The Porter Zone

Philosophical musings and more

Monthly Archives: October 2011

The illiberal nature of modern liberalism


My title seems nonsensical; surely liberals must be liberal?  Is that not a tautology?  And yet modern self-described liberals seem to be moving further away from what we might expect to be liberal positions such as respect for the rule of law, the concept that human rights are indeed universal, and the championing of those, at home or abroad, whose rights are under attack.  One can more or less guarantee that in recent years, whenever action is taken to curtail repressive acts by a dictatorial regime, liberal intellectuals have lined up to condemn it. So Robert Fisk writes a piece in which he seems to argue that it would have been much better to leave Colonel Qaddafi to get on with massacring the Libyan people, irrespective of their request for help.  Similarly, liberal luminaries have argued that Slobodan Milosevich et al should have been left to do their thing, in spite of the fact that evidence suggested that their regimes were not very nice, and as a reductio ad absurdum of the whole sorry story, in 1990 Margaret Drabble announced that she could not possibly support action to repel the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait because – wait for it – Baroness Thatcher was in favour of it, so it must be wrong.

One would expect such a position of libertarians: libertarianism as it is currently expressed, with its insistence that the sole organising principle of society is the liberty of the individual, is fundamentally selfish.  But liberals are meant to care about things like human rights, and to get distressed if people of any nation are not given the chance to exercise them.  So why this strange convergence of attitude between liberals and a political group with which one would expect them to be at variance?   Why it is that  action has become so utterly unacceptable in liberal opinion that literally anything is preferable.  And before I am called on this, let me point out that I have seen one ‘liberal’ writer claim that it would have been better if the Allies had not fought the Second World War, because the Nazi regime would probably only have lasted a century or so, and obviously a Europe (or possibly a world) under the Nazi yoke for a century was preferable to the unspeakable moral stain of going to war.  So when did liberals become so selfish?

This mystery is the subject of this essay.  I will start, as one should, by very carefully defining liberalism and associated concepts.  I will turn to the central question of what ideas turned the liberalism of Hume and Gladstone into the bastard child of corporatism and libertarianism that is called liberalism today, or, more exactly, social liberalism.  I had originally intended to discuss such canards as the claims that Christ would have been a pacifist; that his followers should reject any exercise of force that is not purely defensive (the Archbishop of Canterbury says so!); that in order for any action, no matter how trivial, to be morally justified, those undertaking the action must themselves be of absolute moral purity (this relates to the first point, as it seems to derive at least partially from a radical misreading of the incident of the woman taken in adultery); or that a liberal society can be entirely inward-looking, and not concern itself with injustice elsewhere.  However, fascinating though this may be, it would take me too far afield, and so I dangle before you the hopeful idea of a sequel in which I ask ‘Was Christ a pacifist?’.

What is liberalism?

In order to define liberalism properly I will set about characterising a number of political philosophies, both those similar to liberalism and those antithetical to it.  The reason for this is that we will see that what is called liberalism today is generally not liberalism at all, but rather a mixture of libertarianism and corporatism.

Existing political philosophies

Fascism / corporatism

Before it became a term of general abuse meaning ‘anyone who disagrees with my political views or thwarts me in any way’, fascist meant something very specific.  In general a fascist state is one that is totalitarian and corporatist.  As totalitarianism is essentially a strengthening of corporatist ideas which emphasises the state as the sole source of authority, I shall concentrate mostly on the corporatist aspects.

The essence of corporatism is that the basic unit in society is the society as a whole, and it is treated as (appropriately) a single body, in which individuals are organs who act in ways specified by the brain that is the leadership, the intent being that these actions will benefit the social body as a whole, even if they do not necessarily benefit the individual.  Therefore such concepts as individual freedom are meaningless, as what matters is the state and its survival, not the individual, who is impermanent.  The surprising thing about corporatism is that it is not the preserve of any one part of the social spectrum, as this system of thought is as characteristic of the extreme left as it is of the extreme right.  We can even see it in moderate form in the protestations of those who decry the involvement of the private sector in activities that are ‘naturally’ the preserve of the state, such as health-care and education.  It is, in fact, a terribly seductive idea that can, to a greater or lesser extent, take root whenever we debate the balance between the rights of the individual and the needs of the state.

How do we escape from this conundrum?  My solution, which I will describe in detail in the section about liberalism below, is that in a liberal society we should never, ever justify any proposal in terms of the needs of or the good of the state; every proposal to limit the freedom of individuals must at some point be turned around and justified in terms of preserving that freedom.  That sounds paradoxical, but it turns out that it is not.  It also sounds rather libertarian, but it is not, for reasons I will now discuss.


Libertarianism stands at the other pole from corporatism, in that it argues that the sole organising principle for society should be personal liberty.  That is to say, society should do nothing that infringes the freedom of the individual, which is taken as paramount.  A very important point to note here is that this is freedom construed as freedom to and not freedom from, that is to say, it is about my freedom to do that which I will, and it is not at all about my freedom from your interference in my freedom.  Possibly the reason for this is that freedom from is only properly expressible in terms of rights, but libertarianism does not know of the concept of rights.  Rights flow from law and law constraints natural liberty and hence is the enemy in the libertarian model.  With its emphasis on the innate liberty of the individual, libertarianism is, in fact, surprisingly close to Nietzsche’s concept of the  übermensch:  the higher person who knows no external law or morality.

It need not be said that libertarianism begs any number of questions, such as exactly how a large-scale libertarian society could  function with no state to, where necessary, compel individuals to do that which they do not wish to do.  The answer, if it comes, always seems to be that somehow people will solve their problems together in a sensible way with no need for compulsion, but such an optimistic view of the essential goodness of humanity, laudable though it may be, fails to take into account the fact that even if people are on the whole good, they are easily led into bad, and far too many individuals exist who are not motivated by good will, and who are not susceptible to reason.  Thus, libertarianism seems to be doomed to be, beyond the very small scale, doomed to be at best a theoretical model.  It is, however, an interesting theoretical model for it shows how a purely ‘liberal’ society, where we trust to the good will of the individual, is bound to fail.  We need some additional mechanism: the freedom from as well as the freedom to, and that is what we will discuss next.

Classical liberalism

Classical liberalism is concerned with the freedom of the individual.  Therefore it espouses limited state intervention in individuals’ affairs, the rule of law and the principles that all are equal before the law and the state’s actions are predictable and transparent.   This is the liberalism of Hume, Smith, Hayek and Popper and also, surprisingly in view of the way they have been co-opted of late by libertarians, the Founding Fathers of the United States.  However, what is not clear is exactly how this differs from libertarianism.

