Philosophical Foundations: First Principles
I gave this talk on Saturday, February 11th for the Liberty on the Rocks economics fundamentals class. I guess you could say this is the essay version of what I said. Enjoy!
I want to give you the tools to build a foundation that will guide you to a consistent philosophy. I don’t necessarily want you to agree with everything I’m about to say, but rather, to use the guidelines of establishing first principles to form your ideals. I believe it is extremely important to constantly “check your premises.” First principles are those premises.
“First principle” defined: foundational principle. Cannot be deduced from any other proposition – in other words, an irreducible principle. Sometimes called “axioms.” First principles have no assumptions built into them.
Some historical context: When Aristotle explained his philosophical work, he said he was constantly looking for the “origins” or first principles.
In physics, a calculation is said to be from first principles if it starts directly at the level of established laws of physics and does not make assumptions such as empirical modeling.
Descartes used the method of doubt, called Cartesian doubt, to systematically doubt everything he could possibly doubt, until he was left with what he saw as irrefutable truths. Using these self-evident propositions as his axioms, or foundations, he went on to deduce his entire body of knowledge. The foundations are also called “a priori truths.”
A priori means “from the earlier.” It is knowledge that is independent of experience or evidence. i.e. “I think, therefore I am.”
You may have heard the term a priori before if you’ve studied Austrian Economics. Perhaps the greatest economist to ever live, Ludwig von Mises, deduced his entire economic philosophy from one single first principle: man acts. Hence, his magnum opus was called Human Action.
To sum up: a first principle requires no other assumptions to stand. It stands alone. It is the fundamental groundwork for developing a coherent, consistent philosophy. Drilling down to first principles requires some mental gymnastics. “Cartesian doubt” is one way. Another similar method would be to keep asking, “why?” like a child until it no longer makes any sense. As we’re about to learn, a good first principle is not only irreducible, it is also irrefutable.
Why is this important? To evaluate policies, you must have a framework or lens you use to determine what is good and bad policy. This is entirely foreign to most people. Instead, almost everyone forms opinions about policy by wondering to themselves, “do I think this is a good idea?” If so, I’ll advocate it. If not, I won’t.
Facebook example: Guy defending laws that force gun owners to lock their guns away in a safe location, unloaded. His reasoning: “Well, I do it. I think it’s a good idea.” Oh I get it Mr. Guy on Facebook. Your first principle is, “if I do it, then everyone else should.” This is an example of an invalid first principle.
This typical thoughtless reasoning is not good enough. We must have a place to start our process of thinking. A place that we can go back to each and every time. Sitting there wondering whether something sounds good or not is arbitrary and whimsical. It inevitably leads to contradictions and inconsistencies.
Let’s assume my audience is a step or two ahead of the guy on Facebook. Let’s assume we’ve advanced beyond, “that sounds nice” to some perceived level of principles. What then do most people think are valid fist principles? Let’s throw out some common examples:
Man has liberty! Property rights! The Constitution! All suffering must be stopped!
Each of those invalid first principles has at least one, if not many, built in assumptions. For example:
Why does man have liberty? Where do property rights come from and why are they valid? Where did the laws in the Constitution come from? If you want the Constitution to rule you, does it also have to rule me? If human suffering must be stopped, do I need to stop it?
Enough beating around the bush. Let’s give this first principles thing a test spin. I’m going to give you an example of a philosophical foundation based on a set of first principles to get to the granddaddy of them all: property rights!
(Side note: Like Murray Rothbard, I believe all rights ultimately come down to property rights. Even free speech. Turns out, Mises was on board as well: “The program of classical liberalism, condensed into a single word, would have to read: property.” -Mises).
First principle: I own my own body. OR if you prefer: I control my own body.
This is an irrefutable axiom! If you attempt to deny it, you validate it. In other words, you’d have to exercise control of your body to produce the sound waves that deny that you control your body. Similar to Mises’ first principle – man acts. You have to act in order to say or demonstrate that man does not act.
