International Society for Philosophers

International Society for Philosophers

Wisdom begins with wonder

PHILOSOPHY PATHWAYS                   ISSN 2043-0728


Issue number 65 24th August 2003


I. 'The Circularity of Defending Reason in the Cartesian Circle'
   by Justin Robert Woods

II. 'The Will as Expectation' by James Martin

III. '"Redistribution" as Euphemism or, Who Owns What?' by Anthony Flood



Rene Descartes has been accused of making a circular sequence of reasoning in his 'Meditations on First Philosophy'. The circularity is seen where Descartes appears to claim that knowledge of God requires knowledge of God. Although Descartes makes a courageous and expected attempt to escape circularity, his arguments leave the reader either denying a great portion of his philosophy (along with Descartes), or accepting that one must stop the method of doubting at his favourite tautology where clear and distinct perceptions guarantee truth because they are clear and distinct. However, Descartes is not alone in making circles out of reasoning. The most famous attack against his Ontological Argument is itself circular and neither logic nor Relativism can keep it in its undeserved position against the great founder of modern philosophy. Let us first look at the cause of so much complaint about Descartes' reasoning. We will start by introducing the Ontological Argument and then Descartes' own defence. We will conclude by exposing the problems of claims of circularity that Descartes himself has missed as well as the problem of defending reasoning in general.

Descartes claims at the beginning of the third Meditation, and after summarising his certainty that he exists because he is a thinking thing, that clear and distinct perception guarantees truth. He states that in order for him to be certain of his own existence, he must be able to know something of what is required for certainty. He recognises that his 'certain' claim of existence asserts a clear and distinct perception. Descartes reasons, therefore, that certainty of the truth of perceptions is reliant upon clarity and distinction and therefore, formulates the general principle 'Éwhatever I perceive very clearly and distinctly is true.'[1]

The circularity of Descartes' reasoning is revealed by it being entailed by such clear and distinct perceptions that they are themselves reliant upon certain knowledge of God's existence for their truth, yet such knowledge itself requires true perceptions. This later claim occurs in the following passage:

     'Now, however, I have perceived that God exists, and at the
     same time I have understood that everything else depends on
     him, and that he is no deceiver; and I have drawn the
     conclusion that everything which I clearly and distinctly
     perceive is of necessity true.'[2]
Here Descartes is stating that he perceives 'that God exists'. Knowledge of God's supreme goodness entails that he would not deceive Descartes into making clear and distinct perceptions that were not true. Therefore, because of this knowledge, which is only attained through the true perception that God exists, Descartes appears to conclude that all other clear and distinct perceptions are true. This shows that the premise, 'I have perceived that God exists' is reliant upon the conclusion, 'Everything which I clearly and distinctly perceive is true.'

According to Walton,[3] a sequence of reasoning is 'circular' if one of the premises is reliant upon the conclusion for its truth. This is indeed, then, a circular argument. God's existence must be known before we can know the truth of our perceptions, but in order to prove God exists we need to rely upon the truth of certain premises used to infer such existence, and such premises cannot be known to be true before we are certain that God exists. One aspect of this problem is identified by Arnauld in the Fourth Objections:

     'I have one further worry, namely how the author avoids
     reasoning in a circle when he says that we are sure that
     what we clearly and distinctly perceive is true only
     because God exists. But we can be sure that God exists only
     because we clearly and distinctly perceive this. Hence,
     before we can be sure that God exists, we ought to be able
     to be sure that whatever we perceive clearly and evidently
     is true.'[4]
Arnauld points out that if we must prove that God exists before we can validate our clear and distinct perceptions, how is it that we can use such perceptions to prove that God exists? Before Descartes can prove that his perceptions are clear and distinct, he needs the guarantee that certain knowledge of God's existence would provide. Arnauld seems quite aware that circularity has been committed. He is referring to the passage that isolates the requirement of God's existence to validate such perceptions, where Descartes states:

     '...I must examine whether there is a God, and, if there
     is, whether he can be a deceiver. For if I do not know
     this, it seems that I can never be quite certain about
     anything else.'[5]

The problem with this is how Descartes then goes on to establish the existence of God. 'This is, indeed, what he next proceeds to do, but by way of offering proofs.'[6] The problem with using the proofs that he does is that only certain knowledge of God's existence can guarantee the truth or certainty of anything, and therefore, 'Éwe have no grounds for accepting the premises or validity of these proofs.'[7] For example, Descartes states that God is good and would not deceive us, and that God provides us with a faculty of correcting errors. Descartes is proposing that we know God first, in order to validate the proofs that would lead to knowing God through inference. God's existence is the proof of God's existence. The circularity here is quite evident.

Another accusation of circularity objects on the same lines as the one above, but refers to a particular 'proof' for God's existence: knowledge of the existence and essence of the self:

     'You are not yet certain of the existence of God, and you
     say that you are not certain of anything, and cannot know
     anything clearly and distinctly until you have achieved
     clear and certain knowledge of the existence of God. It
     follows from this that you do not yet clearly and
     distinctly know that you are a thinking thing, since, on
     your own admission, that knowledge depends on the clear
     knowledge of an existing God; and this you have not yet
     proved in the passage where you draw the conclusion that
     you clearly know what you are.'[8]
Here, Mersenne in his 'Objections' refers to the circularity of the same two claims. On the one hand, he says, 'Éyou draw the conclusion that you clearly know what you are.' (i.e. a thinking thing), and on the other hand 'Éyou do not yet clearly know that you are a thinking thing.' Mersenne's objection could be put in the following form:

     P1. One cannot know anything clearly and distinctly until
         one is certain of God's existence.
     P2. In order to know God exists with certainty, one must be
         a thinking thing.
     P3. To know with certainty that one is a thinking thing
         requires knowledge of God's existence.
     C.  Therefore, to know for certain that God exists, one must
         know that God exists.

