The Axioms of Moral Systems

In analyzing the axioms of moral systems, it is good to begin by defining terms.

The most difficult is “moral.” This has proved to be a slippery notion in contemporary culture for reasons I will explore below. It is a word of crucial importance in any discussion of goodness.  (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Morality’?”). A capsule definition for this essay’s purpose is “ a system of principles of conduct.” These principles govern what we think good. They differ from judgments of utility in being systematic, and from judgments of quality because they may or may not rely on standards the practitioner can articulate or universalize. It is in the nature of moral systems that they also dictate the ends to which judgments of utility and quality are the means.

To define  a moral “system,” we must both describe its components and analyze how they work together to accomplish the ends they seek to accomplish.

 We use the term “axiom” in two very different senses. The technical definition is “a declaration that is self-evidently true.” This is how the term is used in geometry. It is an axiom that the diagonal of a square will be longer than its sides. The truth of such axioms is established analytically, meaning it is guaranteed by the definitions of the terms involved. A circle axiomatically has no corners. This level of certainty obviously sets a very high bar, too high for us to meet in the particularity of experience. Once we try to understand that, axioms begin to shade their meaning, edging away from incontrovertibility and toward simple assumptions that we take to be so. And that is dangerous for two reasons. The first is because we tend to imbue them with the same certainty that holds for analytic axioms. The second is because they hide beneath the warrants we bring to our declarations, and so we rarely bother to examine them. To complicate these two problems, our experience gradually prompts one set of assumptions to be replaced by new and equally unconscious axioms that may prove equally suspect. We may see that kind of evolution easily if we look for it. One hundred years ago, everyone assumed that race and gender determined capability and from that axiom drew a constellation of warrants concerning human worth. Five hundred years ago, everyone assumed that a divine order governed every corner of nature and derived innumerable warrants from the implications of that assumption. Five thousand years ago, everyone took it for granted that capricious deities required propitiation, and so they established divers moral systems to placate them. Should you have dared to challenge any of these axioms at the time, you might have expected some resistance, for each was the granite upon which worldviews were built. That thought might bring to mind one corollary, the one I wish to explore in this essay: we are just as loath to examine our current axioms as our ancestors were and for the same reason, yet we inevitably grant ourselves the advantage in any comparison. Let’s pull on that thread, shall we, and see what unravels.

I have devoted considerable thought to the kinds of warrants that support our declarations concerning truth, goodness, and beauty (see “What Counts as Justification?”). These are the reasons we think a particular claim to be valid. It is my contention that warrants deserve much more careful scrutiny. But our warrants are based on deeper assumptions about how truth is discovered or created in reality. Our ability to make a truth claim, for instance, rests on a putative ability to isolate the circumstances that structure it, interpret them accurately, and derive some reflection that is suggested by one or several elements we extract. Should we express that claim by language, we enter another thicket of axioms about the ability of mind to convey meaning, the relative transparency of language, and so on. Each of the axioms we elide as we blithely speak our innocent declaration has been tortuously interrogated by specialists and academics. They tend to doubt the assumptions that mold the warrant that supports the declaration. I am not in the least interested in this level of Pyrrhonism because an overarching axiom that governs our ability to make meaning assumes that we cannot help the processes that these specialists doubt. We must make truth claims, cannot live a moment without making them, and so must view a blanket skepticism about, say, the ability of language to transmit meaning as irrelevant. That is not to say that a milder level of doubt about any of these issues should be discounted. It is as valuable to remember that culture tints language as it is useless to insist that it hopelessly taints it. I wish to make my level of magnification of this issue clear from the outset: my interest is not to dispute axioms at an atomic level. I am far more interested in how they fragment in our cultural interactions, inevitably indicating differences in how persons hold them. Deep disagreements require appeals to warrants. These can be resolved so long as the disputants abide by the axioms that give warrants their power to resolve conflict. I intend to focus on moral axioms exclusively in this essay for the simple reason that this is a subject wherein consensus has most clearly broken down.

