Joel Marks on aesthetics wars

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.

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21 Comments.

  1. I haven’t read this book yet, but it sounds like he and I would be on the same page. I just don’t know that anyone today really has the courage to change our use of language to reflect that subjectivity; e.g., “I like that movie” versus “That movie is good”. As a non-academic, and as one who works and socializes with people who aren’t philosophically-inclined, I would be looked at askance if I were to start seriously speaking this way.

    Marks’ line of reasoning also reminds me of Nietzsche: My judgment is *my* judgment, and no one is easily entitled to it…

  2. For readers intrigued by the book…

    Joel Marks wrote about his (de)conversion from Kantianism to Amoralism in a two-part column titled ‘An Amoral Manifesto’ for Philosophy Now (for which he regularly writes) back in 2010.

    http://philosophynow.org/issues/80/An_Amoral_Manifesto_Part_I

    http://philosophynow.org/issues/81/An_Amoral_Manifesto_Part_II

    More recently philosopher Timothy Schroeder reviewed ‘Ethics without Morality’ for ‘Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews’ here:

    http://ndpr.nd.edu/news/36407-ethics-without-morals-in-defence-of-amorality/


    Edit: Marks’ piece “Confessions of an Ex-Moralist” for the New York Times stone Opinionator may also be of interest to some as may be the follow-up piece in response to critics “Atheism, Amorality and Animals: A Response”

  3. “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”…”

    OMG! Wouldn’t that would put paid to many posts on this site?

  4. As Marks suggests: “there is still plenty of room for the sorts of activities and engagements that characterize the life of a philosophical ethicist” – for those with a “strong preference for honest dialectical dealings in a context of mutual respect” to offer “considerations to help us figure out what to do” and to try “to motivate informed and reflective choices”.

    I really don’t know that adopting Marks’ position would put paid to the substance of that many ‘ethical’ posts on this site, much, it seems to me, would survive the elimination of moral talk.

  5. “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.”

    It’s easy, if you abandon absolute logic as inadequate. Shared subjectivity can never be perfect – two subjects may agree on the truth or falsity of a statement. Introduce a third, and you could have disagreement. Absolute logic will always be inadequate as no statement can ever be absolutely true or absolutely false. Electronic computers that use binary logic, do not have pure logic in their electronics – because perfectly precise voltages are impossible – instead the logic is within ranges of voltage; truth levels. Probability is more appropriate for the real world. In probability the possibility of an event is never either true or false, 1 or 0. It can approach 1 or 0, but through a Zeno’s like paradox, it never quite gets to either.

    Abandoning good, bad, and evil, because no view can fulfill the requirements of absolute logic is a little absurd. But this statement is neither absolutely true or absolutely false.

  6. Jim,

    I’m sure there’s plenty of work to do. I was being facetious. There seem to be a lot of post that start out with the presumption that certain moral values are obvious, or particular acts are virtuous.

  7. £76.00 on Amazon. I shall press on with Eagleman’s “Incognito” at £6.74 for the moment. But the book does sound interesting and Ethics/Morals do not form part of my main Philosophical interests

  8. Don Bird,

    Steal the book. After all there is no right or wrong. Theft is subjective.

  9. Re: JRMC 28 Jan.

    Brilliant.

  10. JMRC,

    So too is the collective opinion subjective that Don should be charged if he does steal it; or if he were under Sharia law…

  11. Ron Murphy,

    Ah haw…But the law have thought this one through. When Don is arrested the police do not need to prove he has stolen the book, just that they have reasonable grounds to suspect he has committed a crime – and there is a very fuzzy subjectivity here. Then a judge or jury decide Don’s guilt, just to the point beyond reasonable doubt – not absolute doubt.

    This is where the prospect of the gallows should concentrate Don’s mind. He should employ his philosophical knowledge to bamboozle the jury to the point they very much doubt their own existence, let alone the possibility of the existence of books, or that they can be stolen.

    An interesting thing about the law is it’s strongly underpinned by philosophy. A strong logical argument can invert the original intention of a piece of legislation and give it a completely unintended interpretation (In the early 80s, anti-abortion campaigners campaigned for an amendment to the Irish constitution to specifically outlaw abortion – it was passed, but when it came to be interpreted in court, it was found that it did the opposite, and effectively legalised abortion.) And the other thing is the law is deeply subjective – mens rea (guilty mind) can mean all the difference between walking free or a very long sentence, and it just boils down to the guess work of “what was he really thinking?”. One of my favourite qoutes of all time is Frank Harris, biographer and friend of Oscar Wilde, on Wilde’s trials “For the first time in my life I understood the full significance of Montaigne’s confession that if he were accused of stealing the towers of Notre Dame, he would fly the kingdom rather than risk a trial, and Montaigne was a lawyer.”

