The Moral Fool

Here’s a nice little book I just laid my hands on: The Moral Fool: A Case for Amorality by Hans-Georg Moeller.

Both our religious and philosophical traditions push us toward a notion of Morality—with a capital M. There have to be Moral Truths that are objective, absolute, binding, categorical, etc. etc. We think there is a way Things Ought To Be, independent of particular interests. A chief source of employment for our Gods is to be an Authority that underwrites Morality. And a chief source of complaints against our Gods is that they fail to endorse the sort of Morality we want.

Against this, I favor not doing Morality. Oh, by all means, lets do politics, and let us continue to ask about how we might act and how we might improve our lives together. But we can do all that without some transcendent notion of The Moral Thing To Do.

This sort of amoralism is definitely a philosophical minority point of view. Even secular thinkers tend to be infected by the Morality bug, thinking that one of the main tasks nonbelievers need to engage in is to find an alternative foundation for Morality once God is out of the picture. Some, however, think this is a mistake. They defend varieties of “moral relativism,” error theory, amoralism, etc.

From my point of view, all these dissenting points of view on Morality are very sensible. We should no longer waste time doing Morality, just like we don’t devote many resources to astrology. Explaining “moral” behavior and perceptions is a job for the sciences; figuring out how we should live is up to the negotiations that constitute politics, engineering, and the law.

Moeller would, I think, agree with much of this. What I find very interesting in his book, however, is how he comes to his variety of amoralism, and how he presents an argument that we would be better off in life with less moral thinking.

Moeller presents an amoralism inspired by Daoism, which allows him to come at Western disputes over morality from a very interesting angle. That alone makes the book worth reading. In effect, discussing whether morality is a good idea in a more Chinese context takes monotheism temporarily out of the picture. Moeller gives us a Western look at a contrast between Confucian moralism and a Daoist “moral fool” approach. Both Confucianism and Daoism can be quite secular; they don’t have a strong dependence on the supernatural beliefs within their traditions. And when Moeller draws the reader back to the ostensibly secular Western tradition of moral philosophy, it becomes easier to see how prominent philosophers such as Kant and Bentham have defended some perfectly lunatic ideas.

Even better, Moeller argues that moral thinking can be dangerous and regularly unhelpful in everyday and social situations. He is particularly strong in defending the separation of law and morality. I found his criticism of the death penalty as applied in the US legal system, and and his criticism of just war theory particularly compelling. Moeller’s argument is too short in this rather short book to fully make a case that we can do better without morality, but it is a good start.

I, for one, will definitely be citing Moeller when I can in the future. He brings a fresh perspective to amoralism. His practical concerns take amoralism beyond the concerns with scientific explanations of moral behavior and perception that I have been most familiar with. And the Daoist angle is a very interesting twist in its own right. Moeller presents a way of being radically secular. Religion becomes irrelevant at best, since he’s interested in going beyond the secular substitutes for religious Morality as well.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Slavery, genocide, torture, murder, rape, acts of violence based on racism, sexism, or homophobia: Are such practices and actions morally wrong? If so, should I care whether they are morally wrong? If not, then why should we oppose such practices and actions?

    These practices and actions are morally wrong, and I could care less whether they are legal or illegal, socailly acceptable or unacceptable.

    If society A permits slavery and society B does not, then society B is morally superior to society A, at least in that respect.

    Morality allows for practical judgements that transcend existing social and political systems, and that allow us to strive to improve existing social and political systems in relation to moral criteria.

    Please explain to me how moral relativism allows for such evaluative conclusions, for making moral comparisons between alternative social systems and practices, legal systems and practices?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Taner Edis said: “We think there is a way Things Ought To Be, independent of particular interests.

    I don’t think that’s precise. On theism God, being perfectly good, asks of us only what is best for us. In other words Morality exactly reflects our best interests. The idea is not as many atheists (and many theists too) understand it, namely that God “rewards” good actions and “punishes” evil ones. Rather it is the case that a fundamental and empirical property of our condition is that how we act has a transformative effect on ourselves: good actions sanctify us and evil actions debase us. Indeed I think that’s how we all, religious and non-religious alike, ultimately do ethics. The difference is that religious people and particularly theists can describe a coherent reality that accounts for this property of our condition.

    Taner Edis said: “ Moeller's argument is too short in this rather short book to fully make a case that we can do better without morality, but it is a good start.

    If amoralism entails that “we can do better without morality” then it is an incoherent concept, because “we can do better without morality” is itself a moral statement. Perhaps the idea is that “we can do better without Morality” – with a capital M. But if this is assumed to be a Moral statement then the same incoherence obtains. And if it is assumed that this is a non-objective moral statement then, on naturalism, it has as much claim to truth as its negation.

    The serious conceptual problem that naturalism has with ethics cannot be solved by suggesting reasonable sounding ethical systems which make no mention of God. I think that much can be done, see for example the work of Peter Singer. The conceptual problem is that of meta-ethics, for on naturalism it is not clear what a moral statement actually means.

    Anyway, this certainly looks like an interesting book to read.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Dianelos said:

    If amoralism entails that “we can do better without morality” then it is an incoherent concept, because “we can do better without morality” is itself a moral statement.

    =====
    Interesting point, but doesn't seem quite correct to me. This point, at least, needs further explanation.

    Presumably "we can do better" means something like we can be happier, or we can thrive more, or we can maximize our collective utility.

    Ethics, in terms of the philosophical subject area, is concerned with goals like happiness, thriving, and maximizing utility. In fact, a key issue has been over whether we should be seeking happiness, or thriving, or utility, or some other goal.

    "Doing better" is not necessarily a moral concept. But it is unavoidably a normative concept, so you are quite right to push on this concept and ask for clarification: What does "doing better" mean? If "doing better" requires sacrificing "our happiness" or "our thriving" or "our collective utility" then is it worth the sacrifice? Why?

    What you are suggesting, I think, is that one suspects that "doing better" will turn out to be based on just another proposed ethical norm, or perhaps one that is already out there on the philosophical table. Does the concept of "doing better" sneak a moral value in through the back door?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Bradly Bown said: “Ethics, in terms of the philosophical subject area, is concerned with goals like happiness, thriving, and maximizing utility.

    I’d say that ethics is about what is good, whether in the case of actions, of events, or of states of affairs. Presumably (but perhaps not always) such actions or events which bring about good states of affairs are good too, and presumably (but perhaps not always) good actions and good events bring about states of affairs which are good. Finally I’d say that beliefs too can be good or bad, and that presumably (but perhaps not always) good beliefs lead to actions which are good. A fundamental philosophical question, indeed one that links ethics and ontology, is about the relationship between good beliefs and true beliefs about ontology. My position is that true beliefs about ontology cannot fail to be good beliefs. In other words that reality is such that the more truth one knows about it the better off one is.

    Bradley Bowen said: "'Doing better' is not necessarily a moral concept."

    I agree that “we can do better” is an ambiguous phrase, but it seems clear to me that under any possible interpretation it entails the judgment that a particular state of affairs is good, or is better than another, and therefore that this phrase is a moral one.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Dianelos said:

    I agree that “we can do better” is an ambiguous phrase, but it seems clear to me that under any possible interpretation it entails the judgment that a particular state of affairs is good, or is better than another, and therefore that this phrase is a moral one.
    ========

    It is certainly very tempting to try to reduce "the right" to "the good" but this begs a major question in the field of ethics: Can moral judgements be reduced to value judgements?

    You can certainly take the position that moral judgements can be reduced to value judgements, but this is not obvious or self-evidently the case.


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