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The Death of Morality

Morality: The Final Delusion?

Richard Garner says it’s about time we got rid of it.

Free thinkers and skeptics throughout history have entertained the suspicion that morality is a mistake, a scam, a fiction that we make up; but few others have welcomed this idea with open minds. Recent discussions of the topic can be traced to the work of the philosopher John Mackie, who defended his ‘moral error theory’ by criticizing a widely held understanding of morality called ‘moral realism,’ the belief that morality is something ‘real’ that we discover, not something we have made up. Mackie called his own view ‘moral skepticism,’ but he was unskeptical enough to open his 1977 book Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong with the ‘dogmatic’ assertion that “there are no objective values.” Just as atheists claim that the beliefs of theists about the objective existence of a god are in error, moral error theorists claim that the beliefs of moral realists about the objective existence of moral rules, prohibitions, virtues, vices, values, rights, and duties are also in error, and for the same reason – what they are talking about doesn’t exist.

With no god to make the rules, consistent atheists will already have abandoned religious morality, which means that they are left with a choice between some kind of secular morality and a moral error theory. An atheist’s eventual embrace of a moral error theory will be facilitated, if not forced, by the ease with which arguments used to undermine theism can be recycled to criticize the analogous beliefs of secular moralists.

We can test this recycling project by taking advantage of the fact that powerful advocates of atheism have recently come forward to argue that religion is a dangerous delusion that is protected by brutal force when possible, and when that is not possible, then by tricks, bad arguments, and ‘spells’ that need to be broken. They are called ‘New Atheists’ because unlike atheists from previous centuries, they don’t hide their contempt for ignorance and superstition, nor do they soft-soap their criticisms in the interest of comity. (See the discussions of them in Issue 79 of this magazine, which sports the title ‘Is God really Dead?’) Each of the three ‘New Atheists’ I shall mention here offers some thoughts about the classical arguments for and against the existence of gods, but they all have more interesting fish to fry. They are Daniel Dennett, Breaking The Spell: Religion As A Natural Phenomenon (2006) – hereafter abbreviated ‘BTS’; Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (2006) – ‘GD’; and Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007) – ‘GNG’.

Daniel Dennett discusses the ‘natural history’ of religion and the taboo on critical discussions of it; Richard Dawkins emphasizes the evolutionary basis of religious beliefs and the Darwinian role of memes; and Christopher Hitchens spares no detail to remind us how crazy and harmful religions can be. Books by these and other New Atheists present an awesome assortment of challenges to any fair-minded theist, but as I shall claim, and as Jim Holt remarked in a 2006 New York Times book review of The God Delusion, “the objectivity of ethics is undermined by Dawkins’s logic just as surely as religion is.”

Dawkins’s ‘logic’ is the logic of evolution which, he has long insisted, can provide a far better explanation of life, the universe, and everything than can any account that appeals to supernatural beings or miracles. One of his favored explanations for the ubiquity and variety of religious beliefs, in spite of the suffering they have caused and their manifest implausibility, is that they are byproducts of our genetic inheritance of credulity. There will, he says, “be a selective advantage to child brains that possess the rule of thumb: believe, without question, whatever your grown-ups tell you” (GD, pp.174-176). If this makes sense, and I think it does, then we can easily extend the point to help explain why we cling so firmly to our less exotic but still erroneous moral beliefs.

Innate credulity is only a part of the explanation. Here again is Dawkins: “Just as we asked: What is the Darwinian survival value of religion? so we can ask the same question of morality.” His answer is that morality too may be a byproduct of something else that offered “Darwinian survival value” (GD, p.207). Kin altruism and reciprocal altruism can explain why we help relatives and those in our small circle; but why do we still have “feelings of morality, decency, empathy, and pity” for utter strangers (GD, p.215)? One answer is that natural selection favors “rules of thumb, which work in practice to promote the genes that built them” (GD, p.220). But rules of thumb are imprecise and often insensitive to new circumstances. Consider the cuckoo’s exploitation of other birds’ rules of thumb (or claw) to feed any squawking chick in their nests. Like the instincts of the cuckoo’s dupes, our own impulses to altruism, generosity, empathy, and pity persist “even when circumstances make them inappropriate to their original functions” (GD, p.222). Our daily kindnesses to strangers are rarely returned, nor do we expect them to be; nevertheless we continue.

