jackson pollock number 14 gray

This is a transcript of my introductory comments to a discussion about moralism at the recent Battle of Ideas conference. The other discussants were Hannah Dawson and  Alister McGrath.

Every year I give a lecture to a group of theology students – would-be Anglican priests, in fact – on why I am an atheist. Part of the talk is about values. And every year I get the same objection: that without God, I can simply pick and choose which values to accept and which to reject.

And every year I say: ‘Yes, that’s true. But so do you.’ In the Bible, I point out, Leviticus seems to accept slavery. It tells us that adulterers ‘shall surely be put to death’. And it instructs believers to ‘chase your enemies and they shall fall before you by the sword.’ According to Exodus, ‘thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’. It also insists that those who work on the Sabbath may be put to death. And so on. None of my students would accept such commands. Others they would. They, too, in other words, have to pick and choose.

What has all this to do with a discussion of moralism? Moralism is one of those terms easier to use than to define. In fact the measure of its usefulness often seems to lie in the very difficulty of defining it. But necessarily, at the heart of the debate about moralism is a debate about morality. One cannot draw a distinction between a moral and a moralistic claim, without having first established what a moral claim is, and how to define it. My debate with my theology students isn’t really about choice – none of them would deny that morality requires the making of choices. It is, rather, about the character of morality and the limits of judgment. My view is that human judgment is all there is to morality. Moral norms are not established by laws or rules or facts. They emerge out of dialogue and debate, a never-ending conversation across both time and space. This does not mean that moral values are merely subjective or arbitrary. What makes values non-arbitrary, however, is not that they are fixed in some transcendental sphere but that they emerge through humanity’s collective action and collective judgment.

For my students, as for most believers, on the other hand, there are necessarily constraints on human judgment placed by God. It is the Dostoevsky argument: ‘Without God, anything is permissible’. Without some sort of external guidance that limits or shapes human choice, so the argument runs, there is nothing to stop us sliding into immorality. We as humans cannot anchor our moral truths or trusted truly to know right from wrong. ‘If God does not exist’, the American theologian and evangelist William Lane Craig claims, ‘Objective moral values and duties do not exist’.

In this context there is something quite paradoxical about the concept of moralism. On the one hand, to be moralistic is to attempt to restrain moral judgments through the establishment of external constraints. To insist, for instance, that gay marriage or abortion is immoral because God says so – or to insist such claims unacceptable because they run contrary to contemporary liberal notions of human rights. It is also to extend moral judgments to spheres beyond morality – into politics, for instance, or aesthetics – again usually to limit what is deemed to be acceptable judgment. On the other hand, to deem something moralistic and hence not an appropriate moral claim can itself be to limit what kinds of judgments are acceptable.

This is not a debate between believers and non-believers. Many of the harshest critics of religion, from nineteenth century positivists to twenty-first century New Atheists, have themselves expressed a yearning for what one might call ethical concrete, the insistence that values must be anchored not in a transcendental God, but in nature, or in science.

‘The supreme dread’, Harriet Martineau wrote, ‘is that men should be adrift for want of anchorage for their convictions.’ Martineau was an English journalist and novelist, a tireless propagandist for liberal and scientific causes.  She, like many liberals of her age, feared that the erosion of old sources of authority – the Bible and the Church in particular – would lead to intellectual turmoil, and intellectual turmoil to social disorder. And she like many, then and now, looked to science to resolve the problem of authority, to replace God as the guarantor of intellectual truth, moral fulfillment and social peace. Martineau was translator and promoter of the work of August Comte, the founder of positivism, the insistence that science could, and should, establish, ‘the intellectual order which is the basis of every other order’. Thanks to positivism, Martineau wrote in her introduction to the English edition of Comte’s Positive Philosophy, ‘we find ourselves not under capricious and arbitrary conditions… but great, general, invariable laws.’

What is being expressed here is the problem of morality in the modern age. I want briefly in this talk, therefore, to look at that problem from a historical perspective, so as to explore the question of moralism against the background of what we mean by morality – and to suggest that changing concepts of morality have eroded the distinction between morality and moralism.

pierre soulages untitled

More than half a century ago, in 1958, the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe published a highly influential paper called ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’. The problem of moral philosophy in the contemporary world, she argued, is that while much of the world had abandoned attachment to religious belief, apart from in a superficial sense, moral theories, even overtly secular ones, were rooted in concepts that drew their force from a religious view of the world.

In the ancient world the terms ‘should’ or ‘ought’ related to good and bad in the context of making things function better, whether ploughs or humans. Monotheism introduced the idea of moral laws; it introduced, too, a legislator, in the form of God, and a moral police force in the shape of the Church. Modernity dethroned God and enfeebled the institutions of faith. New forms of morality, such as Kantianism and utilitarianism, still viewed morality in terms of rules or laws, but no longer had any figure that could play the role of legislator. Morality, therefore, Anscombe argued, became incoherent.

The issue at the heart of Anscombe’s argument is that of moral authority. In the premodern world, the warrant for moral rules and right conduct came from God and from the community. The Ancients had seen humans as using reason to carve out, within an unpredictable universe and in the face of unreliable and often immoral gods, a space for dignity and honour. But they were able to do so only within a framework that accepted the idea of irresistible fate and of individual interests as sublimated to those of the community. For monotheists, an omnipotent, omniscient, just, wise and loving God provided humans with a moral framework, and infused it with meaning. Morality was about making choices within that framework. The coming of modernity – the rise of the market economy, the dissolution of traditional communities, the growth of religious scepticism – corroded the ability of both God and community to play this role. So who or what could now authorize moral rules?

