A Subtle Deceit – Self-Evidency and the Declaration


What sorts of things are self-evident? In logic, propositions are generally divided into two types: analytic and synthetic. Most analytic propositions contain subjects that necessarily entail the predicated attribute and are therefore tautological. For instance, “all bachelors are single” is an analytic proposition because the subject bachelor already denotes the quality of singleness ascribed by the predicate. No further investigation is required to parse the proposition because we know a priori that all bachelors are, by definition, single. One might reasonably argue that analytic statements of this kind qualify as self-evident.

Other types of knowledge might meet the criteria for self-evidency. The color red, for instance, might be fundamentally and self-evidently red, as no other logical grounds exist to corroborate its redness. Our senses perceive it to be red and that is all the epistemic evidence we have for recognizing it. Some have claimed that human consciousness is incorrigible and therefore also self-evident, but philosophers have debated this issue without arriving at a clear consensus.

What remains perfectly clear is that most propositions are not analytic or self-evident. Synthetic propositions do not entail the predicate concept in their subject and, unfortunately for us, constitute the majority of propositions we encounter in the world. For example, “the king is ruthless” is a synthetic proposition that requires us to learn more about this specific king, his qualities as a ruler and whether or not he treats his subjects justly before we can determine the cogency and veracity of the statement. There are exceptions to this general rule; Kant tried to account for the existence of certain synthetic a priori propositions, such as those made possible through the aid of mathematics. But in general, synthetic propositions demand more work from us than analytic propositions.

The logical distinction between analytic and synthetic propositions seems easy enough to grasp, but the writers of the Declaration of Independence managed to sneak in a bit of Enlightenment sophistry that clearly violates the rules of self-evidency and poses a problem for anyone interested in defending the authority of religion in relation to the founding of human rights.

The second sentence of the Declaration of Independence, perhaps one of the most famous lines from American history, reads “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

It is a noble sounding statement, indeed. But in what possible sense can we speak of the equality of men as being self-evidently true, or of humankind being self-evidently endowed with certain God-given attributes, especially when very few theologians today would go so far as to claim that god – the ontological argument notwithstanding – is a self-evidently necessary entity or person? Clearly no entitlement to certain civil rights is expressly designated by virtue of our being human beings. What were Jefferson, Adams and the other members of congress thinking in appealing to self-evidency?

An early draft of the Declaration may reveal their original intentions. Before undergoing significant revisions the same passage read, “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable; that all men are created equal and independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” While the term “undeniable” still carries unfortunate parallels with self-evidency, this phrasing stresses the inviolable link between human rights and their “sacred” origin in a creator. Far from the bald assertion of rights that we find in the final version, the early draft was a profession of faith and a confession that god is the indispensible originator of man’s equality. True, the nature and attributes of this implied god are omitted, but we are left with little doubt of his necessity in securing our rights.

Jefferson and the others should have left well enough alone. The final version reflects their ultimate reticence to commit wholeheartedly to a purely metaphysical, blatantly religious justification of human rights. We are instead assured that Reason serves as the arbiter of justice and are supplied “self-evident” truths that hardly warrant scrutiny, least of all evidence of their supernatural origins. Never mind that bit about a Creator, one can imagine Jefferson mumbling. Human rights and equality, we are told, are capable of being known by all through the aid of Reason and irrespective of religious confession.

It is little wonder that today one encounters people everywhere intent on asserting the rights outlined in the Declaration without recourse to divine foundations. If our rights are truly self-evident – as the Declaration would have us believe – then what need has anyone of a creator in defending those rights, unless of course we insist on a caveat stipulating that those rights are self-evident only by virtue of a divinely instilled faculty of knowledge? The Declaration does not contain such a caveat, and nothing prohibits one from framing equality and civil rights within a secular worldview, as many are apt to do. In yielding to the prevailing Enlightenment dogma of natural rights – whether Locke’s or otherwise – and by employing the concept of self-evidency to describe our relation to those rights the writers of the Declaration begged the question of where our civil liberties truly originate and opened the door for the secularization of our divine entitlements.

It is difficult to gauge the impact of what might strike some as a subtle, and perhaps even commendable avoidance of religious language by the writers our country’s founding document. One can sympathize with congress’ unwillingness to commit to any particular religious tradition in vouchsafing the people’s most basic freedoms and it’s not surprising that in the end they invoked a vague, deistic stance. However, I suspect that their compromise set the nation upon a predictable trajectory that today continues to draw us further from a due reliance upon religion in our political discourse.

It also provided a model for subsequent declarations that went on to increase the distance between god and the establishment of basic human rights. Notable among these is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, which completely omits any reference to a deity and attempts to establish rights ex nihilo.

Article 1 of the Declaration of Human Rights reads, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.“ In this instance secular Reason appears to have achieved complete autonomy and serves as justification in and of itself. Endowed with such power, there is little need for religion.

How do we combat the encroachment of pure Reason upon what is ultimately a religious concern? One might cite the principle of sufficient reason and argue that everything that exists, in this case human rights, must have a cause beyond empty assertion. The innovations of postmodernity have undoubtedly eroded the public’s perception of what constitutes sufficient reason, and perhaps education in logic might bring broader awareness to the problem. Perhaps, but instigating compulsory requirements in philosophy, however salutary, seems far-fetched.

We might instead draw attention to the many declarations and constitutions in effect across the world, especially those lacking the liberal provisions we in the West take for granted, and suggest that without an overarching metaphysical standard we are left without compelling arguments for or against the adoption of any one declaration over the others. One cannot simply fall back upon a particular declaration as evidence for human rights – there are too many that fail to make those guarantees. Only ethics can distinguish between just and despotic civil declarations, and ethics itself is the product of religion, not politics. It’s a sound strategy, I think, but the challenge ahead is great. As a secular culture in the Western liberal tradition we are too accustomed to viewing basic human rights as self-evidently virtuous and haven’t the inclination to consider whether we’re entitled to such a philosophically dubious position.

One can’t help but wonder whether the original draft of the Declaration – the version without mention of self-evidency and that proclaimed “all men are created equal and independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable” – might have stalled the advance of secularism in political theorizing. To prove the validity of those rights one had to look outside the document, go beyond the sphere of secular political theory and consult the god of religion. The final version that altered the course of Western history and that we know so well eliminated that necessity by transferring the authority of human rights to universal Reason.  To contend with that legacy we must insist upon the contingency of those rights and demonstrate that Reason alone provides no assurance of liberal prosperity. Fortunately for us, history provides no shortage of instructive examples.

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