Each of the New Atheists mentioned takes the Darwinian explanation of moral beliefs seriously, and both Dawkins and Dennett deploy, to some advantage, the concept of a meme, a cultural idea that has, like a gene, managed to replicate. It is easy to see how both moral and religious memes secure their own survival by infecting the young and by generating antibodies to stifle dissent and to entice critical minds into fascinating but endless moral and theological debates.

The spell Dennett wants to break is not only religion, but the taboo on talking about it and using our best methods of investigation to figure out what is true about it. A weaker version of the same spell may have discouraged discussions of morality that call the whole enterprise into question. A natural history of morality with an account of its evolution might be as corrosive to moral beliefs as a natural history of religion has been to religious ones. Furthermore, Dennett’s well-known claim that it is possible to be an atheist and believe in belief in God, is on a par with the claim that it is possible to be a moral error theorist and believe in belief in morality (BTS, p.221 and all of Chapter 8).

Hitchens argues convincingly that religions are ‘man-made,’ that they are built on lies, and that they have meant disaster for millions of maimed, exiled, oppressed, and exterminated humans. It is hard for any attentive person to read his discussion of the sins of religion and not be horrified at things done in its name, and astounded at our present state of delusion. Of the three New Atheists, Hitchens offers the most graphic and sustained support for his subtitle, which is How Religion Poisons Everything. This critique of religion has a counterpart in the work of Ian Hinckfuss, a moral error theorist who saw morality as a harmful myth, and who argued that a ‘moral society’ inevitably brings with it “elitism, authoritarianism, guilt complexes, ego competition, economic inequality and war” (‘The Moral Society, its Structure and Effects,’ Discussion Papers in Environmental Philosophy, Australian National University, 1987). Moral societies, he said, are intellectually dishonest, “inefficient in maximizing human happiness, satisfaction, or self-esteem” (p.1), and “because of the threat of war with other societies, physically dangerous” (p.4). Moral beliefs hinder the resolution of conflicts and enable the exploitation of the “poor and the weak by the rich and powerful” (pp.20-21).

The New Atheists have abandoned religious beliefs and language, and they usually make a point of rejecting religious morality. Dawkins and Dennett say enough to convince me that they would agree with Mackie that morality is a product of our biology and our history. It is not so clear, however, that New Atheists who have embraced a moral error theory have eliminated that error from their thinking and speaking. Hitchens calls religion “not just amoral but immoral” (GNG, p.52) and speaks with feeling of the immoral teachings and practices of the Catholic Church (GNG, p.220). Dennett says that racism is “a great moral evil” (BTS, p.203) and that he feels “a moral imperative to spread the word of evolution” (BTS, p.268). Dawkins, criticizing religious morality, remarks that God is not a fit example for humans, but an “evil monster” (GD, p.248). Still, every such indulgence – and there are not that many – could easily be restated without the moral trappings. I tend to hear these atheists as either relapsing into a moralistic state of mind in the face of really stupid and harmful practices and doctrines, or intentionally moralizing to make a point to moralists in language they understand.

When Dawkins, Dennett, and other atheists and Humanists say that we can be ‘good without God’ (as they often do), they may only be saying that the behavior most of us want to promote (a.k.a. morality) need neither be justified by nor derived from religion. Even so, when they allow themselves to speak or write as moralists do, they may be underestimating the extent to which secular morality shares with religion both the power to cause mischief and the ability to thrive on mystery. Someone who has advanced from atheism to the moral error theory can not forever ignore the question of whether to continue to use moral language when talking with credulous and practicing moralists. When error theorists continue to moralize – out of habit or courtesy, or because they think we will all be better off if people believe in the myth of objective values – it is customary to refer to them as Moral Fictionalists. Error theorists who are less optimistic about the value of the mistaken belief in moral objectivity, and who are unwilling to do what is necessary to make the fiction work, are referred to as Moral Abolitionists.

