Wednesday, 30 May 2007

The Moral Law: (Ten Theses)

Some time ago, I wrote a post containing 'Twelve Theses', searching for a Universal Truth. Now, in time-honoured fashion, I present a sequel: a set of Theses demonstrating - I hope - the existence of a Universal Moral Law and considering the consequences of such a conclusion. I would love you to dispute it with me.

Two notes I would add, however before I start:

Once again, I will use the terms 'Thesis' - a proposition to be discussed, and 'Scholium' - a marginal note or explanation to the Thesis.

Gavin: do try to read this one....



In everyday life, there is a basic moral standard to which everyone implicitly agrees. How can this be seen? When one argues, there is never a debate over the definition of 'correct' actions.

If a man accuses me of breaking a promise with him, what do I say? I do not say 'It doesn't matter if I did lie to you and break my promise'. What I do is that I try to prove that I never promised anything to him, or I in fact promised something else, or that there are extenuating circumstances which excuse me from my promise.

Another example is theft: if a man walks into my house and steals the computer, I will say 'What are you doing? That's my computer!', or more vehement words to that effect. If he replies 'So what, I want it', one would think him very strange, if not insane. He is in fact much more likely to run.

Note: In this argument, I hope to use everyday examples. Paedophilia, rape and murder are much stronger examples of utterly 'deplorable' actions. I'll leave you to consider their influence of the question, at least for the moment.


Such actions are not a matter of personal commodity. Whilst a promise broken is inconvenient, it is not the inconvenience which causes the anger we feel. There is a sense of abstract 'propriety' which has been broken. For example, if someone beats me to a seat, I am disappointed. But I do not feel angry at the fact that he has 'stolen' my seat. Yet if he takes the seat from me, by force or deception, I am angry. Similarly, if someone trips me up accidentally, I am not offended, though I be bruised. Yet if he tries deliberately to trip me, I am angry, even if he fails and I am not hurt. The 'propriety' contravened is not a matter of personal interest, but of something more absolute than that.


Similarly, a recognition of such 'proper' actions is seen through our consciences. If I lie, I feel guilt. Like any inter-personal argument, I will often try to make excuses. The ability to make excuses requires a knowledge of the rules we have contravened. Our perception of the Moral Law is innate.


It might be suggested that this morality is innate because it is a question of one's own will. It has been suggested that our moral conventions are essentially individual, and thus there is no absolute moral law. We are limited by what we are content to do. Yet this cannot truly account for the nature of our morality. Such a morality is no limitation at all. A gaoler who imprisons himself with the keys to the cell is not imprisoned; a man who limits himself according to his own ideas is not truly limited t all. Further more, what role does guilt play in such an answer? If I do only that which I am comfortable with doing, why should I ever act in such a way as to feel guilty? All too often I know that I will feel regret before I take such actions. Yet I still act, and feel remorse. Thus one's own will cannot account for the moral law that exists innately.


This innate Moral Law is also universal. It is seen in all times and all places, in various forms. Why should we assume that it changes due to different geographical or temporal positions? Humans are human, regardless of race, colour, creed, or epoch.


This is perhaps the most controversial of the Theses so far. Thus it requires some particular attention.

The first objection raised to it is that the 'Moral Law' is merely a social convention which we learn from our parents. The objectionable word here is 'merely'. The Moral Law is a fundamental part of civilised society and that society's conventions, because we cannot have civilisation without it. And we do learn it from parents and teachers. We learn the 2 + 2 = 4 from our teachers. Yet that does not mean that it is only there because we learn it. The laws of mathematics exist without humans: if a squirrel has 2 nuts in each hand, he still has 4 overall. Similarly, if I were born alone on a desert island, morality would still exist, whether or not one was taught it. Whether or not it would be used, it would still exist.

