Sunday, May 16, 2004

Towards a Theory of Architectural Morality


When it comes to grappling with large and complicated issues, there is a distressing tendency for the opinions of those who are debating such issues to become polarized. Political discussions break down into camps of left and right, the issue of abortion is constrained to pro-life and pro-choice, and so forth. I suspect that the reason such debates become polarized in such a fashion is for the reason that taking a middle position in a controversial matter invites scathing attacks from proponents on either side of an issue. It is only at the extremes that we can enjoy the relative comfort of only having to fend off attacks from one direction. This is what I have chosen to call the Polarity Principal: the more heated a topic, the more likely it is for discussion on the topic to polarize into two mutually exclusive extremes.

I, personally, find this to be a distressing because, once the Polarity Principle kicks in, it becomes very easy for people to believe that there is no middle ground for discussion and that there are only two sides to the issue. I think that this is especially unfortunate because it is my observation that the middle-ground is often the best place to look for answers to complex issues. The very complexity of the issues ought to stand as a warning against treating such matters as a binary decision between diametrically opposed solutions.

The issue of morality, in particular, has invited this sort of polarization. For millennia, morality has been viewed as something that is absolute. True, people and cultures may have disagreed (often violently) about which moral template was the correct one, but everyone seemed certain that there was one True moral path. Typically, when defending their choice of morals, a culture would turn their eyes skyward and insist that it was the will of God (or the gods, as the case may be) that the world follow their particular brand of morality. Naturally, there was a great deal of contention over which gods were real and what, exactly, it was that they wanted of humanity, yet always there was the belief that there was some singular solution to the question of how people ought to act and behave.

This view prevailed through the development of the science of anthropology. As researches began to address the question of how to study other cultures scientifically, many anthropologists began to question the wisdom of trying to interpret the behavior of another culture through the paradigms of ones own culture. Over time this lead to the view that one could not have any hope of understanding why a culture behaved in a certain fashion unless one could first set aside ones own cultural prejudices and learn how to view another cultures actions from within the context of their own social and moral order.

It should be noted that this view was not, in itself, a refutation of the concept of an absolute morality. It was first, and foremost, a simple matter of scientific pragmatism rather similar, in its own way, to the manner in which a chemist will try to scrupulously minimize (to the point of elimination, if possible) his own influence on the data that he's attempting to garner. Once researchers started adopting this perspective, however, the door was open to the question of whether or not there was a privileged frame of reference whereby one could judge the morality of another culture. The sheer diversity of moral solutions suggested to some scientists and philosophers that maybe there was not.

It is at this point that the Polarity Principle began to kick in. Those who were used to the notion of an absolute morality quickly came to see moral relativism as an invitation to anarchy and havoc (to say nothing of the notion that it was a blasphemous refutation of divine authority), whereas those found merit in the notion that morality is not absolute quickly found themselves retreating to the opposite viewpoint that morality was nothing more than a social construct, and that the moral systems of any society were just as valid as the moral systems of any other, regardless of its specific construction. Any suggestion that morality might not be engraved into the fabric of reality met with jeers on one side, and any suggestion that morality might be more than just an arbitrary social construct met with catcalls from the other. In short order, all of the middle ground between absolutism and relativism quickly turned into a philosophical no-mans land.

I believe that this has had a disastrous effect on attempts to understand what morality is, much less what sort of moral solutions we ought to pursue. It is my proposition that the monolith of absolutism and the amorphous blob of relativism have both managed to overlook the pragmatic and practical reason that societies develop morals in the first place and that an examination of those reasons would yield to us cause to see morality in a new and different light that rejects either of the extremes in this debate. I find that the easiest way to explain the nature and merit of this third perspective is to recast the debate in allegorical terms via the use of the fictional world of Bildungäard. This is not a formal argument, per se, but it is, I hope, compelling enough to, at the least, give you cause to see that there are more positions to this discussion than have traditionally been implied.

