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An Amoral Manifesto (Part I)

A special extended column from our (erstwhile) Moral Moments columnist Joel Marks.

I. Hard Atheism or What Shall I Name This Column?

Hold onto your hats, folks. Although it is perhaps fitting that the actual day on which I sit here at my computer writing this column is April 1st, let me assure you that I do not intend this as a joke. For the last couple of years I have been reflecting on and experimenting with a new ethics, and as a result I have thrown over my previous commitment to Kantianism. In fact, I have given up morality altogether! This has certainly come as a shock to me (and also a disappointment, to put it mildly). I think the time has come, therefore, to reveal it to the world, and in particular to you, Dear Reader, who have patiently considered my defenses of a particular sort of moral theory for the last ten years. In a word, this philosopher has long been laboring under an unexamined assumption, namely, that there is such a thing as right and wrong. I now believe there isn’t.

How I arrived at this conclusion is the subject of a book I have written during this recent period (tentatively titled Bad Faith: A Personal Memoir on Atheism, Amorality, and Animals). The long and the short of it is that I became convinced that atheism implies amorality; and since I am an atheist, I must therefore embrace amorality. I call the premise of this argument ‘hard atheism’ because it is analogous to a thesis in philosophy known as ‘hard determinism.’ The latter holds that if metaphysical determinism is true, then there is no such thing as free will. Thus, a ‘soft determinist’ believes that, even if your reading of this column right now has followed by causal necessity from the Big Bang fourteen billion years ago, you can still meaningfully be said to have freely chosen to read it. Analogously, a ‘soft atheist’ would hold that one could be an atheist and still believe in morality. And indeed, the whole crop of ‘New Atheists’ (see Issue 78) are softies of this kind. So was I, until I experienced my shocking epiphany that the religious fundamentalists are correct: without God, there is no morality. But they are incorrect, I still believe, about there being a God. Hence, I believe, there is no morality.

Why do I now accept hard atheism? I was struck by salient parallels between religion and morality, especially that both avail themselves of imperatives or commands, which are intended to apply universally. In the case of religion, and most obviously theism, these commands emanate from a Commander; “and this all people call God,” as Aquinas might have put it. The problem with theism is of course the shaky grounds for believing in God. But the problem with morality, I now maintain, is that it is in even worse shape than religion in this regard; for if there were a God, His issuing commands would make some kind of sense. But if there is no God, as of course atheists assert, then what sense could be made of there being commands of this sort? In sum, while theists take the obvious existence of moral commands to be a kind of proof of the existence of a Commander, i.e., God, I now take the non-existence of a Commander as a kind of proof that there are no Commands, i.e., morality.

Note the analogy to Darwinism. It used to be a standard argument for God’s existence that the obvious and abundant design of the universe, as manifested particularly in the elegant fit of organisms to their environments, indicated the existence of a divine designer. Now we know that biological evolution can account for this fit perfectly without recourse to God. Hence, no Designer, no Design; there is only the appearance of design in nature (excepting such artifacts as beaver dams, bird nests, and architects’ blueprints). Just so, there are no moral commands but only the appearance of them, which can be explained by selection (by the natural environment, culture, family, etc.) of behavior and motives (‘moral intuitions’ or ‘conscience’) that best promote survival of the organism. There need be no recourse to Morality any more than to God to account for these phenomena.

I cannot hope to make all of that convincing to my readers in the short space of a column: hence the book I have written. But even in the book I am not attempting so much to give a rigorous proof as to consider the aftereffects of my counter-conversion (to apply William James’s term for the loss of religious belief to my loss of moral belief). What is it like to live in a world without morality? Is such a life even viable? This is what I had to discover before I could so much as walk out my front door! That is why the first draft of my book was written in an urgent rush, almost without my leaving the house. (Fortunately I am retired and sans famille.) I was reeling – much as, I imagine, a religious believer whose whole life has been based on a fervent belief in the Almighty, would find herself without bearings or even any ground to stand on if suddenly that belief were to vanish, no matter whether by proof of just by poof! Just so, morality has been the essence of my existence, both personally and professionally. Now it is no more.