Let me explain.  I said earlier that in a liberal society every proposal to limit the freedom of individuals must at some point be turned around and justified in terms of preserving that freedom, which sounds nonsensical.  But consider the following.  Say we decide that such and such a freedom should be guaranteed to individuals.  This is freedom to: the freedom to exercise guaranteed freedoms.  But now, others may try to impede my freedom to; as the state has guaranteed this freedom, therefore the rights of those others must be limited so as to prevent this.  But now, all things being equal, as all are equal before the law, my freedom must be limited in the same way, so that I cannot impede others’ freedom to.  This is freedom from: the freedom from interference in the exercise of guaranteed freedoms.  So the state intervenes to limit the freedom of individuals precisely when their freedom, unlimited, would impede the freedoms of others.

In this model, therefore the state acts as the guarantor of individual freedoms.  This there is fundamentally different from libertarianism in which the individuals are guarantors of their own freedoms.  Whereas the libertarian believes that individuals are basically good and capable of living together peacefully without coercion, the classical liberal agrees with Hobbes that the state is required to protect individuals from themselves and one another.  In other words, it takes a decidedly pessimistic view of human nature and adopts the minimal approach required to rectify that fact.  Corporatism, which also takes a pessimistic view adopts, instead, the maximal approach of dictating what each individual shall do, while optimistic libertarianism presumes that everything will work out in the end.

Modern day liberalism

Most self-proclaimed modern liberals are social liberals, their primary concern being not the freedom of the individual but the rather ill-defined concept of social justice.  I say ill-defined because this is not any form of justice defined in its usual sense of being the machinery of law and its application, which is clearly defined and known to all.  Rather it is a set of beliefs about the way that society ought to be structured.  Consequently, social liberalism extends the role of the state from being the guarantor of freedom to  managing economic and social issues so as to realise these ideas, so it intervenes in individuals’ lives in order to promote an idea of the way society ought to be.  So what is good for society is good for the individual.

Now this can be said to be a non-minimalist version of classical liberalism, but there is a crucial difference.  In classical liberalism the freedom of the individual is only limited in so far as it is necessary to do so in order to guarantee the free exercise of guaranteed rights.  Thus the state may define laws and may define standards for those offering services to others (if I set up as a water supplier and elected to use only lead pipes then I would be limiting my customers’ right to good health).  However, in social liberalism things go further.  In social liberalism the freedom of the individual may be limited even if it does no actual harm to any other individual, but because it does perceived harm in causing the structure of society to deviate from the preferred model.  In other words, social liberalism indulges in social engineering, the shaping of society to meet an idea.  And where does the idea come from?  The idea comes from the state.

We can also look at this from a point of view of the extent to which the state intervenes in individuals’ lives and the message that it sends to them.  In classical liberalism we say that so long as individuals do not interfere with one another’s rights then they are free to be themselves.  In social liberalism that is not enough: people must aspire to a higher standard.  We want to make people better, and so the state intervenes in their lives so as to bring them in line with the desired goal.  Now again, this could be viewed as a difference of degree, but there is also a fundamental difference of attitude.  Classical liberalism’s attitude is summed up best in Crowley’s famous maxim: ‘do what thou will shall be the whole of the law provided it cause no harm.’  Social liberalism, on the other hand says ‘be what I want’.  Bluntly, classical liberalism is about what you do while social liberalism is about what you are.  To that extent, it is almost a religious position, with social justice replacing God as the object of veneration.  Indeed, if one examines recent pronouncements by senior clerics one might be forgiven for thinking that this substitution had been formalised.

All of this means that social liberalism is very far from being anything that a classical liberal might recognise as liberalism.  In fact, it appears to be a form of corporatism with a left-leaning veneer.  However, things are more complex, because though an enthusiasm for state control of education, culture and the microeconomy is characteristic of modern liberals, this is generally combined with a belief, again almost religious in its fervour, that the state is the enemy and is basically up to no good Paranoia about ‘the man’ or what ‘they’ might be doing and an absolute conviction, worthy of a libertarian, that those organs of the state that carry out such basic functions as managing the rule of law are acting against the common good is therefore combined with a belief that the state should be the sole supplier of any number of services.  Interestingly, it seems that modern liberals insist that it is wrong for the state to undertake any of the functions that a classical liberal would expect of it, and yet consider it only right and proper that it should intervene in any number of areas that in classical liberalism are none of its business.  Thus modern liberalism is in fact not just different to classical liberalism, it is antithetical to it.

Whence liberalism?

Compassionate liberalism

Let me start by dealing with some possible criticism of classical liberalism.  It is argued that it is very rule-based and not sufficiently compassionate.  Social liberalism likes to claim that it, on the other hand, cares for people rather than abstract notions such as ‘justice’.  This is both true and not true.  An approach to running society based on emotion rather than reason might be very satisfying for those exercising the emotion, but it is scarcely the way to guarantee that the state is genuinely impartial.  But this is, we are told, also a bad thing.  Rather than ensuring that none have privilege in their access to law, it is argued that societal circumstances should be taken into account and that the ‘disadvantaged’ be given special treatment, thereby making them the advantaged, and creating a new privileged group.  Thus egalitarians end up, in the name of equality, creating precisely the kind of bias they claim to decry, only as it is their bias it is apparently different.  Classical liberalism, of course, knows no concept of egalitarianism.  All are equal in the eyes of the state, but as the state is not concerned with what they do, save it cause no harm, that does not mean they are equal in any other sense.  Social liberalism’s great fallacy is the attempt to shift this equality from being an aspect of how one deals with the state to being an aspect of what one is.

