The philosopher Joel Marks is an honest man, it seems. For much the better part of a long career, he had had no difficulty in preserving a happy harmony between his atheism and his commitment to a basically Kantian moral philosophy. Naturally, he had been obliged to ignore Kant’s claim that God and the soul are necessary postulates of practical reason (which, frankly, has always seemed like something of a flaw in the deontological glass of the second Critique anyway); but, otherwise, he had kept largely to the Kantian script.
Over the past few years, however, he has had a kind of conversion experience, which has left him, he says, in the curious position of having to “learn to live life all over again.” As he explains in an article in the most recent issue of Philosophy Now, he has belatedly come to realize that for long years he has toiled under an illusion, and that he ought earlier to have examined his assumption that there is any such thing as right or wrong.
Much to his surprise, he now finds himself in agreement with all those “fundamentalists” who say that without God there can be no morality. Without a “commander,” it turns out, there really can’t be any commandments. And so, convinced atheist that he is, Marks finds himself compelled—just by intellectual honesty—to “embrace amorality.”
Or so he says. He has not, however, simply thrown over his moral principles of old in favor of, say, prudently predatory selfishness; nor has he forsaken compassion for some kind of higher hedonism (like the ridiculous Michel Onfray). He may now believe that what we call morality is merely the residue of evolutionary processes, and that its real “purpose” has been to promote the survival of the species. But, even so, he can still choose compassion, he has decided, because it pleases him to do so; he calls this position “desirism.”
He can even try to persuade others to adopt the causes dearest to his heart, such as kindness towards animals, without in the least vitiating his obedience to “Truth” (written with that mystically evocative capital T). All he has to do is reconcile himself to an ethics in the conditional mood.
When speaking to religious persons, he need not pretend to share their beliefs; he need only show that if one should happen to hold their convictions, then one ought—oh—to be a vegetarian. Similarly, he may have deserted the ranks of the Kantians, but that doesn’t mean he can’t stand above them on a nearby ridge as they march by and vigorously exhort them to be true to their own principles.
Of course, when speaking to another amoralist, Marks will have to rely largely on utilitarian arguments; but, for better or worse, he actually thinks such arguments are sound, so that’s no problem. And ultimately, he feels confident, he will always be able to fall back upon a kind of cultural default.
If his interlocutor has grown up in the same culture as he has, then the two of them will already share many predilections and prejudices in common, and Marks will be able to rely on that larger, more original “ethical” grammar. Thus, though there is nothing objectively “evil” or “sinful” about the molestation of children, says Marks, enough of us are sufficiently averse to such behavior that, even if we had to rely on purely naturalistic arguments for our ethical preferences, we would still continue to prohibit it.
Anyway, you can read the piece for yourself if you wish. For myself, I am not entirely sure how to react to it. The more uncharitable side of my nature wants simply to remark that a conversion to the blindingly obvious does not really constitute one of the more momentous events in intellectual history (even if it does constitute an important psychological episode in the life of Joel Marks).
Of course if there is no God, then there can be neither moral right nor moral wrong in any objectively real sense. The “Good as such”—the source and end of moral truth, the highest object of the rational will, which has the power to unite the longing for truth with the imperative to act in this way or that—is found nowhere within nature. Not even those who believe in “natural law” imagine that it is.
On the other hand, I feel a certain sympathy for the Marks of old, as I do for all those committed atheists who become so indignant when they think their moral competence has been impugned. Who, after all, can remain entirely unmoved by the plangent bathos of the atheist moralist’s cri de cœur, “We don’t need God in order to be good”?
We all know that countless persons of no creed whatsoever—atheists, agnostics, the indeterminately “spiritual,” the genially indifferent—are able to behave with exemplary kindness and generosity. Spend some time working with Doctors Without Borders, for instance, and you will meet many physicians who joined the organization out of religious conviction, but also many who did not, and it is impossible to discern any great differences among them as far as compassion or heroism goes.
That said, I have to observe that, in my largely aimless peregrinations through the world, I have been led to a few dark and desolate locales, of the sort that never get mentioned in tourist guides, and it is hard not to notice that the nearer one gets to the ground in places where poverty, disease, despair, and terror are simply part of the quotidian fabric of existence, the more the burden of humanitarian aid is shifted onto the shoulders of religious institutions (generally, though not exclusively, Christian). I don’t doubt the good will, decency, or dedication of atheist altruists, or the supererogation of which many of them are individually capable. But I do occasionally entertain doubts that in general, considered purely proportionately, they can rival their believing counterparts for sheer moral stamina.
