Defense of Amorality pt.2

In the previous post, I covered the first two sections of Joel Marks’ book, Ethics without Morals: In Defense of Amorality. In that post, metaphysical morality was defined, which leads us now to ask…

Does Morality Exist?

Since many people do believe metaphysical morality exists, Marks embraces the burden of disproof, adopting the method of “inference to the best explanation”:

It is rational to believe in x if and only if x is an element of our best explanation of the world as we know it. The argument for amorality is then simply that morality is not an element of our best explanation of the world as we know it. … All of the familiar phenomena that we associate with morality … can be accounted for without, more plausibly than by, postulating the existence of morality.

pg. 16-17

Marks offers three potential explanations for why different people believe morality exists:

  1. we know God’s commands
  2. we know moral facts that reside directly in nature/reality itself
  3. we know “Darwinian morality”

Elaboration of explanation one

We know God’s commands.

Explanation 1

Explanation one assumes the existence of a God or gods, and proposes that our feelings or intuitions about “right” and “wrong” correspond to God’s commandments. In this conception, God creates “good” and “evil” in the act of approving and disapproving respectively. Such commandments become moral obligations. Simply put, “good” is whatever God commands.

Refutations of explanation one

Marks’ refutes explanation one by showing that it relies on explanation two, which in turn can be rejected. So, assuming we know God’s commands we can ask: how do we know God’s commands are to be obeyed (i.e. how do we know that they are valid imperatives)? Marks claims most people answer this with another intuition, that “God is good.” But how do people know God is good?

Marks refers to Socrates’ arguments in Plato’s Euthryphro to point out that most people believe that “good” is external to God. Whether most believers believe this is contentious, as many believe that “good” is internal to God as the highest, supreme law-giver. Regardless, “good” Marks tackles the idea that good is external to God. I’ll address the other possibility after.

External good

This position is that God is good by virtue of acknowledging external “goodness” as “good”. That is that God could condone and command “evil”, but sides with “good” and this is what merits God as “good” himself. To be clear, this means that:

  • God’s commands are good and
  • these commands are valid imperatives because
  • God is good because
  • God recognised the good as such which
  • Exists outside of God (this point is explanation two)

Before stating Marks’ main reason for rejecting explanation one, I’ll just raise one question about this believer’s logic. If whatever God commands is intuitively good from our perspective, how do we know that God is not commanding “evil”? We may intuit God’s commands as good, but what if our intuitions are backward? To assume God wouldn’t command evil is to assume that “good” is internal to God (which relies on the other possible belief about God’s character; see below).

Marks argues: if good is external to God, why does it matter what he commands — could we not just have feelings/intuitions about the external goodness itself? In such a case, we might be safer to skip the “middle man” and believe in external/natural goodness directly (a la explanation two).**

Internal good

Marks does not contend with the intuition that “goodness” is internal to divinity (possibly because it is rejected by his atheism outright). So, I’ll do that here. If by definition, God is literally “goodness” itself (whatever this actually means), and therefore “goodness” is not external to divinity, God’s commands are “good” because they are an expression of “goodness”. Such a conception of God would sidestep the need for explanation two, but begs the question: does God exist? More on this shortly.

Another approach would be to concede that God’s commandments are good, but ask: why choose God’s subjective opinions as good and not some other being’s subjective opinions? (Surely it’s not the act of commanding that creates “good”, or could I personally make commandments and thereby establish the “good”? Or if this seems too absurd of a question, going back to Socrates, which god’s commandments are “good”?) One response might be that, God’s commands alone are good because God is the supreme authority in the very real sense that God has ultimate power, down to physical forces, and thus the ultimate ability to enforce imperatives. Such a God would indeed be irresistible, and his might would make right, but again it begs the question: does God exist?***

Having assumed atheism in this argument for amorality, Marks need say no more before moving on to explanation two. But before we do, let’s assess Marks’ “hard atheism”.

Hard atheism?

While Marks never argues for atheism in this book, it is a premise of his argument for moral nihilism. While, I would argue that atheism is not a view that strictly requires justification, the lack of an argument does potentially limit Marks’ argument for moral nihilism to his atheist readers. This depends though on whether his readers believe that the existence of God is required for the existence of morality.

