Moral and natural laws.
An investigation of natural laws, and, in parallel, a defence of
ethical objectivism.The objectivity, to at least some extent, of
science will be assumed; the sceptic may differ, but there is no
convincing some people).
At first glance, morality looks as though it should work objectively.
The mere fact that we praise and condemn people's moral behaviour
indicates that we think a common set of rules is applicable to us and
them. To put it another way, if ethics were strongly subjective anyone
could get off the hook by devising a system of personal morality in
which whatever they felt like doing was permissible. It would be hard
to see the difference between such a state of affairs and having no
morality at all. The subtler sort of subjectivist (or relativist) tries
to ameliorate this problem by claiming that moral principles re defined
at the societal level, but similar problems recur -- a society (such as
the Thuggees or Assassins) could declare that murder is OK with them.
These considerations are of course an appeal to how morality seems to
work as a 'language game' and as such do not put ethics on a firm
foundation -- the language game could be groundless. I will argue that
it is not, but first the other side of the argument needs to be put.
It is indisputable that morality varies in practice across communities.
But the contention of ethical objectivism is not that everyone actually
does hold to a single objective system of ethics; it is only that
ethical questions can be resolved objectively in principle. The
existence of an objective solution to any kind of problem is always
compatible with the existence of people who, for whatever reason, do
not subscribe. The roundness of the Earth is no less an objective fact
for the existence of believers in the Flat Earth theory.(It is odd that
the single most popular argument for ethical subjectivism has so little
Another objection is that an objective system of ethics must be
accepted by everybody, irrespective of their motivations, and must
therefore be based in self-interest. Again, this gets the nature of
objectivity wrong. The fact that some people cannot see does not make
any empirical evidence less objective, the fact that some people refuse
to employ logic does not make logical argument any less objective. All
claims to objectivity make the background assumption that the people
who will actually employ the objective methodology in question are
willing and able. We will return to this topic toward the end.
Some people insist that anyone who is promoting ethical objectivism and
opposing relativism must be doing so in order to illegitamately promote
their own ethical system as absolute. While this is problably
pragmatically true in many cases, particularly where political and
religious rhetoric is involved, it has no real logical force, because
the contention of ethical objectivism is only that ethical questions
are objectively resolvable in principle -- it does not entail a claim
that the speaker or anyone else is actually in possession of them. This
marks the first of our analogues with science, since the in-principle
objectivity of science coincides with the fact that current scientific
thinking is almost certainly not final or absolute. ethical objectivism
is thus a middle road between subjectivism/relativism on the one hand,
and various absolutisms (such as religious fundamentalism) on the
The final objection, and by far the most philosophically respectable
one, is the objection on that moral rules need to correspond to some
kind of 'queer fact' or 'moral object' which cannot be found.
Natural laws do not correspond in a simplistic one-to-one way with any
empirically detectable object, yet empiricism is relevant to both
supporting and disconfirming natural laws. With this in mind, we should
not rush to reject the objective reality of moral laws on the basis
that there is no 'queer' object for them to stand in one-to-one
There is, therefore, a semi-detached relationship between natural laws
and facts -- laws are not facts but are not unrelated to facts -- facts
confirm and disconfirm them. There is also a famous dichotomy between
fact and value (where 'value' covers ethics, morality etc). You cannot,
we are told, derive an 'ought' from an 'is'. This is the fact/value
But, as Hume's argument reminds us, you cannot derive a law from an
isolated observation. Call this the fact/law problem. Now, if the
morality is essentially a matter or ethical rules or laws, might not
the fact/value problem and the law/value problem be at least partly the
(Note that there seems to be a middle ground here; the English "should"
can indicate lawfulness without implying either inevitability, like a
natural law, or morality. eg you "should" move the bishop diagonally in
chess -- but that does not mean you will, or that it is unethical to do
so. It is just against the rules of chess).
Sceptics about ethical objectivism will complain that they cannot be
exactly the same because moral rules like "Thou shalt not kill" contain
an 'ought', an irreducibly ethical element. Let's look at what sceptics
about natural laws say: their complaint is that a law is not a mere
collection of facts. A law cannot be directly derived from a single
observation, but it is not constituted by a collection of observations,
a mere historical record, either. A historical record is a mere
description; it tells you what has happened, but a law tells us what
will and must happen. A description gives no basis for expectation --
the territory does not have to correspond to the map -- yet we expect
laws to be followed, if we believe in them at all.
I do not propose to answer this challenge in its own terms -- that is I
do not propose to show that a collection of mere facts does provide all
by itself the required lawfulness. On my analysis, all individual laws
depend on a general assumption -- a meta-law or ur-law -- that the
future will follow the same general pattern as the past. The sceptic
will object that this has been assumed without proof. My reply is that
each individual law is tested on its own merits. Since at least some
laws are thus shown to be correct a-posteriori, the lack of a-priori
proof of the meta-law is not significant.
My further contention is that there is a different meta-law that needs
to be posited for ethical rules. Just as someone who is engaged in the
business of understanding the natural world needs a basic commitment to
the idea that nature has regularities, so someone needs a basic
commitment to moral behaviour in order to be convinced by ethical
arguments. Ethical arguments do not and cannot be expected to convince
psychopaths, any more than mathematical arguments can be expected to
convince the innumerate. Whilst it is essentially correct that an
evaluative conclusion cannot be drawn directly from a factual premiss,
such a conclusion can be drawn with the aid of a bridging principle,
(which is of course just our meta-law) e.g
1 I do not want to be murdered
2 I should do as I would be done by
3 Therefore, I should not murder.
(2) is an example of a meta-law (or bridging principle or moral maxim),
As ethical objectivism is a work-in-progress there are many variants,
and a considerable literature discussing which is the correct one.
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