The Limits of Reason: Moral Relativity

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    The Greeks with their philosophy sought to discover Truth, Goodness, and Beauty beyond any further argument. And they did argue, searching all of the knowledge at their command in the effort get at what they wanted. The search for Truth led to natural philosophy (science) and epistemology; the search for Goodness led to ethics; and the search for Beauty led to aesthetics; the latter two leading also to psychology.

    Truth involves matters of fact and is objective in principle. We may seek Truth through intuition, but we need reason (especially that of mathematics) to verify the propositions thus produced. The results of the pursuit of Truth surround us and tell us that we need say little more on the subject.

    Goodness and Beauty, on the other hand, involve matters of opinion and are subjective in principle. We seek Goodness and Beauty primarily through intuition with reason giving little result. We say that there's no accounting for taste, using accounting in its denotative sense, as a means of expressing our current belief that we can never have a theory of Goodness or Beauty that matches the logical rigor of the physical sciences.

    Indeed, some have tried to devise such a theory. They try to do so through analogies with the physical sciences, trying to establish standards of Goodness and Beauty in order to apply an analogy of measurement, at least in a crude more or less form if they can't actually quantify it. They seek to invoke the laws of Nature as standards against which we may measure our ethics or aesthetics; hence moral relativity.

    That approach leads us astray from the path of study that we should be following. It's an easy error to fall into, though. Science was too easy and seduced us into believing that all knowledge can be made scientific and mathematical. Examining what actually exists and reasoning about it gives a straightforward path for us to follow. It enables us to use simple logic: To make a valid argument we need only ensure that the logic works correctly. To make a sound argument we need to ensure that we make our premises true to whatever part of Reality we want to examine. But neither Goodness nor Beauty conform to those requirements. They differ from Truth in the same way that ought differs from is.

    We may shed further light on this problem by noting that Rationalism, the devotion to pure logic as a means of finding Truth, is rightly accused of being cold and unfeeling. There is no room in Science for human feeling. That fact reminds us that Goodness and Beauty have a strong emotional component that we are obliged to understand before we can ever hope to have anything like a science of ethics and aesthetics. If we compare Truth to light, however warm or cold, then we must compare, in that same metaphor, Goodness and Beauty to warmth, however light or dark.

    David Hume in 1740 expressed some annoyance with people who reason via the usual copulation of propositions is and is not and then slip subtly into copulations of the propositions ought and ought not. He doesn't seem so much to say that we cannot go from is to ought, as to say that he wants some justification of that move.

    Hume wanted a resolution of the Naturalistic Fallacy, the proposition that we can equate what is with what ought to be, that "Reality is right" and that we should emulate what we see in Nature. We hold out little hope that anyone will ever find such a resolution. Equating is with ought is a fallacy because it can be turned on itself in a reductio ad absurdum. The central fact of human existence is the constant urge and striving to make things better, to improve things. But that striving must necessarily be based upon a conviction that what ought to be differs from what is, and that is a denial of the Naturalistic Fallacy. Note further that a strict application of the Naturalistic Fallacy would end all change, including education. But that would itself bring about change. The only situation in which the Naturalistic Fallacy is valid is one in which humans revert to the animal state.

    Actually the situation in which we find ourselves is both worse and better than Hume's dilemma implies. First note that we have no hope of finding any cues in Reality for a human morality.

    Steven Weinberg, one of the physicists who helped create the Standard Model by showing how electromagnetism and the weak force can be related to each other, once noted that the more the Universe becomes comprehensible the more it seems pointless. In that observation some see the seed of a profound nihilism, a belief that nothing matters because the Universe itself is meaningless. The Universe does not endorse anything that we could call meaning or a morality based upon it.

    We are indeed lost.

    As I noted in the Prologue, we do seem to be pretty much adrift in a trackless void, so I can't find a basis for disagreeing with Dr. Weinberg. Nonetheless, I don't agree that nihilism is the proper response to the pointlessness of the Universe.

    We don't need to find meaning in the Universe. We can create it.

    Just as the propagation of light is the touchstone for testing the laws of Relativity, so "purpose" is the touchstone for proposed laws of morality. No purpose to human existence, no morality. But who decides what the purpose is? We now go into existentialism; we choose meaning in a meaningless cosmos.