The objection points out that all of the conclusions Descartes claims to have reached, such as knowledge of the existence and essence of the self as a thinking thing, the essence of matter, the essence of God, 'Éall depend on knowledge of a non-deceiving God.'[9] Yet, Descartes asserts that these conclusions are made prior to knowledge of that which they depend upon for their truth and certainty.

In reply to Arnauld, Descartes refers to part of his second objections. Here Descartes appears to make two separate attempts to avoid circularity. Firstly, he claims that when we are convinced of a perception being true, 'Éif this conviction is so firm that it is impossible for us ever to have any reason for doubting what we are convinced of, then there are no further questions for us to ask: we have everything that we could reasonably want.'[10] Such convictions are held to be as true as the most perfect certainty. Descartes adds that such convictions cannot come from the senses but only the intellect. He seems to say that some perceptions are held to be certain and true based on the strength of 'belief'. One example given is the Cogito argument, 'I am a thinking thing and therefore exist.' Beliefs are such that the mere thought of them entails certainty. 'Hence we cannot doubt them without at the same time believing they are true; that is, we can never doubt them.'[11] Here, Descartes attempts to break the circle by allowing some perceptions to be held certain without God's guarantee, because they could not possibly be doubted. The problem with this is that it sacrifices the claim that nothing is certain until knowledge of God's existence is proved. Clearly, some things are certain independent on whether or not God exists.  

Secondly, he states that there are other very clear perceptions of the intellect, but they are perceived only by attending to the arguments 'Éon which our knowledge of them depends.'[12] Their certainty is assured only when we are in such attendance. When we are not attending to them, they can be doubted. It may be that we have a memory of the conclusion that was reached by such arguments, which are for the time being forgotten. As to the conviction of certainty we should attribute to such conclusions, Descartes refers us to the end of the fifth Meditation. Here, he states that, 'Éas long as I remember that I clearly and distinctly perceived it, there are no counter-arguments which can be adduced to make me doubt it, but on the contrary I have true and certain knowledge of it.'[13] Descartes is making a distinction between what we perceive clearly and what we remember having perceived clearly. In order for something to be knowledge, it must at least have duration in the mind. This means that even when not concentrated on, it is still knowledge with the potential to be known. Some beliefs, on the other hand, can be certain without God's guarantee for their truth, but only for as long as they are concentrated on. Such beliefs are clear and distinct, and therefore true, when thought of and not reliant upon a non-deceiving God that would assure us of their truth. Their truth is ascertained by their being clear and distinct when concentrated on.

The problem with this is why should we accept the faculty of remembering as unflawed and the certainty of its memories? We may have been deceived by the possible Demon that our memories are true when they are false. Knowledge of the good, non-deceiving God would render such deception impossible, but again, such memories of clear and distinct perceptions are argued to be independent of God's existence. We must still ask, how do we know God exists and is a non-deceiver when we still have to rely upon the same disputable proofs for inferring his existence? Therefore, past memories of having perceived clearly and distinctly are themselves still possibly mistaken.

One interpretation[14] has it that when we establish, on the basis of clear and distinct ideas held before the mind at time t(1), that a non-deceiving God exists and therefore guarantees the truth of the memories of past perceptions, a thinker at time t(2) can recall to memory the ideas of t(1). Such memories can be relied upon for their truth without being attended to and with no reliance upon knowledge of God's existence at the time their truth is ascertained. But this whole argument still relies upon the certain knowledge of God's existence. At the beginning of the argument, we are asked to establish the existence of God based on clear and distinct perception. What guarantee do we have, excluding God, to rely on in order to establish such a perception? In short, why establish God's existence as a clear and distinct perception? Descartes tells us that we can be certain of this because it is clear and distinct. But, it could be that we are mistaken in our assessment that it is clear and distinct. Even if we cannot doubt it, it does not necessarily mean that it is true or that we believe it -- a point that must hold great weight, since Descartes pays so much legitimacy to 'beliefs'. The circle, therefore, remains.

Descartes' attempts to avoid circularity are twofold. The first attempt breaks the circle by allowing some perceptions to be certain without God's guarantee, but this sacrifices the claim that nothing is certain until God's existence is established. The second attempt relies upon the memories of having perceived clearly and distinctly, but this begs the question, why establish that God exists based on the memory of having perceived this in the past, thus relying upon memories not having been tampered with by an evil demon, in the state of not relying on God's essence to prevent such occurring? Furthermore, ideas thought to be clear and distinct may not be such.  