To return to compassion, some critics appear to believe that classical liberalism is compatible only with robber baron capitalism, and hence has no concern for people.  And yet, under robber baron capitalism it is actually quite hard for individuals who are not robber barons to exercise their rights with any degree of vigour.  The critical difference between a classical liberal and a social liberal is that a social liberal would tend to view success in a capitalist economy as being not very nice, whereas a classical liberal would wish that everyone could achieve it.  Thus a social liberal indulges in dangerous tinkering with the economy (such as the Clinton administration’s downright reckless interference in the mortgage markets) while a classical liberal regulates it.  Again, this distinction may seem small, but it is the difference between telling individuals what are acceptable economic activities and trying to push individuals in particular directions, and indicating to individuals how they should comport their economic activities so as to do no harm to others.  This extends to other areas.  The social liberal asserts that any private education or medicine is an affront to the dignity of man and offers instead a mediocre state-controlled egalitarian approach.  The classical liberal does not care how either is obtained provided that education or health-care of a defined standard is available to all.  Regulation – the setting of standards – is strangely anathema to social liberals, who appear to think that there is more to health-care than making people well and more to education than giving people useful skills, but who do not appear able to define precisely what this more is.  And yet, for example, actually guaranteeing that all schools met the same standard of education, coupled with regulation of university selection, would surely be a far more effective way of ending educational privilege than abstruse schemes to bias the system in favour of the ‘disadvantaged’?  Better by far, one would have thought, to ensure that they were not disadvantaged in the first place.

This, I think, underlines a key shift in ideas from classical to social liberalism.  Classical liberalism contains a very clear set of ideas that one can act on to build whatever kind of state the people happen to want.  This is its strength: provided the state is fair and impartial and just, the individuals who make up its people can make of it whatever they want.  This is also a potential weakness, of course, as without sufficiently strong institutions it is not hard to turn a classically liberal state into a corporatist state, as happened in Germany at the end of the 1920s; the remedy for this is to ensure that the people want to live in a liberal state.  In social liberalism, on the other hand, there is a well-defined ideology of what the state ought to look like and what kind of thing the people ought to want (or be allowed to have), but it is generally expressed so vaguely that it is not at all clear how this ideology is to be realised other than by faith or compulsion.  There is no need to worry about whether a socially liberal state will become repressive, because it already is.  Indeed, some social liberals even question the value of abstract justice, in the sense of an abstract impartial system of law, on the grounds that it does not care about the underlying problem, whatever that means (generally whatever the social liberal in question happens to be upset about today) but is only concerned with preserving order.  So this is a shift from precision to vagueness, from the machinery of government to quasi-religious ideology, from treating individuals as adults free to make their own lives to treating them as children needing to be led.  In fact, in the transition from ideas to faith and partnership to direction one might as well drop the ‘quasi’ and say that we have seen a shift from the world-view of the Enlightenment to that of authoritarian religion.

This is where social liberalism wants it both ways.  While claiming to be permissive and compassionate, it wants to be didactic and prescribe everyone’s behaviour, but it does not consider those  in power as being fit to be so.  One might be cynical and argue that their lack of suitability is based not in the fact that they are provably bad but rather in the fact that they are provably not the sort of people social liberals invite to their dinner parties.  In other words, we have the classic cultist’s belief system: things would be so much better if only I were in charge, and none but I has a legitimate right to rule.    Hence the apparent paradoxical combination of opposition to established power and an extremely repressive ideology, and once again the threat of religious extremism.

Social liberalism as cult

Examining the thesis of social liberalism as a quasi-religious cult, it is clear that there is considerable evidence in its favour.  To start at the beginning, the ideology is founded on assertions that are claimed to be self-evidently true, but which turn out to be muddy, ill-defined and most-likely mutually contradictory.  As I have said, the concept of ‘social justice’ is more or less impossible to define, but it generally seems to come down to some vision of the way society ought to be and the way it ought not to be.  This vision itself generally derives from a number of more basic ideas, like radical egalitarianism, redistribution, social engineering, pacifism and libertarianism.  Now, none of these is self-evident, and it is indeed very far from self-evident how egalitarianism can be reconciled with (say)  a redistributionism which requires the existence of a super-class to make decisions about who is and is not deserving.  Therefore, the ideology is founded on a collection of assumptions which are themselves complex, in that they are not at all well-defined, and which are insusceptible to argument; they can only be asserted.  Contrast this with the situation in classical liberalism, where the basis is the idea that for every right granted, certain rights must be rescinded in order to protect the ability to exercise that right.  This is simple and susceptible to logical analysis; once one accepts the concept of granted rights, it follows more or less as a logical truism.

What we see here is a clear example of the difference between religion and science.  Science is based on well-defined premises that are subject to verification.  Religion is based on dogmatic assertion that must be accepted in an act of faith.  In view of this, clearly classical liberalism is scientific in its approach, while social liberalism, with its motley collection of vague but unquestionable beliefs, is religious.  So, for example, we recently saw in the UK an argument put forward by  economists that the highest tax-band was economically harmful.  A leading ‘liberal’ politician rebutted their argument not on economic grounds, but because removing said tax-band would be ‘morally repugnant’.  He did not argue that their proposal was economically harmful, but that somehow social justice demanded that it be ignored.  In other words, he took a technical proposition based in the language of economics and attempted to rubbish it using a quasi-religious appeal to a woolly concept that has nothing at all to do with economics, and he clearly saw no need to make an economic argument.  In religious terms, he used the familiar get-out-of-jail-free card of declaring the idea anathema: if one can say that an idea is heretical there is no need to understand it or answer its questions, it is just wrong and it should not be posed.

Another aspect of religious thinking is the establishment of an elite or priestly caste whose function is to interpret dogma for the masses and to provide leadership and direction in establishing the way that society responds to the dogma.  Now, again, if the dogma consisted of self-evident, or at least simple and arguable, principles there would be no need for such a caste, as one could be reasonably certain that all individuals would be able to interpret the principles in a consistent way, and so such enforcement mechanisms as are required would be those required by the principles themselves.  So in classical liberalism, once the granted rights and the penalties for interfering with those rights are defined, there is no need for further discussion or interpretation: an individual knows that if they interfere with others’ exercise of their granted rights they will be subject to a defined penalty, and that otherwise they are free to act.  In a system based on dogma, however, even if everyone knows what the principles are, as they are unclear or ill-defined, they need to be told what they mean, resulting either in an ever-expanding commentary on the law or in case-by-case special pleading.  We know that social liberals, with their notion that abstract justice must be modified to consider individual circumstances, would support the special pleading.

As evidence of priestly thinking it is worth noting the often rather condescending attitude of professional social liberals to the people as a whole.  They are not content to accept that if people want something and it doesn’t actually hurt anyone then they should be allowed to do it, for it may be ideologically wrong.  Hence the rather regrettable fact that modern action movies appear to be no more than cinematic noise and fury is generally condemned as a bad thing, with little attention being paid to the fact that these films are incredibly popular.  The people who flock to see them are clearly misled, and so not to be trusted to have the right taste; such decisions should be made by an elite (people like us).  The same attitude is to be seen throughout coverage of culture and even politics where, for example, many social liberal thinkers appear to have yet to reconcile themselves to the fact that though they despise Tony Blair, polls made it clear that had he still been leading the Labour Party, it would have won the 2010 general election.

