Re: Modern Physical theory as a basis for Ethical and Existential Nihilism

From: Stathis Papaioannou <>
Date: Wed, 28 Jan 2004 11:58:59 +1100

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 <>
>To: "Stathis Papaioannou" <>,
>Subject: Re: Modern Physical theory as a basis for Ethical and Existential
>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
>accept; obviously a society in which that principle is not respected make
>possible for the power in place to put anyone in jail, by just making some
>service obligatory and also interdicted !)

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Received on Tue Jan 27 2004 - 20:01:09 PST

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