they assert instead of the Christian god. A perfectly valid answer to both questions is still “None.”

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  1. h/t @Noor for letting me know and posting the discussion somewhere public []

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