It seems clear that every moral choice involves the preference for some perceived good (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Good’?”) and that the necessity of choosing must involve some criterion of choice that determines preference. At this level of singular choosing, we face a simple issue of warrant. We bring something to the choice that makes clear that A is preferable to B. Even in this bland categorization, we face axioms, not all of them universally assented to. First, even granting that we have the natural freedom to recognize the choice of goods the situation presents to us (see “Our Freedom Fetish”), we face no guarantee that we bring to it the moral freedom to determine by whatever means we find congenial that one choice is better than another (see “A Preface to the Determinism Problem”). Now this might seem like the kind of cynical and dismissive problem I promised not to explore, for morality itself presupposes our ability to choose from among the endless succession of choices we face daily. But that axiom is challenged by philosophy, psychology, and neurology, whose observations on personality formation have intruded into retributive law and general culture, casting doubt on our ability to either recognize or act upon the options we face. Morality is irrelevant if we have no freedom to choose. Our understanding of that freedom is now eroding under the same kinds of scientific assault that has eroded the precious axioms of earlier ages. I see this as less of an issue than some theorists do because I cannot see us surrendering the fundamental rational abilities that make us human (see “The Determinism Problem”), though I recognize and honor the challenge determinism presents to the legal system (see “Foundations of the Law: an Appetizer:). We can’t not choose even for a moment, and if our moral freedom is an illusion, it is one that we will maintain as a condition of our nature, just as we will maintain the primacy of four dimensions even if theoretical physics proves there to be twelve. We are made for morality.

But what kind? It is, I suppose, possible to imagine our moral universe as a random and meaningless jumble of moments, which is merely another way of saying that moral choice must be facile and nimble. This is, indeed, the axiom that girds what may be the dominant moral outlook at play in advanced cultures today. It sees life as an explosion of discrete moral opportunities, each unique. Their uniqueness reflects our own. From them we are to derive whatever goods we prefer at the moment of choosing. This moral pragmatism does not claim any system of choosing other than opportunism and imposes no criteria on choosing whatsoever. To be fair, it does not forbid rules either, so long as individuals find them useful in making the split-second choices that life so relentlessly throws at us. This is clearly one of pragmatism’s two great advantages, the other being a broad toleration for differing viewpoints as a necessary condition of its means of choosing. The operative axiom at work here may be spelled out as follows: I demand maximal freedom in every choice and so I implicitly recognize your right to the same broad operational latitude. But when we state it this baldly, we see another axiom just under the surface: you deserve the same level of freedom that I do. But this moral truth claim has no foundation in the short-term moral pragmatism that assumes it. Why restrict my range of choices by recognizing yours when I can enlarge them by depriving you? The very flexibility that seems so attractive at first glance allows the pragmatist to deprive his neighbor of the goods she values. This is not the worst of it, for it bids fair to deprive himself as well, for it dictates no goods beyond present horizons of circumstance and no consistency of moral choosing beyond the immediate moment. It is difficult to imagine a moral outlook more apt to frustrate not only those around us but also our own long-term interests (see “The Problem of Moral Pragmatism), the possibility of which pragmatism refuses to recognize.

Given its ubiquity and its hollowness, some efforts have emerged to give this most common of current moralities the bases that might make it more successful. These axioms have transformed it into something resembling a moral system, a coherent set of rules applicable to practitioners serving some conscious end.

Since pragmatism was an early twentieth century innovation (“the only purely American philosophy!”), it found itself entangled with historical events that produced a broader philosophy, postmodernism (see “Postmodernism Is Its Discontents”). Faced with its inability to order consistent choosing for the individual or to give it a purpose beyond subjective valuation, postmodernism modified pragmatism into a new concept, the virtual circle (see “What Is the Virtual Circle?”), that at least imposed some private means of deriving consistency from life’s manifold experiences. Borrowing from the nineteenth century’s dominant moral system, utilitarianism (see “Three Moral Systems), the virtual circle imposes an overarching rationality on individuals’ moral choices, asserting in contradiction to a purely pragmatic outlook that our moral life resembles a train rather than a rain of choices and that we have some obligation to present ones to consider both past and future in our choosing. The nature and rigor of this duty to reason is entirely postmodern, however, consisting in a privately determined application of the only truth test the virtual circle recognizes, the principle of non-contradiction. This flaccid recognition of the necessity for rationality in reconciling our truth and goodness claims is a slim reed upon which to build a moral system, and it shows in the efforts of practitioners to live according to a moral “system” whose pliability hinders rather than assists their choosing.

