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An Amoral Manifesto (Part II)

Our longtime Moral Moments columnist Joel Marks concludes his special column explaining why he’s abandoning morality.

In the last issue of Philosophy Now I announced my counter-conversion from morality to amorality. Herein continues my explanation and justification of this seemingly bizarre turnaround.

IV. What Amorality Is Not

As a defender of amorality, I am continually challenged by two allegations: egoism and relativism. But both are bogies. Let me explain why.

That an amoralist would be an egoist seems to follow from the idea that morality is precisely a check on our selfish tendencies. Morality’s main reason for being is group cohesion, without which most personal endeavors could not even get off the ground. All of us depend on the viability of our group; hence we must imbibe very strong motives ‘with our mother’s milk’ to favor the group over our personal ego, if only for our personal good in the long run. Furthermore, my own way of speaking about amoral motives suggests an egoism, for I believe that, in the final analysis, we are moved solely by desire. The bottom line is what we want. Is that not egoism pure and simple?

No. The above arguments conflate egoism with other things. The first argument reduces egoism to selfishness. But egoism is much farther-seeing than selfishness. Long-term self-interest is egoism’s goal, and its rational pursuit a component of its charge. A hefty dose of other-concern would plausibly be part of any true egoist’s makeup since his or her own prospects depend on others’. Even so, however, an amoralist is neither necessarily nor essentially egoistic. This is because one’s fundamental desires could be for anything. Just because a desire is one’s own does not mean that what one desires is only one’s own welfare. You could just as deeply desire the welfare of your neighbor as the welfare of yourself, and even more so, such that you would sacrifice yourself for her. Thus, when I say that an amoralist is motivated solely by desire, I do not mean to imply any sort of egoism whatever.

It remains an empirical question whether or to what degree human beings or any particular human being is egoistic. It might even be true that all of us are thoroughgoing egoists. I doubt it, but I cannot prove that is false since we sometimes have hidden motives. But suppose it were true. This would still not put amorality at any moral disadvantage since ‘ought implies can’. That dictum is a presumption of morality’s: there cannot be a moral obligation to do something impossible, like jump to the Moon. Well, if we really were egoists, then it would be impossible for us to be moral. Therefore morality could only be a sham. Amorality, then, would at least have the ‘moral’ advantage of being honest (however inadvertently).

But I do not believe that we are thoroughgoing egoists or even predominately egoists. After all, it is eminently plausible that evolution would have favored those individuals whose desires were largely group-oriented since this would presumably have served various functions that enhanced the odds of their genes’ survival. Thus, even without reflection but simply by instinct, we often behave as the moralist would enjoin us to do. What really is the difference, then, between the amoralist and the moralist? Just that the latter believes in an external source of moral imperatives, while the former recognizes only desires, which have been shaped by the interaction of beings having the characteristics of our ancestors or ourselves with the physical and social exigencies of our respective environments past and present.

Out of the frying pan of egoism, therefore, and into the fire of relativism? For if there are only desires that are responsive to the environment, won’t desires vary according to different environments? Yes indeed. However, there are still two ways to parry this possibility. The first is to point out that human environments, whether natural or cultural, are both like and unlike. So we can count on there being uniformities across all boundaries as well as diversity. And it is surely the same with morality: for while it may be universal that, let us say, one should never torture a child, it is also respectably moral to permit or even require, say, killing human beings in some circumstances (such as to protect a child from being tortured) and to prohibit it in others.

My denial of moral relativism, however, rests mainly on the unintelligibility of the charge. ‘Moral relativism’ seems to me an oxymoron; for morality in its very concept and essence is supposed to be universal and absolute. Thus, even in the example I just gave regarding killing, morality’s defenders would say that a single imperative underlies the differences due to circumstances, namely, “Thou shalt not kill the innocent” or something of that sort. Moral relativism, therefore, is a strawperson to begin with. But it is downright question-begging as an objection to amorality, since it assumes what the position denies, namely, morality. Amorality cannot be guilty of moral relativism any more than your neighbor could be a goblin. That there are differences of desire, however, is a commonplace.

But but but, splutters my reader: Even if we naturally have some pseudo-moral motives, and even if Morality is a myth, doesn’t the very prevalence of that myth suggest that our natural motives aren’t enough to prevent society’s disintegration (or at any rate to enable us to hold our own against those who were suitably deluded)? In other words, isn’t amorality likely maladaptive, diminishing the life prospects of those who adopt it, so that we need to retain the belief in morality, false though it may be? To which I reply: It seems odd to suggest that belief in what is true would be maladaptive. But even if it were in the strict biological sense, such that the human population explosion counted in favor of retaining the moral delusion, let me humbly suggest that a better criterion of value would be the greatest possible satisfaction of our deepest-desires-on-reflection, which might well be compatible with a lower rate of human propagation.

