Today the philosophy club at Butler University will be having a lunchtime discussion of morality. The reading that was circulated to provide a starting point for the discussion is an op-ed piece by Joel Marks in the New York Times, “Confessions of an Ex-Moralist.” Here’s a snippet:
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?
I find my own view of morality has been moving in a similar direction. As a Christian, I don’t find that there is some way that I can employ science, reason, or even a sacred text to draw absolute or objective moral conclusions that it anyone approaching the matter impartially could be expected to likewise draw and give assent to.
Instead, my understanding has shifted towards what Marks describes in this way:
So nothing has changed, and everything has changed. For while my desires are the same, my manner of trying to implement them has altered radically. I now acknowledge that I cannot count on either God or morality to back up my personal preferences or clinch the case in any argument. I am simply no longer in the business of trying to derive an ought from an is. I must accept that other people sometimes have opposed preferences, even when we are agreed on all the relevant facts and are reasoning correctly.
My outlook has therefore become more practical: I desire to influence the world in such a way that my desires have a greater likelihood of being realized. This implies being an active citizen. But there is still plenty of room for the sorts of activities and engagements that characterize the life of a philosophical ethicist. For one thing, I retain my strong preference for honest dialectical dealings in a context of mutual respect. It’s just that I am no longer giving premises in moral arguments; rather, I am offering considerations to help us figure out what to do. I am not attempting to justify anything; I am trying to motivate informed and reflective choices.
And so, to the extent that I regard the Golden Rule as an appropriate moral principle, my aim should not be to try to demonstrate it logically or scientifically, but to live it and seek to persuade others to do so, while always keeping myself open to learning from the different views on morality that others have.