    If accused of stealing a book, even if you haven’t, flee the kingdom.

  12. Do we, then, each subjectively suppose that if a proposition cannot be relevant, it should at least be true?

    “…strictly speaking, aesthetic claims have an irreducible subjective element”.

    The brute fact remains that individuals are greatly influenced in their subjective feelings by the objective behaviors (i.e. observable acting out) of themselves in the groups (family, socio-economic, cultural, blah und blah) for which they want or need feelings (some private things, eh?) and standings (a public happening) of inclusion. So, there remains a need for some philosophical psychology to explain the individual’s groping for group-ness.

  13. Hmm, this certainly does sound like an interesting way to be wrong about objectivity in meta-ethics!

  14. JMRC,

    “He should employ his philosophical knowledge to bamboozle the jury to the point …”

    Fortunately the likelihood of a jury containing a significant number of philosophers is low. Most people don’t appreciate the philosophical finesse of invoking solipsism as a defence. A jury of philosophers might well take such an attempt by the accused at philosophical face value; and though we might agree that there no absolutes the degree of certainty that such a jury would never reach a verdict would come damned close to it.

  15. The principles of ethics seem to me to be straight forward – it’s all subjective, but influenced by inherited biology and culture; it’s variable, but with many common threads. The practice is the difficult bit. Whose subjective opinion gets to hold sway? Which collective body is more persuasive (rhetorically or logically or evidentially) or simply stronger, more powerful? If we agree on some basic ethical principles, such as the golden rule, and apply that and no more as best we can, omitting sin and evil as concepts, using evidence where it is available, then I think we can get somewhere.

    Having said that, and because it is subjective, I think there is a case to be made for anarchy, or rather no reasonable case against it; but I simply and subjectively and emotionally don’t like anarchy. As a human with a typical human brain I prefer at least some order. Whether order and ethical codes prevail or not is a matter of practical persuasion to our subjective opinion. Good luck to all concerned.

    Philosophy seems to complicate the principle and not just the practice.

    Once you decide that there are non-subjective ethical principles you start going round in circles. First, where are they written? What evidence do we have that they exist and are discoverable? What evidence is there that the great variety of moral principles we hold comply with these objective moral principles, for which there is no evidence?

    We should do X? The problem comes not just by asking, “Why should we do X?”, but “Why should we ‘should do X’?” Don’t we require a moral foundation for deciding that we should have morals, which we then should act on? How do you make a moral case for morality itself? I can make a case from subjective opinion for my particular moral views, but I can’t come up with any philosophical foundation for them. I can make a case from the evidence from evolutionary biology and neuroscience as to why humans have moral opinions, and can even make a case for how our common moral opinions could have turned out differently, but all as inference from evidence, and not from any philosophical foundation.

    The subjective nature of morality is easily missed by holding strong beliefs. Many Catholics think condom use is a sin; but I think they are mistaken in not recognising the subjective nature of their moral codes. I think condom use is fine; but such Catholics probably think I’m mistaken in not recognising the God given objective nature of our moral codes. So, not only do we have a subjective difference about a moral issue, we also have subjective opinion about whether our perspective on that particular moral issue is subjective opinion or not. How more subjective can it get? Well, it can get even more subjective when the Catholic church changes its subjective opinion about what its God given morals are.

    I always thought that philosophy was different than I find it often to be, that the purpose of philosophy was to clarify and not to bamboozle. But empirically that that turns out not always to be the case. For me it seems that philosophy bamboozles by sticking to traditional philosophical notions of the primacy of thought and reason in a world that demonstrates quite well that we are empirical beings. Evolution and neuroscience are persuasive in their evidence that there is nothing going on inside a head other than dynamic physics – or at least there is no counter evidence of anything non-physical – and that we evolved from non-brained ancestors. Therefore reason itself is a physical experiential process in a physical part of the biological system that is a human.

    We are more empirical than the traditional philosopher’s submission to the primacy of thought would have us believe, and reason is neither as pure or as effective as we might hope. I find the empirical experiential route to ethics more convincing than any hope of finding an objective morality through a traditional reasoned route of philosophy (or worse, theology). Ethics without morality seems like a good idea to me.

