Joel Marks, a philosopher and scholar at The Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics at Yale University, has a very odd column in Sunday’s New York Times Opinionator: “Confessions of an ex-moralist.” Once a firm believer in objective tenets of right and wrong, he’s now abandoned those, seeing no substantive foundation for morality, Indeed, he sees belief in objective morality as akin to an unfounded faith in religion. But in the end I think Marks really does have a morality; he just doesn’t call it that.
Marks starts with his former acceptance of the argument made by Plato in Euthyprho:
This would seem to be the modern, sane view of the matter. We have an intuitive sense of right and wrong that trumps even the commands of God. We have the ability to judge that God is good or bad. Therefore, even if God did not exist, we could fend for ourselves in matters of conscience. Ethics, not divine revelation, is the guide to life. That is indeed the clarion call of the “new atheists.” As the philosopher Louise Antony puts it in the introduction to a recent collection of philosophers’ essays, “Philosophers without Gods: Secular Life in a Religious World”: “Another charge routinely leveled at atheists is that we have no moral values. The essays in this volume should serve to roundly refute this. Every writer in this volume adamantly affirms the objectivity of right and wrong.”
But I don’t. Not any longer. . .
. . . 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?
. . . The dominoes continued to fall. 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.
So marks has abandoned morality, asseriting that he no longer sees, or calls, things “right” or “wrong.” He’s abandoned the language of morality, and feel liberated by this decision. He now sees himself as “amoral.”
Yet he’s not apathetic about things that concern him, especially his bête noire: factory farming of food animals. But given that he can’t say this is “wrong,” what does he do? This is his attitude:
For instance, I used to think that animal agriculture was wrong. Now I will call a spade a spade and declare simply that I very much dislike it and want it to stop. Has this lessened my commitment to ending it? I do not find that to be the case at all.
So instead of arguing that factory farming is wrong, he does this:
Instead I now focus on conveying information: about the state of affairs on factory farms and elsewhere, the environmental devastation that results and, especially, the sentient, intelligent, gentle and noble natures of the animals who are being brutalized and slaughtered. It is also important to spread knowledge of alternatives, like how to adopt a healthy and appetizing vegan diet. If such efforts will not cause people to alter their eating and buying habits, support the passage of various laws and so forth, I don’t know what will.
This sounds to me like a distinction without a difference. What he’s trying to do is argue a form of utilitarianism here—that if someone becomes a vegetarian, the consequences are better, for animals, for the environment, and for people themselves. He may not call that the “right” thing to do, but it’s what he sees as a way to increase well being. And that’s exactly what Sam Harris sees as “objective” morality. You can argue about whether Sam’s criteria are good ones, or whether they can be applied in many circumstances, but all Marks has done has rename “morality” as “those things that have good consequences.” Indeed, he takes morality further into the realm of objectivity when he says that what people do depends on their understanding of “information”, which of course is exactly Sam’s point. (He also realizes that he won’t convince everyone, even if they’re “agreed on all the relevant facts.”)
At the end, I think 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:
For one thing, 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 “figuring out what to do” in cases like factory farming entails understanding the consequences, and that presumes value judgements, which come perilously close to morality. That, again, is Sam’s point: if it’s better to have more rather than less “well being,” then actions that promote the former can be seen as moral. And in many cases I think that’s right. In his last paragraph, Marks gives away the game:
In the process my own desires are likely to undergo further change as well, in the direction of greater compassion and respect, I would anticipate – and not only for the victims of the attitudes, behaviors and policies I don’t like, but also for their perpetrators. 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.
But why have more compassion and respect for people, if it’s not the right thing to do? The telling thing, though is that he says that he’s going to be moved by his head and his heart.
His “head” is his secular and rational consideration of what consequences actions can bring. If some consequences are more desirable than others, as in factory farming, that’s not much different from morality.
His “heart” is his evolved feelings about the right thing to do. That is the part of our morality instilled in our ancestors by natural selection.
Together, the head and heart exemplify the rational and the evolved components of our feelings about what are the good versus bad things to do. And that has everything to do with morality.