Their own difficulties aside, individuals enter more dangerous waters when trying to reconcile their “systems” of moral choosing with others in the larger culture. Their interactions collide with those who embrace the same moral assumptions and with those who vehemently reject them. Neither interaction is at all pretty. Though disagreements certainly are rooted in differing warrants, their intractability is also tied to the axioms each side uses in employing them.

Should they face moral disagreement with others who share their largely amorphous moral judgments, they face an almost immediate impasse, for in the clash of two moral relativists, who claims the right-of-way? On what grounds are my values to be considered in comparison to yours and in the inevitable case of discord, how might our differences be arbitrated? Postmodernists can offer no solution to this problem (see “Postmodernism’s Unsettling Disagreements) other than the application of concealed or open power to force compliance. This failure explains the obsession with power relationships that so dominates contemporary culture. Laws and social mores in this view are to be regarded as political or cultural usurpations of autonomy to be enforced by social pressure or a threat of legal force. The self-defeating conclusion to this endless contention is the only one possible for the value system postmodernists accept: cultures should maximize freedom of moral choice so as to open possibilities for personal fulfillment to individuals, limited only by a consensual and pragmatic recognition of the need to suppress violence. In a postmodern culture, though, moral life must always exist on the verge of open conflict so as to open the widest possible opportunities for its members.

This view of culture would be chaotic enough, but it assumes what is patently not the case: that all participants agree to a largely pragmatic moral system and all structure their virtual circles so as to respect this kindergarten level of equity. The presence of political libertarianism should convince us that this is not so (see “Alienation of Civic Affection”). Self-interest in the exercise of moral pragmatism gives us no reason to expect adherents to “just get along.”

Add to this the presence of sizable minorities of citizens who utterly reject the assumptions that move moral pragmatists. Unlike their relativist fellow citizens, these persons are fully conscious of the tension and at least some of its causes.

In common parlance, postmodernists are called secularists by their opponents, who embrace an antithetical moral view built upon an absolutist morality. They reject the notion of moral autonomy in favor of a divinely ordained social order binding on all moral agents, viewing the vaunted openness of moral pragmatism as a surrender to evil, defending divine authority as the guarantor of truth and goodness. They wish to see its mandates obeyed in both law and custom. But even if they were not forced to coexist with relativists, they would face an insoluble problem, one built into their mode of warrant as axiom rather than on any particular goodness claim they may wish to defend. In seeing authority as an infallible source of truth and goodness, they must place themselves in opposition to others staking the same claim but basing it on different sources (see “Which Clash of Civilizations?”). Now this might be avoided in a monocultural environment or a broad theocracy, but how can it be avoided in today’s world? One solution was wisely advanced by the United States’ founders, and has managed to tamp down absolutist contention, at least until recently. (see “Belief in the Public Square). Morality rooted in authority can only survive when it is either unchallenged or limited to private belief because authority can provide no means to reconcile conflict with competing authority. But this accommodation must prove unsatisfactory to moral absolutists whose beliefs inform their entire moral universe. They are correct in thinking that civic life requires shared moral values but utterly mistaken in thinking theirs to be the only package of values worthy of adoption. Religionists would quickly see this if their desires for a God-centered culture were to be granted (see “Theocracy and the Commandments”). Their object lesson must always be a serious study of religious authority in disarray, the most total and catastrophic collapse of moral force in western history. The Protestant Reformation, an event so disruptive that it forever tarnished the power of authority to warrant morality, taught something the American founders knew in their bones. The Separation Clause is the wall that keeps the champions of moral absolutism from loosing the dogs of war in the U.S., one Islamic radicals wish to pull down in a prelude to a destruction Christian evangelicals seem eager to facilitate (see “The Fragility of Religious Authority”). It is ironic that the secular culture they both despise is the only thing that allows them to preserve their dreams of theocracy.

