Last post, I discussed the problems with measuring moral absolutism against the standards commonly used for measuring the natural absolutes described by science and mathematics. However, as Jon pointed out in an excellent comment on that post, this may not rule out the fact that moral absolutes exist, merely our ability to understand and relate them in non-axiomatic terms. So, let’s dig a little deeper.
In science, laws are used to formulaically describe how things happen (the mathematical formulas relating to gravitational effects, acceleration, etc.), and theories are used to describe why things happen (Einstein’s Theories of Relativity, String Theory, etc.). Thus, in scientific terms, one would have to mathematically describe how “rape is bad” for it to be considered a law, or create a conceptual model to describe why “rape is bad” for it to be considered a theory.
In mathematics and geometry, laws are used to describe formulas and properties that apply equally to all applicable objects (the laws of sin, cosine, and tangents apply equally to all triangles), and theorems are used to describe formulas and properties that apply to objects within specific constraints or axioms (the Pythagorean Theorem only applies to right triangles). In math and geometry, however, theorems often have the full weight of a law within the constraints defined by their associated axioms. Thus, the moral statement “rape is bad” might only be considered a law if it applied equally to all living beings, but could have the force of law within specific constraints: “rape is bad for humans,” or “rape is bad for humans except when incarcerated, the enemy, exhibiting lewd behavior, or while pretending.”
Obviously, the fewer the axioms, the stronger the theorem. However, with respect to morality, we need to determine if the axioms are really axioms before we can postulate a moral statement in even these terms.
Google tells me that axioms are statements or propositions that are (1) regarded as being established, accepted, or self-evidently true, or (2) on which an abstractly defined structure is based. Thus, the “for humans” clause of the above moral statement probably meets the “established, accepted, or self-evidently true” criterion for being considered an axiom, but the other clauses probably fail this test. However, the fact that they do exist makes me question the just how deeply the “for humans” axiom goes.
In strict terms, science currently suggests that humans do not have instincts. We are not born with the knowledge of how to survive, but must be transferred to the “secondary womb” of our mothers’ arms, so to speak, in order to be taught what most of the rest of the animal kingdom is programmed with from day one. Thus, one could say that we are not born with morals either. That morality, like survival, is learned behavior.
However, even though we are not born with survival (or moral) instincts, the work of Carl Jung suggests that we are born with fundamental and universal patterns of behavior that arise from our shared genetic heritage; based on the fact that, as humans, we share a common brain structure and basic physiology. And, while they do not rise to the same level of compulsion as instincts, these archetypical forces do collectively motivate us in certain directions. Thus, whereas we are not instinctively afraid of the dark, we may have an archetypical desire to stay away from it, and this archetypical desire can be overridden if we choose to do so. In theory, then, the axioms with which we define our morality may be based on archetypical behavior related to our common physiology: axioms that can be overridden, but a foundation for an “abstractly defined structure” of morality, none the less.
So, to recap my theory thus far: (1) moral absolutes probably do not meet the scientific and mathematical criteria for laws because they cannot be formulaically defined or proven to apply equally to all things, but (2) they may be expressed in terms of theories and theorems by describing the basis for certain behaviors, and may have the force of law when defined axiomatically, and (3) while the axioms upon which moral absolutes may be defined do not carry the same compulsion as instinctive behavior, there may be archetypical behaviors that provide an abstract framework for collectively defining something as “right” or “wrong.”
I think that’s enough for now. I’ll drill down even deeper next post, when I discuss the corrosive effects that torture and other quasi-axioms can have on defining a collective moral structure.