Does this mean, among other things, that this column will end? I hope not! The book is only the beginning. I must learn how to live life all over again, like a child learning to walk. And just as a child growing up discovers one fascinating thing after another about the ‘new’ world, so the floodgates have been opened for me from a sea of possibilities. For, yes Virginia, there is life after morality, and I would like to report back to you as I experience it.

There is just one thing, though: I might have to change the name of my column. ‘Moral Moments’ now seems problematical, to say the least. ‘Amoral Moments’ would be closer to the mark (and to Marks). One thing that hasn’t changed, however, as you can see, is that my writing is still filled with similes, allusions, mixed metaphors, and bad puns. Fortunately I can now rest assured that in persisting with these I am doing nothing wrong.

II. In the Mode of Morality

I have relinquished the mantel of the moralist since I no longer believe there even is such a thing as morality. How, then, shall one live? One thing to note is that in asking that question I am able to retain the title of ethicist, for ethics is just the inquiry into how to live. This suggests a new name for my column, namely, ‘Ethical and other Episodes’, in which I hope in due course to articulate my answer in full. But I would also like to suggest at the outset of this undertaking that, even though an amoralist, I can still engage in moral argumentation … and in good conscience (so to speak!).

Consider that for the foreseeable future I will be living in a society that continues to pay homage to morality and believe in its reality implicitly. So I am likely to be confronted time and again by a question like, “Do you believe x is wrong?” It would usually be hopeless to attempt to refashion the question into an amoralist mode of speaking; at the very least this would change the subject from the particular issue under discussion, say, vivisection, to an abstract issue in meta-ethics, namely, whether there is such a thing as wrongness. But there is still a way I could answer the question both honestly and effectively. Thus, I could reply, “Vivisection is wrong according to morality as I conceive it.” For that reply is not asserting that vivisection is wrong, only that, according to morality (as I conceive morality) it is wrong. In the abstract this has no more force than if one were to say, “Unicorns are a type of horse (according to the common conception of unicorns).” In other words, there is no implication that unicorns actually exist, nor, all the more, that, say, a person could possibly find one for the purpose of trying to ride her.

Note further that it is possible to argue about these things whose existence is not being asserted. Thus, I could say, “Vivisection is wrong (in my conception of morality) because it involves treating sentient beings merely as means.” This is of course a kind of Kantian justification for my claim. And I would offer it as an argument that I believe to be perfectly sound because (1) it articulates the analysis of morality that I consider to be the correct one, namely, Kant’s categorical imperative (suitably modified to accommodate nonhuman animals), (2) it characterizes vivisection in a way that I consider to be correct, namely, as violating the Kantian imperative, and (3) it logically draws its conclusion therefrom. Again this would be just as if I had argued, “Santa Claus could not possibly be mistaken for Popeye because Santa Claus has a big beard while Popeye is barefaced.”

Thus, I am become like the father in this joke – courtesy of my attorney’s rabbi – about a Jewish boy from a liberal family who attends the neighborhood parochial (Christian) school:

One day Isaac comes home in great puzzlement about what he had been taught in school that day; so he goes to his father and asks him about it.

“Father, I learned that God is a Trinity. But how can there be three Gods?”

“Now get this straight, Son: We’re Jewish. So there is only one God … and we don’t believe in Him!”

Just so, I no longer believe in morality (like God in the joke), but I would still insist that the nature of morality is Kantian (monotheism in the joke) rather than utilitarian (Trinitarianism in the joke).

Now, if I were to employ this technique without elaboration, it could easily be part of a deceptive strategy, since it is likely that people would assume I was defending something outright rather than only hypothetically. A statement like “If anything is wrong, this is” is naturally interpreted as a rhetorical emphasis of just how wrong the speaker considers this to be. But if I, as an amoralist, were to say “If anything is wrong, vivisection is,” I would mean it literally, not rhetorically; that is, the ‘if’ would have real force for me, even suggesting that I do not believe that anything is wrong (since morality does not exist): all the more, that I do not believe that vivisection is wrong. (Of course that does not mean I think vivisection is right or even permissible, since those are moral notions also. I just don’t like vivisection.) So my intention in making the utterance would be at variance with the impression it would leave in my listener’s mind; and knowing this, I would be a deceiver.

