Tangible vs. Abstract Structures

The last time you watched a good movie, did you feel passionate about the protagonist’s wellbeing? Yes, you did. (I set you up here. I said, “good movie,” and characters you feel passionate about are part of what makes a good movie “good.”) When listing relevant structures, we usually think of “real” structures first, and by “real” I mean: physical. There are physical relevant structures like water supply, food, and family. Some physical relevant structures like family are emotionally relevant too. Others we are not aware of, like a city’s water supply, or our roads and bridges, until they break down.

There is another dimension of relevant structures. The structures in this other dimension are not “real,” not physical like houses or cities. Structures like stories and philosophies are not physical. We could call them “abstract,” “virtual” or “ideas.”

It does not really matter what we call them – in the theory of our Metaethics-project we do not differentiate between abstract and tangible structures. This has two reasons.

Photo by Bill Wegener

Photo by Bill Wegener

Firstly, in real life situations the abstract and the tangible often interact and become inseparable, even conceptually. Think of a religion, where an idea becomes a tangible ritual, which then again forms and influences its ideas. Or think of a company, where an idea becomes a product, from which new ideas arise – and ideally also tangible wealth for founders, investors, employees and the community.

Secondly, as we are talking about ethical feelings, we assume that all relevance that humans feel, is always mediated by a person’s inner concept of the relevant structure. While your children are usually “real” and the protagonist of a novel usually is not, the concept, that you have of either, is real or unreal in the same way. In your mind, everything becomes a concept and thus abstract. (At this point, a nod to Idealism.)

Your idea of Mickey Mouse is no more or less “real” than your idea of the Disney Corporation Headquarters. Your idea of the American Dream (an abstract, yet powerful structure) is no more or less real than your idea of cheeseburgers or surfboards, structures that are as real as they come.

For the theoretical foundations of Metaethics it makes little to no difference whether the relevant structure is tangible or abstract. Often, purely abstract ideas feel a lot more relevant than purely physical ones. We have more respect for a man sacrificing himself for an idea than for someone giving up his life for things.

Non-tangible structures become extra interesting on their own, when we leave basic theory behind and start examining our own lives.

What mostly abstract structures feel relevant to you?