Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Should we abandon moralism?

One of the most interesting aspects of philosophy is its ability to provoke a variety of responses, and to be utilised for a wide variety of functions. It can be diverting and entertaining – hence the success of hit movies based more or less explicitly on thought experiments. It can be a practical tool to help us decide what to do – this is the aim of those who do practical ethics (clue’s in the name, guys). It can be pressed into little motivational or comforting soundbites (c.f. anything by Alain de Botton)

But often (and I think this is less commonly recognised or discussed), philosophy can be terrifying. It can challenge the very foundations of our existence, undermining the values and commitments we have based our lives around. Discussing Descartes’ scepticism, Mark Steel advises his viewers not to allow the thought to linger for more than 20 seconds because otherwise “it will start to drive you mental”. The same is probably true of the claims of pessimists, nihilists and determinists.

What’s always most troubled me, though, the philosophical Pandora’s box I have been desperate to keep shut, are the challenges of meta-ethics. What is morality? What do the concepts of right and wrong even mean? Why should we care about it? In most of my moral thinking, I have been content to assume that there is an answer to this question, and to get on with the substantive questions of how we should act – firmer ground where I felt more comfortable. I don’t think this is an unusual policy – in my first graduate class in Ethics, we were advised not to worry too much about meta-ethics, and assured that it is entirely separable from practical ethics.

This attitude infuriates Joel Marks, who urged moral philosophers to out themselves as amoralists in a pair of New York Times articles last month. Appealing to luminaries such as Hume, Nietzsche, Ayer, Sartre, Mackie and Rorty, Marks argues that morality does not exist. Moreover:

“This, odd as it may sound to say so, is relatively uncontroversial in modern ethical philosophy; for what I mean by morality here is its metaphysical conception as a truth or command that comes to us from “on high.” Very few well-known philosophical moralists have believed in such a thing since a century and more.

But precisely my gripe is that you wouldn’t know it from the way they speak! And even if they can communicate clearly with one another, the lay person is left to think otherwise.

Most philosophers, according to Marks, have been doing what I have done: treating meta-ethics as though it has no bearing on practical ethics. However, Marks thinks that this common meta-ethical position has radical implications for how we think about moral problems – he calls for the abolition of moral language altogether. His point is so obvious, it seems bizarre that it should even need stating: if most philosophers do not believe that such a thing as morality exists, why should they still keep talking as though it does?

I think the meta-ethical position that Marks sets out is more or less similar to my own. Moral ‘beliefs’ are nothing more than statements of preference. So when I say that it is morally wrong that anybody should live in poverty, all I am saying is that I would really like it if poverty were eradicated. This is fundamentally no different in kind from my desire that the sun stays out, or my desire to eat cake.

Though I agree that moral claims are nothing more than preferences, I am wary of making this explicit for a couple of reasons. The first is pragmatic – to abandon moralistic argument is to lose one of the most powerful means of persuasion. Suppose it is my desire that poverty be eradicated. I am far more likely to convince people to do their bit to reduce poverty if I can couch my arguments in objective moral terms – if I can portray it as being your duty, rather than just in line with my whims. Of course, if everybody were what Marks calls a ‘desirist’, then what we once called ‘moral’ argument could be carried out in amoral terms. But for as long as moral realists exist, it is worth giving our arguments moral dressing so that they appeal to as many people as possible.

Undeniably, there is something underhanded about reasoning in this way. Should we really be using moral argument in such a manipulative way? But this thought itself shows the dangers and difficulties of trying to purge our reasoning of moral content. The idea that we shouldn’t manipulate others so that they act in accordance with our desires is itself a moral notion – it is just another preference. If we try to cleanse our language of explicitly moral terms, there is a danger that moral ideas may still sneak in through the back door.

We are so used to thinking in moral terms that we need to remind ourselves that our values are just preferences – we are liable to forget our meta-ethical commitments. Keeping our moral premises explicit ensures we compare like-for-like, and don’t mistake a preference for something more forceful, like an objective moral command. For example, a natural response to the idea that there are no objective moral values is to conclude that all moral commitments are equally valid, and so we ought to unquestioningly tolerate the views of others. Yet this, of course, ignores the fact that tolerance is a moral value itself – and so we should only care about it insofar as we have a preference for tolerance.

Peculiarly, given that he believes it to be the only novel aspect of his argument, Marks offers only a solitary paragraph towards the end of his second article to making a positive case against moralistic language. Essentially his objection is that “The most horrific acts of humanity have been done not in spite of morality but because of it”. Even putting aside the moralistic assumptions that underpin this statement, this isn’t much of an argument. The question of whether morality has been a force for good is as tiresome and irresolvable as whether religion has been beneficial or not. Some people have been motivated to do good things by morality, others have been led to commit terrible acts. And just as atheists have their fair share of atrocities on their hands, it is hardly as if no evil has come from people pursuing their own desires.

When Marks says that most philosophers do not believe in morality, what he really means is that they do not believe in an objective, transcendental set of moral truths. But this is not enough reason to abandon the language of morality altogether. Ultimately, Marks fails to make a convincing case against conceiving of morality as a special type of subjective desire.

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