The second objection is that the moral law is demonstrably different in different times and places. This seems absolutely to disprove my Thesis. It is called cultural relativism, and is very popular indeed. However, there are several flaws.:

Firstly, the differences between cultures are not as large as many proponents of such a theory would have us believe. Western and eastern cultures have different definitions of what is acceptable. This is true. But try to imagine what a culture would be like with a completely different morality. One where cowardice in battle was rewarded with golden medals, or where disloyalty and betrayal of one's friends was seen to be the apotheosis of 'goodness'. Such examples simply do not exist.

What we have instead are cultural differences on how to fulfil the universal moral law. Some societies permit a man to take only one wife. Some say two, three, or even many more. Yet all agree that a man cannot have any woman he pleases.

Furthermore, there always remains the problem that accepting different morality differing moral judgments. Let us assume that there are different moral standards for different societies. The Holocaust, then, becomes absolutely acceptable. The Nazis believed the Jews were deplorable scum, and inferior humans. Thus they killed them off. It is perfectly right for them to do so. It is also perfectly acceptable for a foreigner to rape, abduct and murder a three-year-old girl, because he has a different morality to us. It is exactly the same as if he had saved her from drowning.

It is right to accept that different cultures strive towards the Moral Law in differing ways. Yet it is not right to say that the whole Law is different.


If humans perceive this Universal Moral Law, they also break it often. It is not like the laws of nature such as gravity. When a stone is thrown, it falls. And when a human eats nothing for too long, they will die. Such laws cannot be disobeyed. yet the Universal Moral Law can be. This means it must be treated differently.


Since we do not obey the Law, it cannot be a human invention. Humanity cannot be the origin of a Law which it proves itself always incapable of fulfilling. Neither can we have invented it as an 'ideal' to strive for, despite failings: if it were, where would the inspiration for that ideal come from?


Just as a stone has no control over gravity, we have no control over the stipulations of the Moral Law. The difference is that we can choose whether or not to obey it. We never choose to feel guilt.


Morality is not a question of science, or of mathematics. There are two alternative origins for such a Moral Law, since it cannot be human. The first is the almost Platonic idea that the moral absolutes we perceive are ideals which we try to bring into daily life. They are timeless, unchanging, and uncaused.

However, such a theory leaves much to be desired. Firstly, why is there a compulsion for us to follow these abstract, timeless, unchanging ideals? If such a theory is to be used, some additional explanation must be given to tell us quite why we feel the presence of unworldly ideals every day. Secondly, how do they become part of our daily life? What is it which means that humans are moral creatures, when cabbages are not? For this to be explained, the unchanging ideals would have to show an interest in humans specifically. That is an absurdity, since an ideal is abstract. Abstract things cannot have emotions.

The second answer is theism. A theistic solution means that there is compulsion to follow the Moral Law. If a god created us, he can command us. Secondly, theology always includes punishment for wrong-doing and reward for goodness, be it a paradisaical or tormented after-life, or reincarnation as a greater or lower being. Thirdly, there is an easily notable link between the Moral Law and our lives: we are commanded to obey, whether we do or not. This is the better course by far: it gives us a power and a cause behind our observations, whereas the 'Platonic' view merely refuses to yield itself to questioning.

The consequences of our conclusions

Do not start to think that I'm going faster or further than I am. I have not yet reached a religious viewpoint, let alone concluded that we need the viewpoint of any particular religion. We have simple established - if I am right thus far - the presence of a Being beyond and greater than ourselves (a god, if we like) who has set out this moral code. Here then, we have the next group of Theses, dealing with consequences:


What can we learn of the 'god' from our observations? Firstly, that it is a brilliant artist: the Universe is beautiful. Secondly, we can conclude that it is not gentle towards mankind: the Universe is a cruel and terrible place at times. Flowers and earthquakes are respective examples. The third piece of evidence is the Moral Law. This re-affirms our judgment that 'god' is not a gentle being. The law is as incontrovertible as nails. It is not easy to fulfil. It is impossible to fulfil utterly. Yet we must also conclude that this 'god' is fundamentally 'good': that is, it is extremely interested in fair play: justice, kindness, courage, truthfulness, etcetera.

