Reading Rousseau’s “Social Contract”: Part 6 – government and democracy

There are really two relationships that are discussed in ‘The Social Contract’: that of individuals with their society, and that of society and the state. So far I’ve been looking at what Rousseau says about the former, and from now on I’ll be dealing more with his views on the latter. This post is a sort of bridge, introducing Rousseau’s view of the state and the related idea of ‘law’.

(Rousseau’s use of words is a little different from what’s common: he uses the word ‘state’ as another word for ‘sovereign’ or, as we might say, ‘the people’, or ‘society’. For what we would call ‘the state’ he uses the terms ‘government’ and ‘prince’)

The essential distinction is that the sovereign – i.e. the assembly of all the people – is the sole legislative authority. It alone can establish the abstract rules according to which the affairs of society will be arranged. The government, by contrast, takes responsibility for the execution of these laws, and hence makes all concrete decisions, all decisions involving particular cases.

While the sovereign is bound to a particular form – a directly democratic assembly – the government can take any form that the laws (established by the sovereign) decide. It may be a democracy itself (in the classical sense), in which case the sovereign and government somewhat coincide. It may be a monarchy or an aristocracy, elective or hereditary, or any number of other forms.

The law also establishes when and how often the sovereign assembly is to be called together, which should be regular but practical. At such times the government’s authority vanishes and the sovereign decides whether to keep or change the current government, and whether to change the laws. The relationship between sovereign and government is essentially one of compulsory employment – the sovereign dictates terms to the government, which has no right to argue back.

Now, there are two questions we might ask Rousseau here. Firstly: why must the legislative power be exercised via. direct democracy? Secondly: why is it fine for the government to be a hereditary monarchy (indeed, Rousseau seems somewhat to prefer certain sorts of aristocracy to democracy, as far as the government is concerned)? That is, why does Rousseau insist on a very stringent sort of democracy in one case, but not in the other?

Given that so much of Rousseau’s argument up to this point has been concerned to affirm people’s equal freedom and the injustice of compulsory control, we might wonder why he doesn’t go all out for democracy.The challenge would suggest something like this: ‘in proportion as decisions are reached democratically, with the active involvement of the people involved, they are more legitimate and the people involved are more free. In proportion as government is taken out of the people’s hands, they are enslaved.’ What can Rousseau say against this?

I think the core of his response is something like this: if 6 people approach me in the street and propose a vote on whether I should be tied up and kept in their basement for a while, and I lose the vote 1 to 6, I am not thereby ‘free’ during my basement captivity. Any number of other people’s wills remain from my perspective an alien will, not a ‘general’ one. Hence, democracy per se is not sufficient for political freedom.

What does Rousseau think is also necessary? He says that “there is only one law which by its nature requires unanimous assent. This is the social pact…apart from this original contract, the votes of the greatest number always bind the rest.” That is, even if I don’t assent to every execution of every law, in entering ‘the social contract’ I essentially say ‘I agree to submit to whatever is the will of this society’s majority, whatever that shall be.’ Similarly, when the majority vote to endorse a given law, they give democratic legitimacy to every act which takes place in accordance with that law (including, e.g., the acts of whatever government it establishes).

So Rousseau says that there are three stages: the social contract itself requires unanimity, the laws require majority, and particular acts of government require only to be in accordance with the laws. The essential idea is that if someone agrees to an abstract principle, then even if they oppose a particular instantiation of it (e.g. one which is disadvantageous to them), this is not a conflict between their will and an alien will, but between their own ‘principled will’ and their own ‘particular desires’. And so in being forced to obey the principle, they remain free, and merely constrain themselves.

Now, the democratic challenger to Rousseau might agree that all of this is necessary for freedom – but not that it is sufficient. That is, they might grant his point that mere majorities of some group are not sufficient, but maintain that they are necessary. Rousseau, on the other hand, says that if there is assent by individuals and majorities at the origin, then this ‘transmits’ to every particular act.