However, if I were only trying to persuade a Kantian vivisectionist of the error of her ways, its usage, it seems to me, would pass muster even morally. I would be using reasoning to show my interlocutor that what she was doing violated her own moral/theoretical commitments. My own view of morality itself would be irrelevant; my interlocutor can assume what she likes about my meta-ethics. It would be exactly as if I were talking with a religious believer about the proper treatment of other animals: whether or not the believer knew I was an atheist, it would be perfectly proper for me to try to convince her that there is Biblical support for a benign ‘stewardship’ of other animals – would it not? I need not believe in the concept of stewardship myself, nor in its divine sanction, in order to invoke it undeceivingly when arguing with someone who does. Just so, it seems to me, morality.

Rather aptly, I now realize, I have been led to a sort of Socratic mode of moral argumentation. Socrates was notorious for interrogating his interlocutors rather than asserting and defending theses himself. Similarly, I am suggesting, I will continue to be able to hold forth as a critical moral reasoner, even though I no longer believe in morality, so long as I confine myself to questioning the inferences of others (and gingerly deflect their questions about my own moral commitments by speaking in the mode of morality, as above). It is true that I would thereby fail to be completely forthcoming about my own meta-ethics whenever doing so would be disruptive to the dialogue; but I do not think I would be doing anything that is considered unkosher even when moralists are arguing among themselves. After all, my meta-ethics could be mistaken; maybe there is such a thing as morality. So my ‘suspension of disbelief’ could be conceived as an expression of intellectual humility, and my arguments considered in themselves by the intellectual light of my interlocutor.

The bottom line for me, as both a philosopher and the possessor of a particular personality, is that I do not ‘suffer fools gladly.’ This has always been true of me, but it used to be supplemented by a belief (or assumption) in morality. Now that I have turned the philosophic eye on my own largely unexamined assumption that morality exists, I see that I have been a moral fool. But I retain my belief (or assumption) in Truth as such, as well as my pig-headed allegiance to it. Thus, I shall henceforth apply a skeptical scalpel to the moral arguments of all, unsparing even of the ones I have been sympathetic to as a moralist, since all of them, I now believe, are premised on a bogus metaphysics. For it is intellectual dishonesty or na ïveté that I am most temperamentally disposed to dislike, even as I retain my passionate preferences for certain ‘causes,’ such as animal liberation.

III. Desirism

I have explained how an amoralist, such as I have become, could still continue to argue in the mode of morality. Although this risks being deceptive and hypocritical, it can also be done aboveboard because the amoralist could be appealing to his or her interlocutor’s (or reader’s) moralism. This is analogous to how a native speaker of English might nonetheless, with some knowledge of other languages, be able to point out a grammatical mistake being made by someone speaking in French. Thus for example, if I were conversing with someone who believed that meat-eating is morally good because it promotes the greatest good of the greatest number, I could point out that this utilitarian credo is supposed to apply to all sentient beings and not only to human beings; so that if one tallied up the net pleasure and pain being experienced not only by the human meat-eaters but also by the animals being bred and slaughtered for eating under the current regime of factory farming, one would likely conclude that eating meat does not lead to the greatest good and hence is wrong. Meanwhile, I myself, as an amoralist, believe meat-eating is neither right nor wrong; but I would have done nothing dishonest in convincing my interlocutor that it is wrong, that is, by her lights.

But why would I even care whether I was being honest or not? Isn’t that, again, something an amoralist would be indifferent to? Strictly speaking, yes. But an amoralist still has a compass, a ‘guide to life’, an ethics, or so I would argue; and it can be a match for anybody’s morality. Thus, consider that in purely practical terms, honesty may still be the best policy. A reputation for truth-telling will likely make one a more attractive person to do (literal or figurative) business with, which will enable one to thrive relative to one’s less scrupulous competitors. Thus, ‘survival of the fittest’ could naturally promote honesty as a prevalent trait even in the absence of any moral concern.