Therefore, Descartes has the ability to avoid circularity at some considerable sacrifice to his philosophy, with the first attempt, but there seems to be no hope in this with the second attempt. Furthermore, Descartes' method of absolute doubt seems to be selective as he does not doubt the legitimacy of logical reasoning, memory, thought itself, or that thought implies a thinker. So, a further circularity is entailed by claiming that these things can never be doubted, but we must employ them to doubt everything in order to discover that which is certain.

Now to look closely at the claims of circularity and the arguments a Relativist will mistakenly rely upon. Descartes places a lot of emphasis upon the power of reason in establishing knowledge of the world; so much so that he refuses to include it in his famous Method of Doubt. On what immense authority, then, does Descartes justify reason? Could Descartes use reason itself as such an authority? If we use reason itself to justify reason it seems clear enough that we are being circular in our reasoning. We are saying that in order to justify reason we can appeal to a method of justification, and that this method is reason. We are using the same unjustified method to justify itself. However, this last statement identifying 'circularity' is itself the result of reasoning. Is not such an accusation of circularity itself circular? Is it even possible, then, to find reasonable self-justification circular by also using reason? Failing the defence of reason by reasoning based on circularity is itself circular and as a type of 'reasoning' cannot therefore be made consistently. So, it is not the case that any attempt to defend reason must fail through circularity, when circularity requires reason itself for its identification. If reason fails to be a tool for holding certain beliefs, then rational inferences that identify circularity fail also to be held in such a condition. Circularity may well be identified in ways that reason plays no part; that is, it is not self-contradictory to admit such. However, the author can think of none here. The Cartesian Circle, then, is not a circle. In fact, until another method of justification can be discovered, no sequence of reasoning is circular where circularity is defended by reason.

However, leaving circularity of circularity aside, if we take the Relativist view we run into similar problems. To the Relativist, 'Érationality[15] stands alongside and equal to any other means of forming beliefs, and alongside any sets of beliefs within which certain of these are held to be beyond rational critique.'[16]

Why on earth should the Relativist be concerned that certain of their beliefs be held beyond 'rational' critique? Is it that such avoidance justifies their beliefs? From the description above, the Relativist is seen to understand the reasoning of such things as 'categorising' and 'excluding' to construct definition: their beliefs are alongside, but not in the same category as 'reason', and some beliefs are excluded from the category of 'rational critique'.

Furthermore, one could argue that a 'rational critique' included the observance of the reasonable apparatus of language use. Surely, the Relativist must use language to express ideas and beliefs, otherwise how do we know that there are any? If the Relativist uses language, then surely they must abide by the rules of grammar, syntax, and such. The question is: what kind of beliefs do they hold in order that such rules essential to expression are abided by? The Relativist, and any other person who wishes to use language, must believe in the reasoning behind the structure of language if they wish to employ it. Moreover, the laws of logic are also rational. Is it possible, then, that the Relativist can avoid the law of the excluded middle, or the law of contradiction? How many sides does a Relativist believe a triangle has? Does the Relativist believe that they hold belief 'A' as well as belief 'not-A', or neither belief? The Relativist's beliefs are subject to such laws that govern reason and language, and therefore the content of the belief may be irrational, but the means of expressing it and the laws that govern its nature are indeed rational. Therefore, the Relativist is grounded in reason.

Descartes, on the other hand, was correct in claiming that reason needs no justification. However, his justification for this claim was based on clear and distinct perceptions. 'Reason, then, is what is made evident in those clear and distinct perceptions on the basis of which new beliefs can be formed from old ones.'[17]

For Descartes, the only justification required is that of our applications of reason, and not of reason itself, so that we may distinguish what only appears rational from what actually is rational. The authority by which this measured is the clear and distinct perception. But how on earth can we be certain that what appears to be a clear and distinct perception is such? Descartes leaves us having to accept the authority of clear and distinct perceptions as fundamental to our system knowledge and reasoning. Although, reason needs no justification, if we do not believe in this higher authority, then we must ask Descartes what justification there is for accepting it beyond belief. Descartes does not justify clear and distinct perceptions except as they are believed, therefore, perhaps the solution is to state that whatever is clearly believed is true. One thing is for sure, though: the Cartesian Circle argument is going to be believed but never justified.



Descartes, R., 'Meditations on First Philosophy', (edited by J. Cottingham, Cambridge, 1996)

Honderich, T. (Editor), 'The Oxford Companion to Philosophy', (Oxford, 1995)

Townsend, A. (editor), 'Descartes and the Defence of Reason', (Melbourne, 1998)



1. Descartes, R., 'Meditations on First Philosophy', (edited by J. Cottingham, Cambridge, 1996), p.24

2. Ibid, p.48

3. Walton, D. N., 'Circularity', in 'The Oxford Companion to Philosophy', (edited by T. Honderich, Oxford, 1995),p.135

4. Descartes, R., 'Meditations on First Philosophy', (Cambridge, 1996), p.106

5. Ibid, p.25

6. Townsend, A. (editor), 'Descartes and the Defence of Reason', (Melbourne, 1998), p.163

7. Ibid, p.163

8. Descartes, R., 'Meditations on First Philosophy', (Cambridge, 1996), p.102

9. Townsend, A. (editor), 'Descartes and the Defence of Reason', (Melbourne, 1998), p.46

10. Descartes, R., 'Meditations on First Philosophy', (Cambridge, 1996), p.104

11. Ibid, p.105

12. Ibid, p.105

13. Ibid, p.48

14. Townsend, A. (editor), 'Descartes and the Defence of Reason', (Melbourne, 1998), p.164

15. 'Reason' and 'rationality' are used interchangeably in this text.