My point is that atheists who make it to the moral error theory but stop short of moral abolitionism will be stuck exploiting and supporting something nearly as superstitious and hazardous as the religion they have just rejected. If any New Atheist, old atheist, or error theorist is tempted by moral fictionalism, I urge him or her to give moral abolitionism a friendly glance, and maybe a test drive.

So what must we do if we want to abandon morality, even temporarily? It is useless to ban ‘evaluative’ words such as ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘right’, ‘wrong’, and ‘ought’. Such words have far too many morally neutral and perfectly unproblematic uses. It is not these words that cause trouble, but the use of any word in that special way that implies objective values or objective moral rules that are independent of human decisions, desires, agreements, or demands. But if abolishing, or even restricting, morality involves more than changing our vocabulary, what does it involve? How do we even get started?

First we can just take some time to observe ourselves in the act of making moral judgments and to notice what happens when the thought that someone is evil or deserves to suffer arises. Eventually we will be ready to try keeping some of those thoughts to ourselves. This itself is an accomplishment, but it is not yet to suppress the thought. For that we need to learn how to reject moral judgments that pop into our mind. We can neutralize some of them by displacing them with non-moral thoughts, such as the thought that we could be biased, or mistaken about some detail, motive, or prudential calculation. Or we could remind ourselves that we are conducting an experiment to see if we can back away from moralizing without all Hell breaking loose.

If we try this experiment in good faith and relatively calm circumstances, we may find that cutting back on moral pronouncements will be no more difficult than cutting back on swearing, and not nearly as difficult as getting rid of an accent. As (and if) we move in the direction of moral abolitionism, we will see that we are in no way limited in our ability to express and communicate our attitudes, feelings, and requirements. Instead of telling others about their moral obligations, we can tell them what we want them to do, and then we can explain why. We can express annoyance, anger, and enthusiasm, each of which has an effect on what people do, and none of which requires language that presupposes objective values or obligations. The moral abolitionist is equipped, as we all are, with habits, preferences, policies, aims, and impulses that can easily play the roles usually assigned to moral beliefs and thoughts.

It is even possible that we might be able to solve some of our most difficult problems if we put moral arguments to one side and start looking for compromises that do not have to honor patently false beliefs and ancient superstitions. For those to whom the moral error theory does not seem completely crazy I will close with a few considerations in favor of walking the final mile and joining the growing band of moral abolitionists. For one thing, moral abolitionists will find it relatively easy to deal with many of the difficult issues of applied ethics. Two examples will illustrate how the questions only become unanswerable and the decisions impossible when morality, or religion, or (god forbid) both, become involved. Questions about the morality of abortion have long occupied center-stage. Utilitarians tie our duty to the good (or bad) consequences of one or another act or policy, and those who believe in moral rights set the immovable right of a woman to make her reproductive decisions against the irresistible force of an innocent human’s right to life. There is no way to determine whether the moral rights of the fetus are stronger than those of the mother because there are no such things as moral rights. Utilitarians criticize rights theorists for objectifying their preferences, and they argue that only utilitarianism can point to something real on which to base a judgment – namely the amount of good generated and bad avoided by the available choices. But anyone who takes a utilitarian approach to abortion faces the Quixotic task of trying to compare the relative value of two worlds, one where the fetus survives, and the other where that fetus is aborted. Fighting a windmill would be child’s play compared to that assignment.