This seems problematic though. Do people know in advance all the outcomes that will follow from a given law or from the social contract itself? If not, isn’t it sort of loan-shark-ish to use their past agreement as a ticket to compel and control them? And even if they did know what they were getting into, the passage of time leads people to change their minds and personalities, and after a certain length of time it seems increasingly unfair to treat every past decision as equally binding.

Rousseau does recognise this to a degree. Although he says that individuals assent to all the laws when they enter the social contract, he also says that “each citizen may renounce his membership of the state…on withdrawing from the country”, but this is heavily qualified both by the need to physically leave the country, which Rousseau admits is often, in ‘unfree states’, prevented by “family, property, lack of asylum, necessity or violence”, and in ‘free states’ “none may leave the country to evade his duty…in such a case, flight would be criminal and punishable.” But this takes us back to the issue of individual rights discussed last post.

He also says “it is not enough that the assembled people should have once determined the constitution of the state… [and] set up a perpetual government…in addition to the extraordinary assemblies that unforeseen events may necessitate, there must be fixed and periodic assemblies which nothing can abolish.” He is also, note, scathingly contemptuous of ‘representatives’. But the timing of these regular assemblies is left entirely open.

It seems that Rousseau would consider it binding for a group of people to set up as their constitution “we will select 1 person randomly and make them dictator for life, and hold another assembly either when they call it, or in 30 years.” If, 20 years later, that 1 person has become tyrannical and, armed with a team of lawyers, operates entirely within the law, but sadistically and gleefully, exploiting loopholes and abusin their powers – if they have 5 people thrown in prison on a technicality, are those 5 people ‘free’? Surely it would be absurd to say so. And yet by Rousseau’s principles it seems they are – stupid, no doubt, but suffering in the manner that one suffers while making a bad but free decision.

This, it seems to me, is a reductio of the picture of ‘freedom’ Rousseau presents, in which real consent is made something ‘transcedent’, separate from but justifying the day-to-day decisions of a government. He claims that it makes social constraint into self-constraint, specifically the constraint of one’s selfish desires by one’s rational principles.

But it’s not. The thing which is elevated and made to coerce the person is not ‘their reason’ but how they were reasoning on a particular occasion, with all the contingencies of emotion, circumstance, and ignorance that it involved. To be subordinated for years to yourself at one moment is just as much a sort of enslavement as it is to be subordinated to an addiction or compulsion or neurosis.

Hence, I conclude, the democratic challenge to Rousseau succeeds: it is not enough for the abstract laws to be made democratically every few years, or however long. If Rousseau is committed to re-making society so as to be consistent with freedom, then that same democracy must be present throughout the running of society. That leaves its precise form and limits unspecified – but it does at least rule out 30 years under a king or queen.

Rousseau is very contradictory on the subject of government. The contradiction we’ve considered here is one example of that – in my next post I’ll consider the curious ambivalence in his attitude towards governments, considering them both necessary and yet also sinister.

Rousseau’s “Social Contract” Part 5: unequal with yourself – individual rights and the group

I spent yesterday’s post defending Rousseau’s concept of the sovereign and the general will: today I want to attack it. In particular, I want to attack the apparently very unequal relationship he presents between the sovereign and the subjects (that is, between the group-as-political-unit and the individuals who compose it).

Firstly, “a public decision can impose an obligation on all subjects towards the sovereign…while, conversely, such decisions cannot impose an obligation on the sovereign towards itself; and hence it would be against the very nature of a political body for the sovereign to set over itself a law which it could not infringe.”

Secondly, “as the sovereign is formed entirely of the individuals who compose it, it has not, nor could it have, any interests contrary to theirs; and so the sovereign has no need to give guarantees to the subjects, because it is impossible for a body to wish to hurt all of its members…But this is not true of the relation of subjects to sovereign…subjects will not be bound by their committment unless means are found to guarantee their fidelity.”