Welcome to Bildungäard

The world of Bildungäard is, in many respects, similar to our own world with one major distinction: for whatever reason (be in something in their physiology, psychology, or an unknown spiritual dimension) the Bildungäarders do not have any moral issues (with one exceptional area that we will discuss in a moment). For the most part, morality is simply a moot point. Bildungäard children do not have to be taught not to steal, to lie, to cheat, or any of the other myriad lessons that we school our children in, it simply comes naturally. For the world of Bildungäard, such documents as the Ten Commandments, the Code of Hamurabi, or the Constitution of the United States would be entirely superfluous.

It would seem that, in the absence of any moral problems, the world of Bildungäard ought to be a utopia. Alas, there is one fly in the ointment: architecture. You see, in their world, questions of architecture have every bit as much significance as questions of morality have in our own. Such a simple thing as whether one uses oak or teak on one's banisters (to say nothing of whether one even has banisters) is sufficient cause to get one labeled a pervert or a saint. The question of architecture is of such significance that entire nations have gone to war against each other over such disputes as how many stories a house ought to have, or whether or not a guest bedroom ought to be on the right or left side of a building.

Throughout the ages, Bildungäarders have tended to believe that there existed one True Blueprint that ought to be followed when building a house. Most cultures have believed that the Blueprint was the work of a Divine Architect (or, possibly, Architects). Of course, no consensus in this matter ever prevailed, except in particular regions. Even to the modern day, when some have dared to wonder whether the Architect was dead, the question of which blueprint was the real Blueprint has been a topic of hot controversy. Among the major Architecturalists of the world are the Victorianists, the Haciendites, the Pagodians, and the Apartmentals. There are also any number of minor schools of architecture in existence, including Duplexism, Gothism, Flatalism, Shackism, and even such esoteric beliefs such as Tentism and Hutism. Beyond these are the literally uncountable number of dead schools (so-called dead, at least; one can usually find a few people who are either following or attempting to follow the known schools) such as Cavism, Castleism, and Wigwamism.

Even in the major schools of Architecture, there are internal schisms resulting from various interpretations of the relevant Blueprint. Among the Victorianists, for instance, one finds such architectural variations as Classical Victorianism, Neo-Victorianism, Colonial Victorianism, etc. Even such a simple matter as whether or not each bathroom should have a bath and shower can be enough to ferment the creation of a splinter school.

Bildungäarder history is littered with blood baths between the orthodox and the heterodox (the massacre of the Duplexian Basementalists, for instance) of such magnitude that many have wondered whether or not the schools really do represent the will of the Architect.

In recent decades a new form of thought has arisen, prompted by the realization that architectural styles vary from culture to culture. They have even noted that, within single schools of architecture, styles have undergone slow changes down through the centuries: the Classical Victorianism of today is not the same as the Classical Victorianism of the past. These observations have led the architologists of Bildungäard to propose the notion that the architecture of a culture must be evaluated from within the context of the culture that created it. If one wanted to understand the lifestyles of the people of Nortplatz (a land in the extreme northern hemisphere), architology suggests that one can not judge their Iglooism by the standards of Eastplatzian Pagodanism, but that one must consider Iglooism in the context of the local culture.

As is often the case with new ideas, this concept was not greeted with a great deal of sanguinity. The orthodox schools of architecture viewed this idea as a direct challenge to the core idea that there was one, universal Blueprint. The reaction was swift and hostile. Ironically enough, this motivated quite a few philosophers of Architecture to denounce the idea of blueprints entirely. "If blueprints vary from culture to culture," so the thinking went, "then why should we assume that blueprints are anything more than ad hoc social constructs?"