We do, all too often, have to make hard choices; but moral abolitionists will advise any moralist or moral fictionalist who is not forced by circumstances to make some such choice to stand aside in mute support of those individuals who are. Why not allow decisions about abortion and euthanasia, for example, to be made by those directly involved and their relatives, with the advice of medical workers? Where do we get the idea that it is up to us to interject (erroneous) moral beliefs and biases into these difficult and painful deliberations; and why would we ever want to put these decisions into the hands of priests, politicians, or profiteers?

Here is another example. When moralists debate about punishment, every form of treatment has defenders. Some utilitarians support severe punishments in order to deter potential criminals. Kinder utilitarians say that mercy and rehabilitation have better consequences. Other moralists reject utilitarianism and say that criminals deserve to suffer or that it is our moral obligation to make sure that they do.

The passage in the Bible that calls for “an eye for an eye” expresses the thought that we deserve what we dish out – no more and no less. “And your eye shall not pity; but life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (Exodus 21:24). This call for pitiless proportional punishment may be a step above the application of the death penalty for petty offences, but it is still based on the flawed moralistic idea that it is sometimes morally right, or even morally required, for us to cause suffering to someone because it is merited by wrong that he or she has done.

The metaphor at work here is Justice balancing the scales. The blindfold that Justice is often depicted as wearing is to secure her impartiality. The objective scales of Justice, not our anger or lust for revenge, are to determine how much someone must suffer to atone for some misdeed. There is much to argue about here, but fortunately the moral abolitionist is not saddled with the need to calculate how much any person, even the most extreme offender, deserves to suffer. Apart from the penalties stipulated in the laws currently in force, any one of which can be changed, nobody deserves to suffer for any reason whatever. Rejection of the idea of ‘moral desert’ will finally make it possible to discuss remedies to crimes and incivilities without having to pander to moral ire and posturing. We have overdosed on desert, and it would be both healthy and economical to go on a diet.

Moralistic meddling has confused us about our relations with friends, enemies, strangers, non-humans, and even the environment. Ignorant and fearful moralists have subtracted from the sum of happiness in the world by their absurd reactions to challenges presented by sex, drugs, and rock and roll, among other inevitable pursuits. Since arguments about morality are capable of going on forever, they can immobilize anyone who takes them seriously. Anyone who holds off deciding until there is nothing more to be said by the moralists will die without ever having decided anything. Moral abolitionists, on the other hand, find it relatively easy to make decisions because they can skim off an entire layer of fruitless disputation. They can use the time saved to think about their options and study the situation until a decision emerges. Not only will decisions come easier to moral abolitionists, so will compromises. Strong moral beliefs and feelings can convince us that compromise is surrender to evil, which is a crazy thought that leads to obstinacy, bogus moral posturing, and even terrorism. When we have put endless moral arguments to one side it will be much easier to hear and empathize with others, and to come up with solutions acceptable to all sides.

Unreflective conformity to rules attributed to some self-declared or imaginary moral authority may have been useful in the past, but we have learned enough by now to realize how damaging a morality unattached to reality (and they all are) can be. If indeed a belief in morality is a delusion to be overcome, it is never too early to start. Moral memes have burrowed deep into our brains and our public rhetoric, but we can root them out by reminding ourselves that morality is a human invention based on biology, ignorance, credulity, fear, and a lust for control. If the belief in objective values is as mistaken as the error theorist argues, and as harmful as the moral abolitionist believes, then we would be well advised to find another star by which to sail.

© Prof. Richard Garner 2011

Richard Garner is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Ohio State University. He has taught and written about ethics, philosophy of language, social and political philosophy, philosophy of religion, and Asian philosophy. A revision of his book Beyond Morality and other relevant writings can be found at: beyondmorality.com.

• See Richard Joyce’s The Myth of Morality (2002) and my own ‘Abolishing Morality’, as well as other papers dealing with these matters in A World without Values: Essays on John Mackie’s Moral Error Theory, edited by Richard Joyce and Simon Kirchin (2010).

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