16. Townsend, A. (editor), 'Descartes and the Defence of Reason', (Melbourne, 1998), p.162

17. Townsend, A. (editor), 'Descartes and the Defence of Reason', (Melbourne, 1998), p.166

(c) Justin Robert Woods 2003




     Merriam Webster Online Dictionary

     Main Entry: ex.pec.ta.tion
     Pronunciation: "ek-"spek-'tA-sh&n, ik-
     Function: noun
     Date: 1540
     1 : the act or state of expecting : ANTICIPATION
     2 a : something expected
     2 b : basis for expecting : ASSURANCE
     2 c : prospects of inheritance -- usually used in plural
     3 : the state of being expected

   I could do that if I really wanted; there's nothing holding me back
             No man or woman unseen. Or institution in black.
             I don't need your money, time or morbid energy;
                      I've made my own from scratch.
          I can do that without a doubt -- a moron's job in tow:
               working 9-5, in-laws, kids, wives and lovers,
                       These things move too slow
            and should be regarded as will, can't, or won't.
                I don't have to keep promises you know --
                   about the future's preparation plan,
                 I'm not going to let you down that way;
                   I'm only passing through the while,
                 and would rather will a splendid day.
The Will as Expectation

It is one thing to write about a generous-giving idea like The Will from a set of standard references that by necessity history and its philosophic keepsakes have provided us -- it is quite another task to personally legitimatize the study of Will by some vague attempt to document the basic elements of 'perception' that belong to such an elusive 'quality of being' as the organic make-up of 'The Will -- that component of the psyche that provides us with a variety of desire and intent to carry on with our lives in a reasonably motivated way on a semi-regular basis. (my own definition of sorts). Nonetheless, let me try:

Free Will, no Will, the Will to Power, Willing it so, Weak Willed, Strong Willed... 'Shut up, Will yaw's. I think this last act of willing makes great sense at times. Because words are metaphors and represent an elusive quality for any precise definition, I can't enter the intellectual debate or realm of real philosophers. I only have my paltry subjective life as it is to conspire with this time. Maybe my last time.

Over the years, I had a reoccurring dream in which my personal environment -- house, family and friends were gone. All that remained was my solitary self looking down at the carpet in a small dingy house, thinking: god, that's bad taste. Why am I living here? in this dingy, subpart abode with worn, faded carpet -- and alone? Followed by  great sense of disillusionment  in a half conscious state: was I at last 'found out'  -- discovered as living a fraudulent, undeniably shameful existence -- and in an instant been made to pay for a life gone wrong? This was my punishment.

But I wake up, and for several minutes my drowsy states fluctuates between a dream world and the one supposedly not a dream.  And I feel a sense of loss, confusion, and bewilderment for not participating in a robust life any longer -- that it had been taken from me in an unguarded moment while fast asleep -- only to wake and realize all the missing elements of a life once complete was not gone after all. The meter was still running. Life as I know it and live it was still in tack as best can be planned and executed.  There was joy and relief a plenty -- it was only a dream you know -- my  own human and physical belongings and values surrounds me, embraces me, motivates me -- and yes, 'wills'  me the energy to leap out of bed and face the day once more.  I can't tell how relieved I was.

Have you followed that route? Or has your dream of loss been in other forms: the loss of parents, family members, job, and all things you hold precious in you life? Then you know what I am talking about. I hope. Because it is at that moment -- shuffling between two states of mind, one conscious, one not, that I was  without the desire 'to Will' or move my life forward. The burden of perceived sudden loss was too great and overwhelming to do anything more, but 'sit and spin'. Of course, I did have that dream a dozen times or more over twenty-some years and the impact was never diminished or lost over time. It was as though that day would come, deserving or not, eventually. And as some of us know by now, the days of loss and bewilderment do come.

Today happens to be the third anniversary of my wife's early death at 54 (although I don't think she would be celebrating it). In one way or anther, we all can relate to loss. But what has loss to do with the Will? Or a bad dream? Or bad luck -- which I now refer to as 'our fates'. I've been stuck here. This dilemma of 'willing' my life go in a certain, pointed, realizable direction dictated by me has been lost somewhere along the way. The 'me' that was independent, semi-dynamic and sure of everything and nothing.. Eleanor Roosevelt once told us believe in the beauty of our dreams. I realized that is exactly what I had done over my life thus far...believed in my dreams. I did. But is it the events in our life that dictate our direction, or simply the Will to pursue them -- regardless of the results? Or are we threatened by bad choices that end as bad decisions based on an original-sounding set of ideas we determined would fit our desires and goals in the journey ahead. That's what haunts me now.

We do make choices on the basis of our own desire to be fulfilled. And sometimes, the deliberate choice of desires and values takes us to a place we want to go. And sometimes, we never get there. But when we do get there, we say: "'what a good boy am I'. When financial, and personal goals are achieved to some degree -- we have enjoyed a measure of success by most standards. Some have more than others, but on the whole, each of us revels in the choices we make that actually work out as planned. Our self-mastery of Will based on our choosing our own direction (vs. it being chosen for us). We have achieved a sense of control in our lives. The element of self-guidance comes into play. All the events and incidents leading up to the end goal we realized were caused by our initial desire to succeed. And fate did not intervene enough in a negative way to cause to change direction. Hence, we followed our dreams. And were not beat up, shot or murdered in deed or process. Did we, or did we not will it all to be so. And it was. And is. Therefore, however we define 'will', it worked out for us in the short or long run for now.