In short order, the architectural relativists were espousing the notion that all architectures are equally valid. It was insisted that no one could legitimately criticize the buildings that other people chose to make. This view proclaimed that whether one chose to build an igloo or a two story hacienda on a particular patch of land was simply a matter of what one's culture suggested was "correct". By this view, neither building had any objective merit above and beyond the other. The fact that some people lived in tents and others lived in pagodas was simply and only a matter of birth and history. There were even those who said that, in reality, there were no buildings. That so-called "buildings" were just subjective social constructs that had no more reality than fables or dreams. By this interpretation, a log could qualify as a house as could a hole in the ground or even a fog bank. Whatever you wanted to be a house was a house.

A Visitor to Bildungäard

I think that most people can easily see the parallels that I am attempting to draw. It is fairly obvious that where you see me talking about "architectural absolutism" or "architectural relativism" that I am really talking about moral absolutism and relativism. Likewise, it should be clear that my use of Victorianism and Pagodanism can easily be substituted with contemporary religious or moral views (although I do not attempt to draw a one-to-one correspondence between any particular religion and any particular school of architecture). If I have done my job correctly, the analogies should be so plain that you might wonder why I bothered using different terms rather than simply engaging in a straight-forward discussion of these matters involving ordinary terms.

To answer that, I should ask you what your impression of the Bildungäarder perspective is. Imagine that you were a traveler to their world. Imagine, for a moment, that this isn't an allegory. If you were to see Bildungäard first hand, and if you were to take their dispute at face value, what would you think?

Wouldn't it seem a bit on the ridiculous side? In fact, wouldn't it seem extremely ridiculous? Now ask yourself what, exactly, it is that is ridiculous about it. Let us imagine that a Bildungäarder notices you smirking at his behavior. He confronts you and demands to know why you think that the question of architecture is so damned funny. What do you reply?

If you say that matters of architecture aren't important, might he not reply that architecture is extremely important. Without architecture, would not society collapse? Without architecture, would not people die from exposure to the elements? Worse, does not shoddy architecture carry the potential of deadly consequence? After all, a poorly constructed building can easily kill dozens of people at a blow.

It would seem that our Bildungäarder friend was right to be angry at the suggestion that architecture isn't important. Even in our world, architecture is extremely important, we just don't seem to have the same problems coming to a consensus regarding it that they do. True, we may feel that they place a bit too much emphasis on the importance of it but they could easily reply, from their perspective, that we make much ado about conventional morality when there's clearly no reason to do so (after all, they get along just fine without giving any great deal of thought to the issues that vex us). Just as we might stand aghast at the notion that the number of steps on a stairway could be an area of controversy, so might they stand aghast at the emotionally charged arguments we have regarding the issue of euthanasia.

So if it isn't the fact that the people of Bildungäard place such importance on the question, what is it about this issue that causes us to smirk? I would suggest that it is because we can see that both sides have managed to miss the entire point of having architecture. Our argumentative friend in the previous paragraph even touched on the issue when he emphasized the importance of architecture and the dangers of shoddy architecture. Architecture has the pragmatic function of providing dwelling places for human beings. It seems such an obvious statement that one might doubt that the citizens of Bildungäard have overlooked it. I think that I can show that the very polarization of Bildungäarder on the issue would indicate that they are overlooking it and, more importantly, I think that I can show that, in our own moral controversies, we have tended to overlook the pragmatic basis of our own moral systems.

Let us consider the case of the Architectural Absolutists. When a Victorianist claims that Victorian houses are good houses, do we disagree? Unless we have some particular aesthetic disagreement, the answer is that we really don't have any reason to disagree. Victorians are good, solid structures that offer everything one would want from a house. What strikes us as odd, however, is the Victorianists insistence that the only good house is one made with a Victorian blueprint. From our perspective, we can see that there is no reason to presume that the Victorian blueprint is the only proper way to build a house. It might even strike us as odd that the Victorianists aren't able to appreciate the fact that other schools of architecture offer real world alternatives. Pagodas, haciendas, duplexes all support the basic function that such buildings are designed for. The fact that the Victorianist, or any other architectural absolutist, can not acknowledge the equivalent utility of many other structures is indicative that such is not the central concern of the Victorianist.

