Philosopher Joel Marks has a fascinating personal narrative in the New York Times today called “Confessions of an Ex-Moralist.”
In this account he describes his recent and rapid transformation from a secular ethicist (one who believes “religion is not needed for morality”) to an amoralist and atheist.
He begins his account with the provocative claim that “The day I became an atheist was the day I realized I had been a believer.” Here are some additional interesting snippets from his account:
The dominoes continued to fall. I had thought I was a secularist because I conceived of right and wrong as standing on their own two feet, without prop or crutch from God. We should do the right thing because it is the right thing to do, period. But this was a God too. It was the Godless God of secular morality, which commanded without commander – whose ways were thus even more mysterious than the God I did not believe in, who at least had the intelligible motive of rewarding us for doing what He wanted.
And what is more, I had known this. At some level of my being there had been the awareness, but I had brushed it aside. I had therefore lived in a semi-conscious state of self-delusion – what Sartre might have called bad faith. But in my case this was also a pun, for my bad faith was precisely the belief that I lacked faith in a divinity.
In the three years since my anti-epiphany I have attempted to assess these surprising revelations and their implications for my life and work. I found myself in the thick of meta-ethics, which looks at the nature of morality, including whether there even is such a thing as right and wrong…. And yet I knew in my soul, with all of my conviction, with a passion, that [some things] were wrong, wrong, wrong. I knew this with more certainty than I knew that the earth is round.
But suddenly I knew it no more. I was not merely skeptical or agnostic about it; I had come to believe, and do still, that these things are not wrong. But neither are they right; nor are they permissible. The entire set of moral attributions is out the window.
(emphasis in original)
Obviously Marks ends up with a worldview dramatically different from my own, and I would prefer he ended up dumping the “secular” from his secular morality, not the morality. Yet, his transformation seems to be a very natural ending point for secular ethicists who are honest about what they are doing. There are, of course, multiple approaches to secular ethics, and I have precious little expertise in critiquing them. But whether one views the aim of ethics as promoting the survival and propagation of the species, the flourishing or happiness of the species, or a deontologically-based duty to other members of the species, none of these approaches has, in my mind, any answer at all to the question of why the species should have value in the first place. Why would an objective morality governing the species that could be intuited, discovered, or reasoned ever come to exist in the universe?
To put this another way, in a godless, arbitrary universe ruled only by chaos and random variation, there is no reason to think that humanity matters at all (or that anything matters or that we can even say what it means for something to matter). To say that something has value is to imply that someone values it. Intrinsic value is a nonsensical concept. I may value myself (in fact I do) but why should my values matter to anyone else? Or if a sociopath says, “Humanity, including me, is completely valueless and meaningless,” what can a secular moralist of any stripe tell him? Not much.
Thus while a secular approach to moral reasoning can discover a lot of things it cannot answer the question of why the enterprise should matter in the first place. And by “enterprise” I mean not only the enterprise of moral philosophy but the human enterprise in general.
A better starting point for philosophers is the question asked by the Psalmist: “When I consider thy heavens, the work of they fingers, the moon and the starts, which thou has ordained, what is man, that thou are mindful of him?… (Psalm 8:3-4)
To know that we are valued and by whom is the only starting point to really understanding morality.