V. What Is Morality?

I claim that morality does not exist. But what is morality? It is not possible to settle any dispute about whether something exists without knowing the nature of the entity in question. Clearly there is a sense in which morality does exist; for example, defined as a code of behavior whose violation is considered to merit punishment (legal, social, or psychological), morality is to be found in every society. So when I assert that morality does not exist, I must have something else in mind. And certainly I do, namely, morality conceived as a universal injunction external to our desires. Thus, for example, even if the code of our society deemed homosexual behavior as such to be morally permissible, and even if you personally wished to engage in it, Morality might pronounce it Wrong. The morality I now reject is therefore a metaphysical one, as opposed to the sociological kind; the latter is a fact of our empirical environment, while the former is a figment of our wishful or fearful imagination.

For all that, metaphysical morality is widely accepted as real. (That is itself an empirical claim about people’s beliefs. I’d be happy to have the hypothesis tested by experimental philosophers. If it turns out not to be a nearly universal belief but is perhaps typical only of some cultures or personality types, then my complaint would be limited to them.) But why not, then, simply propose a reinterpretation of the word ‘morality,’ as well as its attendant terminology, such as ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, so that it is understood not as a metaphysical absolute, but instead as a code of conduct generally agreed upon by a given society? Why do I feel compelled instead to banish that entire way of speaking?

Let us first get clear about a distinction. What is being proposed (by my objector) is moral relativism, but that comes in different flavors. One of them still retains an absolutist taste: it holds that different societies may have different codes of conduct, but that each code is taken by its adherents to apply universally, even outside their own society. The other form of moral relativism, which is closer to what I have in mind, holds not only that different societies may have different codes of conduct, but also that these codes would be seen as applicable only within the bounds of the given society. Morality would thus be a ‘when in Rome’ type of affair.

However, I am still for the elimination of morality, even though I approve the idea of bounded codes. I wouldn’t want to call them ‘morality’ (or ‘moralities’) because of the heavy baggage that terminology lugs along with it. Precisely because moral talk of the absolutist ilk is so ingrained, I think it unlikely that people could make the switch to a different attitude if they continued to use the same language. New wine in an old bottle, you know. Words bring meaning in their tow and to attempt to supplant one meaning with another is a complicated business. Meanings form countless associations with other words besides the ones they explicitly define, and these become part of the meaning itself, extending it beyond denotation to connotation. Words so prominent as ‘moral’ and ‘wrong’ help constitute the fabric of our whole world. It won’t be possible just to snap one’s fingers and have them mean something else, however much Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty might demur.

I feel that the new understanding of morality as more myth than reality is important enough to warrant the inconvenience of dropping our accustomed ways of speaking and thinking about it and learning new ones. This is for two reasons. First is the value of truth itself. If it is true that metaphysical morality does not exist, then for that reason alone we should believe it. (Strictly speaking, I should say: If it is rational to believe that metaphysical morality does not exist, then for that reason alone we should believe it.) Do note that when I employ ‘should’ and ‘value’ and ‘warrant’ and such here, I am referring to epistemic norms, that is, to standards of knowledge, and not to moral norms. I will grant that, in the end, this may be a matter of subjective value or desire as well, for some people may not care very much about truth (or rationality), or at least not place paramount importance on it, if, say, the alternative were happiness. Think blue pill in The Matrix. So my first argument is addressed only to those who would take the red pill.

My second reason or argument for preferring the elimination of morality to the reinterpretation of morality may appeal to more people: I believe that the resultant world would be more to our liking. That is a big claim, I grant. I think it is testable, but I will leave that to the professionals. As an armchair philosopher trusting mainly to my own intuitions and experiences, I am satisfied at least that I myself would prefer to live in a world where nobody believed in either God or morality but instead habitually engaged in observation, study, conversation, introspection, and reflection. This could be an idealistic streak in myself – wishful thinking – and the cynicism that can be read into Voltaire’s statement be fully justified: “I want my lawyer, my tailor, my servants, even my wife to believe in God [and morality – JM], because it means that I shall be cheated and robbed and cuckolded less often.” But I put it to you to assess by your own lights.

VI. Monotheorism or A Kantian Recants

A philosophical moralist, such as I have been, justifies right actions or permissible actions or prohibitions on actions (wrong actions) by reference to a moral theory. For example, it is wrong to lie because lying violates Kant’s Categorical Imperative, a theory which asserts that one ought never to treat any person merely as a means. The whole justification can be laid out in argument form, containing, typically, a statement of the theory, a statement of a definition, a statement of a fact, and an inference to the conclusion, thus:

(1) One ought never to treat any person merely as a means. (theory)

(2) Lying is an act of asserting something that you believe to be false for the purpose of misleading somebody else to believe it is true. (definition)

(3) Asserting something that you believe to be false for the purpose of misleading somebody else to believe it is true is an instance of treating a person merely as a means. (fact)

(Therefore) Lying is wrong. (inference)

Any of the components of an argument could be contested. For example, an objector might deny Premise 3 above by arguing that asserting something that you believe to be false for the purpose of misleading somebody else to believe it is true sometimes involves solicitude for the person being treated in this way – such as sparing someone from painful news – and so is not an instance of treating that person merely as a means. But sooner or later one hopes to find an argument that is sound in every respect – all true premises and a valid inference – in which case one will have proven one’s conclusion or moral claim to be true.

