Le Grand K - Our Need for a Moral Constant
Cooperation requires common standards, but how do we address this when it comes to morality and society?
Working with other people on reasonably complex projects requires some standardization to ensure that each part can go together.
That's self-evident and uncontroversial when it comes to building a ship, or bridge, or sending satellites to other planets.
But when it comes to building a society, having a standardized system of measuring actions and behavior is much more difficult.
Physical standards, as complex and critical as they are, are simple and superficial compared to moral standards. Building a bridge is easier than building a society. Orbiting Mars is easier than bringing hundreds of millions of diverse—and even opposed—people to gather around a common goal.
Our Moral and Social Problem:
Due to our advanced physical standards, we are in an age where we can measure quantities to the smallest units imaginable, but our ability to measure morality and truth is poor.
Our scales of commerce can measure exactly whether someone has used inaccurate measurements in a sale, but our scales of justice can't provide consistent consensus on whether it was wrong or right.
Standardization permits cooperation.
When building a bridge, everyone needs to be using the same units: if one team is using yards and others are using meters, the bridge will fail. When conducting trade, people need to be using the same units (weight, volume, numbering system, currency).
Unit conversion, constants, and currency
Unit conversion: Ok, so people can work together while using different units, but only if everyone is doing unit conversion properly. And to do that, everyone has to be referencing the same constant.
Constants: Constants are the underlying, unchanging truths that we base meaning off of. I'll get to this in a moment, but the only way that we can convert pounds to kilograms is because the pound and the kilogram are defined by the same constant value.
It is a pain to clarify that throughout the whole thing, so I'll largely use units and constants interchangeably. But I really just mean constants.
Currency: Currency is a little weird. Since adopting fiat currency, money isn't tied to a true constant value. Two thoughts here: First, when it comes to value, money is an intermediary to speed up bartering, which is really just determining things like how many kilograms of potatoes are worth 1 kilogram of eggs; money means that price discovery only needs to occur for one item in a sale (how much money is a kilogram of potatoes worth) rather than both items (how much is a kilogram of potato worth, and how much is a kilogram of eggs worth). Second, when it comes to exchange rates, currency has floating exchange rates, but the variability at a given point in time is minimal. If it is not, then it is exploited through arbitrage and some people make a lot of money and others lose money. And there are contractual provisions that buyers and sellers can utilize to lock in exchange rates or otherwise mitigate currency risk.
Discord amid Benevolence
As we will see shortly with the Vasa, the Laufenberg Bridge, and the Mars Climate Orbiter, people (even well-meaning people working together on a project they are jointly invested in) still experience confusion, conflict, and failure when they are using different measurements.
The same applies in morality, and no amount of good intentions or shared interests can outweigh varied standards. Being well-meaning and generally full of the milk of human kindness is no protection against division.
A note on intentions
It is absolutely absurd to say "Well, I have good intentions and a moral compass, but it is the people who disagree with me who have bad intentions or lack a moral compass." or to say "Oh, those people who disagree with me are so blinded by their bad ideology that they can't really have good intentions."
Let me gently say here that you are suffering from arrogance, or closed-mindedness, or both, if you can't point to people in your life of whom you can truly say "I think that person has closely-held views that are wrong and harmful to themselves and others, yet I believe they are a well-intentioned, reasonable person that I love and respect."
Failures from Mixed Standards
Let's look at three times when varied standards resulted in failure:
In 1628 the Swedish warship Vasa, the strongest warship in the world, sank immediately after it was launched.
The Mars Climate Orbiter:
The Mars Climate Orbiter travelled nine months through space to its destination, only to disintegrate in the atmosphere rather than entering orbit.
The Laufenburg Bridge:
Germany and Switzerland jointly built Laufenburg Bridge to join the German and Swiss sides of the town of Laufenburg. They started building from their respective sides, and in 2003 discovered that the bridge wasn't going to meet in the middle.
Humans have always used standards, and we have pushed to make our standards more consistent and more absolute. Standards like grains, stone, shekels, and pounds, were eventually replaced by the meter and kilogram. How?
A Constant Standard
In the 1700s and 1800s, the Kilogram was adopted as a unit of weight, but in order for it to be truly useful in a rapidly globalizing world, it needed to be universal.
The Kilogram was based off the mass of one litre of water. But water's density changes based on its temperature, pressurization, and purity (and of course, everyone needs to be using the same litre for this measurement to be valuable). So the Kilogram was defined more precisely:
Great pains were taken to ensure that its mass didn't change: it was held in an environmentally-monitored safe, within a vault near Paris, that required three separate keys to access. Despite all of these protections, the mass of Le Grand K fluctuated every-so-slightly over time, apparently as a result of absorbing atoms from the atmosphere, and losing atoms when it was picked up or cleaned.
