Bench Memos

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On Self-Evidentness


This is a little off-topic for a blog on the courts, but since I was just teaching this subject the other day, here goes anyway. Ed Whelan’s colleague at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Yuval Levin, has an excellent op-ed on stem-cell ethics in the New York Times today, employing arguments NRO readers have seen him make before, and which are very much like the arguments in Ramesh Ponnuru’s The Party of Death . In true academic fashion, I will focus on the only statement Levin makes with which I disagree. But do read the whole thing.

Writing of the question whether the early-stage embryo has a moral claim on us for its preservation and protection, Levin writes:

America’s birth charter, the Declaration of Independence, asserts a positive answer to the question, and in lieu of an argument offers another assertion: that our equality is self-evident. But it is not. Indeed, the evidence of nature sometimes makes it very hard to believe that all human beings are equal. It takes a profound moral case to defend the proposition that the youngest and the oldest, the weakest and the strongest, all of us, simply by virtue of our common humanity, are in some basic and inalienable way equals.

I’m not entirely sure what Levin is getting at, but I think he has made a mistake about what “self-evident” means. It doesn’t mean “evident” in the sense of “known to us empirically,” and the prefix “self-” isn’t just an intensifier making it mean “really easily evident.” Contrary to Levin’s suggestion, no “evidence of nature” is necessary beyond what everyone actually knows, even if the knowledge has to be dredged up from beneath layers of confusion or faulty teachings.

The OED defines “self-evident” as “evident of itself without proof; axiomatic,” and that’s just the understanding that our founders had of this expression. Without using the expression “self-evident,” Alexander Hamilton supplied a fuller version of what axiomatic reasoning was that will do nicely here (this is from Federalist 31):

In disquisitions of every kind there are certain primary truths or first principles upon which all subsequent reasonings must depend. These contain an internal evidence, which antecedent to all reflection or combination commands the assent of the mind. Where it produces not this effect it must proceed either from some disorder in the organs of perception, or from the influence of some strong interest, or passion, or prejudice.

“Of this nature are the maxims in geometry,” Hamilton continued, and so too are “other maxims in ethics and politics.” “All men are created equal” is one of these. Everyone of unprejudiced and sound mind understands that our fellow human beings are neither beasts nor gods, but creatures like ourselves, possessing the same natural faculties and “endowed by their Creator” with the same “unalienable rights.” To deny such a self-evident truth is not to dismiss evidence. It’s worse. It is to refuse to think, to decline to go where reason naturally calls us to begin in our first reflections on the human condition.

Our equality is indeed self-evident. It’s the inclusion in the “our” that is at issue. What one may need “evidence” for-and if this is all Levin meant, I retract all criticism-is the proposition that the embryo in utero or in vitro is a sharer in “our common humanity.” But that is easily supplied by the instruments of modern medicine, which confirm the logical conclusion anyone in pre-modern times could have guessed at: that infants are human “all the way back,” from their very beginnings.

That is the “profound moral case” that needs making. Clear away the undergrowth of shabby postmodern moral confusion, however, and the case makes itself-as a younger Hamilton put it, “written, as with a sun beam, in the whole volume of human nature.”


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