Some of us might say: It was the Will of theology and its god-forms. Hence, we have no legitimate first will. Ours in second-hand you might say. If we are in good standing with the deities, we really don't need to Will it our way or another. A higher order owns us. We can pass over this life without 'fighting'  too hard for it because the one to come is going to be  so terrific. And the lights never go out (although I am told there is not water or sex in heaven -- which makes sense because we wouldn't be able to clean up afterwards).

In trying to determine the source and use of my own Will, I have spent enormous bits of time in the past four months researching and noting the many definitions and forms of debate that history and its philosophers have contributed. I have added some of these readings at the end of this piece to let you know I did not wing my understanding of Will so easily. Although I wish it were so.You see, I have come to terms with the notion with the possibility our lives 'come and go' by a routine necessity, all the while our fates are eventually flattened and bruised by our experiences -- whether we Will them so or not. Most of us pay a price. The higher the expectations, the greater the price paid to achieve them it seems.

One dark December evening last year, I thought it relaxing and necessary to trace my life from its origins to the present time -- which meant from birth to this moment, as I lay dying from a heart disease I was not aware of at the moment. I only mention this because it was through this experience I took the journey ' past to  present'. Actually, it didn't take long to list major life-shaping and altering life events, both healthy and disastrous. I did not include the mundane increments  -- all that remained were a handful of  willed by acts by others, and me.

Like so many discoveries, they come unattended, with little fanfare or warning. Yet from the beginning of a journey from past to present, I stumbled on the idea that whatever occurred or was acted upon me, from potty training to philosophy training, were the acts of expectation -- from other, myself and often both. In the beginning it was our parents who lead us. Even 'trained' us to take responsibility, perform in school, socially and personally. The list is really endless. And for the most part we did not disappoint them. Their rational expectations of me became my motivation to continue on to the next level. They expected me to perform because it was civil requirement to engage in a credible, even morally-stressed acts of participation. I then expected myself to perform honorably end fairly -- in hopes would  eventually motivate my self.

The result of this  last-minute review: I recognized some individuals determined or instigated what my thinking and feeling acts should and could be friends, teachers and parents -- and my mind and body acted appropriately or not, based on my motivation and beliefs. I accepted the will of others initially, acted either positively or negatively eventually on the issues of morality, theology, psychology...then finally forming and reforming on-going acts of philosophy to either justify or not a lifetime of events and decisions I and others made for me. Whether or not I willed them or they were willed on me makes little difference at this point (although it appears I and others did the 'willing'). Trying to understand their influence over a lifetime means everything. I concluded for the most part, I was a product of choices, from inception to near-death, some made by humans, others issued by fates unknown. That's all. I was satisfied my life-ending was not so bad after all. I was only partly in control of it. My free will was limited to judgments made by limited experience and an incomplete 'immoral character' as I was taught to believe. Or nothing at all -- Chaos rules the day. Interestingly enough, it really didn't matter at that point of departure.

I would say part of me I own, part of me was prepared by all the influences surrounding me. Some choices were made by institutional policy, others on the desires and value of family. The mix interwoven over time and circumstance. Yet each from an act of willing. The philosopher Henry Frankfurt suggested the difference between humans and animals is our ability to reflect on our desires and beliefs on more than one level. The thing I am attempting now. A sort of self-determinism takes hold that allows for our us to deliberately originate our thoughts and prioritize them based on of desire and need.

And Descartes once wrote 'the will is by nature so free that it can never be constrained'. And we exercise that freedom in every decision. Jean Paul Sartre believed in  an 'absolute freedom' -- that no limits can be found except freedom itself. That we as humans have no choice but the choice to 'choose'.

Of course in Western philosophy, there is the argument that theology wills us quite completely -- that is, God has the answers and  references on how to Will our lives correctly. He (or She) determines what is right or wrong. We just have to avoid the temptations that confront us every day. The 'choice' is ours. Problem is, we're in big trouble when we make the wrong choice. But at least we know what we should be doing. Moral theology (manmade no doubt?) tells us. It is expected of us. Without the expectations from theology that stresses moral character, 'would he have seven wives and four lovers between the ages of 18-64?'

Do we ever do something for nothing where no physical in intangible reward is involved? And can we honestly control or determine our behaviors by a deterministic menu of choice? Or are we simply pummeled by random options of awkward feelings and desires until we are forced to do something? Or nothing. Do we really determine anything or is it all the randomness of a nature act?

If only I knew for sure what to expect next. Will I ever?



Geoffrey Klempner, 'Pathways to Philosophy: Philosophy of Mind', units 10-12

Thomas Aquinas, 'Basic Writing of Saint Thomas Aquinas'

Rene' Descartes, 'Meditations on First Philosophy'

Henry Frankfurt, 'Freedom of the Will an the Concept of a Person'

Jean Paul Sartre, 'Being and Nothingness'

Arthur Schopenhauer, 'Prize Essay  on the Freedom of the Will'

(c) 2003 James Martin




A Second Reply to Stuart Burns

I thank Stuart Burns[1] for continuing to raise questions about my critique of redistributionism, and Geoffrey Klempner for providing a forum for those challenges and my attempt to meet them.


