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Wollaston on crimes against person or property as contradictions of fundamental truths (1722)

The English philosopher William Wollaston (1660-1724) argued that violations of another person’s natural rights are not only a crime but a denial or contradiction of a fundamental truth:

If a body of soldiers, seeing another body approach, should fire upon them, would not this action declare that they were enemies; and if they were not enemies, would not this military language declare what was false? No, perhaps it may be said; this can only be called a mistake… Suppose then, instead of this firing, some officer to have said they were enemies, when indeed they were friends: would not that sentence affirming them to be enemies be false, notwithstanding he who spoke it was mistaken?… I lay this down then as a fundamental maxim, That whoever acts as if things were so, or not so, doth by his acts declare, that they are so, or not so; as plainly as he could by words, and with more reality. And if the things are otherwise, his acts contradict those propositions, which assert them to be as they are.

III. A true proposition may be denied, or things may be denied to be what they are, by deeds, as well as by express words or another proposition. It is certain there is a meaning in many acts and gestures. Every body understands weeping, laughing, shrugs, frowns, &c., these are a sort of universal language.

But these instances do not come up to my meaning. There are many acts of other kinds, such as constitute the character of a man’s conduct in life, which have in nature, and would be taken by any indifferent judge to have a signification, and to imply some proposition, as plainly to be understood as if it was declared in words: and therefore if what such acts declare to be, is not, they must contradict truth, as much as any false proposition or assertion can.

If a body of soldiers, seeing another body approach, should fire upon them, would not this action declare that they were enemies; and if they were not enemies, would not this military language declare what was false? No, perhaps it may be said; this can only be called a mistake, like that which happened to the Athenians in the attack of Epipolar, or to the Carthaginians in their last incampment against Agathocles in Africa. Suppose then, instead of this firing, some officer to have said they were enemies, when indeed they were friends: would not that sentence affirming them to be enemies be false, notwithstanding he who spoke it was mistaken? The truth or falsehood of this affirmation doth not depend upon the affirmer’s knowledge or ignorance: because there is a certain sense affixt to the words, which must either agree or disagree to that, concerning which the affirmation is made. The thing is the very same still, if into the place of words be substituted actions. The salute here was in nature the salute of an enemy, but should have been the salute of a friend: therefore it implied a falsity. Any spectator would have understood this action as I do; for a declaration, that the other were enemies. Now what is to be understood, has a meaning: and what has a meaning, may be either true or false: which is as much as can be said of any verbal sentence.

If A should enter into a compact with B, by which he promises and engages never to do some certain thing, and after this he does that thing: in this case must be granted, that his act interferes with his promise, and is contrary to it. Now it cannot interfere with his promise, but it must also interfere with the truth of that proposition, which says there was such a promise made, or that there is such a compact subsisting. If this proposition be true, A made such a certain agreement with B, it would be denied by this, A never made any agreement with B. Why? Because the truth of this latter is inconsistent with the agreement asserted in the former. The formality of the denial, or that, which makes it to be a denial, is this inconsistence. If then the behaviour of A be consistent with the agreement mentioned in the former proposition, that proposition is as much denied by A’s behaviour, as it can be by the latter, or any other proposition. Or thus, If one proposition imports or contains that which is contrary to what is contained in another, it is said to contradict this other, and denies the existence of what is contained in it. Just so if one act imports that which is contrary to the import of another, it contradicts this other, and denies its existence. In a word, if A by his actions denies the managements, to which he hath subjected himself, his actions deny them; just as we say, Ptolemy by his writings denies the motion of the earth, or his writings deny it.

When a man lives, as if he had the estate which he has not, or was in other regards (all fairly cast up) what he is not, what judgment is to be passed upon him? Doth not his whole conduct breathe untruth? May we not say (if the propriety of language permits), that he lives a lye?

In common speech we say some actions are insignificant, which would not be sense, if there were not some that are significant, that have a tendency and meaning. And this is as much as can be said of articulate sounds, that they are either significant or insignificant.

I lay this down then as a fundamental maxim, That whoever acts as if things were so, or not so, doth by his acts declare, that they are so, or not so; as plainly as he could by words, and with more reality. And if the things are otherwise, his acts contradict those propositions, which assert them to be as they are.

About this Quotation:

William Wollaston wrote one best-selling work towards the end of his life which appeared in at least 8 editions. His main objective was to argue that “religion” was no more than “the pursuit of happiness by the practice of truth and reason”, but tucked within his Religion of Nature (1722) are some remarkable insights concerning the natural right to property and the idea that a violation of someone’s natural rights is not just a “crime” but a “lie” and a contradiction of a deeper underlying truth about the world. A person who violates a contract or kills an innocent person makes a powerful “statement” about themselves and those around them by means of action instead of by words. And these words or “action statements” are untrue and contradict the state of the natural world. They are also crimes in his view.

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