There I am, then, honestly discussing particular issues with opponents, and justifying my positions to them by their moral lights. But how do I justify them to myself, since I have no moral lights anymore? For example, on what basis would I myself be a vegetarian? The answer, in a word, is desire. I want animals, human or otherwise, not to suffer or to die prematurely for purposes that I consider trivial, not to mention counterproductive of human happiness. For the vast majority of human beings in the world today, meat-eating is a mere luxury or habit of taste, while at the same time it promotes animal cruelty and slaughter, environmental degradation, global warming, human disease, and even human starvation (the latter due to the highly inefficient conversion of plant protein to animal protein for human consumption). For whatever reason or reasons, or even no reason, these things matter to me. Therefore I am motivated to act on the relevant desires.

But if I were conversing with another amoralist, how would I convince her of the rightness of my desires? Well, of course, I wouldn’t even try, since neither of us believes in right, or wrong. What I could do is take her through the same considerations that have moved me to my position and hope that her heartstrings were tuned in harmony with mine. If the two of us have grown up in the same culture, we will certainly have many desires in common. For example, we may both be averse to animal suffering and cruelty to animals. But even within the same society, there can be large differences in knowledge. I speak from personal experience regarding even my own knowledge, for, to stay with my example, I was blissfully unaware of the horrors of factory farming until only a few years ago. Most people in our society continue to be, even though the practice has been prevalent for the last fifty years. Thus, there is a good chance that I would be able to influence my interlocutor’s carnivorous desire and behavior simply by introducing her to the relevant facts. The absence of a moral context, therefore, need not be harmful to my hitherto-moral project of honestly promoting vegetarianism.

But what if my amoral interlocutor were just as versed in the facts of factory farming as I but still did not care about animal suffering, or simply loved eating meat more than she loved animals? At this point the dialogue might serve no purpose. But that certainly would not mean that I had no further recourse, even honest recourse. For example, I could try to bring around as many other people as possible to my way of seeing (and feeling) things, so that ultimately by sheer force of numbers we might reduce animal suffering and exploitation by our purchasing practices and voting choices. In this effort I could join with others to employ standard methods of ‘marketing,’ such as advertising campaigns and celebrity endorsements. These things are not inherently dishonest simply in virtue of being strategic. (And of course if I did not value honesty, additional tactics would become available to me.)

I conclude that morality is largely superfluous in daily life, so its removal – once the initial shock had subsided – would at worst make no difference in the world. (I happen to believe – or just hope? – that its removal would make the world a better place, that is, more to our individual and collective liking. That would constitute an argument for amorality that has more going for it than simply conceptual housekeeping. But the thesis – call it ‘The Joy of Amorality’ – is an empirical one, so I would rely on more than just philosophy to defend it.)

A helpful analogy, at least for the atheist, is sin. Even though words like ‘sinful’ and ‘evil’ come naturally to the tongue as a description of, say, child-molesting, they do not describe any actual properties of anything. There are no literal sins in the world because there is no literal God and hence the whole religious superstructure that would include such categories as sin and evil. Just so, I now maintain, nothing is literally right or wrong because there is no Morality. Yet, as with the non-existence of God, we human beings can still discover plenty of completely-naturally-explainable internal resources for motivating certain preferences. Thus, enough of us are sufficiently averse to the molesting of children, and would likely continue to be so if fully informed, to put it on the books as prohibited and punishable by our society.

© Joel Marks 2010

Joel Marks is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut.

• ‘An Amoral Manifesto’ will continue in the next issue of Philosophy Now.


Bye Bye Kant?

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) the Sage of Königsberg (modern-day Kalliningrad) was a wide-ranging and brilliant thinker. Perhaps the best-known of all his ideas is his central ethical rule, the Categorical Imperative. He developed this in his book the Critique of Practical Reason (1788). The Categorical Imperative says that we should always treat other people as ends in themselves, and not merely as means to achieving our own ends.

Joel Marks has taken a Kantian approach to ethics for most of his career, and has argued from that standpoint in many of his Moral Moments columns in Philosophy Now over the last ten years. However, he now appears to be turning his back on the great man.

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