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Ethical Episodes

Coulda Woulda Shoulda

by Joel Marks

I used to be a moral man, but now I am a material man. As my constant readers know, I have recently proved decidedly unconstant, renouncing the very ‘moral’ of these erstwhile ‘moral moments’ to instead sing the praises of amorality as an ethics (a way to live life). It has been a staggering experience to realize how much drops out of one’s picture of the world on this account. At the top of the list would be the notion of ‘should’ – that is, ‘should’ full stop – in other words, what one ought to do ‘in the last analysis’ or ‘all things considered.’

Moralists fondly refer to this feature of morality as ‘the highest telos,’ using a Greek word for a goal or aim. Morality is supposed to override all other factors, especially selfish ones, in any deliberation about what to do. Immanuel Kant suggested that there was a special psychological faculty, responsive to the dictates of rational conscience, to serve the purpose of wresting self-control from our inclinations or desires. The latter are mere motives of behavior, but the former provide us with genuine reasons for action; thus, morality is based on justification rather than causation.

Bunkums, I now declare. There is only cause and effect. Determinism reigns, not reason. We cannot do other than we do. There is no should; there is only what we will do, or what we would do if in such-and-such condition under so-and-so circumstances. That is all we ever could do. Granted, sometimes we are motivated by beliefs about what we should do. But this is no different from being motivated to say “Thank you” by the belief that Santa Claus is noting whether you are naughty or nice. False beliefs can surely be motivators as much as true beliefs can. So my point is that the salient feature of these situations is the causal nexus between a psychological state, such as a belief, and an action, such as saying “Thank you.”

Furthermore, the motivating belief, whether true or false, can be a reasoned one. In the case of a false belief, however, the reasoning will of necessity be unsound, since sound arguments have true conclusions. And the most obvious candidate of unsoundness in any moral deliberation will be the falsity of the moral premise, since … there is no such thing as morality. Again consider the analogy of Santa Claus. The following is an instance of reasoning:

(1) I want a toy.

(2) Santa Claus gives toys to all and only people who are nice.

(3) Saying “Thank you” is nice.

(Therefore) I should say “Thank you.”

But this reasoning is unsound for, among other reasons, the falsity of the second premise, which, re-expressed in the standard logical form devised by Bertrand Russell, explicitly asserts the existence of Santa Claus, thus: “There exists a person who is Santa Claus and who gives toys to all and only people who are nice.”

Let me illustrate how this plays out in an actual ‘amoral moment.’ I adopted a vegan diet a couple of years ago. Unlike those vegetarians who give up eating meat for health reasons, I stopped eating any animal products at all because I believed that it was immoral to ignore the cruel treatment of nonhuman animals by the food industry. Oddly enough it was at about the same time that I lost my faith in morality. So what became of my motivation to be a vegan?

To be sure, at first I was at a loss. I could still acknowledge, to myself as well as to others, that I had been genuinely motivated by dutiful or altruist concerns. It’s just that I could no longer grant justificatory power to those concerns. For fairly obvious reasons, due in whatever part to my upbringing as a member of a particular society and then my training as an ethicist, I had developed a responsiveness to certain kinds of consideration, such as the suffering of sentient beings. But now I could no longer discern any more legitimacy for my response of solicitousness than for its opposite, for example, a hunter’s excitement at pursuing a crafty prey.

Two years later, I am still a vegan, but I would explain the situation quite differently. No, I haven’t gone over to the ‘health’ side; my main motive remains concern about the way human beings treat other animals. But I recognize this concern for what it is, namely, my personal desire based on my personal (including cultural, genetic, etc.) history. Ethics becomes biography. My ‘Moral Moments’ columns for the most part belonged to the personal essay genre; but my ‘Ethical Episodes’ columns will be doing so as a matter of principle.

In this way ethics ceases to be justified and instead becomes caused. For this reason I discount the occasional compliments of people who express admiration for my veganism. My response to them is, “I can’t help being a vegan, given who I am. It is simply cause and effect. If you underwent as much exposure as I have in the last few years to studying, discussing, and pondering the way humans treat other animals, and also were as fortunate as I to have met friendly, helpful vegans who showed me how easy it was to adopt such a diet, you would probably become a vegan too.” Whereupon I make it my business to inform them of the horrors of factory farming, expose them to the delights of animal-free cuisine, and refer them to my website on how to become a vegan.

© Prof. Joel Marks 2011

Joel Marks is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of New Haven and a Bioethics Center Scholar at Yale University. His vegan website is TheEasyVegan.com.

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