If the people cannot be trusted, then clearly their ideas on what society should do cannot be trusted, and so there is the need for a caste of thinkers and commentators to make decisions for them.  This might well go some way to explaining the social liberal’s loathing of the state’s machinery: politicians have the inestimable disadvantage, as compared to journalists, academics and think tank members, of having to mix with the people and pay attention to what they say.  Thus they can claim greater legitimacy than the social liberal luminaries, but they are infected with the heresy of pragmatism, and so hostility is inevitable, reminiscent of the hostility between King and Pope.  Thus, just as the Popes did in the past, social liberalism insist that they have the sole legitimacy, setting themselves up as a unique source of untainted truth.  The fact that they cannot justify any of their beliefs (including this one) only makes their legitimacy the greater.

Returning to the example of the movies, we see an interesting fact.  It is not enough to say that tastes change and that people really like mindless violence, so what are you going to do about it.  That would be akin to accepting Hobbesian pessimism about human nature rather than Rousseau’s optimism.  If people are basically bad and stupid then anything is possible and one and the same person can be a great writer and a moral pygmy.  However, if one has it as an article of faith that people are basically good, then there must be something more sinister at work: the temptation of the world.  And so we see that far too many critics insist that modern movies are pretty dumb because studio bosses are deliberately ‘dumbing down the medium, which is ridiculous, because studio bosses are interested in one thing: making money.  If there was as much money to be made with movies like Last Year at Marienbad as there is with Transformers 4: Here we go Again then Hollywood would be churning out complex, ambiguous, stylised art movies by the ton.  But this argument does not work for the critics, because instead of accepting that nearly everyone is pretty dumb but only a very few people are really bad, they prefer to see movie-goers as sheep to be led, and the studios as demonic tempters who are leading them into sin.  This attitude, again, generalises.  In political debate their opponents cannot be mistaken, they have to be wrong, almost morally wrong.  Pragmatism (allowing the sinful world to enter into the paradise garden) is the ultimate evil: it is not sufficient that something work; sooner it fail entirely than it work but be impure.

This disdain for the practical has another effect.  The dogmatic beliefs making up social liberalism must be absolute; if they admit any restraint, moderation or regulation, then they are rendered impure.  Now, in classical liberalism, everything is subject to regulation, from individual rights to the system of justice itself, as it is accepted that everything needs oversight and that any absolute can in itself be harmful.  In the Manichean world of the social liberal this is no longer true: rights or facts can be established as being unquestionable.  And as such one ends up creating an über-class which has rights not available to others.  For example, social liberals (probably because many of them are journalists) are adamant that journalistic protection of sources must be an absolute right.  Now, it is a quite reasonable right, but why should it be absolute?  And, more to the point, should we not be concerned that, by making it an absolute, we have now created an über-class of journalists who are accountable to none, who basically have the right to dictate to the justice system what it may or may not know, and who therefore stand above the law?  This looks very much like authoritarianism under another name.

A liberalism for the selfish

Of course, one characteristic of the more cultic kind of religion is that it tends to distinguish very clearly between the esoteric and the exoteric, between true believers and outsiders, and, on the whole, is largely uninterested in the welfare of those outsiders.  They are also generally strongly hierarchical, with obedience to the leaders emphasised.  As we have seen, social liberalism strongly manifests this latter tendency, so the obvious question is whether it also manifests the former.

As a starting point, it is easy to see that the prominent social liberal are themselves selfish in their application of social liberalism.  The most egregious evidence of this is the apparent belief that use of force is such a moral stain on the character that one should tolerate anything in order to avoid it, including ignoring actual requests to exercise it by those who are being deprived of many of the more basic rights (such as to live) that we tend to take for granted.  Indeed, we see the somewhat comical spectacle of a current Archbishop of Canterbury and a former Pope flatly contradicting Jesus Christ on the the subject of intervening in others’ affairs.  So it seems that what matters is that I and my friends be okay, and ‘other’ people can suffer deprivation of all those social benefits I claim to be in favour of, because, well, I don’t know them, and I might have to get my hands dirty in the process.  That this is selfishness goes without saying: what matters is me and my moral state, and when I claim to be interested in social justice I define society in the narrowest possible sense so as to exclude, strangely enough, often those in most need it.  We also saw this in reaction of to the recent English rioting.  In order to promote their own agenda, they made a case that the rioters were those of the dispossessed working class made desperate by the evils of the police, the free market and so on and so forth.  In the process, they privileged the rioters, who actually turned out to be anything but dispossessed workers, and themselves dispossessed the large numbers of genuinely working class individuals who stood with the police against the rioters, and argued that the well-being of the rioters counted for more than that of the genuine workers whose livelihoods they destroyed.  Thus they created a deserving and undeserving poor based not on any true concept of social justice, but rather entirely on which group it most suited them to appear to side with in order to achieve their own ends.  This is selfishness again, in that the rioters and their victims become playing-pieces in a game between social liberals and their enemies.

Now, it is a truism that the selfishness of individual social liberals does not make social liberalism selfish, and yet it is very uncommon to find a social liberal who does not subscribe to the kind of error I described above.  Abstracting, we see that two points emerge.  First, in Manichean fashion, the world is divided into those who count and those who do not, so society is not totality, rather those whom one wishes to benefit with social justice are a distinct subgroup.  Second, what really matters is the promotion of an agenda, whether it be personal moral purity or state ownership of public services, that has little real basis in any benefit to society, even that part of it that one cares about.  It is clear that if one subscribes to these points then one will inevitably be selfish, because the people who do not count do not concern one, and the people who do exist only to serve one’s will.  But, once again, we are in the world of cultic religion.  Let the liberal elite be the priesthood, those who count be the believers and those who do not the pagans, and the agenda (whatever it may be) the dogma.  With those definitions, my two points become inevitable: cultic religions define a very clear division of humanity into us and them in which the out-group is of little of no significance and all that matters is the benefit of the in-group;  moreover they have ineffable and inviolable commandments that the in-group must obey; and, most important, the priesthood get to define us and them and what the commandments are.  We concluded above that social liberalism is, in fact, a cultic religion, and so the two points apply automatically.  Therefore social liberalism is selfish.