  16. The stuff of ethics is much like language. A private language, even if truly there could be such a thing, would be virtually useless. So too private ethics. Just as there are many different but overlapping languages, each with a group of speakers; so too there are many different ethics, each based on knowledge and beliefs of some group.

    As with language, membership in an ethics (or cultural group, if you prefer) entitles one to participate in a way of life. With language, it is important that a person speak at least one. A person, of course, can speak many languages. So too ethics. A person can be a member of various groups based on ethnicity, religion, professional expertise, political affiliation, blah und blah.

  17. Boreas,

    Your point of personal perspective is made more clear if you imagine you are the last surviving human member on earth. Who else would be around to judge? Who else would your actions harm?

    What could possibly be of moral significance that wasn’t your own invention?

  18. Boreas,

    Groups (of humans) often agree and adopt ethical codes. Subjectively derived, we could reasonably call these codes “arbitrary”. Individuals each have their own ethical codes. These are private (and they remain wholly subjective, of course), but they have use and meaning: we use them to judge the doings of others. [Maybe I just opened an even bigger can of worms? :-)]

  19. Boreas,

    You do have a private language. It just happens to share enough with other people’s private languages (often grouped under the name “English”) that it enables you to communicate.

  20. Ron Murphy,
    I hereby objectively and arbitrarily declare a distinction between morals and ethics. Morals are how ‘I’ feel about my belonging to or behaviour in some groups; and my ethics are made up of my dependable behaviour in those groups. In sum, my morals are (private) feelings, and my ethics are (observable) behaviours.

    To the point: to say there are morals which are never acted out in any group is an abuse of the idea of morals.

    But neither can I imagine a private language. I must say, by the way, that I forbid anyone to use ‘private language’ to mean ‘a word-set that only I can map to a language I speak’. To be totally private, a private language must have its own words and grammar; and be unlike any other language that I speak.

    Glocken dork deedar.

  21. Ron Murphy,

    “I always thought that philosophy was different than I find it often to be, that the purpose of philosophy was to clarify and not to bamboozle.”

    That’s what all the kids think. They think they’ve signed for a course that’ll learn’em the “meaning of life”. And all they get is big jug of bamboozle jooz. Some of these kids, by the time they get their PhD, they’re so cockeyed on the stuff, they can’t even walk in a straight line, they just go round in circles.

    “For me it seems that philosophy bamboozles by sticking to traditional philosophical notions of the primacy of thought and reason in a world that demonstrates quite well that we are empirical beings.”

    In philosophy there shouldn’t be an absolute chronological hierarchy, like there is in physics (natural philosophy), at the same time……..Contemporary philosophy is to classical philosophy what quantum physics is to classical physics. This comparison is often misunderstood – a popular misconception is quantum physics disregards classical physics – this is not so….It’s the deeper you go, the weirder it gets. Quantum physics is the hard wall of the Cartesian Cogito – or just a peak behind it. It’s where absolute logic and determinacy breaks down.

    Descartes was a great mathematician, physicist and philosopher. By the beginning of the 20th century, the physicists and mathematicians had departed to such a radical extent it was impossible for the professional philosophers to catch up with them – unless they were willing to put in a decade of hard maths/physics . Though they did try (moral relativism – that’s someone thinking they could cleverly adapt Einstein’s relativity. Einsteins relativity is so mind blowing that most physics graduates do not get it – they can answer examine questions, get their diplomas and teach – but it’s so counter intuitive, that once you do understand it, it’s a real “Oh My God!” moment – because you learn at that precise moment, the concrete reality you have experienced all your life is impossible – I’m working on a dinner party explanation, I’m not there yet but it will be a lot better than trains, clocks, and ping pong balls)

    “Evolution and neuroscience are persuasive in their evidence that there is nothing going on inside a head other than dynamic physics – or at least there is no counter evidence of anything non-physical – and that we evolved from non-brained ancestors.”

    Really all neuroscientist can confirm at the moment, is when they open up a head, they can see a brain, measure electrical activity and determine it does something. What is known – if you took every computer, laptop, server, ever made, and put them all together, you wouldn’t have enough logic circuitry to match a single human brain. One estimate I’ve heard; with today’s current transistor technology, you would need to build a processor the size of the earth, just for one brain.

    Riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay,

    “Therefore reason itself is a physical experiential process in a physical part of the biological system that is a human.”


    brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to The Cogito and environs

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