Copies were made and held by a few nations, but Le Grand K remained the definition.
You might wonder here, "well, what about pounds?" The US uses the avoirdupois pound, which is defined by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) as 0.45359237 kilogram. Similarly, we define our units of length (like the yard or foot) by the meter. So, while the US doesn't officially use the Metric system, we kind of do, since our measurements are defined by the Metric system.
More importantly, we use the same constants that the Metric system does.
In 2019, the Kilogram was redefined again; it is now equal to the result of an equation involving three constant values: the speed of light, Planck's Constant, and the Caesium Standard (measuring time through radioactive decay).
Kinds of Standards
This march toward constant-defined measurements shows several kinds of standards; the best standards are based on something sturdy, solid, and trustworthy. Something that doesn't change.
Consistency Alone: Arbitrary standards
For some tasks, rough consistency is required, but truth is unnecessary.
The first kind of standards humans used were roughly consistent measurements everyone had access to: units like the cubit—the length of an arm from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger—and later on the more-consistent "foot".
The Vasa, for example, just needed consistent standards. It didn't matter whether the Swedish or Amsterdam foot was being used, everything merely need to be roughly consistent and proportional.
The moral equivalent of standards like the cubit or the Amsterdam or Swedish foot permit social cooperation on tribal or affinity lines: groups naturally form among people whose self-defined moral measurement is similar enough that they can cooperate.
The cubit was underpinned by a shared physical characteristic—the length of an arm—where there was a relatively low amount of variability. Arbitrary moral standards are underpinned by a shared social characteristic, where there is a very high amount of variability—people have wildly diverging values, opinions, experiences, and characteristics. Those underpinning social characteristic can be things like:
- Shared ethnicity
- Shared intellectual interests
- Shared political beliefs
- Shared religion
- Shared culture
- Shared sexual identity or expression
- Shared experiences or background
While even an arbitrary moral standard can be consistent enough for small groups to cooperate, greater consistency is required for cooperation in larger groups, or for more reliable outcomes.
Consistency supported by truth: approximated standards
Greater tasks require standards based in truth.
Le Grand K was a consistent measurement, AND it was based on an approximate measurement of an objective truth—using the mass of a litre of water was an attempt to standardize on the mass of a specific quantity of water molecules.
It was only an approximation of that objective measure, but it was the best way we could come up with consistent measures based off our understanding of truth.
Socially we have no moral standard that approaches the level of consistency and adoption of Le Grand K. Our best equivalent are broadly-supported moral statements like "be kind to others," "love people," and "do good."
Those statements are based on an attempted approximation of the truth: that kindness is good, that love is good, and that goodness is good. But without a clear definition of "good," our moral standards are fundamentally arbitrary and slide back into the category of "Consistency Alone."
Truth: immutable standards
The best standards are defined by truth, and enable solving the hardest tasks.
Because truth itself is consistent, the consistency of standards based on truth is assured.
The current standard for the Kilogram is based on fundamental truths that we know about the universe. Our greater knowledge of truth has allowed us to adopt a more consistent standard. As a NIST physicist said after the definition was updated: "Now a kilogram will have the same mass whether you are on Earth, on Mars or in the Andromeda galaxy."
Our Moral Need
Ok, I hope you enjoyed the intriguing little history lesson (I thought it was pretty fascinating), but now we'll get to the meat of the thought here.
Standards to Permit Social Advancement
Three Notes on Constants
Constants, like the speed of light, or Planck's constant, or the rate at which Caesium decays, aren't constants because we decided they should be constants and fixed them in place ourselves, they are constants because they don't change.
Constants can't be found inside changeable things like people, cultures, laws, or religions.
A Constant is External
A constant is external. It looms over me, and I can't prevail upon it to change. My wants, even my needs, have no bearing on the constant.
Even if I'm starving, my desire can't increase the mass of food that I do have. Even if I'm in agony in a race, I can't shorten the remaining distance.
This externality gives science its best glory: making science a determined pursuit of the truth, with testing and analysis and challenge along the way to ensure that what is produced is true, even if it is not what was desired.
In the same way, moral constants are external, and desire or need can't shift the underlying constant.
A Constant is Exclusive
Constants are necessarily exclusive, they cannot have multiple values (otherwise they would be a variable). There is only one speed that equals the speed of light. There is only one decay rate that is equal to Caesium's decay rate.
A Constant is Not a Code
Constant are discovered, not created. Moral codes are created and are therefore unstable.
Moral constants provide a standard that is unprejudiced by desire, bias, or experience.
A Moral Constant
It would be convenient and helpful if such a thing existed, but it doesn't, right? How would we even find a moral constant? And even if we could, wouldn't we have discovered and adopted it already?