Their blindness is a consequence of both a failure of historical knowledge and a disgust with the feebleness of modernism to order moral life. That disgust is merited and permeates contemporary cultures that are its product. I think it derives from two specific failures.

The first is modernism’s weakness in deriving replacement warrants for lost authority. It is helpful to think of modernism as an axiomatic mode of thinking rather than as a particular moral system. It emerged from the ongoing disintegration of western culture caused by the collapse of absolute moral authority in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Reformation demonstrated to even the thickest thinking that authority had no means to reconcile differing claims to truth and goodness and that some other warrant for holding civilization together must be sought. But nothing could replace that glorious certainty of tradition and divine will that had sanctified and sealed all truth and goodness claims in living memory. A replacement was cobbled together by the seat-of-the-pants efforts of generations of thinkers working in succession (see “Modernism’s Midwives) that finally offered reason and closely examined experience as partial replacements for authority. But these replacements, potent in their search for some kinds of truth–empirical science to be sure– proved less than impressive in finding goodness, and especially consensual moral goodness. For one thing, these tools were profoundly individualistic, tending to atomize culture rather than bind individuals to it. For another, reason has proved a weak common thread in the face of the great diversity of experience that sways it and the self-interest that so easily perverts it. After all, utilitarianism was modernism’s most popular moral product, a kind of consumerism that promised to stock the shelves with a banquet of choices to perfect human existence. But as discussed above, this was yet another failure of reasoning about experience, joining a host of others to indict modernism by the turn of the twentieth century. The charge was inconsistency, even hypocrisy, and it scorched Western culture for most of the twentieth century, creating a second great crisis of meaning that is still unfolding. Its essence is to divorce modernism’s two great warrants, to see them as essentially conflicting rather than complementary and to privilege experience over reason, even to charge that the former determines the latter. This is the fertile soil in which subjectivism, cultural relativism, and the virtual circle grew into a fairly coherent moral outlook over the course of the last century. Its pragmatism could offer no inducement to civic concord beyond the burning fuse of anarchy.

That difficulty has grown even more acute in the face of the postmodern crises of the last thirty years, all proving intensely hostile to both the presumptions and the performance of modernism. In the current climate, modernists who wish to find some deeper source of social harmony face hostility from two fronts: premodernists eager to revive absolute authority (see “Tao and the Myth of Religious Return), and postmodernists eager to defend the primacy of experience over reason, leading to the identity politics, moral pragmatism, and incoherence discussed above.

As if all of this weren’t hobbling enough, modernism has suffered a self-inflicted wound from its dreadful beginnings in the cultural crisis of the Reformation. As thinkers struggled to find any reason for persons to bind themselves to government, divine will already evaporating before their eyes, they saw in the apocalyptic conflicts around them a template for humanity’s natural state. In the words of one of modernism’s founders, our natural condition was one of “war of each against all.” Life in this state was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Only a profound despair with this condition could force persons into associations, into polities, always regretting their lost freedoms and always resenting political society as an unnatural burden and a threat to liberty and always teetering on the edge of violence. This dismal view of human nature was the axiom that molded the first nation-states. It moved America’s founders and permeates what may only barely be called civil society today (see “Why Invent a Social Contract?”).

As persons mingle in contemporary society, they pursue their interests from a fount of different assumptions: about their rights, their responsibilities, and their roles. Resentments that are barely papered over by exhortations to patriotism and “the common good” (see “Two Senses of the Common Good), violence that always simmers just beneath the surface, and a frank confusion about the causes of our discontent all produce a deep and broad anger. Civil and even uncivil discourse will not serve, for our disagreements will not be resolved until we agree to the axioms that shape them, and that seems particularly challenging in the current climate. I think a proper starting point must answer very basic questions.

