Friday, September 2, 2011

Joel Marks: Amoralism Minus the Firey Prose

Sauntering beyond good and evil

In a race to the bottom of ethics, an American philosopher may have got there first.
By Michael Cook

“The religious fundamentalists are correct: without God, there is no morality. But they are incorrect, I still believe, about there being a God. Hence, I believe, there is no morality.”

This startling syllogism comes from Joel Marks, a retired professor at the University of New Haven and a scholar at the Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics at Yale University. Last week he wrote a column in the New York Times blog for philosophers, The Stone. At the Times, they like edgy topics like does truth matter, is religion relevant, and can we have morals without God? In Professor Marks – someone who answers No to all three -- they found the edgiest theory of all – that there is no difference between right and wrong.

Does anyone at the Times appreciate how dangerous this theory is?

Running a death camp, discriminating against homosexuals, and raising battery hens are not right, says Professor Marks. But they are not wrong, either. Moral viewpoints are fundamentally just preferences, expressions of how we would like the world to be. It is impossible to argue that killing chickens (a favourite ethical conundrum for Professor Marks) is either immoral or moral. He simply doesn’t like it.

Amoralism takes the decline of moral thinking a step further than moral relativism. A moral relativist asserts that his moral preferences can be justified by some standard, however weak. For the amoralist (Professor Marks’s word, not mine), there is no standard at all.

Professor Marks is not alone. His soul mate is Richard T. Garner, an emeritus professor at Ohio State University, who has also abandoned “the trackless jungle of morality”. He is the author of a book called Beyond Morality. Reassuringly, both men believe that the bonds of custom and habit are enough to build and maintain a harmonious society. My hunch is that there are a lot of amateur amoralists out there waiting for a philosopher to put their intuitions into words. Perhaps his op-ed will give the theory a push ahead.

Amoralism is a fairly recent development in Professor Marks's thought. As an atheist, he used to defend a Kantian view of morality to distinguish between right and wrong. However, a few years ago he had an “anti-epiphany” in which he realised that believing in morality was just as unreasonable as believing in a divinity:

“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.”

So, should we lock Joel Marks up before he does a Columbine?

No. Professor Marks is a cool, humorous, laid-back sort of guy. He wants less violence, not an excuse to run amok. Realising that right and wrong are irrelevant will lead people to be less aggressive when their preferences conflict, he thinks.

But how do we reach agreement without the pole star of morality? Professor Marks is an optimist. While rational argument will probably prove fruitless for parties who do not share common principles, there are other ways in a democratic society. His point of view could be imposed “by sheer force of numbers”, he says in a column in Philosophy Now. Or he could use “advertising campaigns and celebrity endorsements”.

“I retain my strong preference for honest dialectical dealings in a context of mutual respect. It’s just that I am no longer giving premises in moral arguments; rather, I am offering considerations to help us figure out what to do. I am not attempting to justify anything; I am trying to motivate informed and reflective choices…. But this won’t be because a god, a supernatural law or even my conscience told me I must, I ought, I have an obligation. Instead I will be moved by my head and my heart. Morality has nothing to do with it.”

What he doesn’t take into account is the human capacity for evil – although it’s not clear what he would call it. He assumes that people’s choices will generally coincide with what we deem “moral”. But this is far from being the case, as one chilling paragraph from his Philosophy Now column suggests:

“Even though words like ‘sinful’ and ‘evil’ come naturally to the tongue as a description of, say, child-molesting, they do not describe any actual properties of anything. There are no literal sins in the world because there is no literal God and hence the whole religious superstructure that would include such categories as sin and evil. Just so, I now maintain, nothing is literally right or wrong because there is no Morality. Yet, as with the non-existence of God, we human beings can still discover plenty of completely-naturally-explainable internal resources for motivating certain preferences. Thus, enough of us are sufficiently averse to the molesting of children, and would likely continue to be so if fully informed, to put it on the books as prohibited and punishable by our society.”

In other words, the only thing which prevents child sex abuse is social consensus. If that changed, paedophilia could become legal.


Not quite. A recent symposium in Baltimore brought together a number of eminent psychiatrists and psychologists to redress the marginalisation and stigmatisation of paedophiles. The keynote speaker, Fred Berlin, of Johns Hopkins University, argued in favour of acceptance of and compassion for “minor-attracted persons” -- while at the same time rejecting adult-minor sexual activity. An expert from the University of Texas argued that diagnostic criteria for mental disorders should not be based on concepts of vice since such concepts are subject to shifting social attitudes and doing so diverts mental-health professionals from their role as healers.

The aim of the symposium was to pressure the American Psychiatric Association into changing its standards on paedophiles in the new edition of its bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. If they succeed, the odds on the legalisation (with due safeguards) of paedophilia will shorten.

It is to Professor Marks’s credit that he is completely honest about his conversion to amoralism. In his theory the consequences of a world set adrift from religion are laid bare. Didn’t Dostoevsky write, “If God did not exist, everything would be permitted"?

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.

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