There are a few combinations of views regarding God’s existence and the implications that this has for morality:

  1. Many believers in God claim that without God, there could be no morality.
  2. A relatively recent community known as the New Atheists, disagree, and hold that morality can exist without God or gods. (What they disagree on is the nature of morality).
  3. Marks agrees with the believers in God that “without God, there is no morality” (Marks, 2010). The crucial difference being that he accepts moral nihilism as a logical result of atheism, unlike the New Atheists who hold on to imperatives without a commander. He calls this view Hard Atheism, which is the idea that atheism implies moral nihilism.

But consider that the existence of a God does not necessary imply that morality exists: God may be an entity that created the universe but not anything that is “good” or “evil” (regardless of whether “good” and “evil” are conceived of as his commandments or some mysterious aspect of metaphysical reality). No doubt, it would seem more plausible for a deist rather than a theist to accept this, but in such a case, moral nihilism might still be compelling to some believers in (an impersonal) God.

Elaborating explanation two

We know moral facts that reside directly in nature/reality itself.

Explanation 2

Returning now to the reasons why people feel that morality exists, the second explanation holds that “good” exists, external to God, in the properties of nature. In this conception of morality, “good” is objective, and independent of any subjective opinion (even God’s). Hence “good” is an actual property of things in the universe, and natural forces somehow create categorical imperatives.

To be clear, here I’m not talking about certain empirical facts implying certain behaviours IF we have certain goals (a la hypothetical oughts), I am talking about a morality characterised by commands without a commander. That is, some queer property of reality leaps across the boundary of objective reality, and has implications for human behaviour.

If “good” properties were merely physical forces that could cause natural “consequences”, e.g. gravity causing a fall, then this characterisation of morality amounts to Natural Law, and fails to be morality as has been defined in the book.

Natural Law, e.g. the laws of nature are not categorical imperatives because they cannot be disobeyed and are always obeyed, and it is pointless to speak of ethics (the study of what we ought to do) when immorality is impossible. Furthermore, imperatives cannot be derived from natural facts (a la Hume's Is-Ought Gap). For example, "gravity attracts mass therefore it is good that gravity attracts mass" does not follow.

Explanation two’s conception of “good” is more metaphysically mysterious than that of explanation one because, once the existence of God as a supreme authority is granted (as per explanation one), morality is simply the doctrine of his subjective opinion. In a sense, this subjective opinion is objective because it is outside human minds, and it is absolutely true in so far as God’s subjective opinion is settled. And if God were to change his commandments over time, they would be “good” so long as he commands them. In such a conception of good, morality’s imperatives become meaningful twofold: 1) because there is a commander that commands, and consequences that can follow immorality, and 2) moral statements can be true or false (i.e. moral cognitivism is true).

Refuting explanation two

Explanation two claims that “good” is known to exist in the natural world. Marks states that the ‘problem with … is… [the] lacking [of] an adequate conceptualisation of… metaphysical morality.’ That is, how exactly does morality manifest in the world? If moral facts are in the fabric of the universe, how do they work upon or impact upon human action, intention, and manifest as consequences? This natural morality would have truly mysterious mechanisms. It could create moral obligations from natural properties itself.

Moral nihilism holds that the words good and evil “do not describe any actual properties of anything,” [italics mine] (Marks, 2010). Recall that morality is characterised by categorical imperatives*, so nothing about metaphysical morality could be observed: empirical methods could not measure that which has no consequences. Moral imperatives (which are obligations), cannot be observed directly, only indirectly by their consequences.

Second, Marks points out that morality without the existence of a God’s commandments, makes moral imperatives “commands without a commander”, making the concept itself unintelligible. Without an authority to provide consequences (which could be observable), guilt or motivation to be moral remains just a feeling without justification.

Thus the intuition that we infer good from the universe itself is without support. At best, moral facts do exist but are empirically unverifiable, leaving only an unjustifiable feeling -but not knowledge-, leaving us no better off than if morality did not exist. Our feelings might as well be that “killing people is good,” we wouldn’t know who’s feelings corresponded to external the “good” (or God’s commands -how do we know if God exists?).

In regards to morality (of any categorical kind) and divinity, I am agnostic (I don’t claim to know whether they exist or not), but I’m unable to deny their existence. That said: I do believe that the default/initial view is to not have any belief positively in either Gods or moral facts. But beyond this, I do not think that natural morality (commands without a commander/explanation 2) could be justified.

Explanation three

We know “Darwinian morality”.

Explanation 3

Darwinian morality is the belief in and/or adherence to behaviours and attitudes that puts us at some evolutionary advantage. In this conception “good” is what empirically supports survival of the species. This is pure empirical organic desire, measurable by actions of humans, just like other wills or subjects of a life. (For example, the belief that “killing people is wrong” is observable by its widespread condemnation, aversion, and punishment).