So what about the Architectural Relativists? Since we can see that there is no single building plan that must be rigidly adhered to, does this not give their position of architectural equivalency merit? The clear answer is that it does not. While it is true that there is no single structure that represents what architecture must be, we can also see that there are standards whereby houses can be compared for relative worth. A one room shanty with rotting roof beams and no indoor plumbing does not have the same merit as a well constructed mansion with all the amenities. There may not be a single Ideal house that all houses must be compared to, but there are objective standards by which a house can be rated. Likewise, it's clear that the radical Relativist perspective that buildings are "just" social constructs is plainly in error. In may be true that buildings are human inventions, but that doesn't negate that buildings have a reality, nor does in endorse the perspective that a house ought to be anything that you decide to call a house. The Relativists have focused on the fact that houses come in many shapes to the point where they have failed to miss the fact that there are objective concerns which effect the design of any building that is intended to function as a place for people to live.

"So," our hypothetical Bildungäarder friend demands, "if neither of these perspectives are correct, then what is the right way to build a house?"

I think that it should be easy for us, who are removed from the passion that the issue ignites in this alternative world, to see that we should focus on the reasons that people build houses in the first place. Houses exist primarily to shelter people from the elements, and to provide them a safe and comfortable place to live. Houses are constructs to provide for our physical and emotional well being. If we focus on those criteria, it because apparent that there is no single, proper way to build a house, but that all houses can be judged by how well they satisfy their basic functions. Some of these factors are intrinsic: a house with a rotting floor is unsafe regardless of the overall shape of the structure. We ought to be very surprised to find any Bildungäarder society that would advocate the deliberate construction of such buildings. Other factors are environmental: a house designed for a stable environment is probably not going to be a structure that you want to occupy if you are living in an earthquake zone, nor (to give a different perspective) would you probably want to live in a small house if you had an exceptionally large family. Many of the factors are purely aesthetic: if you are used to living in Pagodas, you are probably not going to enjoy living in a Duplex. Once you account for each of these factors, you still have a whole range of houses to choose from.

A Journey into Amorality

Once again, it is my task to convert the metaphor of Bildungäarder society into terms that are relevant to our own. But how shall I do that?

The central principal that bridged the disparity between the different systems of architectural ethics in Bildungäard society was that of utility. Once we could identify why people made buildings in the first place, it was simple to see how either of the primary polarizations in the Bildungäarder perspective were amiss. I believe that we can apply the very same principal to our own moral questions in order to obtain similar results.

So why do morals exist? It is a thorny question, but I think that the easiest way to approach it is to ask ourselves what sort of world would exist without any morality. By this, I don't mean absent any particular morality in favor of another, but in the absence of any moral system what so ever. What sort of place would this be?

In some respects, we would have fewer constraints on our freedom. This has led many to conclude that morality is an imposition. Does not morality prevent us from taking that nice car we want? Does not morality prevent us from making sexual slaves of those people that attract our attentions? Does it not prevent us from freely murdering who so ever displeases us?

The clear answer is that morality does limit our ability to do such things, but what people tend to forget is that such "freedoms" also come with converse penalties. I may be able to steal from others, but so would they be able to steal from me. If I may make others into my slaves, so is it possible that I can be enslaved by those who are stronger than me. If I have the privilege of killing with impunity, so does it follow that others may kill me with equal impunity.

Is such freedom worth it? How does the convenience of being able to murder my enemies on a whim compare with the inconvenience of having to worry that others might do unto me as I would do unto them? Does my ability to take anything that I want really balance out against the fear that others may want to take what I have? In short, is such a perfectly amoral world really all that desirable? I think that it is quite apparent that such a world is not a very desirable place to live.

But wait, you might say, maybe I don't want to live in a world that is completely amoral, but why should I want to be moral? It is a valid question. Would it not be an ideal world if you could do everything that you desired, but everyone else had to abide by a moral code. You could freely rob others of their possessions without ever having to fear for your own. If someone bothered you, you could just put a bullet through their head and there would be nothing that they could do about it. You would, in short, be living like... a king. Hold that thought, we'll be returning to it shortly.

