You’re being vague

One of the most difficult problems in current political philosophy is related to the concept of vagueness.  This is a distinct phenomenon, but related to, vague communication.  In common vernacular, when we say someone is “being vague”, typically we mean that individual is, purposefully or not, leaving out certain details of a concept or description that prevent it from being fully defined.  The problem of formal logic I’m discussing here involves the issue of definition, but not from a communicational standpoint or a necessary lack of defining information.

Philosophically speaking, vagueness falls within the greater realm of metaphysics, a greater branch of philosophy that seeks to define the nature of reality.  Clearly, in defining reality, a key exercise is understanding and categorizing objects and concepts around us.  This is where vagueness kicks into gear.  The classical problem of vagueness is the sorites paradox (the paradox of the heap).  Start with a heap of sand, then remove one grain at a time, at what point does it cease to be a heap and become something else?  Working in reverse, one grain of sand is certainly not a heap, nor two, nor three.  The heap object and furthermore the concept of a heap itself is vague.  Vagueness is distinct from ambiguity, which implies multiple specific, well-defined interpretations of a particular concept (eg: a problem that presents a dilemma) whereas vagueness presents difficulty in forming a well-defined interpretation at all.

What does this have to do with politics?

Problems of this type often present some of the most difficult challenges in contemporary political philosophy.  After all, politics is really just philosophy applied to the question of how a society should function, and any problem which calls into question the very nature of specific pieces of reality will be particularly operose.  Vagueness often lies at the core of so-called “slippery slope” arguments; if the difficulty in defining a heap is bound up in a wedge issue, then the point at which a heap ceases to be a heap becomes of critical interest.

Let’s explore examples a little closer to home.  Probably the biggest problem in society currently related to vagueness is the point as which a fetus ceases to be a fetus and becomes a baby.  The way that our society has currently structured the debate about abortion, it is nominally “ok” to kill a fetus because it is not defined as a human, whereas a baby is unquestionably a human and killing it would be murder.  I am well aware that there are many other angles to the abortion debate and many people would say that “fetus” and “baby” is a distinction without a difference; i.e., they are the same thing and killing either one is murder.  I focus on this particular framing of the abortion debate strictly for illustrative purposes.

Another issue at hand is the concept of adulthood.  It is universally agreed upon that two “adults” having consensual sex with one another is acceptable (I would certainly hope so for the sake of humanity’s continued existence).  However, what defines “adult”?  In the context of sex, it seems to not only depend on an individual’s age, but also the disparity in ages between the two participants.  Most people are OK with two 14 year-olds fucking, but would, at the very least, consider a 49 year-old male copulating with a 14 year-old female unsettling.  Switch the genders.  Does it make a difference?  Should it?  Outside the specific context of sex, the concept becomes even murkier.  Much has been said that it’s unreasonable for someone to be able to legally die for his country, yet not order a beer.  Why is it unreasonable?  Who should decide this?  These questions all arise from vagueness surrounding the concept of adulthood.

Go on…

While one can see clearly that vague definitions can have potentially disastrous consequences for policy debate, libertarianism is especially susceptible to inconsistency and hypocrisy surrounding vagueness.  The reason for this is libertarianism’s special emphasis on principle and logic.  Libertarians pride themselves on intellectual consistency, principle, logic and rationalism.  When definitional concepts of objects themselves (say, fetuses for example) become questionable, strict rationalism becomes quite difficult.

There’s a reason why it’s a common joke/stereotype that autists are drawn to libertarianism.  One of the archetypes of the autistic mind is an extreme black and white understanding of the world.  If everything in the world is either black or white and everything that’s black is evil (RAAAACIST!!!) and everything that’s white is good, it’s very easy to be principled.  However, once vagueness is introduced, the water is muddied.

Many philosophers have tried to solve this problem.  There are three main philosophical solutions to this problem: fuzzy logic, the epistemic solution and vague object solution.  In fuzzy logic, true and false are not absolute concepts.  To paraphrase from the Big Bang Theory, it’s somewhat wrong to call a tomato a vegetable, it’s very wrong to call a tomato a suspension bridge.  Truth or falsity of the tomato’s description is subject to gradation.  The epistemic solution says that there are solid definitions and boundaries, they simply can’t be known.  There is a single, discrete grain of sand that marks the boundary between “heap” and “not heap”.  Finally, the vague object solution claims that the objects themselves have no firm definition and they are fungible depending on context.


Typical of libertarian shitlordianism, usually we punt on this question.  Libertarians often admit that there is no valid solution to these concerns and give the power to make such determinations back to the individual.  Each individual sees the problem differently and the emphasis of libertarian philosophy is sovereignty of the individual, so each and every one of us is free to make such determinations as we see fit.  The problem with this is when it clashes with commonly held beliefs (a “tyranny of the majority” problem in itself).  If I arbitrarily define “human” to be someone over the age of 5, and furthermore anything below that age is fair game for barbecuing, I face no sanctions morally or otherwise for going on an cannibal killing spree in the maternity ward.  Conversely, if I admit that I can’t possibly define what a “human” is, and I remain in irresolvable doubt whether a fetus of any age is human or not, it’s probably better to not kill it.  I can even take this to a more absurd level and then make an unironic argument that Onan was morally reprehensible for depriving his sperm of the chance at future personhood (the “every sperm is sacred” argument).

What is to be done?  I haven’t the foggiest idea.  Often, we libertarians enclose ourselves in a cloak of moral superiority related to our principles.  “We have logic on our side!” is our battle cry.  The point of this essay is not to tear us down into the muck of progtastic postmodern nihilism; a miasma of nothingness in which nothing has any solid definition and there are no truths.  The purpose is to re-examine our premises so that we may be better prepared to tackle these difficult questions when faced with opponents who debate in good faith.  It also serves to explain why principles are often more difficult to keep in practice than in theory.  And boobs; nothing can ever change the definition of a high-quality rack.