 This goes a long way towards explaining some of the more mysterious features of social liberalism.  Given that so many of its proponents claim to take inspiration from the grand universalist philosophies of Marx, their cheerful tendency to ignore entirely the well-being of anyone it suits them to seems somewhat mysterious, as Marx was quite clear that he was talking about the World, not one group in one country.  And yet, if social liberalism is a cultic religion which uses the language but not the ideas of Marxism, such anomalies as Sartre (rightly) condemning atrocities committed by the French in Algeria while (wrongly) cheering on even worse atrocities in the USSR become at least comprehensible.  Sartre was not a Marxist; he was a priest of a religious cult that co-opted Marxism for its own ends.  Classical liberalism, such as in the abolitionist campaign, is universalist.  If social liberals had been around at the time they would probably have found a reason why only some slaves were men and brothers.

Types and ontologies


An ontology is essentially a systematic model for how we break up the world around us into things. This clearly plays a role in perception, as it is the ontology that lets us construct mappings that say that to such and such a collection of qualia I will assign such and such a thing, hence allowing me to build a model of the world I inhabit. Ontology also plays a major role in language, in that language is itself an abstract formal means of communicating information, but that information more often than not consists of statements referring to objects, and it is an ontology that lets me translate these referring statements into things. So if you ask me to get you some strawberries, I use my ontology to translate the term ‘strawberry’ into something that I can recognise (red, small pips on surface, etc). Thus when one individual communicates to another, it is by using an ontology that they both connect referring terms in statements to referents in the world.

What this means is that if communication is to be unambiguous, the parties involved in the communication must share an ontology. Now, for the parties to completely share an ontology is in principle impossible, as demonstrated in our essay Against Standard Ontologies, but we can, by deliberately limiting the scope of our communication, limiting the complexity of our language and formalising the ways in which we refer to things, do something to minimise the risk of systemic confusion.  Therefore this paper attempts to understand what formal structures are required to provide a sufficiently rich world-picture to enable useful communication, while keeping the level of formality sufficiently high that we can avoid systemic misunderstanding, and also while acknowledging that the robot’s world-view will be radically different to ours. This last point is crucial, in that it means that our ontology must exist at a sufficiently high level that none of the referring terms we wish to use in communication actually refer to sensory percepts. Rather there must be several levels of abstraction between any referring term and the qualia we expect to perceive when we recognise the referred thing.


Before we get on to types, it is worth saying a little about what we expect of languages, because that will inevitably influence the way that we express a type system, and maybe even the kind of type system we use. I keep the discussion at the level of syntax and structural semantics rather than content.

Basic structures

So, a language is a formal system with a vocabulary of symbols which can be combined in various ways to produce sentences. We posit the basic rules:

  • Symbols in the language are functional or non-functional.
  • Functional symbols can belong to two classes, that of referring terms and that of properties

So we have the beginnings of an ontology. Here non-functional symbols are connectives, such as ‘and’, ‘or’, etc. Symbols that are functional can refer to objects, or they can describe objects, and hence be properties. Note the crucial fact that I have not said that the division into referring terms and properties is exclusive: a symbol can be both a reference to a thing and a way of describing something else (e.g. ‘red’ is both a noun and an adjective).

In terms of an ontology, we have here defined two top-level and potentially overlapping kinds (that is to say concepts at a higher level than type): Referring and Property, so there are two top-level properties with these names that provide a basic classification. The next key step is the following:

  • Given any referring symbol x and description P then I can ascribe the property P to x, so I can form the sentence ‘x is P’.

And now I finally need:

  • All sentences have a truth value.

Truth values

Even the statement that sentences have a truth value is mired in controversy, because what do we mean by a truth value? Do we mean standard Boolean True and False, or do we include intermediate values like Unknown and Undefined, or do we go even further any allow a continuous-valued logic where the truth value is a probability? All of these choices are possible and have persuasive arguments in their favour: intermediate truth values are useful when knowledge is incomplete and probabilities are useful when it is uncertain. But suppose I am using probabilistic truth-values and I have a property P and I say ‘x is P’; do I mean by this that x is P with probability 0.3? It might mean that I am uncertain about what properties x has, and I am certain with probability 0.3 that it is has P, or it might mean that x is some mixture, a proportion of which, given by 0.3, is P. The first of these applications of probabilistic logic is uncontroversial; the second is problematic, for not all types can be mixed. Therefore we conclude that there are two kinds of probabilistic thinking:

  • Truth values dealing with probability arising from uncertainty. A typical sentence is ‘x is P’ which is true with probability p. This means that we are uncertain of the truth of sentence but believe that it is true with probability p.
  • Truth values dealing with mixing. A typical sentence is ‘q% of x is P which, if it is true, means that we believe that x is a mixture, q% of which is P.

Note that the two kinds of probability may be combined, e.g. ‘q% of x is P’ with probability q.

Properties and referring symbols

We can now consider a quite important question, which is whether types are always properties or whether it is possible to have a type that is not a property. Saul Kripke (in Naming and Necessity) argues that proper names are such types. That is to say, that ‘Julius Caesar’ is not a property, or even shorthand for a property, but is an unanalysed label picking out that one individual. This is, to say the least problematic. First, each of us may know what ‘Julian Caesar’ means to us, and we may be able to communicate about him, but it would be a very brave person to say that my idea of Caesar is the same as yours. Second, how does this picking out work in the absence of a property-based description? Surely ‘Julius Caesar’ is just a meaningless jingle to which we have assigned meaning by associating it with a number of properties.  Now let us look at things the other way: is it possible to have a property that does not refer? The answer to this depends largely on whether or not we ascribe only extensional properties to a property.  That is to say, if a property is defined only in terms of the set of objects of which it is true, then there is no need for it to refer. However, such an approach is extremely limiting because unless we have all properties of all objects pre-programmed into us, then we cannot use properties to describe an object we have not previously encountered. We do not have such pre-programming and neither will a useful robot; we have to be able to generalise. Therefore properties require a means of connecting them to the world of things, that is to say a way of referring to them.

If we take this thought to its furthest extent, it seems that the only real distinction between properties and referring symbols is that properties will in general refer to more than one thing. But even here the distinction is minimal, in that any collective symbol, e.g. ‘robot’ turns out on inspection to be nothing more than a description in disguise. It seems then that, if we follow Kripke:

  • Property x implies Referring x.
  • There is a kind ProperName such that ProperName x implies Referring x.
  • Referring x and not Property x implies ProperName x.