This God must also be a 'person', in order to fulfil the requirements of the seventh thesis. If it were not, it could not command, create, or punish and reward us. An impersonal God is little more than an abstract ideal with a different name.


If we are right thus far, we should be very afraid indeed. We have ascertained that there exists a 'God' who has created us and has authority over us. We have ascertained that He has established a Universal Moral Law for humanity which we must all follow, and that he can punish us if we do not. And we have ascertained that we cannot follow the Law utterly. So this absolute 'Goodness' that is God must hate much - if not most or even all - of what we do. Thus, as C S Lewis put it, 'God is the supreme comfort, he is also the supreme terror: the thing we most need and the thing we most want to hide from... Goodness is either the great safety or the great danger - according to the way you react to it. And we have reacted the wrong way'.


In choosing to approach the question of religion this way, we see the questions that any set of beliefs must answer. How they answer them is an entirely different question which I will not attempt. You cannot truly attempt to understand any religion until you understand the state of mankind that it appeals to. As one atheist put it, 'if there are objective [moral] values, they make the existence of a god more probable than it would have been without them'. We must accept a universal morality because it demonstrably exists, and life is absurd without it. This provides an important pillar in the argument for God's existence.

"Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought. "


James said...

Why do my feet hurt so much?!?! Its not fair! Why did we do it!?!?!

Tom said...

I'll have the kettle boiling a few times tonight in trying to tackle this blog Mr Ahlquist.

Just a quick thank you again for taking the time to write another one of your in depth analyses of life, the universe and all that which doesn't quite come under either of the preceding.

Without further ado, my response [part 1]:

From the position of a moral person, as many others and I would consider you to be, it is highly implausible that YOU should adopt a position of "'It doesn't matter if I did lie to you and break my promise'".

"When one argues, there is never a debate over the definition of 'correct' actions."

One only argues over the definition of 'correct' if the definition is flawed. If the definition is irrefutable, then there is nothing to argue about, as one would expect by its being irrefutable! It seems absurd that the definition of 'correct' should itself be incorrect. So disputes only arise in what one chooses to call the correct definition of correct.

[I am going to assume you treat correct and right synonymous.]

For the sake of discussion, I propose that it is morally correct to break promises. If one promises to be evil, then it is morally correct to break the promise, because that is the right action. It's not paradoxical if we accept that breaking promises is morally right. If one keeps the promise and is evil, one is truly evil. If one breaks the promise and is good, one is truly good.

However, you can see the hole in this argument. If one then promises to be good, then breaking the promise is the inescapable consequence of making the promise, thus forcing one to be evil. It renders making the promise in the first place pointless because one is destined to do the opposite of what one promises in the first place.

I suppose what I argue to be morally good is equivalent to what I argue to be morally sensible. A promise is a commitment to a particular happening. If one intends to break the promise, then it is silly to make the promise in the first place. Similarly, using the argument above, if one makes the promise in the knowledge that it will inevitably be broken, it is pointless making the promise.

Put simply, if breaking a promise is a good thing, then the act of making a promise is purely done so that one can go on to break it, for the sake of good. Absurdity!

Conversely, this does outline a problem in treating breaking a promise as a bad thing.

Reversing the conditions, we now consider breaking a promise as a bad thing (as one would be more comfortable imagining).

If one were to promise to be evil (which again seems insane), then one would be forced by one's promise to break the promise, thus being forced to act in a good manner. Again, one is destined to do the opposite of what one promised under the conditions of the promise itself.

To come to my point, what I am outlining is that for promises to be morally sensible, one must only make morally good promises about morally good happenings. Conversely, one must only make morally bad promises about morally bad happenings. Otherwise one is destined to render the act of promising pointless.

[As an aside, I'm not saying that it is inherently wrong for something to be pointless, I just accept that a lot of people would find it uncomfortable to consider the pointless as having any point :)]

If the initial promise is morally unstable, then it is destined to fail. Only a perfect promise can be kept AND be morally perfect.