Explanation three explains why people feel that they are in possession of moral facts, even if this reduces morality to preferences derived through natural selection.

Thus using “inference to the best explanation”, Marks concludes that it is rational to believe that people feel they know morality due to Darwinian morality rather than explanation one or two.

Next time…

So far Marks has defined metaphysical morality, and argued that people’s belief in it is mistaken. He argued that Darwinian morality better explains why people feel metaphysical morality exists than intuitions of God’s commands, or natural sources of good. In the next of this series, Marks defends amorality in practice (moral abolitionism). Would amorality be viable?

*Morality has the quality of being obligatory without any prerequisites, i.e. there is no place for if-clauses to derive morality's imperative nature, i.e. the consequences of not obliging moral commandments apply without there being any requirement to accept morality's authority, i.e. the scope of moral commands is infinite and all encompassing, without your assent, and nothing is outside the reach of morality's authority. In short: morality is characterised by categorical imperatives.
** Or is this the function of God? I can imagine this would be an interesting theological argument for why God is good: He created the universe with "Goodness" in it, and commands it to us, because without his commands (which we can instinctively feel), we would not know what is "good" because we do not instinctively know external "good".
***This is the point I personally agree to fully with my Christian friends: if God exists, and has the ability and willingness to apply unstoppable force behind his commands, then God's commands are "good" in a real and actually very conceivable way. For categorical imperatives to exist, the most likely set of facts, in my opinion, would be that there exists an impersonal God which has "good" internal to itself. Such a conception of God could make categorical imperatives meaningful, specifically due to the supreme authority he holds over nature, and the ability to control his property.

In Defense of Amorality pt.1

Marks, J. (2013). Ethics without Morals: In defense of amorality. Routledge, NY: New York. 

Joel Marks’ Ethics without Morality: In Defense of Amorality is a book that is special to me. Not only did it improve my understanding of meta-ethics and specifically moral nihilism, but a particular part of the book spoke to me so directly, that I felt the need to email Joel*. I am grateful to have enjoyed his correspondence ever since.

The book argues for an amoralism of two prongs: moral nihilism and moral abolitionism. The first is the denial of metaphysical morality, the objective, mind-independent morality, which would make moral claims meaningful (true or false). That is the specific concept of “categorical imperatives governing human behaviour” (email, November 2019).

The second prong is Marks’ preference for moral abolitionism i.e. against empirical morality. That is morality as it can be measured by psychology, sociology, anthropology etc., for example beliefs about morality or behaviours that result from moral beliefs.

In this series of posts, I want to present Marks’ main arguments for these views fairly concisely. I do this because others may be interested in this topic and also because I suspect that few people outside academic or philosophical circles have read this book, which I feel is a shame.

All unattributed quotes in this series are from Marks’ book and from the relevant chapter being discussed. I will organise my posts according to the chapter titles from the book, of which this post will cover the first two. The sections are:

  • Introduction/Acknowledgments
  • What is morality?
  • Does morality exist?
  • Would Amorality be Viable?
  • Might Amorality be Preferable?
  • Is Amorality Just another way of being Moral?
  • A Case study in applied amorality: How Shall we treat other animals?
  • What is Ethics?
From Amazon: Joel Marks is professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of New Haven. He received the B.A. in psychology from Cornell University and the M.A. and Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Connecticut. Marks has written numerous articles for professional journals and hundreds of op-eds and columns for newspapers and magazines on ethics, astronomy, and other topics. Since 2000 Marks has been a regular columnist for Philosophy Now magazine. Marks is currently a Bioethics Center Scholar at Yale University. His Website is 


Marks was a firm believer in metaphysical morality for most of his life. “I had never been agnostic but always a true believer [in morality]. … Moreality is a universe in which moral right and wrong are as real as chairs and gravity. Even if everybody … did not believe in morality, in moreality it would exist, just as surely as the earth is spherical and even if everybody believed it was disc-shaped.” But after his professional retirement as a professor of philosophy, specialising in normative ethics no less, he has an “anti-epiphany” and committed a philosophical u-turn. The turn began when his friend Wendell Wallach commented that “… moral theories are first and foremost intuitions.”

Marks’ atheism is a key part of his argument and biography. His starting position, for our purposes here, was that of an atheistic secular Kantian ethicist, holding the ethic: “Never to treat anyone merely as a means, but rather as an end in themselves.” During a discussion about God with a minister, he realised morality is like God.”[Belief in God and morality are …] both simply an interaction between some non-supernatural reality external to the individual and the emotional response of the individual. God was the universe responded to with awe; right and wrong were human actions responded to with approval or disapproval.”