So on the one hand, the sovereign need not bind itself to any guarantees, and cannot do so anyway; on the other hand, individual subjects can be thus bound, and must be. Even when Rousseau grants that subjects are entitled to expect the sovereign to not interfere with those parts of their life that affect nobody else, he swiftly adds that “the sovereign alone is judge of what is of such concern.”

Note, I am still assuming that certain problematic issues have been solved – I’m assuming that agreements are unanimous and expressed by direct votes (or, rather, if unanimous, by consensus-decision-making). Even in this case, though, why is it that this group-individuals relationship, which is after all one of identity (the group is the individuals), seems so skewed? I want to argue that it shouldn’t be – and that Rousseau’s reasons for holding it to be are contradictory.

So firstly, Rousseau says that while “a public decision can impose an obligation on all subjects…while, conversely, such decisions cannot impose an obligation on the sovereign.” Now this is trivially true, because he specifies that he is speaking of public decisions – i.e. decisions made by the sovereign themselves. So if the group can make the decision, it can un-make it. But the real question is whether private decisions can impose obligations on the sovereign – can I, just by deciding to do X, impose an obligation on the rest of society, for example to allow me to do X, or prevent others from preventing me?

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Rousseau’s “Social Contract” Part 4: the Infamous General Will

Rousseau asks ‘how can society, and the constraint it implies, be compatible with freedom?’

One response, which we might call ‘liberal’, is to divide the individual’s life into two domains, the public and the private, and be constrained in the former and free in the latter. This solution is not at all to be sneezed at – it may even be the best available. But you don’t have to be a fascist to suspect that splitting your life in half like this may not be ideal, and there are major worries about whether, and how, that split is drawn in the real world. Not only that, but it’s not clear how this approach deals with issues that are simultaneously political and personal.

So there are reasons to consider alternatives to this ‘liberal’ response, and I think Rousseau can to some extent be read as offering one. The essential proposal is that the constraint that society imposes is compatible with freedom, if the power that constrains comes from the subject who is constrained – if it is self-constraint.

To be free, it seems reasonable to say, is to act according to your own will. The sovereign, Rousseau says, is an ‘artificial and corporate person’, it has a will, what he calls ‘the general will’. This is “the balance that remains, when we take away from [individual wills], the pluses and minuses which cancel each other out.” What flows from this ‘general will’ is, for each individual, ‘their own’. Hence when they obey it, they are only obeying themselves – and, in that famous line, when they are coerced into obedience, they are being “forced to be free”.

This doctrine has come in for a fair amount of criticism, especially along the lines that it just confuses and obscures actual, literal, freedom, and thus justifies illiberality.

Now, I think there is certainly a lot we can criticise in Rousseau on this subject (and I intend to in coming posts). This ‘a lot’ includes:

  • How is the general will expressed – what political and social institutions actually tell us what is is?
  • How does the generality of the general will change over time – i.e. does the social contract have to just be made once, or renewed regularly, or what?
  • How does disagreement among members of the group affect the generality of the will – in particular, how sound is the distinction Rousseau draws between law (which deals with general cases in the abstract, and expresses the general will) and governmental acts (which deal with particular cases, and do not)?
  • What is the actual psychology of this act of collective identification, and what effects might this psychology have?
  • Why does Rousseau make certain of the actual claims he does, about for instance punishing rule-breakers, which seem contradictory or unjustified?

But I also think (once again) that there’s a kernel in what Rousseau is saying that’s worth getting at. In the next post or two I’ll hit him on the above points, but for now I want to consider the idea of the general will in relative isolation from messy reality.

What is the point of Rousseau’s talk of the general will? For this we need to examine the idea of ‘will’ and the idea of that social contract itself.

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Rousseau’s “Social Contract”, Part 3: the total alienation of oneself and all one’s rights to the community

“How to find a form of association which will defend the person and goods of each member with the collective force of all, and under which each individual, while uniting himself with the others, obeys no one but himself, and remains as as before.”

This, Rousseau claims, is “the fundamental problem to which the social contract holds the solution.” That is – given that society is good, how it be reconciled with the ideal of self-rule, of ‘obeying no one but oneself’? It’s a good question. What about his answer?