Let us return to our imagined amoral world. Here you are, alone in a world of individuals, any of whom may wish you harm? How do you survive? Certainly raw strength and cunning are going to figure into the equation. If you're the sort of person who can bench-press a bulldozer or who can make effective weapons, you are going to have something of an edge, but there is only so much that you can do by yourself. If nothing else, you will need to sleep occasionally and there are going to be times when simple illness incapacitates you. There is, simply put, vulnerability in solitude.

What can you do to improve your odds? The solution is simple: get a friend. If there is just one other person that you can work with, your chances of survival improve. Two people can watch each others backs. With two people, one can stand guard while the other is sleeping or otherwise incapacitated. In a brutal world where every person is a potential threat, two heads really are better than one.

Of course, for such an arrangement to work, there has to be an adherence to certain codes of conduct. You may be able to treat the rest of the world with impunity, but you can't treat your friend in the same manner. If you steal from your friend, or if you kill him outright, you lose all of the advantages that you gained from having him around in the first place. In other words, attacking your friend is wrong. It is wrong in the most basic sense of the word: a mistake. Harming your friend acts directly against your own interests. It defeats the function of your working relationship. If you are intelligent and self-motivated, you will refrain from taking advantage of your friend in order to enjoy the even greater advantages afforded by his presence. In other words, it makes sense to enter into a relationship where you trade freedom for security. Take note of this equation: it is the cornerstone of civilization.

What is more secure than two people? Three people. If nothing else, three people offers you protection from other two person groups (after all, it is hard to keep a good idea down). It is also an arrangement that allows you to perform more sophisticated actions like scouting and setting up ambushes. With three people, you can also afford the luxury of dividing the labor in such a way that each person can begin to concentrate of certain skills that they have a proficiency in (say, tracking animals). Unfortunately, there is one downside to having more than two people in a group. Once you add a third person, you are no longer indispensable. If you do something to antagonize your friends (or, for that matter, if there's something of yours that they want), they can potentially gang up against you. Even if you run away, they are still a viable group and they have the potential to acquire more people in the future. Mind you, there is a disadvantage to having someone run off, just not as severe of one as in a two person party.

How do you protect your interests in this arrangement? You could simply kill or drive off one of the extra people and try to revert to a two person group, but that cuts you off from all the extra advantages that having a third person brings to you. You could also try to dominate the other two people by main force, but that's a very risky proposition since they will almost definitely gang up against you. Or you could build alliances.

Let's say that you aren't anything special. Wouldn't it be to your advantage to go out of your way to curry favor with the strongest member of your trio? That way, you minimize the chances of being caught on the short end of the proverbial stick during any altercations. On the other hand, it is quite likely that the other person in your group is going to be doing the same thing. Behold, politics is born.

But what if you are the strongest person in the group? Why should you bother entering into any sort of alliance? First of all, you have become a valuable commodity. If the other members are trying to acquire your favor, you have the ability to put a price on it. You have the ability to require gifts and favors to earn your good graces. You also have the ability to exercise more raw freedom. If another member of your group has something that you want, you might be able to use the leverage provided by the desirability of being in your good graces to simply demand that it be given to you. Power, after all, has its privileges.

With only the presence of three people, we have seen the rudiments of a society being formed in reaction to the rude realities of a dangerous world. It should also be noted that we have also seen the beginnings of social stratification. On the top of the heap we have the alpha member; that person who it is most desirable to ally with (be it for his strength, his cunning, or what not). This person enjoys the majority of the security provided by the three person arrangement with the minimum imposition upon his personal freedom to do as he wishes. Below him, we have the beta person with whom he is most closely allied with. This person also reaps a large amount of the security without suffering too much of an imposition on his freedom, although he must be careful to defer to the wishes of the alpha member, lest he become displaced in his beta role. Then there is the poor gamma who's stuck down at the bottom with the least security and the least personal freedom.

