A few days ago I had an interesting conversation with someone about the relationship between religion-as-moral-compass and secular ethics. The relativity of all collective ethical and personal moral systems seems to imply that even if we were able to agree on baselines and universal standards of behaviour across all cultures, ideologies or religions that there would still exist problematic behaviours, and for a variety of reasons.
In regards to the notion of either religious or secular ethical frameworks, rules-based systems are always already prone to the diverse vicissitudes of self-interested interpretations and axiomatic-interpretive drift over time. Lawyers as much as theologians are masters of reinterpreting logical frameworks for their own self-interested purposes and beyond the overall historical and semantic changes which are inevitable as a matter of any dynamic and complex organic, social or (otherwise) communications system, there always exist loopholes and wiggle-room for miscreants to retrospectively justify their actions.
Further issues include that over longer (although perhaps also actively shrinking) historical time scales, the referenced axiomatic-interpretive drift can cause activities once considered abhorrent to become quite de rigueur. Nietzschean proclamations of a “death of God” are very often entirely misinterpreted: the inaccessibility of a metaphysical world or reality does not become genuinely problematic until that historical inflection point at which it becomes clear through rationality and science that metaphysical explanations are not only logically implausible, science has rendered them as entirely unnecessary. Needless to say that this represents a cultural and ideological incision that has never since found sufficient sutures or remedy and from which the divisive consequences are yet to find sufficient detente.
The schism brought about by this critical difference and distance between ethical frameworks derived (or derivable) from religion and scientific rationality is one that worried Nietzsche because he saw quite clearly that the casting aside of this particular kind of metaphysical anchor would leave us collectively beyond any single, perhaps simple, unifying moral code – and then all that this entails. It is difficult to determine whether or not the chaos expected to befall us has indeed occurred. Religion itself has been, for all of its moral posturing and when in the wrong hands, a source of much that is clearly wicked. This is not my target here though; I have a specific question:
Can a secular system of ethics provide a sufficient moral code in itself, as an emergent property or logically well-formulated rules-set, when we have achieved sufficient logical sophistication to now know that any such formally-defined (and non-trivially complex) system of thought must always contain unprovable statements ?
The implicit inconsistency of sufficiently complex logical systems implies that ethical systems, abandoned by the metaphysical anchor of immanent divinity, must seek their own internal anchors and logical certainty. This is clearly not only a problem for ethical systems but as a most-obviously life-experience-relevant consequence of formally-coded behavioural parameters, the (other) questions derivable from this consideration may be profound.
If, for instance, a legal wit with theorem-proving software can determine some peculiar legal exception in a secular (ok, yes – it doesn’t strictly-speaking need to be secular) system which makes something notionally outrageous perfectly admissible, does that make it a legally-binding precedent or a situation in which systemic axioms finds themselves under question and in need of a good wax and polish ? Some semi-random silly examples: if it becomes perfectly permissible to club baby seals (but only) on Sunday afternoons; to cause offensive hate crimes to become legal if the offender is wearing a yellow-feathered chicken suit while spouting spite; or, for a President to pardon themselves for treason; due to the procedural decompression and logical unpacking of legal theorems, do we accept these unforeseen consequences as inevitable and permissible under ethics or law ?
The endpoint of this particular algorithmic narrative is that, having discarded the logically problematic Wild Card of metaphysical foundation (and Divinity, however one interprets that Concept) we find ourselves with no “out”, no simple sense in which we can introduce immanent externalities and radical reorientations or remediative claims to our systems of thought. We find ourselves abandoned (albeit by Something that may never have been) and left to find clever ways to restructure the ethical (and by extension – legal) conundrums of a pure rationality. The cost of discarding metaphysics for rationality is that, much like that of attaining personal and social maturity, we are very much (for better or for worse) left to our own devices. Being left both with and to our own inventions, it seems to me that as a pathological conservative adherence to strict ethical standards is (among other things) an unacknowledged reflexive response to the existential crisis imbued by the erasure of metaphysical anchors for ethical frameworks and their attributed moral compasses, this should also represent an opportunity and aperture of access or leverage for clever analysis and effective tactical, philosophical assertion.