Joel Marks is at the Center for Bioethics at Yale University and is professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of New Haven. Though writing on ethics throughout his philosophical career, he had never taken any especial interest in metaethics but had confidently taken himself to simply know there were some things that were morally right and some that were morally wrong. But just a few years ago, rather late in his career, he came to think that his belief in morality was as groundless as he had always thought belief in God was.
A friend had been explaining to me the nature of her belief in God. At one point she likened divinity to the beauty of a sunset: the quality lay not in the sunset but in her relation to the sunset. I thought to myself: “Ah, if that is what she means, then I could believe in that kind of God. For when I think about the universe, I am filled with awe and wonder; if that feeling is God, then I am a believer.”
But then it hit me: is not morality like this God? In other words, could I believe that, say, the wrongness of a lie was any more intrinsic to an intentionally deceptive utterance than beauty was to a sunset or wonderfulness to the universe? Does it not make far more sense to suppose that all of these phenomena arise in my breast, that they are the responses of a particular sensibility to otherwise valueless events and entities?
So someone else might respond completely differently from me, such that for him or her, the lie was permissible, the sunset banal, the universe nothing but atoms and the void. Yet that prospect was so alien to my conception of morality that it was tantamount to there being no morality at all. For essential to morality is that its norms apply with equal legitimacy to everyone; moral relativism, it has always seemed to me, is an oxymoron. Hence I saw no escape from moral nihilism.
The dominoes continued to fall. I had thought I was a secularist because I conceived of right and wrong as standing on their own two feet, without prop or crutch from God. We should do the right thing because it is the right thing to do, period. But this was a God too. It was the Godless God of secular morality, which commanded without commander – whose ways were thus even more mysterious than the God I did not believe in, who at least had the intelligible motive of rewarding us for doing what He wanted.
My experience is in some ways similar to Marks’s—I had a major deconversion from having unjustified faith in an absolutist conception of morality. But in my case, this had come with becoming an atheist. When I realized the wrongness of having faith in God, I decided to systematically stop having unjustified beliefs in anything, and clearly that meant not unjustifiably just asserting belief in Morality either. This makes sense in my case especially since my deconversion was decisively accelerated and shaped by my reading of Nietzsche and Nietzsche is the atheist whose most famous challenge is that atheists reevaluate their beliefs about morality in light of “the death of God”.
So, upon graduating college I was an emotivist like Marks, thinking of ethics as simply a matter of continuing to care about the things I already cared about, even if they had no deeper rational or moral justification, and trying to influence others to share my feelings rather than convince them of any kind of abstract moral truth.
In one of the most decisive and important moments in my life, during my junior year, about half a year before diving into Nietzsche and almost exactly a year before my deconversion, I remember telling a close Christian friend whose Nietzsche-exacerbated doubts about the faith and whose torment over homosexuality had led to deep depression, explicit philosophical nihilism, and suicidal thoughts, that I did not understand how lack of belief in God would make life any less worth living. Even were there no God, I would still love the people and other goods that I loved.
At that point I still quite insistently believed in and argued for the truth of the Christian God and did not yet grasp that metaethics was independent of gods and that even a believer could acknowledge it had rational foundations which non-believers could discover too. Even so, even were there no rational foundations for morality, as I had then thought, it made no emotional sense to me that this could ever stop me from loving and caring about people and other things I valued in life. Some abstraction about ultimate meaning (or the lackthereof) was entirely irrelevant to love and valuing was a kind of love to me.
So, I was very much where Marks is except in my case there was not the lag of decades between realizing there were no gods and realizing that disbelief in gods requires one of three things: (a) faith in Morality, comparable to religious faith, (b) some sort of moral relativism (either emotivistic, constructivistic, etc.) or (c) a rationally defensible metaethics which explains the truth of morality (or, at least, the degrees of objective truth within moralities, so far as they go).
Losing faith in Morality naturally leads many people first to some form of moral relativism, as it did in my case and as it recently has in Marks’s case. In my first follow up post to this one, I retrace a couple of the first steps by which Nietzsche, of all philosophers, guided my personal philosophical path from disillusioned post-faith radical, skeptic, emotivist relativist, to rationally convinced explicator and defender of objective morality.
October 20, 2011:
Joel Marks has graciously written in to clarify his positions a bit. I will post more on his follow ups to his original Opinionator piece soon.
I happened upon a couple of blog posts by you about my Opinionator pieces in the New York Times. Thank you for taking my ideas so seriously, and indeed sharing many of them (or their genesis, anyway). I’m sure we would have a great deal to discuss, and probably without end, if we engaged in dialogue; but I thought I should correct what I see as a couple of errors in your characterization of my view so that at least we would not be talking past each other. In particular, I am not a moral relativist. I consider moral relativism to be unintelligible; but even if intelligible, it would only carry on the central mistake of morality in a different guise, namely, to postulate an absolute ought (albeit for a limited community or whatnot).
There is certainly a great deal to be said for the functional value of moralities, where morality is understood as a sociological phenomenon. However, that is just as true for theism, yet it does not make theism true for all that, I’m sure you would agree.
Of course my rejection of morality (i.e., metaphysical morality) presumes a particular analysis of morality, and all I can really say is that it is the conception of morality that I myself had embraced. But my rejection encompasses as well the empirical claim that sociological morality serves a function worth respecting, since I think in the scheme of things, at least nowadays, it does more harm than good (where I conceive harm and good also in terms of our desires, whether individual or collective).
I’ll just make one more point here: I do not reject morality on the basis of its genesis, which would indeed be to commit the genetic fallacy. After all, our of our beliefs about the physical world also arise contingently, but that is a separate question from whether they are true or false. No, instead I have a positive argument for the falsity of morality, which is usually known in the trade as the argument to the best explanation.
By the way, I don’t know if you caught my follow-up piece in the Opinionator: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/09/02/atheism-amorality-and-animals-a-response/ . Here I delve a little more deeply into some of the details. But ultimately I could not do any of this justice except to write a book about it, which is now in search of a publisher.
Thanks again for the simulating discussions of my … and your … thoughts.