At a glance, it certainly seems like being a king is the best of all possible worlds. It would seem that a king has it made. To a large extent, this is true, but it is not quite so cut and dry as that for the simple reason that this sort of social arrangement has inherent instabilities. If you happen to be a king, what's to prevent you doing anything that you want? Simply put, the threat that if you become too much of a nuisance, the other two people might choose to ally with each other against you, despite the strengths of association with you. Uneasy is the head the wears the crown, after all. Okay, so you can't act with absolute impunity, what if you act reasonably nice to your second in command? Wouldn't that give you lee-way to utterly dump on the odd man out who doesn't have any allies? To an extent, yes, but only up to a certain point. Remember, the reason that you have three people is because three people affords more security than two people. Once you force the third person to cross the threshold where this is no longer the case, what's to prevent him from leaving? Given that two people have a harder time surviving than three people, this isn't something that you want to do. At the very least, you need to keep number three sufficiently happy that he's better off staying in the group than leaving it, nor is it sufficient for you to refrain from abusing three on your own, you also need to prevent your second in command from crossing the line. In short, you need to act as an arbitrator.

Let's say that you come across your two companions (we'll call them Odd and Job) fighting over a piece of meat. Depending on who you favor and what your mood is, you might tell Job to give Odd a third of his meat. This is a very simple and basic form of authority, but it is a further refinement of the concept of right and wrong. In such a situation, crossing the leader is wrong because it puts you in peril of receiving his wrath and ill favor.

Before we go to far in emphasizing the potential arbitrariness, let us remember that there are important objective concerns. Whatever your decision, you must pay attention to the consideration that there is strength in numbers and that if your decision aggrieves one of the members of your party overmuch, you may very well end up having him defect from the group in order to search for better alternatives. In other words, the authority of your decrees rests, in part, upon their perceived justice. If your decisions seem unfair, then you are going to provoke the conclusion that your decision is wrong. But let us say that similar situations keep coming up, and that you find yourself having to constantly arbitrate and re-arbitrate these sorts of conflicts. Wouldn't it be simpler and easier to simply make a rule that applies to these situations? Not only wouldn't you have to keep solving each crisis from scratch, but you would have an objective standard that you could point to every time the situation came up, thus defraying charges that your decision was not just. By creating a pre-defined standard for behavior, you have created the concept of law.

Let us also not forget that the original standard of right and wrong still applies. Some ideas are bad ideas no matter how you cut them, and no matter who issues them. A leader who commands his followers to eat poisonous berries, or who commands ill advised attacks against dangerous prey, is quickly going to lose his authority to issue commands. A leader, on the other hand, who tends to issue judgments that lead people away from dangerous courses of action is going to earn respect, thereby enhancing his authority. In short, there exists a strong motivation to issue smart orders. If one can be perceived as a wise leader, one has even greater latitude in issuing the occasional arbitrary command ("Well, he's led us right so far, so we should probably obey").

As you add more people into the mix (to say nothing of more generations), the level of complexity quickly exponentiates. The need to have pre-established rules of conduct reaches such a degree of importance that it would be impossible to keep your community from tearing itself apart without them. Indeed, in such a complex situation, it can become possible for several different sort of "law complexes" to evolve to meet the varying needs of the culture. One might find, for instance, the official civic law (the rules of behavior that the secular authorities have ordained), a set of informal rules governing interpersonal relationships (etiquette), a set of rules pertaining to a trade (guild rules), a set of rules that apply to a single household (e.g., paternal authority), and so forth. As noted, some of these rules are probably going to be arbitrary (as the size of a civilization grows, so does the power of those in authority, given that they have less to fear from the defections of individual members, not least for the reason that force becomes a viable option with the development of a personal guard or army), but many are going to have a very pragmatic basis to continue issuing good laws (just as the authority of a leader grows with the size of a civilization, so do the risks of issuing decrees that are widely viewed as unjust; with three people, your primary concern is defection but, with three thousand people, your primary fear is going to be revolution).

