Joel Marks, Atheism and Amoralism

The New York Times recently published online a piece entitled “Confessions of an Ex-Moralist” by Dr. Joel Marks, a scholar at the Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics at Yale University. His post offers an opportunity to discuss some arguments for and against amoralism, which will highlight the problem that atheists have in defending an objective morality. (Please notice how I define atheism).

First, it is important to notice that, like many of the New Atheists (e.g., Daniel Dennett), Dr. Marks once believed that “religion is not needed for morality” because “we have an intuitive sense of right and wrong that trumps even the commands of God.” However, he has now rejected the idea that our intuitive moral sense is a sufficient foundation for an objective moral theory.

Why? He gives three primary reasons.

The first problem with an objective atheistic morality is the gap between our perceptions and the nature of his universe. Our moral judgments are only “the responses of a particular sensibility to otherwise valueless events and entities.” If the cosmos itself lacks value, then a moral value judgment is nothing more than a person’s perception, and is not reflective of how things really are.

The second problem with an objective atheistic morality is that it cannot account for an essential feature of morality: “that its norms apply with equal legitimacy to everyone.” Moral relativism, as Dr. Marks puts it so well, “is an oxymoron.” If the moral command ‘do not murder’ only applies to you if you feel like it does, that isn’t a very significant kind of morality!

The third problem with an objective atheistic morality is that there’s no legitimate authority to enforce the difference between right and wrong. The moral prescriptions of any individual or society become “the Godless God of secular morality, which commanded without commander.” In other words, atheism has no good answer to the schoolyard taunt: ‘who says?’ Let’s say that you’re against murder, and I’m for it: who says you’re right? If atheism is true, then no one does.

Faced with these three objections to an atheistic account of objective morality, Dr. Marks has given up the idea of morality entirely. So, for instance, he previously affirmed that “it is wrong to massacre people in death camps.” He saw this as “wrong, wrong, wrong. I knew this with more certainty than I knew that the earth is round.” But he can no longer say that. He asks to imagine a society on an island without laws. Nothing would be legal or illegal. In the same way, our world lacks morality. So nothing can be right or wrong.

Instead, Dr. Marks has adopted “amoralism,” which means that he now excludes “all moral concepts and language from my thinking, feeling, and actions” and focuses on “what we would want if we were absolutely convinced that there is no such thing as moral right and wrong.” Having excluded morality, we are to give greater weight to desire, to what we want. The goal is “to influence the world in such a way that my desires have a greater likelihood of being realized.”

Taking Dr. Marks as a prominent representative of amoralism, let’s summarize the amoralist perspective:
1. Amoralism rejects the compatibility of atheism and objective morality because:
a) our moral perceptions fail to correspond to the valuelessness of the cosmos.
b) atheistic moral systems are inherently relativistic, and therefore fail to apply to everyone equally
c) atheistic moral systems lack an appropriate authority to back up their claims.

2. “Amoralism,” means you exclude “all moral concepts and language from…thinking, feeling, and actions.” This implies that massacres in death camps are neither wrong—nor right. At best, they are something we may not desire.

3. The goal in life is “to influence the world in such a way that my desires have a greater likelihood of being realized.”

How should we respond to amoralism?

First, we should recognize that if an all-good, all-powerful God does exist, who made both us and the world we inhabit, then we have good reason to believe that our moral perceptions find some correspondence with how things really are.

Does this mean that all our moral intuitions are correct? Of course not. We would still face the challenge of knowing which moral perceptions are right and which are wrong. But we could at least be confident that in actual fact some things are right and some are wrong.

Second, to the degree that these arguments against an objective atheistic morality are successful, to that degree we face a binary choice: abandon morality or abandon atheism. I believe the more rational option is the one which affirms that death camp massacres are “wrong, wrong, wrong.”

Third, we should recognize that, the truth or falsity of his position aside, it represents a personally and socially destructive outlook.

Looking at amoralism more broadly, it represents an affirmation of personal selfishness: do what you want to do without regard to right or wrong. This unchecked selfishness is exactly the kind of thing that leads individuals to choose self-destructive, terrible actions like rape and murder. Lacking a moral compass, individuals will haphazardly search for a coherent, meaningful way of life. Values like “trust,” “friendship,” “marriage,” “promises,” “generosity,” and “love” are ruined apart from moral reference points. This would eradicate the ability of individuals to create friendships, families, companies and nonprofit organizations.

In terms of our society, the impact of an indifferent, amoral population would be sharply negative. The idea of ‘justice’ would be perceived as nonsensical, so our legal system would fall apart. Fines, prison, capital punishment and other forms of legal punishment would become arbitrary, subject to the shifting whims of the powerful. No one would care about moral reform, so movements to end racism, sexism, and poverty would only gain steam insofar as people had selfish reasons for participating. Anyone who conscientiously dedicated themselves to living a good and virtuous life would seem strange, even a bit lunatic, by those who had no concern for morality.

These negative implications don’t, in themselves, mean that amoralism is false. At the same time, to the degree we have reason to believe all humans are worthy of respect and that our societies are meant to promote human flourishing, to that degree we should consider amoralism a suspect theory of moral reality.

To the degree that these arguments are persuasive to you, they imply that we can consistently choose either atheism and amoralism or, far more in line with our daily experience of right and wrong, the combination of theism and objective morality.

You may also be interested in our series on atheism, agnosticism, and the new atheists.

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