Bottom line: to deny you own or control your body serves only to validate that you do.
Second: I own the effects of my body. Put differently, I am responsible for the effects of my actions.
This goes hand in hand with control of your body. If you are not in control of your body, then you do not have responsibility for the effects of your body.
For example, if someone were to push me into you, you wouldn’t get mad at me, you’d get mad at the pusher. I couldn’t control my body while flying through the air, therefore, I am not responsible for the effects of my body knocking into you. On the contrary, when someone is in control of their body, they ARE responsible for the effects of their body.
If someone tests this principle by saying to you that they are not responsible for their actions, you can ask a couple revealing questions: “well who is moving your mouth and vocal chords?” or you can ask, “who just said that?” If they say “ME!” then they are indeed taking responsibility for their actions. A funny way to prove this is if the person is denying responsibility for their actions and there is a third person standing in proximity to you two, then after they articulate their denial, turn to the third person and say to them, “I do not agree with your argument.” Usually the person in denial will jump in and say, “wait wait, I said that!” Or they’ll say, “why are you talking to them, I made that argument!” You can then respond in check-mate fashion, “Oh really? YOU’RE responsible for that argument???”
If they insist they have no responsibility for the effects of their actions, then it’s illogical to debate with them. It’d be like debating with your TV or a tape recorder.
Third: If we have ownership over our bodies and the effects of our bodies, then we own the consequences of our actions – good and bad. Therefore, if I use my body and mind to create something, I own the creation. If I use my body and mind to commit a murder, I am responsible for that murder.
Imagine during my murder trial I were to argue that I am responsible for my body but not the consequences of my actions. I would be making the rather bizarre argument that I take responsibility for aiming and shooting the gun with my arm, hand, and fingers, but I do not have responsibility for where the bullet ended up. Would that defense work?
From owning our bodies and the consequences of our actions, we can prove that humans validly own property – simply as an extension of our bodies performing certain actions. For example, I use my body and mind to build a shed. The shed is a consequence of my actions that I am responsible for. In this case, it’s a new piece of property.
Keep in mind: to attempt to disprove property ownership is to attack first principles. And attacking these first principles only serves to validate them!
If we accept the principle that owning property is valid, then what does that imply? Remember, to own something means the ability to control it. (If ownership did not include control, I would be unable to type these words into my blog. Thus, you’d be reading complete gibberish or nothing at all).
To exercise control over something means you decide what to do with it – not me or anyone else. If you use your body and mind to create a pillow, that pillow is an effect of your actions. You own the effects of your actions. Does it make sense then that I get to decide what to do with your pillow? Can a group of people get together and decide what to do with your pillow? Absolutely not! However, as the owner, you could transfer your pillow to me, but I cannot take it without invalidating property ownership as a principle.
Hey! Look what we did there! We just validated trade and charity. The ability to transfer property from one owner to another is just another way of describing trade or charity. You can transfer your pillow to me for money (trade), or for nothing (charity).
To sum up the logic: if property ownership is valid, then controlling property is valid. Controlling property means the owner has the power to make decisions regarding the property – including the ability to transfer it through trade or charity.
First principles vs. arguments from effect – aka consquentialism / utilitarianism.
First principles stand in contrast to arguments from effect, or what many call consequentialism or utilitarianism. Arguments from effect judge a policy by its effects rather than how the policy got there to begin with.
An immediate problem with arguments from effect are that the foreseen effects are merely hypothesized. Judging a policy by what you think might result incurs two massive unavoidable realities: the policy’s unintended consequences on groups you never considered and the policy’s unintended incentives created that will affect future behavior.
Putting aside this immediate problem with arguments from effect, let’s examine how a first principles approach contrasts an “ex-post” consequentialist approach:
For example, you say subsidies for renewable energy are good because it will result in less pollution and saving the planet. First principles would ask, where did the money for the subsidies come from? In what manner was the money obtained? Was someone denied ownership over their property to supply the subsidy?
