I’ve been reading Ethics without Morals: In Defense of Amorality by Joel Marks (Routledge 2013). I’ve written a sort of review for Free Inquiry, and expect it to be published a month or two down the track. I also have some (rather different) initial observations over here at The Hellfire Club. In summary:
This book deserves a larger audience than it is likely to find in the rather expensive academic edition published by Routledge. Though Marks is an academic philosopher, there is little or no technical verbiage, and the text should be accessible to general educated readers. I suspect that a very similar book from a trade press, written by an author with more of a profile with the general public, could be a big seller in the mode of the most recent books from Sam Harris, but this one will probably find only a niche audience.
Meanwhile, there’s plenty of scope to discuss small aspects of this rather nice little book. Marks is a (de?)converted moral sceptic. He denies that any “metaphysical morality” exists, while thinking that many people actually do believe in such an elusive thing. This puts him on the path to being an error theorist, believing that huge numbers of moral judgments are ipso facto untrue simply because they contain terms that don’t refer to anything in the real world (“morally wrong”, etc.). For Marks, our judgments of what is right or wrong are ultimately grounded in subjectivity – what we actually care about, find admirable, or distasteful, or whatever – and there is no ultimate truth about what, for example, we should care about. Contrary to what is widely believed or assumed, Marks thinks, morality eventually rests on various subjective responses.
This is all fairly standard stuff from error theorists, moral sceptics, relativists, and the like. But Marks goes a step further and argues the case for moral abolitionism. He’d like us to stop using moral language such as “morally wrong”, or just “wrong”, much as non-religious people have largely abandoned talk of “sin” (and we have abandoned talk of “witches” in the literal sense of women with magical powers, etc.). Not only does all moral language fail to refer to anything in the real world, Marks thinks; he considers it positively harmful. Read Chapter 4, where he sets out his case for this position. Oh, and of course Marks is aware that some language with a subjective element needs to be used if we are to communicate at all. E.g. he has not expunged the word “desirable” from his vocabulary, though he acknowledges that nothing is objectively desirable.
Which leads me to one of the book’s long endnotes. Here, Marks discusses the fact that most of us now accept the subjectivity in judgments about beauty, artistic merit, and the like. So why not give up saying that “Movie X is good”, or “Y style of art is superior to Z style”, or that a specific joke is funny, or that certain people were great composers? I might add such judgments as that certain Hollywood stars are “sexy” or “beautiful” (they might not appear so to an intelligent warthog-like creature from a neighbouring galaxy!).
Marks is pragmatic:
However, were the heated arguments [about these issues]… to become a basis of universal discord, rampant persecution, and armed conflict, then, because so much suffering were caused by our mistaking something subjective for something objective, I might very well want to urge that we eliminate the aesthetic way of speaking that lent itself to this abuse.
Fair enough, I think, although there is a further question as to how we are able to have arguments that are often not heated, but calm and rational, about aesthetic issues such as Marks describes. Is it all like abstruse and vacuous theological talk (as Marks tends to think of moral debate), or is something more rational happening here? I think the latter, although I agree that, strictly speaking, aesthetic claims have an irreducible subjective element. They may depend on a shared subjectivity among the people in the conversation, but they do depend on subjectivity. I suggest that a further exercise for philosophers is to try to unpack how we are able to talk as sensibly and coherently as we do (so it seems to me) about these aesthetic issues, and also about issues relating to such “moral” matters as people’s “good” or “bad” characters.