Confessions of an Ex-Moralist

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.

What do you make of Marks’ article? Do you agree or disagree, and why?

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  • Scot McKnight

    And, would not someone ask you these two questions:

    Why the Golden Rule?
    What makes an ethic Christian?

  • James F. McGrath

    Thanks for those good questions, Scot. Presumably the answer to the two is related. 

    Why the Golden Rule? From our own human standpoint, can the answer ever be anything other than “Because I find that moral code persuasive and worth following?”

    And presumably the answer to the second question is “Because it gives importance to the moral teaching and/or example of Jesus.”

    What might someone then ask as follow-up questions?  :-)

    • Anonymous

      What one considers to be loving is a matter or personal conviction about the “moral ought” and even IF there SHOULD be a “moral ought”!!!.  Suppose I think that “god’ is the greatest good to be sought, and that nothing else should be sought other than him (1st two commandments), then, I might think that loving my neighbor is “making him” obey what I consider to be “the Absolute”! or what I consider to be the “moral demands of God’s just requirements”, so either way, I have determined what the other ‘should” do or be, without even recognizing that they may have a different preference!!! Religious people tend to try to universalize principles that have to do with particularities. Such is the “moral ought”.

      Secular people have a difference of opinion. Thier understanding seeks to protect liberty, not life from oppressive domination of another’s conscience! That is where our Constitutonal Government is of higher value than religious claims!

      • Anonymous

        correction; secular people seek to protect liberty from oppressive dominaton of another’s conscience. life is important for the relgious as it is deemed “God”s, while secular people are more prone to define values upon liberty, as personal right to life and free speech as a value to having a ‘real” life, not universal demands that constrict and define life.

        • Anonymous

          Thank you – the first one made no sense!!  😉

    • Nan Bush

      Rather than the self-referentially abstract “I find that moral code persuasive” the answer can be “Because treating other people the way we want them to treat us tends to promote kindness, justice, and peace.” Unless, of course, those are considered coercive values (in which case, if “I desire to punch you out,” I should feel free to do so).

      And to the second, is an ethic Christian because it gives importance to the teaching of Jesus or the other way around?

  • Robert

    Interestingly, that same NY Times article prompted me to post to my blog. Here’s the link if you want to check it out:

    Short version: I agree that with the article that we don’t need God to dictate an objective morality, but I don’t agree that no such morality is available.

  • James F. McGrath

    Thanks for sharing your blog post, Robert. I’ve shared it on Facebook and Google+ and hope that others interested in this topic will read it as well. I think we agree that the notion or at least the terminology of “objective morality” is problematic because morality inherently has to do with persons.

  • admiralmattbar

    How are you going to persuade others to live by the golden rule if you cannot use reason?  Do you lead by example and hope to inspire people?  What do you do if they disagree about a moral proposition you have?  

    “I desire to influence the world in such a way that my desires have a greater likelihood of being realized.”

    It seems like this view of morality makes almost any discussion of morality a waste of time because it is unreasonable and entirely a personal choice.  This sounds like it is effectively “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”

  • Robert

    James, thank you for sharing my post in the ways you did. Very kind of you. To respond to your comment about the term “objective morality,” I think words like objective and subjective have a lot of different meanings and usages, so they can be slippery. But I don’t have a problem with “objective morality” when it’s meant in the way I mean it. What I mean is that persons, subjects, have objective existence–meaning, their existence is independent of anyone’s point of view. They exist, regardless of what anyone thinks about that. And in the same way, their worth is also objective. It too exists regardless of what anyone thinks about it. That’s all I mean by objective. So in that sense, subjects have objective existence and worth (I believe). Which, if true, gives us a basis for morality, not dependent on God’s authority nor on mere personal opinion or social convention.

    I’ve just been following your blog for a couple/three weeks. I find it interesting (despite not watching Doctor Who) as I have a lonstanding interest in the historical Jesus and New Testament scholarship.

  • James F. McGrath

    @Robert, I find your line of reasoning incredibly insightful. We are persons, and as such recognize inherent value in at least one person, i. e. ourselves. But to recognize the inherent worth of myself as a person while denying it to another person would be inherently illogical and hypocritical. And so there one essentially has the Golden Rule as the logical basis for morality. I wonder whether anyone has articulated this viewpoint in quite this way and published it – if not, then you should do so, or let someone else to do so!

  • Robert

    James, it is extremely gratifying to hear your remarks. I honestly don’t know if anyone has articulated this viewpoint. It’s just that when I read the discussions out there, this is what screams in my head. As far as publishing it, I honestly wouldn’t know where to start. But I would like to see this position out there. I find both of the current sides of the issue (there is no real basis, God’s fiat is the real basis) to be extremely unsatisfying.

  • Mike Z.

    If I may make some sharp but well-meaning comments:

    Marks’ essay struck me as a philosophical surrender, and I am a little surprised McGrath sympathizes with him.  I can’t fathom adhering to a morality of “Whatever wins, is moral.”  Surely that’s the opposite of what Socrates was getting at in Euthyphro.  I might agree that people are entitled to the morality they want to live by, but that can’t extend to anyone else besides themselves.

    If there is a public morality (and I strongly argue there is), it’s one that is reasonably true–that is, it ought to be held by anyone who is trying to be a rational person.  It’s self-consistent.  IMHO the Golden Rule, in some formulation or other, comes close to this sort of truth.  (And the Categorical Imperative does not come close, but that’s another conversation.)  Now, I admit I can’t argue with someone who wants to abandon rationality in pursuit of some solipsistic goal–all I can do is fight them.  Or, at best, appeal to their baser instincts in an attempt to get them to do what I want them to do.  But surely we are better creatures than that.

    I agree that sometimes it might be good to lead by example, rather than trying to force others to agree with you.  And it’s also good to be tolerant and respectful and to harbor doubts.  But that’s different than giving up the argument altogether.

    I’m also willing to agree that different people define “rationality” in different ways.  But if there is a human race (and by the way, there is), then there is a human morality.  I freely accept that this morality might be quite minimalistic.  But even if so, it still exists.

    Mike Z.
    aka the_cave

  • EdwardTBabinski

    The word “objective” is overused when it comes to morality. For further explication:

  • EdwardTBabinski

    The word “objective” is overused when it comes to morality. For further explication:

  • James F. McGrath

    I didn’t understand Marks to be saying either that one cannot use reason or that whatever comes to dominate is “good.” Rather, I understood him to be saying that, since there is no way to prove something good in an objective fashion that any and all impartial observers could or would agree to, all that one can do is use reason and persuasion to make the best case they can for their moral viewpoint.

    But having said that, I do think that Robert’s way of articulating the Golden Rule might actually provide a way out of the impasse, and I may try to write something on that subject – at least a blog post, if not an article or something else of the sort.