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Ethical Objectivity Through Mathematics

Ethical Objectivity Through Mathematics



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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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Published by: Chris Harden on Nov 12, 2008
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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
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
were going on in the world (many were/are not), but once they have been formalized theyway that they are in a mathematical or logical framework they will remain true as asystem independently of the world. What I’m saying is that logic is still true in theabsence of language and that arithmetic would still be true in the absence of quantity.This is the fundamental difference between systems like mathematics and the naturalsciences, who have their claims staked directly in terms of actual things in the world;mathematics does not change with our understanding of the actual world, which isprecisely why Euclidean geometry is still useful today while the Ptolemaic system of astronomy is not. In this point we may have found the strongest analog between projectslike mathematics and logic and our project of ethical objectivity.I see a direct link between the motivations, and the overall approach, for mathematicaland logical objectivity and ethical objectivity. In logic the motivation was to take the useof language and the basic rational assumptions implicit within its use and to formalizethis activity by placing it within an abstract, generalized framework in which it can bearticulated. In arithmetic the idea was to formalize our notions of quantity within thesame type of framework from which notions of quantity could be articulated; in geometryshape, in algebra space, in calculus motion and curves, etc... In each case the motivationis coming from concepts that are already found within the world, but lead to a coherentsystem of truth whose truth is independent of the actual world. Truth being independentfrom the actual world is not a necessary but a sufficient condition for objectivity. All Imean to say is, that it would be much more of a tragedy for the physicist if things likespace and time turned up not to be real than it would be for the mathematician. The pointhere is to say that the project of ethical objectivity is starting with a similar playing field.That is, the world is already operating off of some set of moral intuitions and ethicalconceptions the same way language and reason existed prior to logic and trade existedbefore formal arithmetic, so moral intuitions exist prior to our framing them in someformal theoretical framework. This is an important point to keep in mind, it provides uswith some symmetry between the starting point for our project and many others that haveindeed achieved an objective status.It is important to note that logic didn’t change the use of language and so it might be thatany theory of ethical objectivity shouldn’t completely interfere with our most basic moralintuitions, although, we should certainly leave open the possibility of discerning moralerror. This brings to mind what John Rawls called the ‘reflective equilibrium’ betweentheory and intuition or practice. In Rawls’s contractualist ethics he recognizes the need tobalance what is going on theoretically in academia and what is actually going on in thereal world with respect to how agents are situated and living in the world. This is going tobe a tension in any theory that is staking claims about how the world actually is or shouldbe. This is especially true in an axiomatic system where through consistency andcoherence its truths can obtain the status of objective independently of how the world is.It seems weird though, that we could say that ethical truth would be true independently of the world; anymore than one can say that psychological truths would be trueindependently of the human experience. Social theories seem to emerge, rather, as aresult of the particulars of the world and how agents are situated in it. Social theories canbe true only in an axiomatic sense, independently of the world, but to remain true to theirclaims about things in the world, their theories should in some way do the job of helpingto articulate what is actually going on in the world. One can see why Russ Shafer-Landau

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