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Published by Chris Harden

A paper written while working on my philosophy degree where I examine why topics like mathematics can be considered as being objective in some since and what it would take for ethics or moral theory to obtain a similar status and what such an objectified moral theory might look like.

A paper written while working on my philosophy degree where I examine why topics like mathematics can be considered as being objective in some since and what it would take for ethics or moral theory to obtain a similar status and what such an objectified moral theory might look like.

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In Search of a Picture of Ethical Objectivity Through MathematicsChris HardenIf we afford the position that relativism about ethical truth is not a coherentposition and fails to conform to how we actually live in the world, then we seem to besupposing the existence of some sort of objective, independent standard forunderstanding and assessing moral truth. The burden of proof is now on us to try andprovide some account of what this ethical objectivity might look like and how one is tounderstand it as objective. The elusive part is the ambiguity in how people use the wordobjectivity. Many people, for instance, would grant things like mathematics, logic, andsome of the sciences as instances or means of achieving, objectivity, knowledge, andtruth. The goal of this paper will be to examine how it is that we have come to understandsystems of thought like mathematics as objective and to see if there is something therethat can be abstracted in an attempt to get a picture of what an objective system of ethicsmight look like. To be sure, I hope by examining the emergence of objectivity inmathematics and logic we may find a cornerstone from which to begin to see what forman objective system of ethics might take, and from whence we can build.To begin, I think we need to see as clearly as possible what is going on inmathematics and logic that allows us to be able to call them objective and universal. Inthis we will see that there are two different truth claims being made. One in terms of systematic coherence and consistency and a different kind of truth claim is being made inapplications and in modeling in particular. Through an analysis of mathematicalmodeling I hope to show some parallels between the applied mathematician and the so-called ‘naturalized’ moral philosopher, where the ethicist can be conceived in line withthe social scientist. I also consider some of the Wittgensteinian concerns of the moralparticularists as they relate to the tension between theory and practice. Next, I will brieflydiscuss Amy Gutman’s ‘Deliberative Universalism’ as an example of a theorist who hasconsidered and incorporated into her scheme a balance between pure theory and blindpractices. In conclusion, I hope to show that if ethics is objective in the same way thatmathematics is objective ( as Russ Shafer-Landau claims ), then this implies the use of some similar formal axiomatic framework as well as varying degrees of probabilisticaccuracy within real world applications.

“For a claim to be objectively true, it must be true independently of whatanyone, anywhere, happens to think of it. Mathematical truths are likethis,...I believe that moral truths enjoy the same status as the truths I’ve justmentioned: they are objectively true.”

(Shafer-Landau, Russ;

Whatever Happened to Good and Evil?

pg. 11-12)How is it that mathematics must be true independently of what anyone, anywhere,happens to think of it? Mathematics is a highly formalized axiomatic system of definitions, axioms, conjectures, proof or justification, lemmas, theorems, and corollaries.Axioms are basic formal assumptions concerning the objects defined to be in the subjectdomain. A conjecture is a claim concerning the nature or some relation of the objects inthe subject domain. A theorem is a conjecture that has been proven or justified in termsof the definitions and axioms of the system and corollaries are evident and immediateresults of a given theorem. The truths presented to us in these theorems are true withrespect to the consistency and overall coherence with the other theorems, definitions andaxioms. The axioms are the rock solid foundation within such systems. They keep us out

of infinite regress in that all of the justification of any given theorem can be broken downand explicitly explained strictly in terms of the given axioms. The theorems are in somesense just an unpacking of the relationship between the axioms and the definitions. If wechange any axiom of a given system, a shockwave is sent throughout the system,potentially, causing radical changes in the character of the derived theorems whichultimately effects the entire structure of the system. One may note that I am taking up akind of formalist approach towards mathematical truth.

“According to formalism, on the other hand

<responding to Platonist claims>,

there are no mathematical objects. Mathematics just consists of axioms,definitions and theorems – in other words, formulas. In an extreme view,there are rules by which one derives one formula from another, but theformulas are not

about

anything; they are just strings of symbols. Of coursethe formalist knows that mathematical formulas are sometimes applied tophysical problems. When a formula is given a physical interpretation, itacquires a meaning, and may be true or false. But this truth or falsity has todo with the particular physical interpretation. As a purely mathematicalformula, it has no meaning and no truth value.”

( Davis, Hersh, andMarchisotto,

The Mathematical Experience,

pg 357)In this project I don’t want to get to much into the details of formalism. I do want to say,though, that I am promoting a somewhat weaker version of formalism than what we seehere. I want to allow for truth to be present in purely mathematical concepts and wouldlike to flesh out the difference between this sort of truth and what we see when theseconcepts are being used to describe something in the real world and thus given a physicalinterpretation.The kind of truth that we see emerging in conceptual, axiomatic systems, I think,is best explained in terms of the coherence theory of truth. A coherence theory of truthplaces a high priority on consistency and coherence with respect to the system as a whole.The fact that no one person has any special epistemic access to some realm of absolutetruth, suggests that it is through some sort of framework, regardless of how formal, thatagents are able to acquire and asses their understanding of the various things in the world.Mathematics is a highly formalized example of just such a framework. The truth withinthe framework is so in relation to consistency and coherence with the overall conceptualscheme. The justification of the framework can be looked at pragmatically in terms of itsability to provide us with useful tools for describing and understanding actual things inthe world. Although, when the framework is being applied to things in the world thematter of how adequate the description is involves a different notion of truth that we willsee when I discuss modeling.This coherence theory of truth does a good job of explaining how mathematics and logiccan be true independently of what anybody thinks of it. Once the definitions areunderstood and the axioms have been accepted the truth of the theorems are immediatelynecessitated. Mathematics and logic under the coherence theory become a self-referentialsystem of knowledge and understanding. That is that all of the ‘mathematical objects’ aretrue strictly in terms of their coherence and consistency within the set of accepted axiomsunderlying the given mathematical system. One might want to say sure, but doesn’tmathematics and logic have something to do with actual things in the world? I would saythat it is true that many mathematical and logical projects were motivated by things that