Curiously, what you have described as the usual ways in which people excuse their actions under the conditions of a promise, happen to coincide with what is morally sensible by my argument.

For example:

- If one denies that one ever made the promise, then there is no promise to have been broken. In the eyes of an omnipresent judge, you may be lying :)

- If the conditions of the original promise are challenged, then the action that has been accused of breaking the promise can suddenly be found to have no relevance to the promise.

- If there are extenuating circumstances, then they excuse the conditions of the promise, which were made in the lack of knowledge that the extenuating circumstances would occur. One could say that the concept of "extenuating circumstances" has become too simplified and that people now have (at least in the eyes of the people) good reasons to get divorced so often.

Moving so very swiftly onto theft. With theft, we must establish that there is such a thing as possession. If we do not, then there is no such thing as theft.

Let us assume that Phil owns this hyopthetical computer of his. There is a moral code that entitles him to call the computer 'his', despite his lack of contribution to the creation of the matter that made it, or the knowledge that enabled others to construct it.

As such, if someone challenges Phil's possession by taking the computer, he or she is, by definition, a thief.

If we consider the act of theft as morally incorrect, we must also assume that the act of challenging someone's possession is also incorrect, at least so far as assuming that the possession was morally correct to begin with (I doubt it would be seen as morally incorrect to challenge the thief's possession of the computer having just stolen it from Phil).

We must discuss possession if we are to discuss theft. But I'll leave that for Part 2.

Phil' said...

I too shall leave theft. I'd suggest that possession is a moral thing: after all, I did contribute to the machine's construction in that I financed it.

But moving on to the main thrust of your point, you actually seem to support my first Thesis. When you assume that it is right to break a promise, we are left with a large number of ‘absurd’ situations, as you call them, which clearly make no sense in practice. Proof by contradiction, perhaps?

So your point is this: "To come to my point, what I am outlining is that for promises to be morally sensible, one must only make morally good promises about morally good happenings. Conversely, one must only make morally bad promises about morally bad happenings. Otherwise one is destined to render the act of promising pointless."

The problem with this whole hypothesis is that a morally bad promise makes no sense whatsoever in terms of the Moral Law. My example of a promise assumes that the promise itself is not contradictory to the Law. If it were, such an example would make no sense. If we assume that it is not contradictory, then, as you said, one can make a promise. Indeed, you used the word ‘must’ to say that we ‘must’ make only good promises. Why? I’d suggest to you that you understand that a morally bad promise is a highly reprehensible and nonsensical thing.

We agree entirely, it seems, on the excuses. It’s not a case of disproving the Moral Law, but exempting oneself from it by mitigating circumstances.

However, I should add that if one were ever to attempt to disprove the existence of the Moral Law by talking of having to keep ‘bad’ promises, one comes against two logical flaws. The first is that a bad promise contravenes any Law that exists anyway: one simply ends up saying that the Moral Law does not work if we assume it to be useless.

The second is more important: your whole argument looks at morally good and morally bad promises, and the morality of keeping or breaking them. I agree with your definition of morally sensible: it is illogical to attempt to be ‘good’ by promising ‘bad’ things. But you use these terms as much as any other person does. Good and bad exist. And we all know it, do we not? It’s certainly the premise of your argument affirming the first Thesis.

Tom said...

Response 2

My intention was to support your first thesis. I believed discussing the obvious flaws of the opposite case would work well with your affirmations of your presented case to show that your first thesis is reasonable.

I was also trying to draw in the human factor into the act of promising. As I said, only a perfect promise can be perfectly adhered to in the name of all that is good. We humans have a habit of not being all knowing, and very often make promises in the absence of the knowledge that our promise is flawed. This is why we must have our exempting circumstances, otherwise we are forced to adhere to what effectively become those "bad promises", which is absurd and wrong.

This does not necessarily mean we should never make promises. We cannot expect every promise to be flawed. Sometimes we make promises that are reasonable and will persist, perhaps by chance, perhaps by design. We can rely on my absurdity principle and say that if it's nonsense, don't do it But one must remember that one is never sure whether something is nonsense, therefore one should still attempt to make the promise and see how it plays out.

