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 www.docsoc.com. 

Introduction/Acknowledgements

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?

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