That is not an accusation, however. The real question of the moral life, at least as far as philosophical “warrant” is at issue, is not whether one personally needs God in order to be good, but whether one needs God in order for the good to be good. This is something that Marks fails to address when he talks of God simply as a “commander,” rather than as the summum bonum that makes a moral metaphysics possible.
It is simply the case that belief in a real and eternal “goodness-as-such”—which has the power to draw all persons together in a communion of love and knowledge, and which is more than merely a fiction of the individual will—makes it easier for many to devote themselves indefatigably, even blissfully, to the labor of selfless love. In the absence of that conviction, even the hardiest altruistic unbeliever will still at some level tend to hold to a practical certitude regarding the reality of good and evil. This is the implicit theology within all moral longing—an assertion that annoys atheists, perhaps, but true nevertheless.
It make perfect sense to me, then, that a reflective scholar could devote his or her life to philosophy and not discover the contradiction between atheism and moral realism till rather late in life. I am predisposed to think that real and uncompromising atheism, whose intrinsic “metaphysics” is real and uncompromising naturalism, always requires some element of magical thinking in all three of the classical or “critical” philosophical realms: ontology, epistemology, and ethics. But even if that is an unjust assumption, it seems to me hardly debatable that no purely naturalistic approach to ethics has ever succeeded in producing anything resembling a compelling or attractive moral imperative.
Choose whichever you like—standard utilitarianism, Rawls’s theory of justice, attempts to ground moral thinking in evolutionary biology or neurophysiology—you will always find, if you subject your preferred ethical naturalism to sufficiently unflinching scrutiny, that at some primal and irreducible point it must simply presume a movement of good will, an initial moral impulse that, with a kind of ghostly Gödelian elusiveness, can never be contained within the moral system it sustains. All the polyphony of nature falls mute when asked to produce one substantial imperative, unless one believes (explicitly or tacitly) that the voice of nature has its origin and consummation in the voice of God.
I am not convinced, I should add, that Marks has really succeeded in becoming quite the consistent amoralist that he thinks is. Call it what he will, I still cannot regard his devotion to personal probity or his “preference” for compassion or his desire to persuade others as anything other than a morality. There are preferences and there are preferences, desires and desires, and they differ from one another in quality according to their objects and their intensity. Certainly a desire to convince someone not to be cruel to animals is not a desire simply to communicate an aesthetic inclination.
This past year, I became quite attached to the string quartets of Vagn Holmboe, and I’m quite eager to share that enthusiasm with other music lovers; but I know that that is not at all comparable to my desire that others should agree with me regarding the evil of child-molestation. And I do not think Marks’s desire to persuade others to hate vivisection (his example) has the quality—the simple existential quality—of mere personal desire.
Whatever the case, though, Marks might be wise to hope that he is wrong. There is a genuinely winsome, but dangerous, naïveté in his presuppositions regarding the cultural consensus upon which he would like to allow his ethical arguments to rest. He even goes so far as to opine that morality is not only largely superfluous to daily life, but that its removal might even make for a better world, more conducive to our common happiness. What can one say to this?
For one thing, any decent knowledge of human history should apprise one of the sheer cultural contingency of all moral premises. Not only is it the case that, throughout history, cultures have been able to thrive and perdure without ever cultivating any of the ethical “desires” Marks hopes to find among his neighbors and fellow citizens, it is also the case that the ethical predispositions of a people can shift with remarkable suddenness and violence once the intricate weave of metaphysical, moral, aesthetic, and imaginative paradigms giving shape to a culture starts to change.
That is inevitable, in any event. But surely the belief that moral principles are only a combination of evolutionary epiphenomena and sentimental predilections must weaken the will to seek the good, and a whole culture that truly came to believe that all moral choices are merely personal preferences might find that the inventiveness and spontaneity of the liberated will are capable of just about anything, and responsible to nothing. After all, it is not as if the lessons of modern history have given us no cause for apprehension on that score.
Well, who can say? Marks means well. But après moi le déluge, as Louis XV said (exhibiting a prescience rare for a Bourbon). Louis knew the French monarchy would not long survive him, but he knew also that there was enough vitality left in the moribund old estates of France to keep the inevitable at bay while he still lived. Similarly, Marks need not worry that he will live to see precisely what sort of society a truly amoralist culture might produce. And anyway, as he notes in his article, he has no children.
David B. Hart is a contributing writer of First Things. His most recent book is Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Yale University Press). Joel Marks’ “An Amoral Manifesto” can be found here.