    I am reminded of the Parable of the Talents. The talents in the parable were merely flattish pieces of silver that had patterns stamped onto them; in themselves, they were inherently meaningless. Nonetheless, people chose to give them meaning in order to use them as tools and markers of value. The value was not in the talents themselves, but in what the servants chose to do with them. In the same way the point of the Universe is not in the fact that it exists, but in what we choose to do with it: the Universe is our talent.


    Words, we are told, present two aspects to us -- denotation and connotation. A word's denotation is simply and only the thing to which the word refers. The connotations of a word are the ideas associated with the word's referent. Let someone utter the word "horse" and immediately the image of one of Earth's most beautiful animals comes to mind. And in its wake that image will draw cowboys and the Cavalry, Santa Anita and gamblers, the shiny little surrey with the fringe on top, steeplechases and fox hunts, and others from a long list of images that have been accumulated over the millenia.

    The Map of Physics has laid out for you the denotation of the word "Relativity". It's certainly more complex than the denotation of "horse", but it's a denotation nonetheless. It's also more aetherial than the denotation of "horse" and, consequently, its connotations tend to be more abstract. I want to talk about one of those connotations, one that is doing us no good at all.

    At one time or another we have all heard someone pass judgement upon some bit of behavior and then heard another person shrug off the judgement by saying, "Everything's relative". Everything is relative, they say, so nothing matters and anything goes. In this manner Relativity is made to endorse nihilism. Is that endorsement legitimate?

    I suppose that it was inevitable that someone would make such a use of Einstein's theory. Consider the state of the world (at least that part of it that we call the West) at the time in which Relativity came into Western Civilization's limelight. Five and one-half years previously, in the Spring of 1914, people had seen themselves living in the most prosperous, most decent, most advanced society ever to grace the world up to that time and they had no reason to suspect that the progress that had brought them to that blissful state would ever end. Yet only a few months later those same people watched that wonderful civilization casually and gratuitously throw itself into an orgy of destruction that shattered that happy assumption of endless progress and raised serious questions about the stability of the foundations upon which that assumption had been built.

    Amid the postwar chaos Relativity was a grace that Science bestowed upon a battered and weary Humanity. Like the first rays of the sun's light slanting through the clouds of a passing storm, it shone onto the tempest-tossed world the hope of a better future. It was a bona fide miracle and as a consequence Science gained some of the authority of godhood. Unfortunately, too many people, when confronted with signs of divinity, set aside their critical faculties and become prey to subtle manipulation. Yes, after the Great War many people saw in Science the means to redeem civilization, but some, disillusioned by the scope of the destruction that had been made possible by the very civilization that it devastated, saw modern civilization as an evil thing to be subverted and destroyed. Those latter people sought to demolish civilization by erasing the collective values that make a complex modern society possible, that erasure being accomplished on the authority of Science. If everything is relative, then there are no absolute values, such as justice or property, and we must revert to the state of nature, as the hippies sought to do in the 1960's.

    But Relativity does not endorse nihilism. Einstein made that clear when he expressed dismay over the idea of moral relativity and said that he wished that he had insisted that his theory be called the Theory of Invariants. You see, moral relativity is an intellectual fraud and I offer three lines of reasoning in support of that statement.

    First, the statement that "Everything is relative" is meaningless. The word is used but the sentence does not denote any kind of relationship. In order to express a proper relationship between two things we need a statement somewhat like "Santa Claus is thin relative to an elephant". Of course, we don't think of Santa Claus as being thin and it's only in a relationship to something even fatter that we can bear to apply the word to the jolly old saint. An honest moral relativist would thus be obliged to say something like "Theft is good relative to murder" in order to make a meaningful statement. But that statement does not make theft a good thing any more than being thinner than an elephant makes Santa Claus thin.

    Second, in saying that "Everything is relative" the moral relativists are trying to assert their belief that there can be no absolutes in morality; that is, that there is no absolute standard of right and wrong that is the same for all people at all times. Whether that belief is true to Reality or not, it takes a lot of gall to claim that it is endorsed by a theory whose first postulate states clearly that the laws of physics are the same for all observers, regardless of their relative positions, orientations, or motions. As you have seen, there are absolutes in Relativity, there is a universal sameness underlying all of Reality. There is law-like order in the Universe at the most fundamental level and that fact can never be an endorsement of nihilism.