Or you’ll hear an argument that seat belt laws are good because lives will be saved. First principles would ask, who owns the seat belt in the car? Who owns the car? Can two people have exclusive control over property at the same time? Can the government own your car along with you? If they can’t, how can they validly exercise control over your car if they don’t partially own it? If you both own it, how do you determine when you get to control it and when they get to control it? What about me? Can I own your car along with you? If not, why can a government official own your car with you and exercise control over it and not me?
To take it to the extreme, if it is valid for two people to have exclusive control over the same property, can I partially own one of your kidneys? You have two! Should I be able to take one of your kidneys if I need it because we both technically “own” it?
Real life policy questions:
Let’s begin by examining wealth transfers from the rich to the poor. First principles asks, how did the poor person get the money from the rich person? Was it trade? Was it a gift? If not, did the rich person lose ownership of their property and thus, ownership of the effects of their actions? If that is the case, how can the poor person logically “own” the money? You can’t invalidate property ownership by stealing from the rich guy, only to turn around and affirm property ownership by giving the stolen goods to the poor guy.
Bottom line: All forms of theft are a contradiction. Theft invalidates property ownership and affirms it at the same time. In order to take something from someone, you must deny that property rights are valid only to turn around and affirm them by “owning” the stolen goods. You can’t have it both ways.
Minimum wage laws – harm the employer (business owner) and the potential employee (owner of self).
They deny the owner the property right in his business by denying him the control of his business. It prevents the business owner to do with his property what he sees fit. Minimum wage laws say, “you cannot hire person X at a certain price.” In other words, you may not trade your property with their property.
Imagine someone coming into your home and not allowing you to control the property in your home. They might say things like: “Move your TV over there!” “Take down those pictures!” “Throw out that t-shirt!” You wouldn’t stand for that would you? In the same way, someone coming into a business owner’s store for example, and barking orders about where things should go and who should and should not be hired also violates ownership. I’m not saying no one can validly make suggestions, but ultimately, the decisions are the property owner’s to make.
Minimum wage laws also deny the potential employee the control of their body’s actions. Let’s say the employee would like to offer their services for $3 per hour. In other words, the employee wants to trade the effects of his body (his labor) with the effects of the business owner’s body (the business he created) for property (money). Denying this trade of property means that neither the employer nor the employee actually controls their own property. Instead, some other person has ultimate control.
Both of these examples and the ones earlier, reinforce that almost all matters of policy come down to property rights. The attempt to invalidate property rights is ultimately a logical contradiction. That’s the least of it. Worse is the fact that when some person or entity attempts to violate property ownership in one area of life, it is a threat to all property ownership everywhere. Why? Because then ownership as a universal principle becomes arbitrary in nature: sometimes respected, sometimes denied. Arbitrary property rights leads us down a very dark path, as someone must determine when property rights are valid, who may or may not enjoy property rights, when violations are allowed and by whom, and so on.
“Arbitrary principle” is an oxymoron. Principles are universal, preferences are arbitrary.
I certainly have not described the world as it is. Far from it. Just because violating property ownership is a logical contradiction does not mean that many of us care to acknowledge that point or to act in a manner consistent with reason. Indeed, there are plenty of people out there stealing – in both the private and public sector. By the same token, there are many sedentary people eating cookies and candy, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy exercise, fruits, and vegetables. We can choose to act in accordance with logic, reason, and a consistent philosophy, regardless of what others may or may not do. The trick is, putting in the time required to perform the mental gymnastics that eventually lead to a solid foundation. Once you think you’ve nailed it all down, you haven’t. Doubt yourself and re-think your premises. Don’t ever give up on the process.
Allow me to reiterate: Even if the philosophical foundations I’ve laid out don’t strike your fancy, I hope you are intrigued enough to use these guidelines to form the groundwork for your own philosophy.