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The Self-Confidence Argument

Here's an old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 9 years ago, in 2015, on the World Wide Web.

Some of you know that I am a philosophical anarchist. This conclusion is controversial: most people think that states can in principle have legitimate political authority over the people in them, and that some states really do. So no state can have legitimate political authority is a conclusion in need of some argument to justify it. I’ve tried looking at the issue a couple of ways in a couple of different places. But those are both arguments that start from within a pretty specific, narrow dialectical context. They’re intended to address a couple of fairly specific claims for state legitimacy (specifically, individualist defenses of minimal state authority, and defenses of state authority based on a claim of explicit or tacit consent from the governed). Maybe a more general argument would be desirable. So here is a new one. It is a general deductive argument with only five premises. All of its inferences are self-evidently valid, and most of the premises are either extremely uncontroversial logical principles, or else simple empirical observations that are easily verified by any competent reader. I call it The Self-Confidence Argument for Philosophical Anarchism.[1] Here is how it goes:

  1. This argument is a valid deductive argument. (Premise.)
  2. If this argument is a valid deductive argument and all of its premises are true, then its conclusion is true. (Premise.)
  3. Its conclusion is No state could possibly have legitimate political authority. (Premise.)
  4. If No state could possibly have legitimate political authority is true, then no state could possibly have legitimate political authority. (Premise.)
  5. All of this argument’s premises are true. (Premise.)
  6. This is a valid deductive argument and all of its premises are true. (Conj. 1, 5)
  7. Its conclusion is true. (MP 2, 6)
  8. No state could possibly have legitimate political authority is true. (Subst. 3, 7)
  9. ∴ No state could possibly have legitimate political authority. (MP 5, 8)

Q.E.D., and smash the state.

Now, of course, just about every interesting philosophical argument comes along with some bullets that you have to bite. The awkward thing about the Self-Confidence Argument is that if it is sound, then it also seems that you can go through the same steps to show that this argument, The Self-Confidence Argument For The State, is also sound:

  1. This argument is a valid deductive argument. (Premise.)
  2. If this argument is a valid deductive argument and all of its premises are true, then its conclusion is true. (Premise.)
  3. Its conclusion is Some states have legitimate political authority. (Premise.)
  4. If Some states have legitimate political authority is true, then some states have legitimate political authority. (Premise.)
  5. All of this argument’s premises are true. (Premise.)
  6. This is a valid deductive argument and all of its premises are true. (Conj. 1, 5)
  7. Its conclusion is true. (MP 2, 6)
  8. Some states have legitimate political authority is true. (Subst. 3, 7)
  9. ∴ Some states have legitimate political authority. (MP 5, 8)

. . . which admittedly seems a bit awkward.

It’s easy enough to figure out that there has to be something wrong with at least one of these arguments. Their conclusions directly contradict each other, and so couldn’t both be true. But they are formally completely identical; so presumably whatever is wrong with one argument would also be wrong with the other one. But if so, what’s wrong with them? Are they invalid? If so, how? Whichever argument you choose to look at, the argument has only four inferential steps, and all of them use elementary valid rules of inference or rules of replacement. Since each inferential step in the argument is valid, the argument as a whole must be valid. This also, incidentally, provides us with a reason to conclude that premise 1 is true. Premise 2 is a concrete application of a basic logical principle, justified by the concept of deductive validity itself. Sound arguments must have true conclusions; validity just means that, if all the premises of an argument are true, the conclusion cannot possibly be false. Premise 3 is a simple empirical observation; if you’re not sure whether or not it’s true, just check down on line 9 and see. Premise 4 is a completely uncontroversial application of disquotation rules for true sentences. And premise 5 may seem over-confident, perhaps even boastful. But if it’s false, then which premise of the argument are you willing to deny? Whichever one you pick, what is it that makes that premise false? On what (non-question-begging) grounds would you say that it is false?

See also.

  1. [1]I owe the idea behind the form of this argument to a puzzle that Roderick Long gave me a couple years ago.

8 replies to The Self-Confidence Argument Use a feed to Follow replies to this article · TrackBack URI

  1. Miko

    From the perspective of model theory, premise 2 is undecidable (approximately; this is a bit of a simplification). Modus ponens is an exterior rule for manipulation of logic within a model, but not actually part of the model itself.

    See also: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/What_the_Tortoise_Said_to_Achilles

  2. billgrant

    Hello, I have a question. Why most major philosophers are not political anarchists? Most of them also are atheists. Some of them seem to lean to totalitarianism. There are still marxists philosophers alive and kicking. I have some evidence that most philosophers disdain libertarianism, and some of them regard anarchism, especially free market anarchism, as a form of mental illness. Are we disconnected from reality, or are they?

