Shayne Wissler
“A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” – Greek proverb

My philosophy: An overview

08 January 2017

What in the briefest terms is my philosophy?

In two words: Follow reason. By this I mean that we ought to exclusively base our beliefs upon logic and evidence – that soul of natural science. This idea constitutes the foundation of a rational morality. (That we should base our beliefs upon logic and evidence is generally accepted wisdom, but the idea of exclusively doing so is a relatively rare viewpoint. Rarer still is the idea that this constitutes the proper base of ethics.)

To give a clear idea of my philosophy I will need to elaborate a bit further. In what follows I aim to convey the basics of my philosophy, without providing much by way of my arguments. (For that, see my books).

METAPHILOSOPHY[link]

Why bother with philosophy? That’s a philosophical question! The answer is that you have no choice, you’re already doing philosophy constantly. The real question is about whether to do so carefully and correctly, or not. My philosophy follows from trying to be quite critical and careful.

Why be careful about the most fundamental of ideas? To me that question is akin to asking a rocket scientist why he is careful with his calculations. Getting the details right matters even more to philosophy than to rocket science, not only because it is philosophy that defends this rocket scientist’s diligence, but because philosophy underlies every other discipline. The root cause of so many tragedies in today’s society, whether in traffic accidents, wars, medical mistakes, social strife, and on and on, indeed lies in the neglect of critical and careful philosophy. If we want to fix these sorts of problems we are going to have to raise the general level of discipline and diligence when it comes to philosophy.

AXIOMS[link]

Philosophy is a sort of dialog you have with yourself or with others, and logically begins by asking what the preconditions of a sane dialog must be; these preconditions I call axioms. I identify eight critical ones:

  1. The axiom axiom – knowledge is grounded in interdependent axioms, as in these eight (also see this).
  2. Meaning – we each have the capacity of intentionality; i.e., a basic function of our minds is that we can mean something by something.
  3. Knowledge – we can know that something is true.
  4. Reason is our faculty of knowing how or why something is true.
  5. Logic the critical discipline of “meaning what you mean” across time (intellectual integrity).
  6. Reason is universal – we all share in the same basic capacity to reason; otherwise there would be no meaningful discussion about ideas.
  7. Uniformity of Nature – certain aspects of the world are knowable to us through induction:
  8. Induction – as logic is the critical discipline of our meaning, induction is the empirical discipline of gathering and integrating knowledge about the world.

It is relatively straightforward to understand that these axioms are valid; see The Roots of Philosophy in REASON and LIBERTY (R&L).

While these axioms have simple starting points and justifications they can be developed at length: since we have a great degree of choice on what we can mean, we can ask what might be the best way to develop meaning (Meaning in R&L); logic has a long history of formal development going back to its master, Aristotle; a development of induction yields nothing less than the philosophy of science (I touch on this in R&L, see Metaphysics and Meaning).

ETHICS (aka morality)[link]

The base of ethics (metaethics) is very simple: Follow reason. This imperative is implied in any argument you could give for or against it (to argue properly demands that one follow reason), therefore it is the ethical axiom. You can’t sensibly demand that we answer “Why follow reason?”, for your question is premised upon the idea that any answer must be given in rational terms. In other words, we had already implicitly embraced a rational morality when we decided to have rational thought and discourse, and if we claim not to have decided to be rational, then nothing we bring to the philosophic table is relevant anyway. Thus we easily step across the so-called “is-ought gap.”

Being rational and sincere is at the heart of rational ethics.

I have not written a systematic treatment of ethics in general, but I have of a very special, narrow category within ethics: politics.

POLITICS[link]

Ethics concerns how the individual should act. Nothing is changed when individuals decide to aggregate into larger groups; the same ethic still applies.

Whether or not people like to admit it to themselves, politics concerns the question: When is it proper to violate another person? And here by “violate”, I mean: to do something to another person even while they protest; to use violence or (more commonly) threat of violence against them.

The commonsense answer to this question is the correct one: it’s only moral to coerce someone when they are the ones that started it, and where that coercion is aimed at remedying the problem they created with their own initial coercion. This is a simple idea but it is not simple to analyze all the themes and variations; see FOR INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS.

My perspective on politics implies that society is radically unhinged, and in ways that are difficult to come to terms with psychologically. We aren’t very far above our barbaric ancestors and yet people like to think themselves civilized. Most people can’t deal with that truth, particularly when it brings a critical light to their own thinking. Therefore, while we can and should understand what is a proper political system, we must realize that as very separate from day to day politics. We who understand are helpless to do anything practical at this time; first we must encourage wider understanding of the truth.

The locus of my political analysis consists in my defense of individual natural rights, which identifies the very empirical, scientific substance of human rights: human action. As far as I know this principled defense is correct, general, historically novel (first published in 2010)[1].

Consent is the essential ingredient of good governance. How can it be possible to create a lasting form of government, that also respects the consent of the individual who happened to have been born into it?

That answering this question coherently has been difficult is illustrated by the blatant contradictions in the answers previous thinkers have given to it. But it’s not difficult in the sense of being hard to think about; what is difficult is stating the truth and yet keeping your social status intact. For the most part, human beings of our era are very tribal, and their hatred of you will be in proportion to the degree to which you propose to reform their tribe. University professors put in an enormous effort to achieve their status; it is perhaps too much to ask of human nature that those who are good at navigating the intensively politicized academy also be good at creating correct political theories.

I consider the best form of governance possible on Earth to be federations of city-states, where the federations are principally focused on defending the city-states and protecting natural rights generally; and the city-states are principally focused on creating and furthering their unique local cultures.

There is of course historic precedent for this sort of arrangement, at least approximately. Furthermore, we see in this history the great tension between local and central government, where “too much” localism breeds tribalism and petty war; and where “too much” centralization breeds general war, tyranny, and drab coerced conformity. The truth is that there has been the wrong kind of localism and the wrong kind of centralization. Neither are bad per se, but only when they don’t pay careful regard to the consent of the governed. (Also see Against Anarchism.)

My view of modern institutions in general mirrors my view of political institutions in particular – they are often very unhinged. A specific analysis of each on is beyond the scope of this article, but I will mention the elephant in the room: our universities are a wreck, particularly in the humanities disciplines. Whereas they ought to reflect in some terms the ultimate state of the art in human values and virtue, shining a light on what values should matter to us and how we should pursue them, very often they are the mouthpieces of human vice, a pied piper of human folly and stupidity, working not to reform but to entrench and increase the corruption of society.

VALUES[link]

Human beings are endowed with an incredible potential. Typically this is mostly squandered, but it need not be. This is not entirely the fault of the individual, for his society often prevents him from acting virtuously; and yet it is not entirely the fault of society, for the individual can move his mind freely, and by doing so he can reform his society.

Where people have been generally free to create, we readily see the promise of humanity. We see this in selected arts, sciences, and technologies. But as we bring careful criticism to each discipline (say, each one taught at a university), we find extreme defects wreaking incredible human tragedy and brought about by nothing but unchecked human folly. We see progress stymied 100-fold or stopped altogether. We see human potential subdued and murdered.

The multifaceted problems of human life are hard. But, it doesn’t have to be this hard. We are making it hard on ourselves, by ignoring the crucial role rational philosophy should play in human life.


  1. I have attempted to bring this theory to the attention of those institutions and publications that, you might think, would care about it. That they don’t should tell you something, either about the institutions, or about my theory of rights. If there is something so utterly wrongheaded in my theory that it’s not even worth commenting on (consider the very few attempts in history to create new theories defending natural rights), you would do me a huge favor by explaining that to me.