Confessions of an ex-moralist

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.

22 thoughts on “Confessions of an ex-moralist

  1. That’s certainly one possible lesson to draw from Marks’ experience. But I have the reaction (as a Christian moral philosopher) that probably a lot of secular moral philosophers have: that’s a consequence of bad moral philosophy. If you accept the thought that belief in God is necessary for belief that each of us has reasons that count as recognizably moral, then you can go either way with the conditional. You can think that there are no moral reasons (as, allegedly, Marks does, though I do not believe he in fact does think this), or you can believe there are such reasons and thus there is reason to think God exists. But I myself would agree with most secular philosophers that the conditional is bogus, and is so even though the ultimate explanation for why there are beings who are capable of having reasons (moral and otherwise) ends up in the Christian God.

      1. What I was trying to cram into too small a space is a combination of three ideas:

        1. It might be that the ultimate explanation for why there are creatures like us who are capable of recognizing and responding to moral reasons is that there is a Creator God who is responsible for making us that way. (That’s basic Christian doctrine.)

        2. It might be that we are capable of recognizing moral reasons independently of their ultimate causal-explanatory root. That is, we might have good reasons to think that we are bound in roughly the ways we recognize as moral, even if we do not accept the causal-explanatory story in 1.

        3. There is no conflict between 1 and 2; both might be true.

        I take Marks and Christian (and other religious) moralists to deny 2. The religious moralists will then affirm 1, while Marks denies 1. I’m claiming that most secular moralists would affirm 2, while denying 1. That puts Marks in a rather small camp of moralists, secular or otherwise.

      2. My guess is that most Christian philosophers would endorse all three propositions. It just seems odd for anyone, even a religious person, to hold that the justification of moral principles is something like divine command. If God were to command rape and murder, would they be OK? Surely not. But if divine command doesn’t justify moral principles, what does? Some kind of rational reflection seems like the only alternative – and every human being has access to that. (The Bible actually supports this point – Romans 2:14-15.)

      3. That’s more or less my thinking, and I’d guess you are probably right about Christian philosophers, though I know plenty of Christian non-philosophers (including theologians) who find it incredible that there could be moral reasons without a foundation in God’s commands, much like Marks argues. I simply think that is bad moral philosophy, as indeed I would think of Marks’ approach. Still, there is more to be said by way of defense of moral command views than you suggest here, and one point that it is worth taking from Marks is the idea that there are no easy rides here no matter which way you go.

      4. Jason, here is where you go completely off base. If there is a God who created mankind and morality, and He/She actually did command rape or murder, they would have to be moral. Otherwise you are just subjecting God’s perfect understanding of morality to your limited one–which kind of makes you a god and God a….what, exactly?

        I think a Christian moralist would say that God is a perfectly moral being and any moral philosophy that humans might devise has to be perfectly consistent with God’s morality or it is not, indeed, morality at all.

        And, by the way, you are leaning here away from traditional Christian morality towards more of a concept of what Mormons believe–that God would cease to be God were he to violate universal laws, including moral laws. Mormons believe in a somewhat more limited God than do traditional Christians, but the God you are arguing for is a god who is limited by the moral wisdom of Jason Sorens!

      5. And let me add that because hearing and understanding God’s word is a matter of faith, I think it is perfectly sensible to say that “anyone claiming that God sanctions [insert immoral act here] is wrong because that would be immoral.

        But that is a far cry from saying, “If God sanctions [insert immoral act here]. then He is wrong.]

        The first case is just “seeing through a glass darkly.” The second would typically be called blasphemy.

        The Greek and Roman gods seemed to be capable of all kinds of immoral acts. But the Christian God is not.

      6. OK, I can’t shut up here. You really hit my buttons.

        As a believer, I can recognize the value of reasoning about morality. But that reasoning can never be the ultimate justification for morality.

        The true morality is God’s morality. With out feeble minds, we might approximate the true morality to some degree–and given 3000 years of a moral philosophy that hasn’t led to much consensus, I wouldn’t give that pursuit very high marks. But our ability to reason towards moral truth doesn’t make it truth or prove it’s truth. It’s truth because it is true.

