A friend had been explaining to me the nature of her belief in God. At one point she likened divinity to the beauty of a sunset: the quality lay not in the sunset but in her relation to the sunset. I thought to myself: “Ah, if that is what she means, then I could believe in that kind of God. For when I think about the universe, I am filled with awe and wonder; if that feeling is God, then I am a believer.”Now have a look at Tolstoy's Confession. Very similar.
But then it hit me: is not morality like this God? In other words, could I believe that, say, the wrongness of a lie was any more intrinsic to an intentionally deceptive utterance than beauty was to a sunset or wonderfulness to the universe? Does it not make far more sense to suppose that all of these phenomena arise in my breast, that they are the responses of a particular sensibility to otherwise valueless events and entities?
So someone else might respond completely differently from me, such that for him or her, the lie was permissible, the sunset banal, the universe nothing but atoms and the void. Yet that prospect was so alien to my conception of morality that it was tantamount to there being no morality at all. For essential to morality is that its norms apply with equal legitimacy to everyone; moral relativism, it has always seemed to me, is an oxymoron. Hence I saw no escape from moral nihilism.
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.
Why am I pointing this out? Because I think the genre is compelling but deceptive. The convert presents himself (or herself) as traveling from darkness into light, and the sheer drama makes us think--yes, yes, yes, that's the light! The story line of revelation is no substitute for good arguments.
Another tack. I argued here a while back that it's a very bad idea for atheism to conjoin itself with any particular metaethical theory, but particularly with the so-called error theory about morality. Marks has become an error theorist. All moral claims, on his view, are in error.
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. Think of this analogy: A tribe of people lives on an isolated island. They have no formal governmental institutions of any kind. In particular they have no legislature. Therefore in that society it would make no sense to say that someone had done something “illegal.” But neither would anything be “legal.” The entire set of legal categories would be inapplicable. In just this way I now view moral categories.
Certainly I am not the first to have had thoughts like these, and today the philosopher Richard Garner in particular is a soul mate. Nor has there been a shortage of alternative conceptions of morality to the one I held. But the personal experiment of excluding all moral concepts and language from my thinking, feeling and actions has proved so workable and attractive, I am convinced that anyone who gives it a fair shot would likely find it to his liking.
Actually, no, I would not find it to my liking--as I said here. I think there's a great deal we wish to say in ordinary and extraordinary situations that can't be said at all, or at least can't be said as well, without moral vocabulary.
For example, when I visited Anne Frank's house in Amsterdam this summer, there were many things that needed to be said and thought. I thought it was wrong that this Jewish girl had to hide for years, just because she was Jewish, and that someone betrayed the family, and that she then died an unimaginably miserable death in a concentration camp. Marks and Garner want me to say "it wasn't wrong, and it wasn't not wrong and it wasn't right and it wasn't not right...." All of these moral concepts are out the door, like the category of the taboo (credit for analogy: Richard Joyce) is a relic of past thinking.
This should become the conjoined twin of atheism?
Never fear, Marks suggests, we can still oppose and support the things we wish to oppose and support--
For instance, I used to think that animal agriculture was wrong. Now I will call a spade a spade and declare simply that I very much dislike it and want it to stop. Has this lessened my commitment to ending it? I do not find that to be the case at all. Does this lessen my ability to bring others around to sharing my desires, and hence diminish the prospects of ending animal agriculture? On the contrary, I find myself in a far better position than before to change minds – and, what is more important, hearts. For to argue that people who use animals for food and other purposes are doing something terribly wrong is hardly the way to win them over. That is more likely to elicit their defensive resistance.
Instead I now focus on conveying information: about the state of affairs on factory farms and elsewhere, the environmental devastation that results and, especially, the sentient, intelligent, gentle and noble natures of the animals who are being brutalized and slaughtered. It is also important to spread knowledge of alternatives, like how to adopt a healthy and appetizing vegan diet. If such efforts will not cause people to alter their eating and buying habits, support the passage of various laws and so forth, I don’t know what will.
So nothing has changed, and everything has changed. For while my desires are the same, my manner of trying to implement them has altered radically. I now acknowledge that I cannot count on either God or morality to back up my personal preferences or clinch the case in any argument. I am simply no longer in the business of trying to derive an ought from an is. I must accept that other people sometimes have opposed preferences, even when we are agreed on all the relevant facts and are reasoning correctly.What does "it's wrong" do that "I don't like it and want it to stop" doesn't do? It says that the state of affairs itself makes my dislike correct and appropriate. For example, the awful suffering of young Anne Frank, and her being tormented just for being Jewish, is such as to make my dislike the only appropriate reaction. If it were all a question of liking and not liking, I'm afraid we'd have to live with the strange diversity of human likes and dislikes. Anne Frank's betrayer liked betraying her and her family. I think people are more likely to stop killing people for being Jewish, stop tormenting animals for profit, if they do have the notion of their likes and dislikes being either grounded in reality or ungrounded.
Analogy--suppose I am taking a math class, and the teacher tells us at the beginning of the semester that there are no mathematical truths. There are just answers to problems that she likes very much, and she's eager to have her students share her likes and dislikes. She then tries to inculcate these preferences. Will the students do as well, now that they lack the concept that math problems have right answers? My guess is no--that particular meta-mathematics will alter performance.
The X-phi crowd will have to test this out, but I would hypothesize that people who accept the moral error theory will reach different and worse conclusions about moral questions. And note--to test that hypothesis, we don't get to take people who have been completely imbued with conventional morality, and see if changing their metaethics makes a difference. We're going to have to round up some very young children and see what happens after we tell them that moral matters have to do with likes and dislikes, not with what's really right and wrong. I suspect that metaethical theories have real world impact.
Ah, but moral realism must be rejected, because it involves "deriving ought from is", and that's a terrible mistake. This is where things get interesting and difficult. It's unfortunate to see this Humean adage (you can't derive "ought" from "is") turned into a one sentence resolution of the entire philosophical debate about the nature of morality. Must run and do Saturday morning chores, but here's food for thought--statements about consciousness cannot be derived from statements about brain states. It takes quite a bit of philosophy of mind to see this, but they can't. That's no reason to think consciousness isn't real. In fact, we know (first hand) that it is real. Moral facts could be genuine, even if not derivable from any other facts.