The tether to Professor Jonathan Wolff's paper[2] has long been severed: our thread has a life of its own for reasons I've given twice before. Yes, I mentioned charity in reference to his presentation, which did not mention it. Mr. Burns' reference to condominium board's "charitable" expenditure obscured the obvious, so I had to belabor it.

A condominium's board of managers is constitutionally incapable of performing any act of charity per se. All board decisions must have a business rationale. Even one that has a business rationale wherein charitable "spin" plays no part may move members to recall its officers. Decisions transparently motivated by non-business interests, however, tend to invite such retribution more swiftly. The days of a board that regularly makes poor business decisions, for whatever reason, are numbered.

Mr. Burns tendentiously describes the board's expenditure of his maintenance fee for repugnant purposes as "an involuntary redistribution" of his fee. Maintenance fees are exchanged for sound condominium management. The goods that exchanging parties receive are not "redistributed," but become elements in future exchanges. If my grocer gambles at the casino with the money I spend in his store, my expenditure is not an "involuntary redistribution" of money to the casino, or to the casino's food vendor, or to the vendor's trucker, or to the trucker's landlord, etc.

I'm sorry I disappointed Mr. Burns by suggesting a limit to the power of philosophical argument. The limits may lie solely within me. In the end, I may not be pedagogically skillful enough to evoke in his mind the relevant insight that illuminates both the nature of a condo board decision and the nature of taxation on which "redistribution" depends. Mr. Burns may have found my discourse "unpersuasive," but it's the best I can do. In the following I merely add a few brush strokes while boosting the amplifiers and adjusting the lighting.

Redistribution: A Ruse by Any Other Name...

Mr. Burns' reluctant defense of "redistribution" prescinds from the question of what is necessarily subject to it. It is always someone's property. How does one acquire property peacefully and justly? There are four ways.

1. Self-ownership: More accurately, body-ownership. Each person has a primary sphere of influence, namely, his own body, which he "acquires" as soon as he comes to be. One's body is a boundary line for others: I am the first, if not sole, arbiter of what may be done with or to my body. To achieve my goals, I need to enjoy exclusive control of my body. To achieve them more efficiently, I must cooperate with you by, among other things, recognizing your right to exclusively control yours.

2. Homesteading: If a resource is not yet owned, one can come to own it by picking it up, touching it, or cordoning it off. Action, not mere vision, is decisive. That is, one must "mix one's labor with it," as John Locke put it. It is not enough to say, "All that I survey is mine," because the fellow on the horizon facing you could declare the same thing. Who picked up the first stick or rock on the field? Who fenced off the territory and cultivated it? These are the germane questions. They are rooted in millennia of human practice, not in deductions from axioms.

3. Exchange: Persons who have acquired property by the first two rules and the fourth may exchange property according to mutually agreed terms. One possible exchange is collecting rent, so much for such-and-such a duration, for the permission to use one's property without gaining title to it. Exchange also includes gift-giving, which is an exchange of a tangible good for an intangible good (the donor's satisfaction in having satisfied another).

4. Increase: Any transformation that my property undergoes is also my property. If I own the land, I also own what grows on it, any resource lying below it that I may unearth, and any improvements I make to it. One also has title to interest on money one lends out if lender and borrower agree for, all things being equal, an amount of present money is demonstrably worth more to the borrower than that same amount in the future.

If a person acquires ownership of a physical object in accordance with these rules of social cooperation, then he owns it justly, rightly, or by right. We may say he "has a right" to it as long as we do not understand a right to be an occult property of a person. "Right" refers to a relationship between a person and a physical object such that it defines a boundary for other persons in their relations with him. Property radiates, as it were, lines of demarcation that morally limit what nonowners may do. With one's own property one may do as one wishes, logically excepting interfering with another's use of his property.

These rules are not conventions, like which side of the road to drive on. Since rational reflection upon their denial proves their cogency, they are not superstitions. The persistent and widespread violation of those rules will destroy social cooperation and halt the attainment of all the ends that depend on it. We can never justify the violation of those rules, because morality itself derives its point from the human imperative to seek good lives (in which all, or almost all, of our needs are met continuously, regularly, and harmoniously). Morality is a mean to the end of enabling us all to pursue good lives. A society in which some people trample with impunity on the good life-seeking efforts of others is one that diminishes the prospects of good life-achieving for all.

Among property owners A, B, and C, several kinds of voluntary or peaceful transaction are possible. What A may not do is force B to make a gift to C, to exchange goods or money with C, or lend to C; or to forcibly prevent B from doing any of those things. There is nothing economic over and above production and exchange called "distribution." There is, of course, political force, which is counter-economic. Redistribution entails the threat of such force. Why? Because voluntary exchanges between property owners almost never yield outcomes that satisfy the redistributionist, who is usually an egalitarian. A the egalitarian observes that B has more of x than C. A evaluates that situation negatively, but is not content merely to evaluate. He is determined to realize equality. There is another value, however, that complicates his attempt, namely, the right to deploy one's property as one sees fit (with the appropriate proviso).