    And third, we must question whether a theory that describes the actions of stars and of cosmic rays has any legitimate application to human behavior. What we have is the reverse of the infamous pathetic fallacy, in which fallacy we impute human intentions to nonhuman entities. That fallacy and its reverse both come from the very human tendency to make metaphors and then to forget that they are metaphors. In the Seventeenth Century the regularities abstracted from observations of nature were called laws by analogy with the rules created by governments and then, forgetting that it was an analogy, some people represented Newtonian physics as a divine endorsement of the British monarchy. But if it is philosophically incorrect to impute human intentions to nonhuman entities, then it is equally incorrect to draw behavioral imperatives from the regularities that we observe in nonhuman entities. The Theory of Relativity simply has nothing to say about human morality.

    There may come a day when philosophers can finally devise a theory of good and evil that is as compelling as are some of our theories of physics and some part of that larger theory may actually be called a theory of moral relativity, in analogy to Einstein's theory, but today is not that day and what is called moral relativity today is neither moral nor relativistic. If we are ever to have a true theory of good and evil, we must dismiss the nontheories and the irrelevancies based on too much envy of the physical sciences. We will need less of Einstein and more of Darwin.

    And yet....

    In truth I should have titled this series of essays "A Map of Physics" or "The First Map of Physics", but "The Map of Physics" sounds more important and the new kid on the block needs all the help he can get. However, once the concept behind the map gets established in our scientific culture we will see, I expect, alternate versions of the Map of Physics.

    Henri Poincaré once offered the opinion that, given a set of data, he could spin out many theories to organize those data into a coherent whole. He believed that he could create ugly theories and beautiful ones, clumsy theories and elegant ones, and so on endlessly. I believe him, because I had to make some serious choices in devising these essays.

    For the essays on General Relativity I have used my own virtual velocity version rather than Albert Einstein's warped spacetime version. For the quantum theory I opted to deduce Erwin Schrödinger's wave mechanics rather than Werner Heisenberg's matrix mechanics. But someday, I have no doubt, someone will create a version of the Map of Physics that deduces Einstein's version of General Relativity and Heisenberg's version of the quantum theory. Others will take yet other approaches in creating their own versions of the Map of Physics.

    Some may find the prospect of multiple Maps of Physics daunting, but I find it reassuring. That fact offers the hope that a Theory of Ethics, if one exists, will also have alternate forms and that, in itself, will be a good thing.

    Even though we have seen developments, especially in the Twentieth Century, that should dispel such notions, most people still see the hard sciences, and physics in particular, as revealing a single Truth that underlies Reality. That is not a good thing. The most despicable atrocities have been inflicted upon Humanity by people who believed that Reality has only one Truth and that they possessed perfect knowledge of it. We need room to differ from one another. We are not ants, after all. Humanity is not like a bedsheet, a uniform weave of one color. No, Humanity clothes Earth in a tapestry of breath-taking elaborations of color and embroidery. We need an ethics that acknowledges and nurtures that fact.

    But how can we have different moralities without getting moral chaos. Consider a story from Old India. A young raja was visited by five holy men, each of whom pleaded with the raja to make his religion mandatory on his people. The distraught raja didn't want to force any particular belief upon his people, but he couldn't justify not making a decision. His wise old vizier gave him the justification. He had an elephant brought into the palace's main courtyard and, as the raja watched, asked five blind men, one at a time, to walk out to encounter the elephant and report on what the elephant is. The first man was caught in the elephant's trunk and reported (in a panic) that the elephant is a kind of snake. The second man took hold of one of the elephant's tusks and proclaimed that the elephant is a kind of spear. The third man embraced one of the elephant's legs and announced that the elephant is a kind of tree. The fourth man walked into the elephant's side and said that the elephant is a wall. And the fifth man grabbed the elephant's tail and declared that the elephant is a rope. The raja understood the vizier's metaphor, in which the elephant represents God and the blind men represent the world's religions. Thus he could justify not imposing a state religion upon his people, because, although each of the blind men was partly right, all were wholly wrong.

    A Theory of Ethics would be like the elephant. It has one underlying sameness, but many possible manifestations, none contradicting any of the others. And if we ever have a true moral relativity, that's what it will look like.

    Finally let me note that there will never be a Map of Ethics. A map depicts what is and can never show us what ought to be. No, when we put together a complete Ethics, it will come out as the Score of Ethics. The logic of the thing, such as it is, will be musical rather than mathematical. Leibnitz at one time hoped that mathematics would offer a strong foundation for morality: he claimed that someday two men would determine the right thing to do by saying, "Let's calculate!" I believe that it's more likely that those two men, acting on a proper theory of Ethics, would more likely say, "Let's sing!" And Harmony will reign on Dancefloor Earth.


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