My bread and butter as a so-called applied ethicist has consisted of constructing such arguments in defense of my own views and critiquing the arguments of people who held opposing views. Key to my work as an ethicist, however, has been the theoretical premise, for it addresses the question of what is right or wrong or permissible in the most general terms. It turns out that there are several main theories in the running, which are presumed to generate different answers to at least some particular moral questions. For example, the theory known as utilitarianism, according to which one ought always to do what will maximize the happiness of the greatest number of people, would seem, at first blush anyway, to justify removing the organs of a perfectly healthy person in order to save the lives of five persons who desperately needed transplants; whereas the categorical imperative, also known as Kantianism after its propounder Immanuel Kant, would deny this because that action would involve treating the healthy person merely as a means to the recovery of the five ill persons.

So which ethical theory is the correct one? That is the question that the discipline known as normative ethics seeks to answer. I myself was a consistent defender of Kantianism over utilitarianism and other theories. Here again arguments would be employed, this time to show that one theory was superior to all the others, often by demonstrating that the other theories, but not one’s own favorite, would ‘justify’ absurd conclusions, such as that it is morally permissible or even obligatory to kidnap healthy individuals for the purpose of ‘harvesting’ their organs for transplants.

Thus I spent my professional career, including writing this column, conscientiously defending my preferred theory of Kantianism against all-comers and then defending particular conclusions about all and sundry issues, such as promise-keeping, homosexual marriage, academic cheating, vegetarianism, and so forth, on the basis of Kantianism. All the while, however, I was neglecting (or bracketing in philo-speak) an even more general level of argument and analysis called meta-ethics. Meta-ethics seeks to characterize morality as such; so it differs from the various theories of normative ethics in rather the way a genus differs from species. For example, meta-ethics would point out that morality is inherently prescriptive, while a normative theory would try to spell out the precise content of the moral prescription, such as, “Maximize the good,” or “Never treat anybody merely as a means,” or “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

But meta-ethics had never ‘grabbed’ me, perhaps because it dealt with issues that I could not begin to take seriously, such as moral relativism. To me it was the most obvious thing in the world that moral issues were matters of objective fact, so I was very concerned only to establish what was right or wrong and not bother about the ‘purely speculative’ matter of whether there even were such a thing as right and wrong in the objective sense. As one of my graduate school professors once put it, “Which is more certain: that it is wrong to torture a baby or that quarks have charm [the latter being a tenet of contemporary physics]?”

I sometimes had to admit to myself, though, in the very back of my mind, that I could not quite make out what sort of things right and wrong were. They didn’t seem to be like protons and planets because physics had nothing to say about them. They also didn’t seem to be like numbers and other such nonphysical realities, whose truths could be discovered by thought alone, since there was nothing comparable among ethicists to the amount of consensus one finds among mathematicians. But the only remaining alternative seemed to be that they were merely psychological phenomena, mere beliefs or ‘intuitions’ pointing to nothing beyond themselves – like the taste of a strawberry or a radish, which is surely in the palate and not in the fruit or the root. For in that case, just as one person could prefer strawberries to radishes and another vice versa, so one person could feel strongly that, say, vivisection is monstrous and another that it is perfectly permissible, and there would be no way to decide between them: hence moral relativism.

But a couple of years ago there occurred an otherwise trivial incident in my life which induced me to confront meta-ethics, whereupon the walls came tumbling down. Indeed, I did not stop with moral relativism but went all the way to moral eliminativism; in other words, as I have explained, I now believe it more apt and more useful simply to say that morality does not exist (other than as a myth). Thus, normative ethics is as pointless a pursuit as theology, inasmuch as both seek to determine the truths about a fictitious entity.

And the diagnosis is similar in the two cases: both suffer from ‘mono.’ What I mean is that in assuming there is Morality or God, they infer that there is a Truth about them: What is the nature of (the one) Morality? What is the nature of (the one) God? But the result is Procrustean since in fact there are distinctive conceptions of morality just as there are distinctive conceptions of God; so there is no place for (moral) monotheorism (or ‘monomoralism’) any more than for monotheism. (In reality, anyway.) All of us harbor Kantian as well as utilitarian as well as egoist etc. intuitions, most likely depending on the type of circumstances we find ourselves in, just as all of us imagine a loving God, a jealous and demanding God, a law-giver, a merciful one, a Father, a Mother, and so on. And, although presumably they perform some function in the evolutionary scheme of things, insofar as we take any of these intuitings and imaginings to signify a reality beyond themselves, we are just day-dreaming.

Thus this Kantian recants. (Whether I shall someday reKant remains to be seen!)

© Prof. Joel Marks 2010

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

• Discussion of this vital topic will continue in the next issue of Philosophy Now, which will feature articles by several philosophers on moral relativism and moral nihilism.

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