Being an atheist, Marks sees belief in god as mistaken. Therefore once thinking that morality is like God, the belief in moreality (objective morality) is likewise mistaken. At this point, Marks’ conclusion was that morality is essentially relative, but “it did not take long … to draw the further conclusion that a relative morality is tantamount to no morality at all … Thus, [he] began to speak of ‘amorality.’ “

In Marks’ own words: “… the position[s] … I defend herein has been variously called moral skepticism, moral anti-realism, moral error-theory, moral nihilism, moral eliminativism, and moral abolitionism…” This set of terms combines various distinct concepts, including he two already clarified above (moral nihilism and moral abolitionism). Amoralism is then a position of various independent concepts that Marks defends regarding metaphysical and empirical morality.

Note that unlike others who deny moral realism, Marks favours removing moral ideas and language from human discourse (moral abolitionism), and does not advocate moral fictionalism (the advocacy of morality as a social institution despite a disbelief in morality as a categorical imperative). As a moral abolitionist, Marks is joined by Richard Garner and others, unlike Richard Joyce who is known for advocating moral fictionalism.

What is Morality?

As a necessity, Marks begins by defining precisely what is being talked about. Though there are many definitions and contextual uses of the words and concepts relating to “morality,” Marks defines it how it seems intuitive to him and how he believes most people think of it.

Marks’ characterisation of morality is as a “set of absolute and universal imperatives and prohibitions. … universal, unchanging, [an] absolute authority in matters of human behaviour.” Morality, unlike criminal laws, does not vary from place, time, or culture, “it emanates from an unchanging and univocal font … of authority and power”. It is a moral law, like a scientific law, except acting on us indirectly through the will, as opposed to directly like gravity.

To illustrate morality’s “categorical” character, Marks compares moral commands to grammatical commands. Paraphrasing Marks’ example, the command “Grammatically speaking, it is right to capitalise proper nouns’, needs its preface (“Grammatically speaking”) or risks overstepping its usefulness and accuracy. Moral commands on the other hand, function as intended without similar prefaces: “[Morally speaking,] it is wrong to kill babies.” This highlights how morality, unlike other practices (like grammar) does not have a limited scope.

This can be expressed as: there are no contingencies for moral commands to be authoritative. That is, while we can always rephrase non-moral commands in the form of hypotheticals (“If you want X, then do Y”, e.g. “If you want to be grammatical, capitalise proper nouns”), moral commands are categorical, and by their very character exist without if-clauses.

[Morality’s] chief characteristic is that it is required of us, regardless of our desires. … My conception of morality is as the highest telos, by which I mean that the morally right thing to do is supposed to be what we should do … “all things considered”. Thus, the moral should trumps all others, and at all times and everywhere.

Mark’s characterisation is that morality is that “Morality is the set of imperatives (and/or truths about what we should do) that apply to all human beings of all climes and times, and trump all others, and that manifest in our feelings, either as commands to be obeyed, as if from an external Power or Authority, or simply as spontaneous promptings of the ‘heart’ or ‘guts’.”

Further to the clear definition of morality that has been provided, the connection between rationality and morality is severed in this opening chapter. “Morality does not imply rationality, no matter which sense of ‘moral’ one has in mind. … rationality does not imply ‘morality’, no matter which sense of ‘moral’ has in mind.” Marks concludes this after having exhausted leach combination of moral and rational acts being either obligatory or permissible.** In the end, the conclusion is reached that morality and rationality are independent: able to agree or conflict.

Next time…

So far, Marks has given some background about his thinking, and how he eventually came to reject his lifelong belief in objective morality. He defined morality as being characterised as obligation without having opted into such a binding contract, a definition for which the next chapter will specifically reject: Does morality exist?

*"I am indeed a man without an ethical country, for even though there are a few fellow citizens of the Land of Amorality, there may not be any besides myself who live in the district of Animal Abolitionism." Being a vegan animal abolitionist and an amoralist at the time, I emailed Joel.
**Is every morally obligatory act rationally obligatory, Is every morally obligatory act rationally permissible, Is every morally permissible act rationally permissible, Is every morally permissible act rationally obligatory, Is every rationally obligatory act morally obligatory, is every rationally obligatory act morally permissible, Is every rationally permissible act morally obligatory?