One additional issue to factor in the mix is the concept of tradition. Once one has a full-blown society going, it makes very little sense for each generation to keep re-inventing the wheel. If a good idea is incorporated into law, the next generation of leaders have a strong reason to retain it. Through the passage of generations, such laws can come to be viewed as the revealed wisdom of the ages and treated with a special degree of respect above and beyond their applied worth. Indeed, even if the circumstances under which a law was formed have changed in the intervening years, the simple weight of its perceived authority can keep it "on the books", as can simple social inertia.

Before I proceed, I want to caution that this hypothetical development of laws is a "just-so" tale. I do not claim that morality developed in this exact fashion. I doubt, for instance, that the first proto-culture began with one person randomly stumbling on another person and decided to team up. For that matter, I don't believe that all the stages that eventually lead to moral development were necessarily enacted by sapient ancestors, or that they necessarily involved conscious cognition. It seems more likely that many of the early milestones in moral development were developed by pre-sentient ancestors in family groups who developed the proto-moral traits under the influence of natural selection. This does not, however, negate the reasons that I have listed for such groupings to work as they do. Regardless of the particular path that humanity took in developing its first moral systems, the same considerations would have been relevant:

  • There is strength in numbers.

  • Any multi-person system is going to have an unequal distribution of power, hence authority, in its structure.

  • There are practical limitations on how arbitrarily authority can be exercised. There must be a perception of fairness.

  • Predefined rules are an aid to the management of authority.

  • As the complexity of a society increases, so the complexity of the rules required to maintain its coherency.

  • Good ideas (along with a certain percentage of arbitrary decrees) tend to be retained.

The Objectivity of Subjectivity

And so, after many detours through hypothetical lands and suppositional histories, we return to the question that faces us: is morality objective or subjective? The answer that I propose is that the form of the question is misleading because it implies that morality must be entirely one or the other when, in fact, morality is a bit of both. I think that the most appropriate answer to the question is that morality is functional. That is to say that the development of moral standards has a practical purpose, that being to facilitate complicated interactions between a relatively large body of individuals. Just as a house shelters us from the elements, morality shelters us from the tempest of anarchy. Morality is nothing less than the architecture of society. Just like architecture, it has components that are arbitrary but, also like architecture, it must meet certain objective requirements. In the same way that one would prefer not to live in a house which is prone to shoot scalding steam from its pipes, so do people prefer to not obey a moral system that is prone to endangering the happiness or welfare of its citizens.

There are those who believe that if morality is not objective in the absolute sense of the term, that morality is a mockery and that the concept of justice is an illusion since any moral system would be just as "valid" as any other, but in the very same sense that one can fairly condemn a house for being unsafe, so can one fairly condemn a system of law for being unjust, despite the fact that the concept of justice is not engraved into the fabric of reality (after all, neither are building codes). Many people are inclined to view this as a fatal dichotomy since it would seem that a judgment must either be objective or capricious and that the entire concept of justice requires the former. Being objective about something that is subjective seems to be hopelessly oxymoronic.

The major problem with this is that, in supposing that something must either be objective or subjective, one falls into the fallacy of bifurcation which supposes that something must either have one of two qualities while ignoring possible middle grounds. In the case of the issue of objectivity vs. subjectivity, professional ice skating offers an example of something that is neither quite completely objective nor subjective. When one watches a skater going through her routine, one can not deny that there is a great deal of artistry in the endeavor and, like any artistic enterprise, there is a degree of subjectivity to ones appreciation of it. This subjectivity is reflected in the divergence of the judge's scores. It is a rare performance that nets a unanimous consensus among the judges. Yet, despite this, figure skating is also a technical skill, and the technical component of the routine can be rated on its objective merits, a fact that can be attested to by the high degree of convergence in the judges scores. Well it is true that the judges scores are rarely identical, it is equally rare that there is a substantial degree of variance, even between the two extremes of the highest and lowest score. Without this objective component, the entire field of figure skating would cease to be a competitive sport (after all, the whole point of competition is to determine the relative skills of the competitors).

