Religious fundamentalists often say, "If you don't believe in God, you have no basis for morality." This irritates non-believers like me.
Hey! I'm moral! I know the difference between right and wrong. My morality just isn't based on supernatural dogmas.
But what if those fundamentalists are correct? What if there's no such thing as atheist morality? And -- most importantly -- what if this is no big deal, because morality is as unnecessary to live a good life as believing in God is?
Such is the basic thesis of Joel Marks' "Confessions of an Ex-Moralist." Marks is a philosophy professor, and his essay was published by the New York Times, so in places it's fairly difficult intellectual reading.
He makes good sense, though. Here's some excerpts that resonated with me.
The day I became an atheist was the day I realized I had been 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.
...The entire set of moral attributions is out the window. Think of this analogy: A tribe of people lives on an isolated island. They have no formal governmental institutions of any kind. In particular they have no legislature. Therefore in that society it would make no sense to say that someone had done something “illegal.” But neither would anything be “legal.” The entire set of legal categories would be inapplicable. In just this way I now view moral categories.
...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.
...In the process my own desires are likely to undergo further change as well, in the direction of greater compassion and respect, I would anticipate – and not only for the victims of the attitudes, behaviors and policies I don’t like, but also for their perpetrators. But this won’t be because a god, a supernatural law or even my conscience told me I must, I ought, I have an obligation. Instead I will be moved by my head and my heart. Morality has nothing to do with it.
At the moment my wife and I are trying to convince some people who, along with us, are co-owners of a vacation cabin, that our understanding of a septic system problem is correct.
Like Marks says, there hasn't been any need for us to think in terms of good or bad. I don't feel that I'm better than the co-owners who disagree with us. I just think that my wife and I have a better explanation for what's going on with the septic system.
And I do my best to keep in mind that everybody involved in what sometimes have been heated discussions about septic subjects feels that their viewpoint is just as defensible as I feel mine is.
Yes, I consider that there's a right thing to do. However, I can explain what "right" means without any reference to morality.
I can argue that risking contamination of ground or surface water by the cabin's failing septic system isn't a wise course of action. I can refer to public health experts who have said such-and-such about this-and-that. I can feel motivated to do the right thing without calling the desire that impels me in a certain direction "moral."
It's simply a desire, as Joel Marks says in another essay on the same subject, "An Amoral Manifesto."
There I am, then, honestly discussing particular issues with opponents, and justifying my positions to them by their moral lights. But how do I justify them to myself, since I have no moral lights anymore? For example, on what basis would I myself be a vegetarian? The answer, in a word, is desire. I want animals, human or otherwise, not to suffer or to die prematurely for purposes that I consider trivial, not to mention counterproductive of human happiness.
...But if I were conversing with another amoralist, how would I convince her of the rightness of my desires? Well, of course, I wouldn’t even try, since neither of us believes in right, or wrong. What I could do is take her through the same considerations that have moved me to my position and hope that her heartstrings were tuned in harmony with mine.
...A helpful analogy, at least for the atheist, is sin. Even though words like ‘sinful’ and ‘evil’ come naturally to the tongue as a description of, say, child-molesting, they do not describe any actual properties of anything. There are no literal sins in the world because there is no literal God and hence the whole religious superstructure that would include such categories as sin and evil.
Just so, I now maintain, nothing is literally right or wrong because there is no Morality. Yet, as with the non-existence of God, we human beings can still discover plenty of completely-naturally-explainable internal resources for motivating certain preferences. Thus, enough of us are sufficiently averse to the molesting of children, and would likely continue to be so if fully informed, to put it on the books as prohibited and punishable by our society.
I had to read Marks' New York Times essay twice before I felt like I grasped what he was saying. At first it seemed like giving up morality would be a loss, even for us non-believers in God.
But now I'm inclined to agree with him: secular morality is an oxymoron.
"Morality," as the word is almost always used, isn't necessary for anyone who dismisses the notion that the knowledge of what's right and wrong is handed down from some divine source.
As Marks says, if "sin" is a meaningless term for an atheist, then so is "morality." While this argument initally jolted my psyche, it didn't take long for me to feel comfortable with it.
(Not all that surprising, since three years ago I wrote about "I'm right vs. I like morality," the latter being pretty close to what Marks advocates.)