Should We Abolish Morality? Prominent philosopher Joel Marks has published a new book on the topic of moral skepticism: Ethics without Morals: In Defense of Amorality (Routledge, 2013). Marks was formerly a moral realist with essentially Kantian intuitions, but in recent times he has had something of a (de)conversion experience, coming to the view that there is no intellectual justification for belief in an objective morality.
Ethics without Morals is published in an expensive hardback edition, though perhaps a paperback version will follow. I doubt that it will attract more than a niche audience of academics interested in metaethical issues, but it deserves a wide readership. As the success of The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris shows, such books can find an audience in the general market, though it helps to have a large trade publisher and name recognition with the public. Ethics without Morals is not written in academic jargon and is quite accessible—indeed, it is a pleasure to read. Furthermore, it raises an important issue: Why do so many people who have been prepared to reject claims about the existence of a god, or such metaphysical claims such as that we have libertarian free will, hold on to the idea of an objective morality, a notion that seems scarcely coherent?
Academic and popular attempts to defend objective morality are manifestly weak. One approach is to argue that moral claims are really just naturalistic claims in disguise; so “torturing babies is morally wrong” means (perhaps) “torturing babies causes pain and suffering.” A statement that some action causes pain and suffering can, of course, be objectively true. But that is not the sense of “objective” that is needed. If “torturing babies is morally wrong” just means “torturing babies causes pain and suffering,” then someone who is indifferent to others’ pain and suffering has not been given a reason not to torture babies. In that case, the claim that “torturing babies is morally wrong” does not provide the person with inescapable guidance as to how he or she should act. It only guides someone who actually cares about pain and suffering. In that sense—the sense that matters in metaethical debates—it is not an objective claim after all.
Doubtless, beings like us who (in most cases) do care about such things as pain and suffering have good reasons not to torture babies, but those reasons are grounded in our subjectivity—in what we actually do care about. There are, admittedly, plenty of objectively true claims in the vicinity (“torturing babies causes suffering”), but claims about moral wrongness are not objective in the sense that worries metaethicists and seems to be taken for granted by most ordinary people. You can try to defend the objectivity of morality by equivocating between different senses of “objective,” but no one has ever shown that moral claims are, in the relevant sense, inescapably action-guiding or “objectively prescriptive.”
All of this is rather technical, and you might think it ultimately makes no difference. After all, we make many other important value judgments that are ultimately grounded in the subjectivities of human beings—judgments about beauty, for example, literary merit, or ordinary nonmoral goodness and badness—and no one seems to care. We won’t stop saying “This is a good car” if the vehicle meets certain criteria, because what we want from a car ultimately depends on our desires (say, for reliable transport). If I point out that there is eventually a subjective element in judgments about the beauty of a sunset, the merits of a novel, or the engineering of a motor vehicle, no one seems to worry. But when this simple point is made about moral judgments, it often produces consternation and contrived forms of intellectual resistance.
At this point, Marks has something much more radical to say. Not only does he deny that “metaphysical morality” exists (I agree), but he goes further and argues that we’d be better off (according to his values, which he expects most of his readers to share) if we stopped making moral judgments altogether. He has a long discussion of how the practice of making moral judgments does little good and much harm. Though he doesn’t use the example, he’d think it better (according to his/our humane values) simply to express our disapproval of torturing babies, and to draw vivid attention to the pain and suffering it causes, rather than to say that it is “wrong” and suggest (falsely) that a person who still wants to do it is just mistaken. Again, Marks tends to avoid technical language, but we can say, slightly technically, that objectively prescriptive properties such as a property of “objective wrongness” make no sense. No one can be mistaken in failing to recognize these properties out there in the world, because they don’t exist—and can’t exist.
I’m with Marks on much of this, but I wonder whether moral language is as pernicious as he makes it out to be. Do read chapter 4 of the book, in particular, where he puts arguments about the harm done by speaking in moral language (“wrong,” “morally bad,” etc.) rather than nonmoral language (“causes pain,” “I disapprove,” etc.). I wonder whether we really would abandon all of our moral language if we came to believe that judgments about people’s characters and actions were no more (but no less) binding on others than value judgments about the quality of sunsets, novels, and motor vehicles.
We make many judgments that sunsets are beautiful, that novels are meritorious (or otherwise), or that motor vehicles are good or bad ones, without imagining that these judgments are endorsed by the universe or are somehow binding on other rational beings whose ultimate desires and values may be different from our own. The same may well apply to our judgments of each other’s characters. Even so, why would we not go on judging some people (perhaps violent, dishonest, cowardly ones) as “bad” and other people (perhaps peaceful, honest, courageous ones) as “good”? Surely there is widespread consensus about what qualities we want from other people—and hence, what makes someone a “good” workmate, friend, lover, or fellow citizen. I feel confident that many of these sorts of judgments would continue to be made even if we all became convinced that they are not inescapably binding or metaphysically endorsed. Once again, no one thinks that judgments such as “This is a good car” or “This is a poor-quality knife” have that kind of strictly objective status—and yet, these are still perfectly useful judgments to make and express.
I’d like to see Marks give more attention to this line of criticism. Nonetheless, his book is a significant and useful contribution to a very important debate. If we accept that morality is not what it is widely regarded to be—strictly, even metaphysically, objective—what are the consequences for how we ought to live our own lives, make judgments about others, and try to influence other people’s actions?
Russell Blackford is a conjoint lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Science, University of Newcastle, Australia. His most recent book is Freedom of Religion and the Secular State (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).