“These articles of association, rightly understood, are reducible to a single one, namely the total alienation by each associate of himself and all his rights to the whole community.”

This, I think, neatly sums up the most controversial aspect of Rousseau’s project in this book. At first sight it looks almost paradoxical: how can the way to remain free be to give up, not only all your rights, but even yourself as well, to the community? Isn’t that, like, the opposite of what he said he wanted?

I think that ultimately this incredulous response is right: what Rousseau offers is not an adequate answer to the problem he raises. But I also think that it maybe should not be written off too quickly. So in this post I’ll be mainly trying to put Rousseau as sympathetically as possible, so as to see exactly how far his argument goes, and where it fails.

So, let’s consider how he justifies the striking claim that we can only ‘remain as free as before’ by ‘the total alienation of all our rights’:

“in the first place, as each gives himself absolutely, the conditions are the same for all; and, this being so, no one has any interest in making them burdensome to others.

Moreover…if the individuals retained certain rights, as there would be no common superior to decide between them and the public, each, being on one point his own judge, would ask to be so on all…and the association would necessarily become inoperative or tyrannical.

Finally, each man, in giving himself to all, gives himself to nobody; and as there is no associate over whom he does not acquire the same right as he yields others over himself, he gains an equivalent for everything he loses.”

In short, Rousseau seems to be arguing as follows: only by making the submission total, can we have equality. Consider a claim he makes a few pages later: “the social pact, far from destroying natural equality, substitutes, on the contrary, a moral and lawful equality for whatever physical inequality nature may have imposed on mankind; so that however unequal in strength and intelligence, men become equal by covenant and by right.”

Now one response would be to invoke the typical themes of right-libertarianism: this is levelling down, removing rights so that people are left, at the end, with equally few. It just shows that freedom and equality are in conflict, and we should simply prefer freedom. Now, whatever merit this position has, it would have when the ‘equality’ in question were equality of happiness (or well-being, pleasure, food, money, or anything else taken as a rough measure of ‘utility’). But it isn’t here – it’s crucially equality of power. And being unhappy about inequalities of power isn’t an alternative to valuing freedom, it’s a way of valuing freedom – if people have unequal power, those with more power are able to use it to control the actions of those with less (both deliberately and, sometimes, even without wanting to). Hence Rousseau’s concern with ‘obeying no-one but yourself’. To accept the legitimacy of an unequal society is to accept obligations upon oneself to ‘obey’ others, to guide your actions not by your own will but by theirs.

For these reasons I think we at least need to take Rousseau’s arguments seriously. If he is correct that absolute submission of individuals to society is necessary for equality, that would be a significant conclusion (whether it would be an overriding conclusion, that trumped competing considerations, is another matter). So is he?

Consider, by analogy, a romantic relationship. Suppose that you, dear reader, are socially awkward, conventionally unattractive, and lack many of the things that make it easy to find partners. Your partner, on the other hand, is charming, gorgeous, rich and stylish, and constantly has people falling at or on their feet. Now, imagine various possible forms that the relationship could take. It might be an open one, or one in which both partners kept dating and were willing to end the relationship if they found someone better who they cared for more. Does that affect the two of you equally? Of course not – it will probably gain you nothing, while allowing your partner to have multiple cakes and eat them. Or at least you might feel that way.

Similarly, what if the relationship, though not officially ‘open’, is casual in the sense that both parties are explicitly recognised as having the right to leave as soon as they feel like. Compare this with a formal or informal commitment, a promise or marriage ceremony, anything whereby each partner says ‘I am committed to this relationship, I will try to make work, and will stick with it if at all possible.’ It seems as though the less the commitment, the greater the ‘advantage’ that your partner gets from their greater attractiveness or popularity, the greater the discrepancy in dependency. If your partner can find someone new for every day of the week, they can better afford for this relationship to go badly, they are more independent – while you, having few if any other options, need it and need them more. But if the level of ‘commitment’ is raised, even if only emotionally, then leaving becomes harder and so they’re ‘advantage’ becomes less.