But let me be generous to those who see a dichotomy in standards. Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that all moral systems were inherently subjective, right down to the very core. Let us suppose that at the dawn of every civilization, some group of elders gathered together and spun the wheel on a random morality generator. Would this negate our ability to compare the relative worth of various moral systems? Would this mean that every moral system would be just as "valid" as the next. I say no. The reason that I say no is that even though such hypothetical moral systems would be entirely arbitrary, the effects of the system could still be judged by objective criteria. Let us say that you generate a moral system that lacks any prohibitions against killing, and I happen to generate one that does. After we do so, we have the ability to stand back and see what sort of impact our separate systems have on our respective societies.

The strength of the architectural perspective is that it not only gives us a criteria by which we can measure the relative worth of moral templates, but it gives us one that it rooted in the essential reasons that societies exist in the first place. First and foremost, it is preferable to live in a society because societies afford us protections and benefits that mere anarchy can not. This is the primary social mandate. The objective worth of a society is based upon how well it functions to serve that mandate for its existence. In the case of the killing vs. non-killing societies, it doesn't take a great deal of effort to see why it would be a bad idea to allow random killing: to do so would have a strong negative impact upon the safety and happiness of the citizenry. Such a society would be inherently unstable since its members would have cause to reject the justice of such a situation in favor of one that protected them against random death at the hands of others. Prohibiting murder doesn't simply have arbitrary value, it has objective merit when viewed from a social context. Murder is wrong because, when you strip the question down to its most pragmatic roots, it is a mistake to allow its existence in a society. Let us also remember that something can have an objective benefit to a society even if the only benefit that it provides is aesthetic or emotional. A law mandated a certain ceremony of succession, for instance, may serve no other pragmatic function other then to kindle a sense of national unity and pride, however the existence of national unity and pride can have quite a bit of worth when it comes to providing for the happiness of the citizenry.

Even as moral functionalism denies the need for a monolithic objective standard, it also explodes the myth that there can be no comparisons between moral systems. This either/or standard has muddied the waters of moral debate for far too long, impeding our ability to reach a reasonable consensus on a diversity of moral issues. To give one highly charged example, one side cries that female genital circumcision is evil, while the other responds that the cultures of the world can not be expected to comply with European standards of morality. With a functionalist architecture, it is possible to agree to the latter while still condemning the former for mandating significant harm against a large and largely helpless segment of a culturs population.


Humans are social animals. Building social structures is so much a part of our nature that the very function of these structures can be hard for us to appreciate. By introducing the analogy of architecture to our moral and social systems, I hope to provide a paradigm that will help us to think about them in a new and clearer way.

Just as the walls of our houses protect us from violent weather, so to do the walls of our societies protect us from an existence that would, bluntly, lead to vast amounts of death should they fall (as the Bosnian and Rwandan wars so aptly demonstrated). Likewise, home ownership requires us to acknowledge that living in a house can invite novel risks. A poorly designed house may offer protection from the elements while introducing novel dangers from within. By viewing morality as a social edifice, we can make ourselves cognizant of these dangers while simultaneously acknowledging that there are many ways to keep a good house.

We can also learn to be good neighbors. Being a good neighbor doesn't mean locking your doors and stubbornly insisting that there is only one legitimate way to keep house (and it certainly doesn't mean breaking into your neighbors house and re-arranging the furniture and installing new plumbing at gun point), but it also doesn't mean keeping a polite silence when your neighbor has rotting beams or exposed wiring. Although it is, perhaps, hopelessly naive of me, it is my hope that one day we will be able to address the complexities of conflicting moral viewpoints as calmly and as level-headedly as are able to contemplate the architecture of Bildungäard.

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