    • Rad Geek

      Hi Bill,

      It’s true that relatively few academic philosophers today are anarchists. I don’t know why that is, off the top of my head. But I don’t find it very surprising.

      Most people aren’t anarchists, and while academic philosophers are systematically more likely some unpopular views than the general public (atheism being a major example; also, a large minority of philosophers are ethical vegans or vegetarians), those views tend most often to be only slightly bolder or more extensively elaborated versions of views that are common among the majority, or at least large vocal minorities, of academics in general. (Atheism and religious skepticism are unpopular opinions in some parts of the country, but pretty common throughout the academy.)

      Of course, philosophers are supposed to be responsive to philosophical arguments. If you look at the prevalence of vegetarianism among philosophers, that’s partly due to the influence of the arguments made by folks like Peter Singer, Tom Regan and James Rachels over the last few decades. There are good systematic arguments for political anarchism in the literature; for example, Crispin Sartwell’s Against the State and Michael Huemer’s Problem of Political Authority. But if these arguments are going to have long-term impact, it’s going to take a while for that to show, and a lot more folks citing the arguments or writing new material in a similar vein.

      Of course, I am an anarchist. So I think that Huemer and Sartwell are right, and the broad consensus in favor of activist state political liberalism is wrong. But I don’t think it serves the debate much for either side to try to dismiss the other as simply disconnected from reality, let alone mentally ill. (In general, I’d much rather people stuck to specific arguments, and spent a lot more time hashing those arguments out, a lot less time trying to work up a diagnosis for the person making them.)

    • John T. Kennedy

      “It’s true that relatively few academic philosophers today are anarchists.”

      Not sure that’s true, from what I’ve been reading. Philosophical anarchism, loosely the idea that individuals owe no obedience to the state, seems to be a pretty respectable philosophical position these days. Of course few of these philosophical anarchists show much interest in actually pursuing anarchy.

  3. Lexi

    Premise 5 is, at least, unsupportable. In order for all the premises to be true, premise 5 must also be true. The only way to justify premise 5 is by circular reasoning. Given that, maybe it’s not so surprising that you can support any conclusion X with the argument, since circular reasoning can establish any proposition as true.

    • Rad Geek

      hm, you’re right to observe that one among the statements premise 5 is quantifying over is premise 5 itself. So it is itself among the statements it asserts to be true, and so its truth conditions would be something like:

      (T) Premise 5 is true ≡ Premise 1 is true & Premise 2 is true & Premise 3 is true & Premise 4 is true & Premise 5 is true

      That might seem curious, and it involves a certain sort of circularity, but I can’t say I see how it makes the premise insupportable, if that is supposed to mean that you couldn’t give non-circular reasons to believe that Premise 5 is true.

      After all, statements like this really are a part of ordinary language in non-philosophical cases. For example, Marco Polo begins his Description of the World by making the following statement in the Prologue:

      We will set down things seen as seen, things heard as heard, so that our book may be an accurate record, free from any sort of fabrication. And all who read this book or hear it may do so with full confidence, because it contains nothing but the truth.

      This is a pretty common conceit in traveler’s tales: the author frequently assures the reader that everything they say — incredible as it might seem — is true.

      But that statement is among the statements in Polo’s book; if he asserts that it contains nothing but the truth, then that sentence, inter alia, asserts that it is itself true:

      (M) Marco Polo and his brothers traveled the Silk Road to China, and there he befriended the Emperor Kublai Khan, and along the way they observed the decadent customs of Lesser Armenia, and traveled among the Turkomans, and . . . and (M) is true.

      But it doesn’t seem like (M) is insupportable or viciously circular. In ordinary cases, wouldn’t we determine whether it’s true or not by going through the book and checking out the other statements? I.e., some people reading the book might take everything else Marco Polo says there as true; and if so, then they’d take (M) as true as well. On the other hand, some people doubt parts of his tale — some people for example doubt that he even went to China at all. If so, they typically think not only that the first conjunct is false, but also the last one — if one of his statements is an assurance that all the statements are true, and any of the other statements are false, then that makes at least two falsehoods in total. But now imagine a reader who insisted that they were a skeptic about Polo’s claims — but then, when asked one-by-one, signed off on every one of his other statements, except that they denied the statement that the book contains nothing but the truth. Would that make sense, as a position you might take with respect to the truth value of the claims in the book? Would it be a supportable claim? If so, how? Of course, you might say that it is insupportable, but so is the alternative, the claim that all the statements are true. But why say that? Is that how we normally read texts that make assurances about themselves? Should it be?

— 2016 —

  1. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People's Daily 2016-05-11 – The Self-Confidence Argument for Anarchism Re-visited::

    […] in December, I posted about an original argument against the legitimacy of the state, which I called The Self-Confidence Argument for Philosophical Anarchism. Here’s the […]

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