On the other hand, if commitment isn’t equal, if you’re very committed and they don’t really mind, then again it can feel that this affects the dynamics – it makes them more powerful, more independent, and you relatively dependent upon them. You might be ok with this, of course – you might even fetishise it. But in general, people like power and it seems generally better for people to be equally in control of, and equally vulnerable in, whatever relationships they enter into (other things being equal).

So in general, and setting aside the one-sidedness of discussing romantic relationships in such antagonistic terms, it does seem to be true both that low levels of commitment leave those with greater natural advantages in a more powerful position, and also that uneven levels of commitment leave the less committed in a more powerful position. That then seems to mean that for equality of power, equal high levels of commitment are ideal. And if everyone gives up all of their natural rights, then everyone is (and must be!) committed – everyone is in the same boat, and nobody can swim.

So I think there is some merit in this argument. But there are also, I think, a lot of holes.

Even if we grant that low levels of enforced commitment, i.e. leaving people with extensive rights against the community, might mean greater powers for those with greater pre-existing advantages, it’s not clear that this couldn’t be cancelled out by making specific distributions to empower the less advantaged. I’m not talking so much about property (Rousseau’s take on that is a whole other issue) but ‘natural’ advantages. We already do this in some ways – for instance, in relieving people of certain obligations (e.g. to work in order to get X money) if they’re disabled, and providing them with other things to make them more secure and capable, funded by taxation on general economic activity (that’s not to make any judgement about modern society and its treatment of disabled people overally, merely to observe that the principle here is already accepted in some cases).

To this it might be objected that this would require an already-established social body to make those decisions – but since we are trying to set up a social body, we cannot presume that. We need equality from the word ‘go’. This may well be invalid, for the reasons discussed in my last post. Even if it weren’t, it ignores a very important point about ‘natural advantages’ – namely, that it is often largely society that determines what they are and what their extent is. Social model of disability, ‘differently abled’, you know the drill (and if not, google the drill).So the idea of society discovering pre-existing power imbalances that are independent of its own decisions might be considered fictional.

Thirdly, one might just ask whether this issue is really as important as Rousseau seems to make out. If the concern is ‘natural’ advantages, then how much inequality do they really produce – isn’t most of the stuff we think of when we use that word ‘inequality’ (certainly ‘domination’ or similar) 99% social, in that if you want to have power over someone else, simply being stronger or smarter isn’t a very good bet, compared to seeking positions of social power. On the other hand, if it’s something else (like property – it seems likely that part of Rousseau’s intent with his ‘total alienation of oneself and all one’s rights’ talk is to deny the possibility of a contract between an already-rich person or group and already-poor people), then let’s talk about that more specifically (e.g. let’s discuss property rights) and judge how seriously to take the associated forms of inequality.

In response, we might imagine Rousseau saying ‘even if the effect is small, it is important – I demand complete theoretical purity’. If that’s what he demands, though, he seems unlikely to get it. A person who can speak will not cease to be in a position of power over one who can’t, simply by the waving of social-contract-wand. Nor will the more beautiful, the healthier, the smarter. Their advantages may be made less salient, less of a power issue, but they will never disappear until society comes under the control of an omniscient (and hence effectively omnipotent) ruler. And at that point worries about ‘inequality’ will become somewhat superfluous.

In conclusion, then, Rousseau’s argument doesn’t really work. If it tolerates a small level of inequality of power, then it will not compel its conclusion: if it cannot, then it will be forever frustrated in reality. It identifies a genuine point, and something that is worth considering, but overall I think the standard ‘knee-jerk anti-totalitarianism’ response is correct. And fortunately, a deep concern with inequalities of power need not commit one to defending his conclusion.

Rousseau’s “Social Contract”: Part 2 – does a contract make sense?