An Aversion to Constants
Moral constants aren't actually all that appealing, so there are lots of reasons why we wouldn't have adopted a moral constant, even if it did exist and we could discover it.
Standards for physical measurement are easy to convey and defend, yet they haven't received universal adoption. The US, for example, has held out against common adoption of the Metric standard in part because adopting Metric feels too much like surrendering our autonomy.
Since morality is so sensitive and since constants are external, the idea of a moral constant is almost inherently offensive. The natural human reaction to a moral standard is to ignore or accept it as long as we don't think it affects us, or to reject it as an affront to our autonomy if it does impinge on our interests.
The combination of these two things is hypocrisy: accepting a moral standard except when it impacts me.
The True Constant
The true constant—that we should seek to know and off of whom we can base usable standards—is God.
Not "god" or "a god" or "the concept of god/goodness/eternal accountability" or "some higher power." Those are all subjective, and while they might improve behavior and allow for cooperation among groups they cannot be constant. When I say "God" here I mean the triune God of the Bible.
I'm not going to try to convince you that God exists.
Instead, I want to point out there is a critical social problem, that our common approaches of religion or good intentions or politics or empathy can't solve it, and that God does indeed solve that problem.
Would it be good if these things were true? And does this God indeed provide a moral constant that would lead to a more cooperative, just, and free society?
God is Moral
Like Le Grand K was a kilogram, God is good.
God is good. He can't be a constant unless He is good in Himself, so we'll start with goodness and morality before talking about His constancy. If God is merely a concept people have come up with to be a mascot for our definition of goodness, then that isn't God, it is just an arbitrary standard with fancy name.
This is some of how people in the Bible talk about God (all emphasis mine):
For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you.
-The psalmist describing God in Psalm 5:4
"Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever."
-The psalmist describing following God in Psalm 23:6
You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong
-Habakkuk asking God why evil exists on earth in Habakkuk 1:13
He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
-Micah telling Israel what God has required of them Micah 6:8
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
-Jesus's disciple James explaining what God wants James 1:27
So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.
-Jesus's disciple John describing God in 1 John 4:16
Aren't these all good things? Caring for the weak and vulnerable, hating evil, being full of mercy and goodness, just and kind, not merely being loving, but being love!
This is some of how God (God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit) talks about Himself:
“The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet He does not leave the guilty unpunished; He punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.”
-God speaking His name in Exodus 34:6-7
And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone."
-Jesus responding to a man in Mark 10:18 who asked him how to inherit eternal life
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."
-Jesus speaking to his disciples and telling them the way to heaven John 14:6
The God who is described here is good, and has no evil in Him and can't support or ignore evil. He is a suitable standard for Morality, but is He constant?
God is Constant
God is constant and complete; full to the brim with goodness and power and justice and mercy.
The Bible talks at great length about God's steadfastness, constancy, His unchanging nature, and his impartiality:
"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
-Jesus giving the 'Great Commission' to his disciples in Matthew 28:18-20
"Also the Glory of Israel will not lie or change His mind; for He is not a man that He should change His mind.”
-The prophet Samuel in 1 Samuel 15:29
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.
-James in James 1:17
My brothers, as you hold out your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, do not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meetinga wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. If you lavish attention on the man in fine clothes and say, “Here is a seat of honor,” but say to the poor man, “You must stand” or “Sit at my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
-James in James 2:1-4
Of old you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you will remain; they will all wear out like a garment. You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away, but you are the same, and your years have no end.
-The psalmist talking about God in Psalm 102:25-27
Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.
-Isaiah speaking of God everlasting nature in Isaiah 40:28
"I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”
-God in Revelation 22:13
The God we see described here is not just good, but He is constant: He doesn't change under any circumstances, and is a sturdy foundation on which to build our lives and our morality—the only sturdy foundation.
Remember how constants are external? Part of this means that we won't always like God's constancy. All constants bring some discomfort—since by definition they don't conform to us or our desires. Remember also how constants are exclusive? God is exclusive, as we see in Acts 4:12, John 14:6, 1 Timothy 2:5, and John 3:36. Being angry about God's constancy or exclusivity is as silly, futile, and arrogant as being angry about the speed of light.
God's Justice and Holiness seem too harsh to some people, others find God's Mercy and Love to be too generous. Others find His exclusivity offensive. But if God is the only true moral constant, this makes sense. If He is the only suitable source of a moral standard, then it makes sense that as we fall out of tune with Him our moral sensibilities will conflict with the constant.
While it is uncomfortable or offensive to experience that, our only reasonable action is to re-calibrate our moral standards to be based off the constant.
But how do we do that, and can it even be done reliably?
