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.

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About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University


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