It is worth making a quick observation about free variables, that is to say symbols like ‘it’ or ‘the thing’ that allow one to substitute an desired entity in place of the symbol. These symbols are at first sight neither referring nor properties, and yet they can be either, e.g. ‘It is my head’ or ‘it is my favourite colour’, where in the latter ‘colour’ is object to the property ‘my favourite’ and yet is itself a class of property.

Analysed and unanalysed symbols

Kripke also insisted that his proper names be unanalysed. There is considerable value in the concept of unanalysed symbols. At least one unanalysed proper name exists, that is to say ‘me’ (whether the ‘me’ be a human or a robot). Others exist in the form of objects that are self-evident, manifest facts in the universe of the speaker. So a robot may have a number of sensors which are, to it, things whose nature is fixed, whose identity is self-evident, and which have no properties other than existence. However, there are
two points here. First, the information produced by those sensors need not be unanalysed or undescribed.  Second, to a human observing the robot, each sensor on the robot will belong to a particular type, which may itself be defined in terms of another type, and so on. Thus we see that ontologies are indeed relative.


  • There is a kind Unanalysed which consists of symbols that are atomic, and are not defined in terms of other terms.
  • ProperName x implies Unanalysed x.
  • There are a number of unanalysed properties.

Unanalysed symbols refer to the things that we do not need to have defined because they are manifest and obvious (and hence they are very slippery, e.g. I know that ‘me’ is well-defined, but ‘you’ is hugely uncertain). There are also descriptions that are unanalysed, so a robot does not need to analyse ‘sensor’ any further.  We can build a hierarchy of symbols using the relation ‘is defined in terms of’, so when trying to define a symbol we analyse the way we describe it and then we define those descriptions by seeing how they are described, and so on until we reach unanalysed terms. Sufficient unanalysed terms must exist
that this hierarchy is finite. Therefore:

  • The property symbols of the language form a finite hierarchy with relationships based on ‘is defined in terms of’. There are no a priori constraints on the structure of the resulting directed graph save that it must contain no cycles.
  • The resulting directed graph is rooted in symbols x such that ‘Unanalysed x’ is true.

Note that this hierarchy is not a hierarchy in the usual ontological sense, because it is not based on the property that a description expresses. The hierarchy tell us how symbols are defined, not what they mean.


Now we have the basics and the top-level kinds settled, we can begin to consider what kind of model we should use for types. To start, let us see what we need to do with types.


First, given any entity we need to be able to ascribe a type to it. As noted above, this applies equally to things and properties: a thing can be of one or many types, and a property can also be of one or many types. Therefore:

  • There should be a way to ascribe a type to a symbol in a language.

Before we go any further with this we need to ask is a type part of our language or not? All of the kinds I introduced above were metalinguistic and it may seem reasonable for types to follow that model, and so to inhabit a metalanguage rather than the language proper. This view therefore assumes that types cannot be reified, or at least cannot be described within the language, for they exist without it. But now consider a type like ‘mammal’; that this is a type might be disputed, but it is certainly treated as one in common usage. This type is clearly not metalinguistic as it can be defined in terms of other properties within the language, and so it seems that types must themselves be symbols within the language unless we want to limit quite severely the expressiveness of the type system. This proves to be quite a constraint, as most formal type systems rely on metalinguistic type labels. Once types become symbols within the language then one can have types of types and so on and so forth, as well as interaction between types and unanalysed terms. In particular, it means that the type system can evolve with the language, which is clearly a good thing. Therefore it is clear that considerable restraint is needed to ensure that whatever type system is used does not become over-complex. The constraint, to make up for this profusion of riches, is that we are now severely limited as to how the types are expressed and ascribed. Mechanisms such as the type-labels of the typed lambda calculus, though usable, become extremely limiting because now we have symbols acting in two roles depending on whether they are a referring symbol or an ascribed type. A much simpler, and more natural, approach is to treat types as predicates or properties within the language, so a referring symbol x is of type T if ‘x is a T’ evaluates to True.

  • There is a kind Type such that Type x implies Description x and all types have kind Type.
  • Type ascription is effected by predication, so ‘x is a T’ is a model sentence.

One may think that as a corollary of this, no unanalysed symbol may belong to any type within the language. But consider, ‘me’ is an unanalysed symbol, being a proper name, and yet it carries the description of ‘person’ or ‘robot’ or whatever. Therefore in fact any referring symbol can be ascribed a type.

B. The type system

So we are now at the position that a type is a description of kind Type and we assert that a thing x has type T by saying ‘x is a T’. Now we need to discuss relations between types. A common model for ontologies is to use types that are formed into a hierarchy, so each object lies in a particular place on a tree of types, and so is a member of one type, which is itself a member of another and so on up to the root. We saw in Against Standard Ontologies that this model is untenable so something more complex is required. In order to clarify a possible confusion, note that types, being descriptions, are indeed hierarchical, but the hierarchy involves their definition and not their membership, that is to say type T1 being defined in terms of type T2 does not imply that everything that is a T1 is also a T2. Therefore there is no inconsistency in our model.

So how are types organised? It makes immediate sense to introduce a relation along the lines of ‘is a’, on types which in fact generalises the predication relation that ascribes a type to an entity in a way consistent with our contention that types are referring symbols. Thus I can say ‘T1 is a T2’ which implies
that if any x obeys ‘x is a T1’ then in addition ‘x is a T2’. Therefore:

  • The relation ‘x is a T’, where x is any referring object and T is a type or kind, is transitive, so ‘x is a T1’ and‘T1 is a T2’ imply ‘x is a T2’.

Note that this means that the relation ‘is a’ is not that between class and superclass or between object and class, but is rather a more complex relation that comprises both of these. However it can be useful to think of a type as a class and a referring term as an object (recalling that classes themselves are objects), and I shall refer to this analogy with object-orientation repeatedly below.

So we can model types as a graph. There is no obvious a priori structure to this graph, in particular, any one entity may belong to more than one type, for example ‘sonar sensor’ is a ‘distance sensor’ and an ‘imaging sensor’, and though ‘sonar sensor’ and ‘imaging sensor’ both have type ‘sensor’ they are themselves distinct types. Therefore, in object oriented terms, we are dealing with a type system that allows multiple inheritance.