Following my last post, in which I started reading ‘The Social Contract’, I said I’d deal with some arguments for thinking that the whole social contract idea, even if it is (as I cautiously suggested on Saturday) necessary for the conclusions Rousseau wants, is just stupid and not worth taking seriously. There are two specific points I want to consider.

The first, and quite simple criticism, is just the following three claims:

1) A social contract implies some kind of voluntariness;

2) There is no appreciable voluntariness in the genesis of any actual societies;

3) Whether something is voluntary makes a big difference.

I think this might be a good point against Locke or Hobbes, both of whom use social contract accounts to justify governmental systems fairly similar to really-existing ones, but Rousseau need not be tied to the defense of any particular aspect of the status quo – indeed, ‘The Social Contract’ is something of a break from his dayjob of whining about how society has corrupted us and made everything worse.

So I think this criticism can be deflected by resolving to first examine Rousseau’s claims about what, hypothetically, would make a society just, without any prior assumptions about the relation to any real world cases.

The second, and deeper, criticism is something like this: not only has there never actually occurred a ‘contract’ between pre-social individuals, but there never could. To enter into any kind of agreement requires capacities (e.g. language, planning, recognition of others) which only arise in the process of socialisation. We are ‘always-already’ social beings, and if we try to imagine ourselves, even hypothetically, as prior to the society we inhabit, we’ll be left imagining unrecognisable, feral, speechless beings with hardly any resemblance to who we actually are.

I’m not going to argue with this psychology or sociology, it’s probably true. But I don’t think that Rousseau needs to deny it. If ‘The Social Contract’ was a scientific work, trying to describe the arising of a phenomenon, then yes, it would need to suppose contracting parties entirely unsocialised. But it’s not – it’s a study of how the “sacred right which is the foundation of all other rights” “might be made legitimate.”

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Reading Rousseau’s “Social Contract” – Part 1,

This is the book I mean. ^

I’m going to have to read ‘The Social Contract‘ over the next couple of weeks (well, re-read) and since it’s a short, interesting, and influential book, it seemed a good idea to do some posts on it while doing so.

This first post is concerned with only the 1st 14 pages, Chapters 1-5 of Book I. The topic in this part is a good one to start with, for it contains Rousseau’s argument for why it’s worthwhile to even consider the idea of a ‘social contract’, why that approach to political philosophy makes sense – something that has often been contested, from a number of directions. It ends with Chapter 6, in which the terms of the titular contract are laid out.

A lot of Rousseau’s energy here is devoted to criticism of particular opponents, and theories that to our ears sound bizarre – the right of the strong to rule, or the right of a victor in war to enslave the enemy, or the right of the biological heir of Adam to rule the human race. To an extent this is Rousseau being ahead of his time – he was part of a wave of ideas now so common-sensical that these rival views appear absurd.

But we might still discern, behind the particular targets, Rousseau’s argument by elimination. Political obligations cannot be based on force, he argues; nor can they based on nature. Nor again can there be such a thing as a slave-contract by a whole people. So what else can they be based on, but something like a contract or covenant?

Note that it is never doubted that there are political obligations – that is, that beyond rights and duties that relate to ourselves, or to other individuals, beyond obeying the law because it’s convenient, or voting to defend one’s interests or the interests of someone else, there are specifically political duties and rights, e.g. to obey the law because it is the law.

After all, if we agreed that nobody is born with political observations ‘naturally’, and also that none could be created by the use of force, we might conclude that there are none: that people should be just with themselves and with each other, but that official social units and arrangements are just a means to an end, something to work with, not to work for.

“But” Rousseau says, “the social order is a sacred right which serves as a basis for all other rights. And as it is not a natural one, it must be based on covenants. The problem is to determine what those covenants are.”

Questions we might ask:

1) Is the social order really so ‘sacred’?

2) If it is, is it ‘natural’ in the sense Rousseau has in mind?

3) If not, is a ‘contract’ really the only alternative?

On 1. I’ll say nothing for now – in the other posts I’ll keep this option open, to see how it throws Rousseau’s claims into relief.