The radical answer was that humans could. Human needs and aspirations would act as the warrant for the moral good. This was the heart of Enlightenment humanism, particularly of the radical Enlightenment. It is difficult to overstate how transformative such an idea was. Or how challenging. For what it says is that the human condition is that of possessing no moral safety net, of not being anchored to anything that can protect us from the dangers of falling off that moral tightrope that is to be human. That there is nothing beyond our own judgment upon which we can rely to guide our moral lives.

It was a moral vision nourished by the crumbling of the God-ordained order but rooted nevertheless in a faith of a different kind – faith that humans were capable of acting rationally and morally without guidance from beyond. Over time, that faith, too, began to be eaten away. By the late nineteenth century, Europe experienced not simply a crisis of faith – what Nietzsche called ‘the death of God’ – but also what has been called ‘the crisis of reason’, the beginnings of a set of trends that were to become highly significant in the twentieth century – the erosion of Enlightenment optimism, a disenchantment with ideas of progress, a disbelief in concepts of truth. The history of the twentieth century – of two world wars, the Depression and Holocaust, Auschwitz and the Gulags, climate change and ethnic cleansing – helped further shatter the old sense of hope and optimism about human capacities.

The result was a greater and greater yearning for an external anchor for moral norms. Such a yearning had always existed, as Anscombe observed. The tendency of even secular moral philosophies to view morality in terms of rules or laws and to try to smuggle in a legislator and police force that no longer existed, was a means of reining in that radicalism, a compromise, the historian Jonathan Israel suggests, of mainstream Enlightenment philosophes with traditional faith, a compromise that only the radicals rejected.

As disenchantment with human capacities has grown in the post-Enlightenment world, so has the desire for an external anchor for moral truths. Some have rediscovered that anchor in God; humans have choice, but the only moral choice is to live as God demands. Others have discovered that anchor in science. As Sam Harris puts it in his book The Moral Landscape, where there are disagreements over moral questions, science will decide which view is right ‘because the discrepant answers people give to them translate into differences in our brains, in the brains of others and in the world at large.’ Yet others have looked to the concept of inalienable human rights, rights that must remain beyond the democratic process, to define moral lines that are fixed for all time. What links all these various claims is the insistence on some form of moral concrete beyond human reach in which to set our values.

sonia delaunay

This process has been exacerbated by the changing relationship between morality and politics. In the premodern world morality and politics were inextricably linked because social structures were seen largely as given.   Morality was about how to define right and wrong behaviours within the given structure of a society.

In the modern world, morality and politics came also to be inextricably linked but for opposite reasons. Social structures were no longer accepted as given but became debated politically and challenged physically. The concept of ought become as much a political as a moral demand. Moral claims emerged, implicitly or explicitly, out of the project to transform society. How society ought to be was defined by the political possibilities of social change. But as optimism in human capacities has eroded, so, too, have those possibilities. There has been in recent decades growing disenchantment with politics, with the very idea of social transformation. As a result political issues have come increasingly to be seen in moral terms. But morality itself has become unstitched from the project of social transformation. The language of morality has become more significant as the political sphere has imploded and political issues come increasingly to be seen in moral terms. But morality itself has become less about human engagement than about ensuring human distance, a means establishing a fixed set of rules or laws beyond human reach. Morality, in other words, has increasingly become moralized.

What I am trying to suggest is that ‘moralism’ is not a particularly useful concept and yet one that also tells us something important about morality in the modern world. I am suggesting, too, we need to understand moralism in a broader context than we normally do. Morality occupies an ambiguous role in the modern world. It also imposes on humans a special and particular responsibility for making judgments. Both moralism, and quite often the charge of moralism, are really means of evading that responsibility.


The paintings are Jackson Pollock’s No 14 Gray; Pierre Soulange, untitled; and Rhythme Coloré by Sonia Delaunay. 

One comment

  1. I enjoyed reading this thoughtful essay. Here are a few considerations I had:

    Is not the assertion that “moralism, and quite often the charge of moralism, are really means of evading that responsibility” itself a moralism? To claim one has a responsibility is to make a prescriptive moral judgement.

    Furthermore, you claim that, “[w]hat makes values non-arbitrary, however, is not that they are fixed in some transcendental sphere but that they emerge through humanity’s collective action and collective judgment” – but as the world today and history show, there has never been nor is there presently a collective judgement of mankind. Morality fluctuates like fashion rather than progresses like technology, through time and cultures.

    When Nietzsche wrote that “God is Dead” (e.g. Joyous Science §108, §125, especially §343), he was not simply saying that religious faith was eroding. He was also pointing out that without belief in God, we have no right to Christian (slave) morality. Not only does the Christian Bible bequeath moral laws (Exodus 20, Matthew 5 – 7, etc.), but it also provides an end for our human means (in a Thomist sense, for instance).

    I liked your previous writing on Nietzsche, but I would say you have refused to fully accept the consequences of his thought: the real consequences of atheism. You have not really gone ‘beyond good and evil’ (but think these terms can be judged as objective through secular ‘collective judgement’). It is a difficult phase to pass, as it is so antagonistic towards the basis of Western culture.

    Here is a new attempt to break this barrier, and positively accept nihilism:

    When a theist accuses an atheist of not being able to have objective values, the atheist can reply by saying he does not want nor need them.

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