Saturday, February 11, 2012

Laws and "Laws"

Moral laws are often claimed to be laws only in a metaphorical sense since there are clear differences between them and laws of nature. Laws of nature allegedly brook no exceptions, but we can always (or nearly always) envision exceptions to moral laws, cases in which it would be allowed to ignore a particular prohibition. There is a moral law to tell the truth, but if we are hiding Jews from the Nazis we don't have to tell them about it (there's a disturbing case of this in The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom). The point is that moral laws are not absolute while physical laws are.

However, I think this is a misunderstanding. The exceptions to moral laws are cases where one moral law comes into conflict with another. The moral law that we should preserve life has more authority than the law that tells us to tell the truth, so we lie to the Nazi who asks us if we are hiding any Jews. But there are exact parallels with physical laws. The law of gravity dictates that the magnet will fall to the ground, unless the law of electromagnetism dictates that it will stick to the side of the refrigerator. The second law overrules the first in this case. This doesn't say anything against gravity. The law of gravity, when stated strictly, is defined in a vacuum, with no other forces in play -- that is, it is defined with all other things being equal (ceteris paribus). This is the same with moral laws. These laws are being described in a moral vacuum, where no other moral issues are in play. If the only moral thing at issue is whether to tell the truth or not, there is a moral law that says we should tell the truth, ceteris paribus. If other moral issues come into the picture, then they may interfere with it so that it will no longer be the case that we should tell the truth, in the same way that if other physical forces are in play, an object may no longer obey the law of gravity by falling towards the center of mass.

Of course, there's another way in which physical laws and moral laws are dissimilar: we can choose whether or not we obey moral laws but, for the most part, we cannot choose whether or not we obey physical laws. I say "for the most part" because I can choose to jump up and thereby thwart the law of gravity for a few moments, but if I jump off a cliff I can't choose to stop falling. Whether that means moral laws can only be considered "laws" in a metaphorical sense is something I leave to my readers. Perhaps it's the physical laws that are the metaphors.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum

13 comments:

TheOFloinn said...

To be fair, the prohibition on lying is a prohibition on speaking contrary to what is in your mind. It is not an obligation to answer any and all questions. Nor is it a prohibition against deceiving. One may speak in half-truths, misdirections, evasions, and so forth, all without lying.

That is, while there is a duty not to lie, there is no duty to tell the truth.

There is some discussion here::
http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2010/11/murderer-at-door.html

Borys said...

"because I can choose to jump up and thereby thwart the law of gravity for a few moments"

I like your post (and your blog!), and I get your point here, but I think the above example is rather bad. The law of gravity in our Earth-bound context is not a law of falling, but a law of downward acceleration. Thus we do not thwart it even for a moment when we jump up.

Hiero5ant said...

Oy, yikes, the law of gravity isn't "things fall down" any more than the 2nd law of thermodynamics says "order can never increase".

Objects exert a force on other objects proportional to their mass and inversely proportional to the distance between them. Just because the sum of the forces temporarily results in a change in direction of your vector does absolutely nothing to change the quantity and direction of the force of gravity at any given moment.

Jim S. said...

Sorry guys. I included that jumping bit in there because I knew -- I knew -- that if I just said "we can't choose whether or not to obey physical laws" someone would comment about how my whole point was that laws of nature can be be overruled by other laws, etc., etc. But then I tried to placate my imaginary commenters and I get it from the other side. Sorry!

Jeff Marx said...

I am no scientist but I do think that the law of gravity has to do with attraction, i.e., a body will remain in contact with the earth because of gravity. Hence, when we place a book on a table we do not tie it down for fear it will float away.
However, because of other laws a human (unlike a book) can over rule, briefly, that law and engages in upward movement....
Perhaps your critics on this are corect, but Your point is very helpful. I really appreciate your insights. Thanks

Gyan said...

The concept of physical "laws" is anthropomorphic as CS Lewis notices in The Discarded Image. In fact, it is more anthropomorphic than the older conception of 'tendencies" since "laws" require a rational agent that may obey or disobey them.


Also Chesterton in Orthodoxy in chapter Ethics of Elfland says that philosophically speaking there are no laws of nature, at least that we can understand. All we have are apparent regularitie that we are mislabelling as "laws"

Mike D said...

In my mind, the difference between moral laws and physical laws (laws of nature) is that moral laws are an ideal that describe what should happen (but often doesn't) and physical laws are an empirical observation of what does happen in nature (e.g. "unsupported objects fall"), and/or the hypothesised reason for said phenomenon ("bodies attract one another").

Borys said...

On second thought, are we not guilty here of equivocation? "Laws" as in "physical laws" is something different than "laws" in "moral laws". "Physical laws" are "natural regularities formalized in mathematical language", while "moral laws" are "precepts about what to do in given situation". When you construe these two terms that way, you suddenly discover that they do not have that much in common. The latter contains a strong normative component, something that "physical laws" lack.

Jim S. said...

Re: the last two comments: Yes, of course moral laws contain an element absent from physical laws. Moral laws, as Borys point out, are normative. They are prescriptive, whereas physical laws are descriptive. My point in this post is just that one other objection to describing moral laws as laws -- that there are exceptions to them -- doesn't work because there are parallels between this and physical laws.

Now I'd like to reemphasize my final question in the post: if moral laws contain an element that physical laws lack, which is the metaphor of which?

Andrew Brew said...

@Mike

(second attempt - the first disappeared into the darkness)

We can discriminate a little better than that. The empirical observations ("unsupported objects fall to the ground",for example) constitute the facts.

The facts require (for the curious) an explanation, but we cannot understand something until we first know it. So we start carefully measuring things, and discover that, on the surface of the earth, and making allowances for air resistance etc., all bodies are accelerated downward at ~9.8 m/s. Investigating further, we find that all massive bodies are mutually attracted with a force proportional directly to to their collective mass, and inversely to their separation (thanks, Izzy). These regularities in the facts are laws.

Then we make up stories to explain why it is so. WRT gravity, Aristotle had one, Newton had another, and Einstein had a third. These are theories.

None of this helps us much with Jim's metaphor, of course. I expect he is wishing by now that he'd never mentioned gravity.

Andrew Brew said...

I should have said, of course, "inversely to the square of their separation".

Fake Herzog said...

Actually, according to A-T philosophers like Ed Feser, you cannot lie in order to do good. In other words, two wrongs do not make a right. Ed has dealt with this subject a lot at his blog, most recently here:

http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2012/01/smith-tollefsen-and-pruss-on-lying.html

So I think from the perspective of the Catholic Church and A-T philosopher, there are moral truths that function very much like physical truths.

Fake Herzog said...

Actually, according to A-T philosophers like Ed Feser, you cannot lie in order to do good. In other words, two wrongs do not make a right. Ed has dealt with this subject a lot at his blog, most recently here:

http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2012/01/smith-tollefsen-and-pruss-on-lying.html

So I think from the perspective of the Catholic Church and A-T philosopher, there are moral truths that function very much like physical truths.