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The Proper Roles: Self-Evident Truths

Thinking about Thinking: Part II


Last week, we examined the three types of statements deemed true. This week we will discuss the appropriate assignment of these statements and the dangers in their inappropriate use. We will conclude with how investors can use this analysis. As an aside, these last two WGRs have examined a broad topic outside the usual scope of this report, some “summertime reading,” if you will. Next week, we will return to our usual analysis.

The Proper Roles: Self-Evident Truths
There appears to be a human need for certainty. At weddings, we say “until death do you part” even though casual observation suggests that many marriages end in divorce. We want to know what people stand for. We want to know what is true. These sentiments usually boil down to a priori synthetic statements, which are statements of belief.

A priori synthetic statements that are derived from sensory observation are fraught with risk. That’s because this source of knowledge is always conditional. By induction, it is reasonable to believe the sun will rise in the morning. However, by some geologic or astronomical event, it might not. The scientific method may give us comfort that a relationship between cause and effect is always true, but that is usually only under laboratory conditions.

A priori synthetic statements are most useful in matters of religion, morals and ethics. These core beliefs, to a great extent, define the key characteristics of human beings. Where do these core beliefs come from? Often, core beliefs come from revelation, tradition and sentiment. At the same time, although we may individually treat these statements as self-evident, they are not universally held, which means that they are not self-evident.

After Kant, the general trend in philosophy has been to postulate that there is no logical way to evaluate moral or ethical claims. In other words, a priori synthetic statements about the “oughts” of human behavior cannot be tested. Although we understand philosophers’ reluctance to delve into these areas, the reality is that not testing them makes all of them acceptable. It’s difficult to see how one could build a functioning society where there are no generally acceptable guidelines to behavior.

So, here are a couple of tests that I have found useful. First, it probably makes sense to test an a priori synthetic statement on morals and ethics by the outcomes it produces.

For example, Peter Singer, an Australian moral philosopher, is a strict utilitarian. The goodness or badness of an outcome is in the pleasure or pain it produces. In other words, something is good if it makes more people happy than makes them sad. This has led him to postulate that a chimpanzee, which may be more sensate than a severely disabled human, has a greater claim on life and resources because the former can feel more pleasure and pain. This is a logical conclusion from his self-evident truth. I would argue that this outcome is so repulsive that it undermines the veracity of his a priori synthetic starting point and thus should prompt us to find a different starting premise.

Second, a priori synthetic statements about morals and ethics should be tested by Kant’s categorical imperative. Essentially, it states that if everyone held one’s a priori synthetic statement as the highest good, how would society exist if that statement became how all acted? 1 For example, if a society held that infanticide was its highest value such a society would probably die out in a few decades. Thus, it could not be the highest value for human behavior because if it were, there would be no more humans!

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