More intriguingly, we have noted above that even unanalysable descriptions may themselves have types. Therefore the unanalysable symbols are not themselves the roots of the directed graph constructed by the relation ‘is a’. We must, however, ensure that the graph of types is finite by avoiding cycles. There is a subtle point here. Consider the recursively defined binary tree type:

  • If Type A then a Tree A is either:
    • A Leaf , which is a value of type A
    • A Node, which is two Tree A one for each of the left-hand and right-hand sub-trees

Here, though the definition is infinite, the recursion is functional rather than one based on typology; that is to say, the type itself creates no recursion within the graph of types.

  • Types form a directed graph based on ‘is a’ which is finite and contains no cycles.

However there is another point here, which argues against a purely graph-theoretic view of types, which is that a recursive type such as Tree is not well-described within such a hierarchy. In particular it is an example of the critical concept of a parameterised type, which leads us into the next section.


Say I have a predicate P in my language, so I can apply it to any term x to create a new term Px.  Say x has type T1 and P has type T2, what type does Px have? Clearly it can depend only on T2 or only on T1, and in some complex cases it can depend on the precise values of P and x. The obvious way of handling this is with generalised arrow types. Recall that a basic arrow type is a type

T = T1 > T2

such that if P has type T and x has type T1 then Px must have type T2. I want to generalise this a little. What we need of a predication type is first a guard expression which states that I can only compose P with x if the type of x obeys some condition, and second a rule which states that there is some function such that the type of Px is the result of applying this function to x.

  • The most general form of type we need takes the form ‘Px is a Tx provided Gx’, where G is a Boolean predicate and T  is a predicate that maps referring objects to types.

Using this model I can describe the binary tree type above by saying that it takes any type A and returns, based on it, a type Tree A as defined above. This kind of parameterisation is absolutely crucial, for example, in data analysis and artificial intelligence, where I want to take streams of data from any number of sources, which might therefore have different types, but to apply standardised processing to them regardless of the underlying type. And, more to the point, this is something I cannot necessarily do with a standard object oriented inheritance paradigm, because the range of types I want to work with might be so disparate that in fact they share no meaningful common ancestor.


In conclusion our need is for something quite subtle that involves a number of different structures, some based on object orientation, some closer to functional programming. We have to effect a difficult balancing act so as to keep them all in play and not allow any of the different paradigms to take over or become too complex.

Ontological relativity without the rabbit


In his essay (appropriately) titled ‘Ontological Relativity’, Willard Quine introduced the notion that there is no such thing as a fixed, standard ontology, but instead ontology must be relativised, so each individual has one or more ontologies unique to them, and that we use language as a means to (where possible) translate between them.  The key point in his argument was that it is impossible, purely by means of language for me to determine whether you and I ontologise concepts for which we have a common term in the same way.  That means that we cannot, as one may have thought, use language to establish a consensus ontology, as we cannot, purely based on language, derive a unique meaning for common terms.  To use Quine’s example, we may have an agreed term ‘rabbit’, and we may even agree on what it denotes, but we have no way of determining whether it should ontologise as ‘an animal of such and such a shape’ or as ‘a collection of such and such kinds of body parts’.  In the absence of a consensus ontology, we must therefore conclude that there is complete ontological relativity, a fact which is one of the starting points for my essay Against Standard Ontologies.

Now, Quine’s argument is very persuasive, but it depends largely on rather tendentious thought experiments, such as the infamous case of the rabbit Gavagai.  This is not to say that these thought experiments are invalid, but as they depend on somewhat unusual special circumstances to acquire their force, they inevitably lead to the question of whether ontological relativity is truly endemic, or whether it is purely a feature of extreme cases within the realm of possible ontologies, and that most of the time we can actually establish a consensus ontology.  Therefore, in this essay I shall present a formal argument based in the structure of language, that does not depend in any way on special examples, which shows that any reasonably complex language can and must exhibit ontological relativity.


I am going to walk through the structure of language stage by stage, starting from the individual units of language and building up via grammatically correct sentences to sentences with truth value, sentences with reference to a model of the world and finally sentences that refer to the world as we perceive it.  In the process we will see precisely where ontology enters and why it must be relativised.

About language and ontology

So we start from the basic units of language.  In English these are words, but in other languages (especially agglutinating languages) these might be lexemes that glue together to form words.  Therefore I will us the abstract term ‘element’ to refer to the basic atomic unit of language, that is to say the collection of basic units that can be combined and recombined to form utterances.


It seems to be a general fact that in all natural languages (at least all the ones we know about) elements combine to form utterances.  Utterances themselves generally consist of one or more segments, each of which is capable of standing on its own as a complete, formally correct unit of speech.  That is to say, these segments can be uttered on their own and be assigned a ‘meaning’ (more on that anon).  To see my meaning more precisely consider the sequences of English words:

  1. The cat sat on the mat
  2. He ate them because he

Here 1 can stand on its own.  It does not beg any questions.  However, 2 is incomplete, as we do not know what it was that he ate them because of.  I will call these basic segments sentences.   Thus 1 is a sentence and 2 is not.  The rules specifying whether a sequence of elements is or is not a sentence constitute the grammar or syntax of a language.  So syntax tells us how to build sentences from elements.


A grammatically correct sentence is all very well, but if we want to do anything with it we need to be able to tell its truth value.  That is to say, if a sentence can be seen as an observation about the way the world is, we want, given a source of information about the world to plug into it, to be able to tell whether that observation is accurate.  The next step gives us part of this information, in that given a grammatically correct sentence, the semantics of the language tell us how to derive the truth value of a sentence from information about a class of special elements within it: its predicates.

A predicate is a unit that predicates a property of an object (the thing can be pretty well anything, from a referenced thing in the world, to another predicate to a complete sentence) in such a way that the result of doing so is a truth value.  For example consider the following:

  1. The grass is green
  2. ‘All your base are belong to us’ is a grammatically correct sentence

Here 1 applies the predicate ‘is green’ to the object ‘the grass’, giving the truth value ‘true’, while 2 applies the predicate ‘is a grammatically correct sentence’ to the object ‘all your base are belong to us’, giving the truth value ‘false’.  Given a predicate one can, in principle, define its extension and antiextension, which are respectively the collection of objects of which it is true / false.

