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Declaration of Independence

Today was my first official day in the Publius fellowship, which means that the declaration of independence would be on the agenda for the day. One of the interesting things I learned today about the declaration is what the meaning of "self-evident" and "all men are created equal" are.

For the founders, self-evident meant that the proposition they were going to make had intrinsic validity. This means that it could not be denied without saying some sort of contradiction.

The example used in class was the Aristotelian phrase "man is by nature a rational animal." This phrase is self-evident because the predicate "rational animal" is contained within the noun "man." In order to understand what a rational animal is, you need to understand man. Thus it is like saying "A is A." ie (Man is rational animal)

From this premise the founders claimed that all men were created equal (all men are rational animals). Being that they are rational, they are entitled to certain inaleable rights.

The counter-argument to this goes something like this:

Claiming that nature provides us with a code by which to live by is making a category mistake. It is confusing "what is" with "what ought to be". This is the classic is/ought and fact/value distinction that is at the heart of that thing that goes by the name of post-modernism.

But isn't this claim simply absurd. When the post-modernist is telling me that nature provides no rational basis for morality, isn't he telling me to accept an ought (ie, isn't he saying that you ought to conclude by nature that nature provides no rational basis for morality). Tell me if I am wrong, but isn't this a contradiction in terms.

Likewise, the fact/value distinction falls under the same trap. They claim that all the "facts" lead to the conclusion that all values are relative. Well isn't this a violation of the fact/value distinction they are trying to force me to accept.

I think the best (and most concise) answer to this is provided by Ralf McInerny

"A feature of natural law precepts, according to Thomas Aquinas, is that they are self evident (or non-gainsayable). The only defense of them is indirect, by convicting the one denying them of incoherence and inconsistency because he most invoke what he is in the process of denying....

Plato and Aristotle took very seriously the position of Protagoras according to which what is true for me is true for me and what is true for you is true for you. In their different ways, the two giants of Greek philosophy displayed the incoherence of the claim and its reliance for intelligibility on the very principles it would deny."


Book review: Reaction to my paper was generally positive with a lot of good constructive criticism to help improve it. Hopefully I will be able to produce something worthy of merit when all is said and done.

Will post more for tomm

Matt