      7. Myself I am not always sure what an “ultimate justification” is. I think justifications are context-dependent, in the sense that they are responses to particular requests for justifications or reasons. I’m not sure I know what sort of question “It is truth because it is true” answers, so I’m not sure what sort of justification that offers.

      8. Let me rephrase: to Christians, “God said it” is sufficient justification in all contexts.

        Or, to do something because it is truly what God wills is sufficient moral justification in all contexts.

        (Of course, knowing that He said it, or what He meant isn’t always straightforward, but were we to arrive at such an understanding, that would be an example of an ultimate justification.)

      9. Precisely the point. No doubt for any individual, their apprehension of God speaking to them would give them conclusive reason to believe or do whatever God said. No argument there. But there is equally no doubt that reports of such experience do little by way of interpersonal justification, since no account of God’s speaking or appearing to people can accept any more than a small fraction of such events as veridical. So when it comes to moral claims, and in particular claims about what sort of conduct we owe each other, such experiences can do little justificatory work.

      10. If I claim X is right and Y is wrong, it seems highly desirable to have a means to convince you of my claim, but the ability to do so has really no relevance to the truthfulness of the claim.

        So, while I value the effort of “interpersonal justification” (certainly it makes for a more civil, peaceful society) I don’t give it much weight in determining what is moral behavior and what is not–unless it is grounded in true foundations of what humans are and why they matter.

        The foundation that humans are autonomous beings capable of reason seems to me to be a common starting point for a lot of moral philosophy, but a very unsatisfying one for me because I still ask “so what?”

      11. Actually, I think we get to the “so what” part pretty quickly from there. If all you are concerned with is how to govern your own life, that is one thing. But you live your life in a shared world, and pretty soon you are going to bump up against other people, and have to decide what will govern your treatment of them and expectations of them. Then, if your principle is, “I will be guided by what I take to be true, irrespective of what they take to be true,” you have pretty much committed yourself to conflict, probably forcible conflict. That follows from the undeniable fact of life that people take fundamentally different things to be true in just that way.

        Still, that’s how most of the world has lived throughout most of human history. I take the distinctive insight of liberalism to be that there is another way, in which what we can do by way of interpersonal justification is of crucial importance. I myself think that way is fully compatible with Christian doctrine, but I don’t think Christian doctrine is the only avenue to thinking that is what human decency requires.

      12. OK, let’s suppose “God said to do X” is always sufficient justification to do X. My question then would be, How do you know God said it? I raise the question not because skepticism about our ability to understand God’s commands in some way refutes the first proposition (it is certainly logically possible to believe both that divine command creates morality and that it is impossible to know what divine command is), but because I think the question points up a problem with the argument you give for the proposition, Sven. So the argument is – if you believe in God in a traditional, Christian sense, you believe that your judgment is vastly inferior to God’s and therefore that one could never have any reason for doubting the justice or wisdom of one of God’s commands. So it follows that it is wrong to think that human reason can come up with moral principles by which we can judge God’s commands. But the argument assumes that we know what divine commands are. And perhaps we do. But how do we know? Presumably we have applied our human intellect to understanding the nature of God, the evidences for and against her/his existence, and so on.

        My point is that it is impossible not to “subject” God to human intellect. If I ever try to grasp the nature of God or understand God’s communications or commands, I am using my own reason and in that sense “subjecting” God to it. However, Christians mostly do believe that God is not literally ineffable – totally unintelligible – and if they did that would be a very serious flaw in Christianity – so they believe that humans should use their intellect to understand and assess God – what his nature is, whether he really exists, whether he really has given command X, and so on. Since it is impossible not to use human intellect to assess and judge God, it can’t be wrong to do so in the process of moral reasoning.

        That line of reasoning doesn’t imply that we should reject divine command theory, of course, but I think it does debilitate one of the arguments for divine command theory.