'Measuring' the Constant
The speed of light, Planck's constant, and Caesium's rate of radioactive decay are all constants but:
- it took humans a while to discover them, and
- even after discovering them we have measured them incorrectly and imprecisely.
So, if God does exist, is good, and is constant, can humans have any usable 'measurements' of God? Yes! But there are some differences to how we would measure physical constants.
Can we perceive God?
Standards of physical measurements are dependent on the sensory capabilities of our physical organs and on the tools that allow us to enhance those senses and observe the constants underlying our measurements.
We have more senses than just our basic five senses. With some of these senses, we 'feel' things that we can't trace back to a physical perception.
For example, the renowned and beloved hunter and conservationist Jim Corbett recounts the working of one such sense—which he calls "Jungle Sensitiveness"—in Chapter Twelve of his book "Jungle Lore":
This sense, which can be acquired only by living in the jungles in close association with wild life, is the development of the subconscious warning of danger.
Many individuals can testify to having avoided trouble by acting on an impulse that came how they knew not, and that warned their subconscious being against an impending danger.
C.S. Lewis also addresses our ability to sense and understand non-physical things in his essay "Transposition" where he beautifully and effectively talks about how we have emotional (non-physical) experiences that are 'transposed' into our physical sensations:
...But the correspondence between emotion and sensation turns out not to be [one to one]...If the richer system is to be represented in the poorer at all, this can only be by giving each element in the poorer system more than one meaning. The transposition of the richer into the poorer must, so to speak, be algebraical, not arithmetical...If you are making a piano version of a piece originally scored for an orchestra, then the same piano notes which represent flutes in one passage must also represent violins in another.
I take our emotional life to be "higher" than the life of our sensations--not, of course, morally higher, but richer, more varied, more subtle. And this is a higher level which nearly all of us know. And I believe that if anyone watches carefully the relation between his emotions and his sensations he will discover the following facts; (1) that the nerves do respond, and in a sense most adequately and exquisitely, to the emotions; (2) that their resources are far more limited, the possible variations of sense far fewer, than those of emotion; (3) and that the senses compensate for this by using the same sensation to express more than one emotion--even, as we have seen, to express opposite emotions.
We interact with the world with our physical bodies but we also have a faculty to sense and know things that, while 'knowing' may be expressed through physical sensations, comes from a non-physical method of perception.
It is in large part this method of perception that we use to perceive God, although we also use reason and conscience.
As with any sense or method of perception, our sensory abilities can increase through proper use of our senses.
What about bad measurements?
People have worshipped many gods, with some claiming theirs was the only true god. Other times people have used God's name to attempt to justify terrible things. Do those false measurements mean that God isn't a true moral constant?
I don't think that is a reasonable stance.
Other people's incorrect measurements of a constant don't mean that the constant is bad, merely that their measurement is.
Similarly, other people's incorrect measurements don't mean that the constant isn't constant or that it can't be perceived and measured.
It also doesn't make the speed of light an improper constant off of which to base standards—it just means the measurement was faulty and the resultant standard was therefore faulty as well.
God is Constant AND Alive
One key difference between God and physical constants is that God is a living person, not just an inanimate fact.
God is alive: 1 Thessalonians 1:9 calls God the "living and true God." Jeremiah 10:10 says the same: "But the Lord is the true God; He is the living God, the eternal King."
God is personal: Exodus 33:11 says "Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend."
Humans may never measure the speed of light with perfect accuracy to the very last decimal place, and in a similar way God can't be 'measured' in the sense of being fully bounded and defined. But He can be perceived and known.
Because God is alive and personal (and because He is good) you can ask God who He is.
Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.
-Jesus speaking in Revelation 3:20
Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me awith all your heart.
God speaking in Jeremiah 29:12-13
The Kingdom of Heaven
Ok, so society needs to root our moral standards in a moral constant, and God is the only true moral constant. But what would that ever look like?
There is a society where this will be the case: where all people from different cultures, tribes and social groups, backgrounds, and languages will join together with a true and shared understanding of good. There will be no more evil, death, mourning, crying, or pain.
People will cooperate together in the most complex and fulfilling undertaking ever: the worship and enjoyment of the good and unchanging God.
In reading the last couple chapters of Revelation, you see this society described with beauty, glory, satisfaction, safety and security, love, life, joy, light, and feasting.
While this society is the end state of the universe, it isn't the global state right now. But it is something you can join by basing your life on the True Moral Constant, by recognizing God is constant and good, and bringing your will into alignment with His.
Despite the humor of the pun, in a very real sense God must be our ruler; how we measure goodness and morality, as well as who we yield to.
If you are willing to be ruled by God, then ask this God—who is constantly, unchangingly, entirely good—to show Himself to you, and to help you know, believe, and follow Him.