Crap historical arguments

Political philosophers often talk about the Stone Age. They tell stories about the state of nature, the origin of government, and the appropriation of property, all of which occurred in prehistory, but they seldom refer to evidence of what actually happened in the Stone or Bronze Ages. Political philosophy (or political theory) is not an empirical discipline, but it cannot be unconcerned with the truth of factual claims. On many issues, philosophers are very good about treating truth claims appropriately. For example, the philosophical debate on the ethics of global warming is well informed by primary research. But when it comes to the Stone Age, many philosophers make (and seem willing to accept) broad pronouncements with little or no supporting evidence.

Perhaps they believe their claims are obviously true. If so, they must be prepared to back them up if they turn out to be controversial. Perhaps they only intend to examine the ramifications of controversial factual claims without researching them. If so, they must admit that their conclusions are tentative. Perhaps they believe fact checking is the job of another discipline. Unfortunately, there are no empirical researchers trolling through philosophical journals looking for claims to investigate. If we neglect to do so much as read the relevant empirical literature, we are in danger of passing on false claims year-after-year or century-after-century.

Perhaps philosophers believe their claims are metaphors illustrating a deeper, underlying, purely normative argument. If so, they should state it explicitly. Readers should not have the burden of constructing argument out of metaphor. At the very least, philosophers should be clear about whether a factual statements is unsupported because it is a metaphor, or because they believe it is an obvious truth. Yet, when the claim involves prehistory, philosophers have a surprising willingness to accept this kind of ambiguity, even though relying on a claim as an obvious truth is nearly the opposite of relying on it as a metaphor.
- The subject of this article has nothing to do with the fact-value distinction. Pure ethical theory does not require factual claims, but applied ethical theory always does. This article is directed at applied ethical theories and theories that are ambiguous about whether or not they are applied.

This essay presents a through investigation of truth claims in the natural rights justification for private property based on unilateral appropriation (some version of which is involved in most arguments for strong private property rights). This theory is a good example of the undisciplined use of factual assertions about the Stone Age. Property rights advocates typically tell an appropriation story as if it were true, present little or no evidence that it is true,make no explicit claim that it is a metaphor, and seldom state an underlying a priori argument capable of replacing the metaphor. Philosophers have extensively explored the normative difference between natural property rights theory and competing theories, but they have paid little attention to the factual claims embedded in the appropriation story. Are they necessary to support property rights advocates’ conclusions? If so, are they true?

“Part One” demonstrates that appropriation-based property rights theory is an applied theory. This demonstration is necessary because many property rights advocates have been unclear about the extent to which they rely on empirical claims, even though many of them explicitly draw on factual premises at important points. “Part Two” examines these claims against evidence from anthropology and archeology. It finds that they are certainly unsubstantiated and possibly refuted. “Part Three” discusses the implications of the argument.
Karl Widerquist, Why Do Philosophers Talk so Much and Read so Little About the Stone Age? | Karl Widerquist -

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