Or should one? Gambling with is that a good or bad thing?

Not much to say on the second thesis other than that you outline that people don't enjoy feeling that something morally wrong has befallen them. I suppose if one doesn't enjoy the feeling, it must confirm that there is something morally wrong to feel bad about.

However, just to be picky, you say 'if someone beats me to a seat, I am disappointed. But I do not feel angry at the fact that he has 'stolen' my seat.' Some people have this strange concept where they feel that they have possession of the chair before they sit on it. If someone else takes it before they do, they feel like it has been stolen.

This is of course nonsense based on the arrogant belief that a public chair can be any one person's possession more so than it is that of others before being sat on. The principle of challenging possession causes the anger, but it is unjustified and self-provoked due to arrogance on the part of the person who didn't get the chair.

Thesis 3: If one is a happy, healthy human, I agree that one has a conscience. One's conscience is that which has an intrinsic respect for those around you. You do not smack someone round the head and cause them to cry without feeling remorse. Unless of course you have no conscience, and are therefore not a happy, healthy human. Hell of an assumption to make, to assume that consciousness is the right way to be. But I'm sure Phil can provide an argument to show why it's not a foolish assumption :)

I have a problem with your've done a very unPhil like thing and stuck in a paradox. 'A gaoler who imprisons himself with the keys to the cell is not imprisoned'. So is he imprisoning himself or not?! If you are referring to the act of locking himself in the prison cell with the keys, then of course he's not truly imprisoned. One cannot say he is imprisoning himself. So if it really is a case of 'similarly', then one cannot truly limit oneself with any morals. One can simply choose to adhere to them, much like the gaoler can choose to stay in the cell indefinitely.

End Response 2 :)

Gavin said...

Phil this post is too long and too boring. That said it is not nearly long and boring enough to constitute an adequate argument for the Natural Moral Law. Leave it to PhD level philosophers.

Phil' said...

Thanks Gavin.


I'm glad that you noticed that the Scholium was in fact a paradox. It was meant to be. It has been suggested that we regulate ourselves by creating a binding Moral Law. The gaoler image is designed to demonstrate that we certainly cannot bind ourselves with this law. Indeed - we break it so often. Thus a gaoler who occasionally breaks the rules and lets himself out of his cell is hardly imprisoned, is he? The paradox is there to demonstrate the absurdity of calling him imprisoned.

To deal with your point arising from the possession of a seat, I would agree that it's nonsense to assume possession of public property, as many children - and adults - want to do. Nonetheless, there is an element of badly-expressed truth in the phrase 'my seat'. It's not acceptable to go to someone on a train, and threaten them with violence unless they give it up. Nor is it right to sneak in when they stand to put something on over-head shelves, or let an old lady past. It's widely accepted that one does not take the seat another is sitting in. Why? It's not illegal to do so. But it's not 'proper'.

Incidentally, I won't prove now that it's a good thing to have a conscience. I'll leave that be. But you mention 'happy, healthy human beings'. This implicitly suggests a qualification i chose to left out, There do exist people who do not 'know' -or at least are very good at suppressing - the Law. But universally, they are negligible. One cannot say the human race has no perception of colour because of the existence of some colour-blind humans, nor the existence of music by the existence of some tone-deaf humans.


Gavin said...

Some of the arguments you put forward serve as better evidence of a common awarenss of a utilitarian morality, based on the laws of pleasure and pain (the Hedonic Calculus) put forward by philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. This does not equate to a supernatural Thomistic Natural Moral Law. That said, I feel that every occasion in which people reach a conclusion based on utilitarianism that differs from the conclusion one would derive from Natual Law, it is because of an incorrect application of the principles. This usually consists of a placement of physical, material pleasure above conistent, long-term, spiritual goodness. In short, a Catholic using utilitarianism should come to the same conclusions as under Natural Law. Make any sense?