"Redistribution" is therefore a euphemism for a form of theft of the Robin Hood variety. The money or other resource that is to be transferred from one party to another is not lying around unowned. As soon as it is produced, it is owned. Unless forcibly prevented, the owner then consumes it or exchanges it for something he prefers. No one is entitled to any good or service if there is no title, and there is none without conformity to the rules of just acquisition.

Egalitarians do not care much about all this, even though a society that respects property rights creates increasingly higher standards of living for the least well off. For them the only salient fact is the disparity between one person's holdings and another's. The "remedy" that A the egalitarian proposes is to deprive B of some of his nominal property and to give that "excess" to C. I say "nominal," for while B or C may be in physical possession of those goods, the redistributionist cannot easily acknowledge that either one owns anything in the sense of being immune from State confiscation. Everyone is subject to redistributory expropriation (except, of course, the expropriators who recognize no limits what they de facto, if not de jure, own).

Again, if voluntary exchanges yielded egalitarian-friendly patterns of outcomes, the thought of "redistribution" would never enter the egalitarian's head. But they don't, so it does, and the one alternative to a voluntary exchange is a involuntary one, that is, a forced exchange. Philosophers have not regarded the use of force as a morally trivial matter. He who undertakes to coerce another has the burden of justifying that undertaking. Therefore, if redistribution is not to be understood as charity, but rather as an entitlement that purports to "correct" the course that charity (a species of voluntary exchange) takes, we must ask when and where the contractual proposal to exchange titles occurred. The answer is: Never and nowhere.

Lingering Equivocationitis

If one word refers to two essentially different things, it may lull us into ascribing to the one qualities or relations that belong only to the other. The ensuing confusion cancels the advantage of not having to coin a new word. Historically, for example, "property" has meant something physical. Now, however, "intellectual property," which refers to a nonphysical pattern that one can record, has entered our language. If one "owns" a pattern, then one can legally exercise control over the physical property of others insofar as it can record the pattern. One may exercise such control by enjoining the owners of recording device from recording the pattern one allegedly owns.

Similarly, if by "contract" we primarily mean a proposed exchange of titles to property, we risk generating confusion if we also use "contract" to refer the rules of social cooperation. For eventually someone will ask, "Since (primary) contracts are enforceable, who is authorized to enforce the social contract?" To which the ready reply comes, "Why, the State, of course!" The term "social contract" began life innocently as an extension of "contract," but negligent custodians raised a delinquent that now pushes its nobler forebear around. By a conceptual equivalent of Gresham's Law, a bogus term can drive a sound one out of the realm of discourse, just as "intellectual property" and "social justice" have.[3]

Mr. Burns relies on yet another analogy, one between representative agency such as arises on the free market and the kind we find in elective political office. Unlike true servants of clients, politicians promise to confer benefits with the proceeds of taxation. But they are, according to Mr. Burns, just as rightly to be regarded as our representatives and agents as lawyers and talent managers.

The "similarities" blind Mr. Burns to the difference between the State and institutions that are formed by voluntary exchanges on free markets. The latter are peaceful uses of justly held property. The State, however, necessarily violates property rights. It cannot do anything else unless it first does that. The democratic participation of millions in the race to become a net tax-consumer does not compensate for the injustice of taxation. That is, just because millions of people are deceive themselves into believing that the value of their "redistributed" benefits exceed the taxes they are forced to pay does not justify the racket.[4] Whatever the State does that coincides with the provision of justice it can do only because it commits a basic injustice. Its coincidental dispensing of justice is also far more expensive and inefficient than need be. It also creates problems that invite more State intervention, etc., ad infinitum, ad mortem. Even when the State charges a "fee for service," it has customers only because it forcibly monopolizes the provision of that service.

The State: Who Protects Us from The Protectors?

The State is a relatively small number of individuals organized as an unjust monopoly of the means of force over a territory. The State compels you to make "gifts" to and exchanges with it and to compel or forbid exchanges between you and another person. This distinguishes it from every other institution, even condo boards. The State maintains itself by forced tribute or taxation. In "exchange" for this "gift," the State promises nothing specific that it can be held to. It does not go out of business when it fails to deliver the goods.

My analogy between the State and Vinny the extortionist is therefore intact. The State is Vinny writ large, just as Vinny is potentially an incipient State. Every State has it origins in a Vinny, a big guy with big arms and a bigger club or axe. His descendants may wear fine suits, speak correctly, and know which fork to use for the salad, but that should not deceive us. Like Vinny, the State does not like to be ignored, and because it has a monopoly of force over a given territory, it can compel one's undivided attention. Like Vinny, the State offers to protect its victims from violence when it is what they most need protection from.

Welcome to the Collective (Resistance Is Not Necessarily Futile)

I do not have "reservations" about Mr. Burns' use of the term "collective decision making." I reject it a species of loose talk that philosopher should avoid, for it is not clear what "collective" modifies. The process by which individuals reach a decision is collective (more than one individual is involved), but the decision (the Aye or Nay, up or down vote) is not. The votes do not, as it were, "fuse" into one vote, any more than the voters fuse into one voter, even when in unanimous agreement. There is simply the favoring of one of the two alternatives, and the ruling out of the other.

