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Ethical Episodes

This One’s For You

by Joel Marks

There is no such thing as right or wrong! Three years ago I made my constant readers’ heads spin when I first made that claim in ‘An Amoral Manifesto’, in Issues 80 and 81 of Philosophy Now. This was startling coming from me, not only because the statement is startling in itself, but especially because, for an entire decade, I had been writing a regular column for this magazine called ‘Moral Moments’, in which I pressed home the importance of moral reasoning in all facets of life. Now, suddenly, that was down the tubes!

Well, not really suddenly. For at that point it was already three years since I had had my original ‘anti-epiphany’, realizing that my commitment to morality was, despite my avowed atheism, itself a kind of theism. I had only been a ‘soft atheist’ who, like most New Atheists, embraced Socrates’ idea (from Plato’s Euthyphro dialogue) that morality was independent of religion. Socrates argued that even to acknowledge God as good and just implies our ability to know what these qualities are prior to and independent of knowing God. But now I realized that so-called secular morality is also a religion, which is, if anything, on less secure ground than traditional theism, because it purports to issue commands (moral obligations, prohibitions, and permissions) without a commander (God). Thus I became a hard atheist, in the sense of denying the existence of both God and morality, or in a word, an amoralist.

The three-year silence preceding my public announcement was due to my having to rethink absolutely everything about my most fundamental ethical assumptions, both as a professional philosopher and as a person. I was not only struck dumb by massive uncertainty about how to proceed, but also, frankly, scared to utter some of my new thoughts. The only way for me to work it all out was to write. And write I did. In a matter of months I had composed a 100,000-word manuscript, whose working title was Bad Faith: A Philosophical Memoir. By the time I had finished that I was well on my way to finding my ‘amorality legs’.

However, the resulting manuscript turned out to be unpublishable, and for two reasons. One was that the work combined autobiography with analytic philosophizing, thereby falling between two stools. The other reason was that my philosophizing had been done in blissful ignorance of an existing professional literature. It was only when I came up for air after my months-long immersion in figuring it all out for myself that I noticed others who had written on the same subject, and in particular Richard Garner, who is my soulmate in this regard.

So I started all over again. I felt that it made obvious sense to begin by thoroughly acquainting myself with the on-going discussion in my field. This led me eventually to refine my original philosophizing in a new manuscript, called Ethics without Morals. Because this one was a scholarly monograph, I was able to find a publisher for it. That book appeared in print one year ago.

However, Ethics without Morals far from exhausted the content of my earlier manuscript. For in the main Bad Faith had been not so much a treatise as a memoir. I believed I had a compelling story to tell about what it actually ‘feels like’ to undergo such a radical transformation of one’s worldview. Furthermore, and more urgently, I believed I had a compelling idea to share with others – not only fellow academics but also the general public. I especially wanted to offer something to the many Philosophy Now readers who had been asking me for a more extensive discussion of amorality than the occasional column permitted. Ethics without Morals did not fit that bill for all of them, partly because of its specialist orientation, but mainly because of its very high price (due to the publisher’s marketing it to research libraries).

Therefore I sat down to write yet another book, this one called It’s Just a Feeling: The Philosophy of Desirism. Written for a nonspecialist audience, this serves as a kind of primer of amorality, with some theory but with emphasis on how actually to live an amoral life. And in order to get it out as quickly as possible, I simply published it myself at CreateSpace/Amazon. This also made it possible to price the book to be within easy reach of anyone who wanted to read it. It is now available everywhere as a paperback, and also as an eBook for Kindle.

Finally, I’ve also brought out, again with CreateSpace/Amazon, the latest incarnation of Bad Faith, now duly pared down to a more truly memoir form, although of necessity still containing the kind of dialectical arguing that was raging in my mind during that initial period.

So I have written what has turned out to be a trilogy of amorality: a monograph (Ethics without Morals), a memoir/prequel (Bad Faith), and a primer/sequel (It’s Just a Feeling). One way to think about their complementarity is to conceive Bad Faith as my effort to persuade myself of amorality’s viability and virtues, Ethics without Morals as my effort to persuade my professional colleagues, and It’s Just a Feeling as my effort to persuade everybody else. I hope that I have now satisfied (if not sated!) everyone who has been intrigued by my recent personal experience or the thesis I have been defending. And of course I will continue to devote the occasional Ethical Episode to further amoral ramblings.

© Prof. Joel Marks 2013

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

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