‘Let No-One Ignorant of Geometry…’: Mathematical Parallels for Understanding the Objectivity of Ethics

Journal of Value Inquiry 55:1-20 (2021)
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It may be a myth that Plato wrote over the entrance to the Academy “Let no-one ignorant of geometry enter here.” But it is a well-chosen motto for his view in the Republic that mathematical training is especially productive of understanding in abstract realms, notably ethics. That view is sound and we should return to it. Ethical theory has been bedevilled by the idea that ethics is fundamentally about actions (right and wrong, rights, duties, virtues, dilemmas and so on). That is an error like the one Plato mentions of thinking mathematics is about actions (of adding, constructing, extracting roots and so on). Mathematics is about eternal relations between universals, such as the ratio of the diagonal of a square to the side. Ethics too is about eternal verities, such as the equal worth of persons and just distributions. Mathematical and ethical verities do both constrain actions, such as the possibility of walking over the seven bridges of Königsberg once and once only or of justly discriminating between races. But they are not themselves about action. In principle, neither mathematical nor ethical verities are subject to historical forces or disagreement among tribes (though they can be better understood as time goes on). Plato is right: immersion in mathematics induces an understanding of the necessities underpinning reality, an understanding that is essential for distinguishing objective ethics from tribal custom. Equality, for example, is an abstract concept which is foundational for both mathematics and ethics.

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James Franklin
University of New South Wales

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