The big difference between ethical and aesthetic axioms and the axioms of empirical science is that the latter are so widely accepted that they are not even recognised as axioms, for the most part. If I say "water boils at 100 degrees celcius", this can be proved or disproved to the satisfaction of just about anyone by measuring the temperature of boiling water on several different occasions with several different thermometers. The means of verification contains as it were "hidden" axioms: that checking the boiling point several times with different equipment and obtaining consistent results allows one to generalise about the boiling point of a substance under certain conditions. One could go a level deeper and point out the (axiomatic) assumption that a physical law proved here and now applies to all time and space, the assumption that a logical deduction applies to all possible universes, the "axioms" of logic itself, including rules for using the term "axiom", definition of "rule", definition of "definition"... Fortunately, we hardly ever have to go to such lengths in scientific fields because everyone agrees on the basic axioms. Now that I think of it, this could be used to define a field as a science: a field is a scientific field when the underlying axioms are well-defined and not in dispute by the scholars in that field.

This all stands in stark contrast to ethics and aesthetics, where axiomatic statements (defined as statements taken as given, not dependent on any more basic assumptions) are in dispute all the time. For the record, I am all in favour of being nice to people, opposed to torture and murder, etc. I take these as "axiomatic", meaning that I cannot give a more basic reason behind my acceptance of these beliefs. Some philosophers may push the axiom one level lower, and say, for example, "murder is wrong _because_ it decreases the net happiness in the world". In that case, the axiom is the utilitarian belief that "the good is the greatest happiness of the greatest number". However - and this is the point of this extended reply - there are many who would reject these axioms, especially if they are not of a liberal democratic bent, and there is no way to argue against them as being "irrrational" because if the axiom were rational or irrational it wouldn't be an axiom! If an advanced alien species decided to wipe us out because they regard us in the same way as we regard bacteria, do you seriously think you have a chance of convincing them they are doing something "evil"? What will your argument be when they point out the clause in the Handbook of Intergalactic Ethics which says (after the preamble where it says "we hold these truths to be self-evident") "...more advanced species have the right to enslave, consume or destroy less advanced species." It isn't the same as if they got the boiling point of H2O wrong, is it?

From: Bruno Marchal <[EMAIL PROTECTED]>
To: "Stathis Papaioannou" <[EMAIL PROTECTED]>, [EMAIL PROTECTED]
Subject: Re: Modern Physical theory as a basis for Ethical and Existential Nihilism
Date: Tue, 27 Jan 2004 15:05:48 +0100

At 22:17 26/01/04 +1100, Stathis Papaioannou wrote:
Yes, this is exactly what I mean. I could be the most rational of people and still consistently hold the evil views I have described (for the sake of argument, of course!). You cannot "prove" that a moral axiom is correct or incorrect, nor can you assume that it will be self-evident to everyone else just because it appears so to you.

OK, but is that not true for any axiom of any theory?

Let us make a try. Would you accept the following axiom for moral
obligation and permission:

Obligatory(p) implies permitted(p)

No? (it is one of the deontic axiom most people working theoretically on laws
accept; obviously a society in which that principle is not respected make it
possible for the power in place to put anyone in jail, by just making some
service obligatory and also interdicted !)


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