1.In your judgment, what is the proper source of moral power in a culture? Moral absolutists will appeal to an external source. This explains the appeal to Sharia law in Muslim countries and the fierce resistance to it in others. Those who favor the Bible face an identical problem. Postmodernists might argue in favor of culture or subculture, but they face a similar difficulty in resolving conflict or in appealing to any source beyond brute force. Modernists who choose some version of a social contract avoid that difficulty but invite others: the tyranny of the majority, an inability to justify any form of civil disobedience for any reason, a repudiation of any possibility of defining social progress, and an implicit rejection of any notion of rights as morally superior to law. (see Natural and Political Rights”). Finally, contract theorists face the same difficulty as postmodernists in resolving disagreements between governments, for their justificatory theory accords legitimacy to any form that citizens authorize (though this requirement of their position seems to have been ignored by Abraham Lincoln and later modernist defenders of imperialism, both indicating the dangers of mixing absolutist and modernist axioms for social order). In any case, appealing to a social contract repudiates the individual moral autonomy that its defenders admit to be the ultimate source of moral power, one voluntarily surrendered, at least in an established polity. The notion that new contracts may be derived and old ones dissolved by popular approval has proven to be a comforting fiction, for even contracts derived from the general will must prove oppressive to the minority who can appeal to no justification beyond the contract, something majorities discover as they find current arrangements unsuitable to current interests.  The tension between a moral order that derives its power “from the consent of the governed” and yet then may with impunity oppress some portion of it has caused no end of grief. But acceding to individual moral autonomy raises an immediate follow-up question.

2. In conflicts between individuals, cultures, or polities, or between an individual and any larger cultural unit, what axiom should apply? The moral absolutist will appeal to either written or traditional authority, which always supersedes the interests of the individual. This maintains social harmony but stifles progress and justice. Its axiom always must be “what is is good.” The postmodernist response is unclear. Though it views individual morality as instilled by culture or environment and so might be thought to dispute individual moral autonomy, it also embraces the virtual circle as personally created. And though either of these sources must induce an acceptance of cultural relativism, postmodernists seem unable to resist passing judgment on religionists and others who accept differing axioms. In their defense, their antagonism is partially rooted in their resistance to any imposition of moral power, but their theory allows no means to resolve conflict without it. As a defender of virtue ethics and natural law theory, I argue that universal human needs confer rights, political and moral, and therefore define justice as “to each her due.” The allocation of justice is the primary arbiter of every kind of disagreement except two. Some disputes involve fair allocation of either a superabundance or a scarcity of some good whose distribution cannot be resolved by justice. Famine deprives everyone of what is due, so the distribution of necessities then must involve notions of fairness, which also may be employed in the allocation of neutral desires not affecting human needs  (see “The Riddle of Equality”). A second category of disagreements that should resist appeals to justice are those rooted in love (The nature of disputes between family and friends does not require a recourse to justice as do other kinds of disputes and so might be resolved by more generous means, though justice remains the appropriate baseline for resolution if a loving response proves unsatisfactory, this unfortunate situation reducing those we love to the level of strangers who are entitled to justice alone) (see “Needs Anchor Morality”).

3. How can consensual moral axioms be found when the fundamental moral outlooks of contemporary life seem so irreconcilable? Since moral autonomy lies in the reasoned experience of every adult in the culture, two changes might begin a resolution. First, persons should interrogate their own moral foundations and attempt to articulate a clear notion of where they think moral force originates. They should ask themselves how their own outlook might be reconciled with those who embrace different fundamental axioms of morality, given the probability that others will cling to their own virtual circles with the same fidelity that they feel. The question at this point becomes one of utility: which moral system in the public sphere most satisfies persons’ real needs? This effort will rely on the second change: regarding morality not as a sentiment or an inheritance but as a responsibility that ultimately must embrace a rational conception of equity. The same human nature that confers the rights we demand for ourselves guarantees them to others, not only in this culture but in all. But this is a gift with strings attached. A recognition of equity is the first step toward acknowledging the universality of reason as the common thread in differing human experience and as the key not only to a consistent moral system but also, once extended by further interrogation, to resolving cultural conflict in a manner consistent with a consensual set of public moral axioms (see “Toward a Public Morality”). And this can only derive from a recognition of universal human needs.