My assertion, which appears to be true of all known natural languages, and which goes back in philosophy to Alfred Tarski, is that once I know the extension and antiextension of all predicates in a sentence, and know which of these all objects in a sentence belong to, then the semantics of a language tell me how to derive the truth value of a sentence from that information and the structure of sentence.  Consider the examples:

  1. The grass is green
  2. The dog, which had long hair, was rolling in something that smelled horrible

1 is obvious: as noted above, we just check whether the object ‘the grass’ is in the extension of the predicate ‘is green’.  If it is then the sentence is true.  2 is more interesting; to see how it works, let me recast it:

  1. There was a thing x such that x smelled horrible and the dog was rolling in x and the dog had long hair

So the sentence is true precisely when (a) the dog had long hair, and there is some thing x such that (b) x smelled horrible and (c) there is a relation of ‘was rolling in’ between the dog and x.  So the truth value of the sentence reduces to evaluation of three predicates.


Now we have our predicates with their extensions and antiextensions.  At the moment we have a purely formal system of symbols that bears no relation to the world as we perceive it.  How do we know how to relate the objects in a sentence to objects in the world?  In other words, how do we know what ‘the dog’ in the sentence above refers to?  This actually turns out to involve three steps.  First we have to identify what the things are that our world consists of, then we have to describe each type of thing, so we can recognise it when we see it, then we have to identify which of the things we discriminate within the world is the thing referenced in our sentence.

For the moment we stick with the third of these steps.  Say we have correctly discriminated the world into a collection of things.  We then need to be able to look at that collection and relate objects within our sentences to those things.  This is what we mean by reference: a term like ‘the dog’ in our sentence above is said to refer if it corresponds precisely to a thing in the world that we have discriminated as being of the kind ‘dog’.  Reference is therefore, as we can see, absolutely necessary if we are to be able to make any sentence we utter concrete, in the sense of relating to the world we perceive.  Moreover, even with sentences dealing with purely abstract matters, if terms do not refer, that is, if they cannot be assigned to (abstract) things of specific, well-understood, commonly agreed kinds, then there is no way that I can understand your utterances, for there is no way that I can relate the objects in your sentences to anything in my conceptual world.  Thus without reference, language as a tool for communication is useless.


The final thing we have to deal with is the first two steps outlined above as preconditions for reference, that is to say building a conceptual model of the kinds of things the world is made of, then describing each kind of thing in such a way that we can discriminate instances of it within the world and ask questions about its properties (that is, assign it to the extensions or antiextensions of predicates).

This turns out to be the part of the structure which simultaneously is the most critical for evaluating the ‘meaning’ of sentences and the one about which we can say least.  The first of these claims should be obvious, in that if I divide up the world in a different way to you then you may utter sentences that, from you point of view, reference specific objects, and yet, from my point of view, those objects do not even exist.  A simple case of this would occur if I had been blind from birth, in which case colour terms would be entirely meaningless to me; words like ‘red’ and ‘green’ would be valid words, and I would even be able to determine the truth value of sentences like:

  1. Green is a colour
  2. An object can be red all over and green all over simultaneously

But those sentences treat ‘red’ and ‘green’ as objects of predicates like ‘is a colour’, not as predicates in their own right.  As predicates, they have no reference and hence no (anti)extension, so I genuinely have no way of answering as to the truth value of:

  1. This dog is brown

As an additional subtlety, given the sentences:

  1. Unripe tomatoes are green, ripe tomatoes are red
  2. This tomato is green

Then if I were blind from birth, I could answer as to the truth value of 1, because I can learn these facts about the habitual colours of tomatoes, and yet I have no way of answering 2 other than asking someone else to do it for me.  Going the other way, say I were a human being and you were an animal with sonar-based senses (e.g. a dolphin).  To such an animal, objects properties go beyond their visible externals and include their internal constitution in terms of density, mass distribution, etc.  Thus your ontology would contain large quantities of information that simply vanishes on translation to mine; you would distinguish classes of objects that I saw as being identical. Ontology is inherently private.


We conclude from this that two speakers of a language can easily agree on syntax and semantics, as these are the mechanics of language, which depend only on the internal structure of a sentence and not at all on the outside world.  Reference begins to be problematic, for example consider the sentence:

  1. Cicero was troubled by serious crime

Does ‘Cicero’ reference the American city or the Roman Senator?  In either case the sentence is true, so we have to deduce reference from context.  Thus reference depends not just on the sentence itself, but on the context in which it is placed.  This context has two aspects.  First, we can assign reference to particular terms by ostention, that is by (literally) pointing at an object while using the term we wish to assign it to, e.g. saying ‘This dog is brown’ while pointing out a particular dog.  This can be generalised to apply to a very wide range of cases.  It provides what we can consider the occasion specific part of the context by indicating those references that cannot be deduced from the sentence or from background knowledge.  So, second comes background knowledge or what Quine calls a conceptual scheme.  I do not need to have the term ‘dog’ in the sentence above defined for me because you assume that I know what a dog is.

How can you test that I know what a dog is?  The test is simply that you and I should agree on the contexts in which the term ‘dog’ can be used in a sentence and on the truth of the resulting sentences (at least in cases where we can both make sense of those sentences).  So if I were to answer ‘It’s not a dog, it’s a canary’ that would imply a failure of common reference. However,we can determine whether you and I agree on the class of objects referenced by the term ‘dog’, and if we do then we assume that we have a common reference.

As soon as we move onto ontology that breaks down entirely.  It may be that I break the world down in a way entirely alien to you, but have still been able to spot common features in things you reference as ‘dog’, and so can agree on the reference of the term, even if my ontology is entirely different.  For example, if I had the senses of a spider with eight eyes, complex chemical sensors (sense of smell) and very sensitive motion detectors, my ontology might classify all items based on whether they were moving or not, so I would consider a moving dog as distinct from a stationary dog, not out of perversity or choice, but simply because my brain was wired in such a way that all visual percepts automatically came to me with a motion indicator attached to them.  Again, if I were a robot which had eight distance sensors instead of two eyes, my ‘visual’ perception of the world would be as structures in an eight-dimensional space and would (as for the dolphin) include information about internal structures of objects, and again this information would be an inherent part of my perception, not just something tagged on to a more basic perception.  So if perception differs ontology will differ.

But now, none of us have the same perceptions as one another and none of us have the same conceptual schemes as one another.  You and I will be trained by common culture in how to break things down as far as reference goes, and in so far as our common neural anatomy goes, but as we move beyond reference into ontology, as ontology is always private, we have no way of telling whether we do, in fact, share an ontology or not, because our only tool for testing this claim is language, and language can only tell us about reference.  Therefore ontological relativity is necessary, not because we can prove it is true, but because it is necessarily impossible to prove that it is not true.