      13. Jason, I largely agree with what you are saying. But let me note that originally you didn’t say, “Suppose you thought God were to command…” You said, “If God were to command….” Your statement was taking as given that God did, indeed, command.

        I certainly wouldn’t argue against rational reflection on God’s word or anything else. Quite the contrary. But you ask, “if divine command doesn’t justify moral principles, what does?” To which I’d say that certainly divine command would be completely sufficient justification for any moral principle.” You seemed to be arguing not that it takes reflection to understand what God’s word is and what it means for moral action (which I would certainly agree with), but that the command itself is not justification, which doesn’t seem compatible with most Christian understanding of God.

        I’m not arguing against a reflection on God’s word as a means of discovering moral principles, just that the reflection itself isn’t the ground for truth. The ground is God.

      14. If you had sufficiently strong evidence that an omniscient and perfectly good God existed, and you had sufficiently strong evidence that God commanded you to do X, then yes, I think that would be sufficient justification for doing X. But I think the evidence that God is perfectly good in the first place would have to have come from comparing what you believed God had done to what you believed was the right thing to have done (on other grounds).

  2. I never developed a theory of why humans are objectively exceptional in adopting my beliefs. I feel it in my bones that I want to be comfortable and entertained. And I like most people I meet (who generally entertain and comfort me), wish them well, and assume they want the same things. People, not rocks and insects, deliver stuff that produce comfortable and entertaining conditions.

    So, what system best creates paths for people to deliver that stuff to me and people I like? A little thinking shows that force, theft, and fear is no good at it. People left to their own devices, within familiar confines, produce the items delivering those conditions and my contentment.

    I dunno if that belief constitutes ethics, logic, politics or represents a justified or unjustified belief. It seems more fruitful to start by examining “schools of thought”. If we overlap in ethical and political discussions, its only of conversational interest that we differ in beliefs or logic (if we do).

  3. If “God says” usually works out to “It is written” in Christian contexts—rather than, say, I had a feeling God wants me to x, y or z—then we do have reason to believe that “God said it” is not sufficient. Jesus’ temptation involved Satan quoting “It is written” statements at Jesus. Those could be countered with “It is also written” statements.

    The hypothetical of God commanding rape and murder would bring about a situation where God was revealing the opposite of what he revealed elsewhere, not one of us setting our own limited judgment against God’s.

    Some of these questions come up in the children’s book The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis. When a false Aslan has appeared and starts commanding wicked things, many just shrug their shoulders and say, “He isn’t a tame lion.” At a certain point, certain divine character qualities become more central to us, even to the point where if it came to a choice, we would side with those qualities over the divine power and perfect knowledge. And I think that would ultimately be done with the divine approval.

    1. Well, of course, God did command murder in the Bible. He commanded Abraham to murder his son Isaac, he commanded Saul to murder all Amalekites, men, women, and children (and punished him for disobeying), and sent a bear to kill children who made fun of Elijah. In the OT, it’s clear that whatever God tells you to do, you should do. But that’s why the OT is BS. 😉

  4. You offer three cases where murder is supposedly commanded in the Old Testament. The first is interrupted, so it is not at all clear that murder was in view. The second was an act of war after a war had been initiated by the Amalekites. Whether or not we would call that murder is something that would be worth considering. Saul was punished for taking the spoil, not for sparing people. It is interesting that while Saul does not argue with God and is punished, Abraham does argue with God over the destruction of Sodom, and is not punished. I have to think Abraham is the better figure. Taking a broader view, might this have gone differently if Saul had argued? In the third case, how is a killing by a bear to be considered murder? Does the bear have a sense of morality that got violated in this story?

    I think there must be few in our time that take the Old Testament by itself. The little I know of Judaism suggests that the rabbinic understandings reframe a lot of this material for Jews. For Christians, the New Testament that recognizes these books as revelatory also offers interpretations that put these stories in a different light. I don’t think many of them work well as standalone morality tales.
    Nor do they by themselves reveal the character of God. At best, they reveal certain traits that taken by themselves are misleading.

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