The elemental ethicon

William P. Cheshire

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


It is the nature of ethics to hold in tension contrasting ideas. Their relationship may be complementary, in which case inclusion of differing perspectives enriches and enlarges understanding. Elsewhere ideas may conflict, resulting in a dilemma, resolution of which involves deciding in light of first principles or predicted consequences. At the heart of many ethical dilemmas is the question of how to bridge the gap between fact and value. Attempts to derive an "ought" from an "is," or a principle of value from an empirical fact, are open to accusations of committing the naturalistic fallacy. This crucial distinction resembles the seemingly unbridgeable mathematical divide in physics between theories of the subatomic and cosmic realms. Both disciplines, ethics and physics, rest on an uneasy balance of two theoretical frameworks that, although having logical integrity within their own domains, yet are mutually incompatible. This leads in ethics to the enigma of whether there is a moral aspect to reality and how it can be reliably known and objectively demonstrated. This leads in physics to the enduring puzzle of the seeming impossibility of explaining the law of gravity in terms of quantum field theory. The latest reconciliatory effort in physics seeks evidence of the graviton, a hypothetical fundamental particle which, if found, could combine the physical sciences into a single formulation to explain all natural phenomena. A corresponding project in ethics might be to locate the "ethicon," the fundamental explanatory particle, the behavior of which would provide a factual basis for weighty matters of morality, make sense of right and wrong, and answer objectively questions of origin, meaning, and purpose. Ultimately, however, the particular answer to moral questions might not, after all, be a particle.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)71-82
Number of pages12
JournalEthics and Medicine
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2016

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Religious studies
  • Philosophy
  • Health Policy


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