"I can calculate the motions of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people." ~ Isaac Newton
Column by tzo.
Exclusive to STR
A common criticism of natural law, which posits an objective set of rules for ethical human behavior, is the claim that human behavior can never be subject to objective law in the same way that physical objects are subject to objective physical laws, like gravity.
You see, the word “objective” lands us in the realm of science, and science scoffs at our presence there.
“Objective ethics? Please. The law of gravity is an objective law of nature, as we can observe, predict, replicate and record its effects, and always get the same results. How in the world can you believe that there can possibly exist such a thing as natural law that applies to human behavior in such an objective manner? One cannot defy the law of gravity, but whatever law you wish to create for human behavior can be broken at will by any individual, so please, take your talk of objectivity on this subject elsewhere.”
“I mean, if you claim that murdering another human being is against the natural law, what kind of law of nature is it, really, if anyone can break it at will?”
I would counter that natural law pertains to the human race and is every bit as observable, predictable, replicable, and recordable as any other physical law of nature. Natural law describes the proper way for individual human beings to interact so that human society may best survive.
Yes, any individual may decide to break the natural law in his interactions with other human beings, but the statistical insignificance of a single violation does not in itself doom the human race. But when social institutions are implemented which violate natural law, and when an appreciable percentage of the human race begins to more flagrantly violate natural law in their everyday existence, then the social order—the human-to-human cooperation that is the foundation of continued human existence—is endangered.
Leon Moisseiff designed a bridge, which was successfully opened to traffic in 1940. In order to successfully build that bridge, he obviously could not ignore the laws of physics pertinent to bridge construction. So Leon took these physical laws into account in his design, the bridge was successfully completed and opened, and cars began traversing its span.
And then one day it collapsed.
The laws of physics are not forgiving, and when flaunted, even unwittingly, they bite. Leon took into account gravity, vibration, torque, tensile strength, elasticity, and other factors, but he took them into account in an incomplete manner. The result of this oversight was a combining of all the aforementioned factors into a phenomenon called flutter, and this flutter quickly and utterly demolished the Tacoma Narrows Bridge on Nov. 7, 1940, a mere four months after its christening.
Flutter is a complex combination of forces that produce an effect. It is not always observable, even though all its component factors may be. There are no simple formulas to explain it. A bridge designer may believe that he has fully taken into account the effects of these component factors and yet these very same factors, dynamically combined into flutter, can destroy the bridge.
Natural law is not directly analogous to the law of gravity, but rather to flutter.
One can build a bridge without regard to flutter, and it will stand until a strong-enough wind comes along to shatter it. Likewise, human beings can build societies without regard to natural law, either intentionally or through ignorance, but eventually natural forces will combine to expose this flaw, and the societal structure will fail.
The Tacoma Narrows Bridge was an object lesson that is routinely shown to prospective bridge designers and architects. The human race learned from the failure, and applied that knowledge so as to take into account a larger set of nature's immutable laws. We learned from our mistake.
But we seem to be not so willing to learn from the social failures that litter our history. Societies need government—that’s how we’ve always done it—and so that’s how we’ll keep doing it. If one collapses, we just start over and try to do a better job the next time.
Just imagine the person who would defend the practice of building bridge after bridge after failing bridge, resulting in the deaths of many human beings, by saying that hey, there is no such thing as flutter. Bridges collapse, that's all, and so we deal with it. When a bridge falls, we build a new one. Yes, unfortunately people are killed in these unfortunate events, but that is the price we pay for deciding to build bridges. Can you imagine the world without bridges? Alrighty, then.
Well, here is my objective observation on human societies: When societies organize themselves with governments in charge, they inevitably fail. This is an observable, universal, repeatable and predictive phenomenon. I would daresay it fits the definition of “objective” in any scientist’s dictionary, so how can we not be describing a law of nature here?
The laws of physics are not a set of discrete laws, but a continuous interacting set of forces that create the fabric of the universe. Either one respects the laws of physics as a whole, or one doesn't. If he fails to adhere in some respect, eventually there will be negative consequences.
Likewise, either a society respects the natural law, a.k.a. the laws of physics as applied to human action and interaction, or it doesn't. Failure to adhere will eventually have negative consequences.
We have been building societies with the Tacoma Narrows Bridge blueprints as a starting point. This design has a flaw in it that guarantees that it will eventually fail, but it looks so pretty on the drawing table and so majestic when built that we can't seem to resist ignoring aspects of the natural law that will eventually prove to be our undoing.
Establishing a government as a means of ordering society is a violation of the natural law. Government is an inherent structural flaw that would defy natural law, just as the Tacoma Narrows Bridge was built in defiance of the laws of physics.
And in the battle of Man versus The Laws of Nature, guess who always wins?
Societal excitation larger than the natural damping of the system, increasing the level of vibration, resulting in self-exciting oscillation. The vibration levels build up and are only limited when the damping of the object matches the energy input, which can result in large amplitudes and can lead to rapid failure.
Galloping Gertie is beginning to kick up her heels. Can you feel it?
Hold on tight now.