How similar are maths and ethics?

I will briefly recall another stimulating lecture given by Dagfinn Føllesdal: Ethical Aspects of Risk. This lecture held place on the 7th of December 2012 in the course of the Carl Friedrich von Weizsaecker-Vorlesungen at the University of Hamburg.

Føllesdal introduced us into a consequentialist model (which I will not describe here, but let me know if you are interested – then I will -) and he invited us to several thought experiments, for example:

Consider you were a regional politician who had to decide on the construction of a traffic light at a busy road. You would read a statistic of victims (lives) per year at that road (some number) for risk assessment. You would get the information of the costs of the construction of the traffic light. You would try to make a reasonable decision.

It would be very easy to calculate how much value you, as a rational politician, assign to a life.

Now, consider your mother had died at that very road. How much would you value her life?

It is no news that the readings of statistics depends on the sample: If you personally know a victim your judgement changes.

Summarized in Føllesdal’s words, this means that:

Feelings can be very different in situations which are ethically equivalent.

Or, in the idea of David Hume (1711-1776):

The strength of our feelings os no reliable measure of the rightness or wrongness of our acts.

Well, this sounds like a desperate situation. How the heck can we decide about the ethical justification of our actions? Is there no reliable backbone?

Here comes the answer:

Ethics and mathematics are very similar since both can be based on axioms which – at some point – cannot be justified further.

This statement is based on Spinoza – Et voilà, this is also the answer to the introducing question. Quel horreur!

However, Føllesdal goes beyond:

One should look at what is called axioms as hypotheses that have to be revised in view of data, in the case of ethics the emotions that arise in us through empathy.

In conclusion, we need to decide which axioms or hypotheses to choose. Føllesdal stopped his talk without giving any hint how to do this. How unsatisfying! However, there was still his final talk to come… and when I considered the talks which Føllesdal had already given in that week, an idea popped up in my mind…

…I will give the survey of the final lecture in the next post.

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