Friday, September 10, 2010

The Amoralist

Joel Marks is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut who writes for the blog Philosophy Now. He's an atheist and has come to realize that attempts by atheists to defend their belief in the validity of moral obligation in a Godless world are futile. Rather than retain his belief in moral obligation by accepting the existence of God, however, Marks chooses to retain his belief in atheism by rejecting morality. Marks explains his decision to become an "amoralist":
In a word, this philosopher has long been laboring under an unexamined assumption, namely, that there is such a thing as right and wrong. I now believe there isn’t.
How I arrived at this conclusion is the subject of a book I have written during this recent period (tentatively titled Bad Faith: A Personal Memoir on Atheism, Amorality, and Animals). The long and the short of it is that I became convinced that atheism implies amorality; and since I am an atheist, I must therefore embrace amorality. I call the premise of this argument ‘hard atheism’ because it is analogous to a thesis in philosophy known as ‘hard determinism.’ The latter holds that if metaphysical determinism is true, then there is no such thing as free will. Thus, a ‘soft determinist’ believes that, even if your reading of this column right now has followed by causal necessity from the Big Bang fourteen billion years ago, you can still meaningfully be said to have freely chosen to read it.
Analogously, a ‘soft atheist’ would hold that one could be an atheist and still believe in morality. And indeed, the whole crop of ‘New Atheists’ are softies of this kind. So was I, until I experienced my shocking epiphany that 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.
Why do I now accept hard atheism? I was struck by salient parallels between religion and morality, especially that both avail themselves of imperatives or commands, which are intended to apply universally. In the case of religion, and most obviously theism, these commands emanate from a Commander; “and this all people call God,” as Aquinas might have put it.
The problem with theism is of course the shaky grounds for believing in God. But the problem with morality, I now maintain, is that it is in even worse shape than religion in this regard; for if there were a God, His issuing commands would make some kind of sense. But if there is no God, as of course atheists assert, then what sense could be made of there being commands of this sort?
In sum, while theists take the obvious existence of moral commands to be a kind of proof of the existence of a Commander, i.e., God, I now take the non-existence of a Commander as a kind of proof that there are no Commands, i.e., morality.
Give Marks credit for finally seeing what Christians have been telling atheists for decades if not centuries: Take away God and you take away any ground for moral judgment. As I mentioned in a post last week the atheists that Marks refers to as soft atheists live in an unsustainable tension. They want to hold on to moral judgment while also holding on to their atheism. As Marks has realized, it can't be done. Unfortunately, of the two solutions available to him - reject atheism or reject morality - Marks has chosen the latter which, although consistent, strikes me as almost perverse.

The rest of the post is interesting, and I invite you to read it. Meanwhile, I wonder now whether Marks, having claimed to be an amoralist (one who rejects the view that there are moral duties), will be able to refrain, as he must, from making moral judgments. I wonder, for example, whether he really will be able to say that kindness is no more "right" than cruelty, that selflessness is no more right than selfishness, or that there's no obligation to help the poor. I wonder whether he'll now say that torture is neither right nor wrong, and that acts like murder, though they may be unpopular, are not really morally wrong. I wonder if Marks even realizes that he's going to have to answer these questions.