Saturday, January 22, 2011

Moral Abolitionism

Richard Garner is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Ohio State University. He's also a moral abolitionist. To find out precisely what that means read what Professor Garner says in the piece below excerpted from an essay in Philosophy Now:
Free thinkers and skeptics throughout history have entertained the suspicion that morality is a mistake, a scam, a fiction that we make up; but few others have welcomed this idea with open minds. Recent discussions of the topic can be traced to the work of the philosopher John Mackie, who defended his ‘moral error theory’ by criticizing a widely held understanding of morality called ‘moral realism,’ the belief that morality is something ‘real’ that we discover, not something we have made up.

Mackie called his own view ‘moral skepticism,’ but he was unskeptical enough to open his 1977 book Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong with the ‘dogmatic’ assertion that “there are no objective values.” Just as atheists claim that the beliefs of theists about the objective existence of a god are in error, moral error theorists claim that the beliefs of moral realists about the objective existence of moral rules, prohibitions, virtues, vices, values, rights, and duties are also in error, and for the same reason – what they are talking about doesn’t exist.
In other words, if God doesn't exist morality is a sham because there's nothing to ground it, a claim with which we entirely agree, and have been stressing at Viewpoint for the entire seven years of our existence. We've repeatedly called upon atheists to either admit that their talk of moral duties is nonsense or to give up their atheism (the preferred solution) and embrace theism.

Garner, unfortunately, chooses the first path. Citing the work of people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens he dismisses belief in God as out of the question and acknowledges that morality is an illusion (he calls this the moral error theory, i.e. it's an error to believe that there are objective moral values and duties.). Since morality is an illusion we should abolish moral discourse from our lives to the extent that we can (moral abolitionism):
So what must we do if we want to abandon morality, even temporarily? It is useless to ban ‘evaluative’ words such as ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘right’, ‘wrong’, and ‘ought’. Such words have far too many morally neutral and perfectly unproblematic uses. It is not these words that cause trouble, but the use of any word in that special way that implies objective values or objective moral rules that are independent of human decisions, desires, agreements, or demands. But if abolishing, or even restricting, morality involves more than changing our vocabulary, what does it involve? How do we even get started?

First we can just take some time to observe ourselves in the act of making moral judgments and to notice what happens when the thought that someone is evil or deserves to suffer arises. Eventually we will be ready to try keeping some of those thoughts to ourselves. This itself is an accomplishment, but it is not yet to suppress the thought. For that we need to learn how to reject moral judgments that pop into our mind. We can neutralize some of them by displacing them with non-moral thoughts, such as the thought that we could be biased, or mistaken about some detail, motive, or prudential calculation. Or we could remind ourselves that we are conducting an experiment to see if we can back away from moralizing without all Hell breaking loose.

As (and if) we move in the direction of moral abolitionism, we will see that we are in no way limited in our ability to express and communicate our attitudes, feelings, and requirements. Instead of telling others about their moral obligations, we can tell them what we want them to do, and then we can explain why. We can express annoyance, anger, and enthusiasm, each of which has an effect on what people do, and none of which requires language that presupposes objective values or obligations. The moral abolitionist is equipped, as we all are, with habits, preferences, policies, aims, and impulses that can easily play the roles usually assigned to moral beliefs and thoughts.
Garner is at least a lot more consistent than the New Atheist writers he cites who deny that God exists but who nevertheless think they can still cling to the traditional moral assumptions inherited from their fathers.

Even so, Garner appears to be under the sway of his own set of illusions. He seems to think that we can avoid "all hell breaking loose" if, when people behave cruelly or selfishly, we can wag our finger at them and angrily inform them that they're doing something of which we don't approve. I doubt many will find that very compelling. Moral suasion, the attempt to convince people that their behavior is wrong because it violates God's law and as such is under divine sanction, is, in Professor Garner's world, to be replaced by attempts to convince people that they're offending good manners. What Jared Loughner did in Tucson isn't "evil", according to the moral abolitionist, it's just something that most people didn't like much and wished he hadn't done. But if this is all we can say about Loughner's crime then we're trivializing it.

It may not be obvious, but what Professor Garner is endorsing is the sort of thinking that leads to a might-makes-right view of ethics. Since there are no rights and wrongs, no objective values or obligations, each person is free to do whatever he has the power to do. This is the promised land of liberation from the shackles of religion that the New Atheists are so excited about, but it is, in fact, the fast lane to its own hell. Their enthusiasm is rather like the zeal people have historically shown for tyrannies while those regimes were still in their nascent stages. It's not until all the implications of their ideology are developed and the strong man rises to the top and commences his slaughters that the people realize what a horror they had been abetting, but by then it's too late.

If God does not exist then indeed morality would be an illusion, but breaking free of that illusion, as Professor Garner proposes, leads only to holocausts, gulags and Gomorrah. The consequences of atheism are literally dreadful.

There's much more to Garner's article at the link. It's worth reading as a good example of where atheism, followed consistently, leads one.