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W(h)ither Morality?

by Joel Marks

There is a dirty little secret about ethics which, like the purloined letter of Edgar Allan Poe’s mystery, has been hidden in broad daylight. The morality of most modern ethicists is not your grandparents’ morality, but instead something more mundane. Old-time morality, like old-time religion, was metaphysical. It presumed an objective basis in reality that held absolute sway over all human beings. The iconic image in the West is of Moses and the tablets containing the Ten Commandments: “Do this and don’t do that, says God!” But the objective basis could as well be taken to be an inherent human essence (Aristotle) or a cosmic principle of justice (karma) or the demand for logical consistency (Kant). Today’s philosophical ethicists, by contrast, tend to view morality much more modestly, as something amenable to empirical explanation. There is still room and indeed the need for analysis of the concept of morality; but that is equally true of the concept of baseball, yet the game does not require a supernatural basis. Olympus is no longer needed for the Olympics.

But once a supernatural Standard has been removed from the scene, moral diversity becomes a distinct possibility. This is because the natural world is characterized by difference and change. The ancients were acutely aware of this. “All is flux,” said Heraclitus; “The world is samsara,” said Buddha. In ethics the idea has come to be known as moral relativism. It is the bugbear of traditional morality, and even of much modern moral theory.

Yet there is ‘worse’ still to fear, for relativism in its turn suggests a skepticism about morality itself. Why? Because ‘moral relativism’ sounds like an oxymoron to someone whose conception of morality is of something universal and absolute. So if the meaning of moral relativism is that there is no absolute morality, then, in effect, there is no morality. That position has in fact been embraced by some ethicists, who are known variously as moral anti-realists, moral error theorists, moral fictionalists, moral eliminativists, moral abolitionists, moral nihilists, or, simply, amoralists.

This issue of Philosophy Now examines these further reaches of ethics, or meta-ethics, which is the study of the nature and reality of morality. Five philosophers, including yours truly, will defend one or the other of moral relativism or moral skepticism.

Our first author is Jesse Prinz, who argues that there is no ‘one true morality’ because values are not objective. They are, “at bottom, emotional attitudes,” which arise from cultural conditioning, and hence moral disagreement is fundamental. Prinz musters both anthropological and psychological evidence to back up his claim. He also replies to objectivist objections, such as that moral variation has been exaggerated, and rejects the main objectivist alternatives, such as basing morality on reason. Finally, Prinz explodes various misconceptions about the relativist modus vivendi, such as that it is bound to be chaotic and irrational.

David Wong continues the defense of moral relativism by emphasizing the failure of ‘mainstream moral philosophers’ to consider their own cultural and even occupational biases. If they would only get out of their armchairs and travel the world, they would find that some of their most basic assumptions are not universally shared. Wong highlights the comparative study of Western and Asian thought. The former tends to emphasize individual identity and autonomy, while the latter views relationship and community as primary. But Wong also offers an explanation of the similarities, and not only the differences, among moralities, in terms of the functions morality serves in human life.

Richard Garner takes what he sees as the logical next step, which is to dispense with morality altogether. He builds his case indirectly, with reference to the so-called New Atheism (see Issue 78 of this magazine). Garner’s claim is that the very sorts of considerations that have led the likes of Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens to reject religion should bring them (and everyone else) to the same decision about morality. As he puts it, both religion and morality are “daft and harmful.” Garner goes on to explain some real-world advantages of an amoral or ‘abolitionist’ attitude and even offers practical advice on how to acquire it.

Richard Joyce is in complete agreement with Garner about the falsity of all moral judgments and the possibility of society’s conducting its affairs without moral language. However, he disagrees that we should therefore stop thinking and speaking moralistically. Instead he proposes that we come to treat morality as a useful fiction, whereby people engage in a collective ‘pretense’ that morality is meaningful as such. Joyce gives several reasons of a pragmatic kind, the main one being that “moral thinking … suits our psychological configuration” and so “can be fast and frugal.” But moral talk would remain for all that “a kind of expedient shorthand for something non-moral.”

Finally, I add my own two cents in the debut of my new column: ‘Ethical and Other Episodes,’ which is the successor to my long-running ‘Moral and Other Moments’ column and the continuation of my ‘Amoral Manifesto’ articles in Issues 80 and 81.

© Joel Marks 2011

Joel Marks is professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of New Haven and a Bioethics Center Scholar at Yale University.

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