Condo board members must deliberate and then conclude their deliberations. "Majority rules" is a less-than-ideal way to conclude when there is a need to do so, but no unanimity. There are others, however, and they are worse: "minority rules" or "nobody rules." Group members are free to resist the majority by foregoing the benefit of remaining with the group. The friends of Mr. Burns' example who lunch at a less desirable restaurant demonstrate that they prefer the company of their other friends to a better restaurant's ambience. There's no forcible imposition and, in the end, Mr. Burns conceded as much.

If a group's actual performance diverges from a member's expectations, he can re-evaluate his continued membership in the group. The "bait-and-switch" model of condo board behavior that Mr. Burns described must be the rare exception or there would be no condominiums. The fact of abuse is never a good argument against appropriate use. The initiation of force on which the State depends for its existence, however, is intrinsically, not accidentally, abusive.

No contracting party may alter the terms of the contract. Sometimes, however, one party can perform the contract only in a way that was not foreseeable in detail. The fine print on the reverse of an event ticket may lead a potential spectator to say, "No thanks!" By now it is common knowledge that the ticket seller may use a buyer's image in broadcasts of the event. Any ticket purchaser unwilling to be photographed is given a refund on demand. The principle here is that the event's producers decide who gets to enjoy what they own. If an individual chooses to forego the pleasure of being a spectator in exchange for anonymity, we have a case, not of the violation of rights, but rather of their exercise.

A condominium requires unit owners to entrust management to a subset of themselves. That is not what citizens do in a "representative democracy," which extends its reach not only over voters who did not "win," but also over nonvoters. "Representatives" deliberate about allocating forcibly extracted tribute. Now, one is free to live in a condominium, or a traditional house, or a shack on the side of a mountain. But there is no freedom to ignore the State's demands, its picking of our pockets for nearly half the year, its regulations, or its propaganda. I fail to see how several thousand mere mortals, calling themselves the State, acquired the right to forcibly bring trillions of dollars under their control to "fix the economy" so they can break it some more, or to combat the international terror that their own brand provokes.

Mr. Burns says I receive "a great deal of value from [my] elected representatives and their hired agents." I assure him I do not, if I am in any position to judge. In fact, I receive a great deal of disvalue from them, all of whom I would fire at once were they indeed "mine." That I cannot proves that they are not.


Mr. Burns says the "advantages of group cooperation will not happen in a vacuum, and will not happen out of chaos." This is a false alternative that obscures the voluntary essence of cooperation. Something as central to human living as language, for example, developed neither in a vacuum nor out of chaos, but mutation-by-mutation in the uncentralized mouths of millions. No leader issuing edicts from headquarters commanded his co-ethnics to create, for example, the French language. ("Remember, at midnight we stop speaking Latin and start speaking French!") Cooperation in the service of common ends need never violate rights. That it must, at least occasionally, seems to be the presupposition of Mr. Burns and of many others.

This idea that in order to enjoy the blessings of social cooperation we must, however reluctantly, sanction a little coercion here and there, is incoherent. If people are cooperating, there is no basis for wondering "whether there are things that the group can morally do as a whole that the individual ought not do as an individual." There has been no greater cloak for the crimes of State than the notion that its agents need not be held to the same moral standards as the rest of us, that they may murder, steal, and enslave, but punish any one else for doing the same. When Mr. Burns seriously entertains that idea, I am uncertain how to interpret his denial that he is "suggesting... that 'the group' (or 'society') is an agent apart from its members." That is exactly what the normal reading of his words suggests.

"Redistribution" is a mock-clinical term that masks from its beneficiaries, of whom most are net tax-losers, a violent reality. It need never deceive us if we only insist on an answer to one simple question: Who owns what?



1. Stuart Burns "Redistributionism and the Social Contract: a reply to Tony Flood", 'Philosophy Pathways' Issue 64, 10th August 2003

2. Jonathan Wolff "Four Forms of Redistribution", 'Philosophy Pathways' Issue 53, 9th March 2003

3. "[T]he right to contract is strictly derivable from the right of private property, and therefore... the only enforceable contracts... should be those where the failure of one party to abide by the contract implies the theft of property from the other party." Murray N. Rothbard, 'The Ethics of Liberty' New York University Press, 2nd. ed., 1998 [1982]. Available through This book elaborates the position outlined here.

4. Historian Paul Gottfried's recent commentary is relevant: "[W]hat power is about is being able to force others to do as one wants. While money may be a means to achieve this end, monopolizing force, as the post-medieval state has done, is an even better way to get others to do one's will. Moreover, in a mass democracy... political leaders can acquire mass endorsement in return for redistributing wealth and by holding periodic plebiscites -- organized by parties that belong to the system. Unlike "dictatorships" and traditional aristocratic societies, "democracies" can create consensus around their exercise and extension of power... . It may be the ultimate Marxist superstition to think that economic disparities count for more than political ones -- or that wealthy people must be in charge of the state because the government leaves them alone and takes their bribes." "Sea of Bile,", August 7, 2003. http:--- And one can no longer responsibly presuppose the value of democracy after the publication of Hans Hermann-Hoppe, 'Democracy: The God That Failed', Transaction Publishers, Rutgers, NJ: 2001. Available through

(c) Anthony Flood 2003


© Geoffrey Klempner 2002–2020