The philosopher Joel Marks caused a stir recently with an essay in the New York Times. Called ‘Confessions of an ex-moralist’, the essay explained how Marks had come to realize that there is nothing objective about morality and that moral choices are simply subjective preferences:
A friend had been explaining to me the nature of her belief in God. At one point she likened divinity to the beauty of a sunset: the quality lay not in the sunset but in her relation to the sunset. I thought to myself: ‘Ah, if that is what she means, then I could believe in that kind of God. For when I think about the universe, I am filled with awe and wonder; if that feeling is God, then I am a believer.’
But then it hit me: is not morality like this God? In other words, could I believe that, say, the wrongness of a lie was any more intrinsic to an intentionally deceptive utterance than beauty was to a sunset or wonderfulness to the universe? Does it not make far more sense to suppose that all of these phenomena arise in my breast, that they are the responses of a particular sensibility to otherwise valueless events and entities?
So someone else might respond completely differently from me, such that for him or her, the lie was permissible, the sunset banal, the universe nothing but atoms and the void. Yet that prospect was so alien to my conception of morality that it was tantamount to there being no morality at all. For essential to morality is that its norms apply with equal legitimacy to everyone; moral relativism, it has always seemed to me, is an oxymoron. Hence I saw no escape from moral nihilism.
For a secularist, Marks argues, morality is a form of God:
I had thought I was a secularist because I conceived of right and wrong as standing on their own two feet, without prop or crutch from God. We should do the right thing because it is the right thing to do, period. But this was a God too. It was the Godless God of secular morality, which commanded without commander – whose ways were thus even more mysterious than the God I did not believe in, who at least had the intelligible motive of rewarding us for doing what He wanted.
Marks’ ‘anti-epiphany’ led him to abandon the language of morality altogether and to see moral norms as simply personal preferences:
The personal experiment of excluding all moral concepts and language from my thinking, feeling and actions has proved so workable and attractive, I am convinced that anyone who gives it a fair shot would likely find it to his liking.
There is an element of truth in Marks’ argument. I argued in my review of Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape that attempts to treat moral values as objective facts about the world are flawed and that there is a parralel with the attempt to create a divinely sanctioned moral code:
The desire to look either to God or to science to define moral values is a desire to set moral values in ethical concrete. It is a yearning for moral certainty, a fear that without external authority, humans will fall into the morass of moral relativism. But just as we do not need the false certainty of a divinely-sanctified moral code, neither do we need the false certainty of a morality rooted in science.
And yet I am no moralist nihilist. I reject the idea that morality can simply be resolved into personal preferences. I am writing a chapter in my new book that explores some of these issues and I will post a section when it is complete. In the meantime here is some of the debate the essay has generated.
I think there’s a great deal we wish to say in ordinary and extraordinary situations that can’t be said at all, or at least can’t be said as well, without moral vocabulary. For example, when I visited Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam this summer, there were many things that needed to be said and thought. I thought it was wrong that this Jewish girl had to hide for years, just because she was Jewish, and that someone betrayed the family, and that she then died an unimaginably miserable death in a concentration camp. Marks… want[s] me to say ‘it wasn’t wrong, and it wasn’t not wrong and it wasn’t right and it wasn’t not right….’
Marks makes clear that while abandoning the notions of right and wrong, he still thinks that some things are better to do than others because they have better consequences. I don’t see a real difference between this and morality.
Joel Marks is quite correct that I can go through life without needing the language of moral forbiddenness, etc., when making judgments about how I will live my life, what laws I will support and so on. I can think more directly about what courses of action or laws, etc., have the properties that I want in such things (such as the property of being likely to achieve my own ambitions, the property of conducing to the happiness of my loved ones, the property of not adding to the world’s suffering, and so on). I can weigh all this up quite directly without having to invoke further properties of moral forbiddenness, and so on, which sum over these other properties.
1 Marks is correct that, on atheism, objective moral values do not exist.
2 It’s correct that, on atheism, the ideas of “right” and “wrong” only concern what a person likes or dislikes.
3 With this we’re heading towards the views of the atheistic existentialists; viz., imposing one’s own will on others. Marks uses the softer word “influence” – influencing others so that his desires get realized. I feel certain this, also, is true; viz., that atheism’s only alternative is the exertion of power to get one’s way.
4 I applaud Marks’s logically consistent atheism, and appreciate his view that an atheist who reasons that morality is “objective” have themselves posited a “God” who is even stranger than the God of theism.
5 Finally, since I believe in God, I have reason to believe objective morality exists.
We should recognize that, the truth or falsity of his position aside, it represents a personally and socially destructive outlook. Looking at amoralism more broadly, it represents an affirmation of personal selfishness: do what you want to do without regard to right or wrong. This unchecked selfishness is exactly the kind of thing that leads individuals to choose self-destructive, terrible actions like rape and murder. Lacking a moral compass, individuals will haphazardly search for a coherent, meaningful way of life. Values like “trust,” “friendship,” “marriage,” “promises,” “generosity,” and “love” are ruined apart from moral reference points. This would eradicate the ability of individuals to create friendships, families, companies and nonprofit organizations.