2. is more interesting. For political rights and duties to be ‘natural’ could mean many things but here it just means – do they arise in the natural course of things, without any conscious direction? That is, do we just ‘grow’ a duty to obey the law, the way we grow our adult teeth or our first hairs? More pressingly, do some people just ‘grow’ a right to command, and to back their commands up with violence – and if so, who?

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God or Nature

If I point to something and say “that’s Manganorama, and Manganorama is orange and fearsome”, I could be doing two things.

a) On the one hand, I might be defining Manganorama as being (among other things), orange and fearsome, and then moreover applying the concept so defined to ‘that’. If someone disagreed, the natural thing for them to say would be ‘that’s not Manganorama, because it’s not orange and fearsome’.

Moreover, if they thought that nothing in the world was both orange and fearsome, they might say “Manganorama doesn’t exist”, or “there is no Manganorama”.

b) On the other hand, I might be fixing the word ‘Manganorama’ not to a definition but to ‘that’, and then moreover observing that it was orange and fearsome. If someone disagreed, the natural thing to say would be “Mangorama is not orange” or “Mangorama is not fearsome”.

In the two cases I’m really conveying almost exactly the same information: I think ‘that’ is fearsome and orange. But I make use of a certain word in different ways.

And the appropriate way of disagreeing with a) would be entirely absurd if I had meant b) – because if I point and something and name it ‘Manganorama’, then just about the only thing we can be sure of is that Manganorama exists. Someone saying ‘there is no such thing as Manganorama’ would be saying something like ‘this thing here doesn’t exist’.

Conversely, the appropriate way of disagreeing with b) would be to say that ‘Manganorama is not orange and fearsome’ – but if a) was meant, then it is the definition of Manganorama to be orange and fearsome, and so that claim is like saying ‘cats are not feline’.

What if I said it without definitely committing myself to one meaning or the other? Then I could respond to any disagreement by making it appear absurd and self-contradictory. This might be quite convenient – indeed I might well mistake this bit of ambiguity for self-evidence.

Now compare this with the word ‘God’. If someone says ‘God, who produced the world, and who everything depends upon to exist, is supremely wise and just’, is this meant more like a) or more like b)?

If it’s like a), and the word ‘God’ is being defined by His supreme wisdom and justice, then the appropriate way to disagree is to say ‘there is no God’, meaning ‘there is no supremely wise and just being, and certainly no such being produced the world’.

Whereas if it’s like b), and the phrase ‘God produced the world and everything depends on God’ functions like pointing, to fix what the word ‘God’ is to refer to (namely, the ultimate source and foundation of everything that exists, i.e. of all this stuff around us here) then the appropriate way to disagree is to say ‘God is neither wise nor just’.

The former is the more common thing to say – but sometimes one finds theists protesting that God’s existence is undeniable, a fact as obvious and self-evident as 2+5=7. Which it is – if ‘God’ designates simply ‘the ultimate source and foundation of everything that exists’. For there must be some such thing, even if it is simply ‘everything that exists’.

On the other hand, if one accepts this and says ‘God exists, but is simply a material being’, or ‘God is spacetime’ or something like that – one is open to the objection that this seems to make a mockery of the definition of God. God is defined, for instance, as wise and just, and spacetime is neither.

Do I have a point? One point is just a (fairly common) criticism of a lot of theistic argument strategies (like ‘first-cause’ arguments). But those strategies aren’t even seen around very often any more, I think.

So really the point is to observe that what is really the same debate could either take the form of “God exists and is just” vs. “God doesn’t exist”, or “God exists and is just” vs. “God is indifferent to your petty morality”.

Moreover, one might take the position of ‘atheism’ while not only saying ‘God exists’ but also agreeing with many of the arguments that theistic philosophers made about God – such as that God cannot have parts, strictly speaking (which means that if God is spacetime, then spacetime must be wholly indivisible – is that coherent?). Or that God is beyond time, or infinite (what would that imply – if anything?)

But most of the time of course people are too busy shouting and burning stuff…