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:
- we know God’s commands
- we know moral facts that reside directly in nature/reality itself
- 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.
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).**
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”.
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:
- Many believers in God claim that without God, there could be no morality.
- 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).
- 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.
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.
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.