Philosophers have long struggled with morality: what is right or wrong and why? It’s the why-question that presents so much difficulty. After all, if I can’t come up with a satisfactory theory of universal application, then I am guilty of being a moral relativist and therefore unconvincing.
Peter Singer argues, from utilitarian principles, that it is wrong to eat meat. Nevertheless, hundreds of millions of people do, evidently feeling no moral pangs. He also sanctions not only abortion but the killing of viable infants, should their quality of life be essentially negative owing to a horribly debilitating defect. Hospital boards now employ ethicists to advise them on life-or-death medical decisions. Thou shall not kill, says the Bible—except…Fill in the conditions. The Catholic Church preaches a just-war doctrine. A strict pacifist believes that all killing, even in self-defense, is wrong.
Identifying acts that are wrong or right usually emanate from moral theories, whether or not religious. But if you tell me that my doing x is wrong because, say, your pastor says as much, then since I do not attend your church, know your pastor, or am even an atheist, I feel free to ignore your admonition.
We can imagine, then, a matrix, with a list of possible acts in one column and rows across denoting moral theories and religions. Then enter ‘R’ for ‘right’ and ‘W’ for ‘wrong.’ A hodgepodge, I’m sure.
Yet, we’re not about to embrace moral nihilism if we can’t produce at least a few moral absolutes. How could we possibly interact in civil fashion if anything goes?
As it happens, there is at least one philosopher who claims to have escaped moralism, after a professional career dedicated to determining right from wrong and the basis for doing so.
Joel Marks offered his opinions on morality in a recent post published by the New York Times. He wrestled with moral relativism.
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.
But then he had an “anti-epiphany.” He writes:
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.
So where did Marks eventually land?
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.
It seems to me that Marks now relies on a personal “smell test” to decide the correctness of actions. He recoils at the thought of animals being slaughtered then butchered. If he sees you eating a steak, he might stop by your table to tell you a lot of facts and figures regarding industrial agriculture and perhaps even show you a picture of a beef rendering plant. Should you resume your chewing, Marks will assume that you have different “preferences,” then move on to the next meat-eating diner.
Well, I find this a bit squishy, even if, as he claims, he’s just as effective reciting cause and effect as he is inflicting moral platitudes. Moreover, how does this process, however pragmatic, not lead in the end to moral nihilism? I may derive perverse pleasure from torturing others, while the rest of us find such behavior abhorrent. If that’s your preference…?
In a previous post I found myself arriving at one moral absolute, which is very pragmatic: obey the laws. Yep, I know that there are problems with this, and I am hardly convinced of this position.
The Führer commands me to gas live Jews, and I happen to think that’s wrong. The Nuremberg Principles later say that I cannot simply follow orders, if I believe the act is wrong. But if I don’t obey, I, too, am killed. David Thoreau argued that if my conscience determined that a law was unjust, then I had a duty to engage in civil disobedience. Indeed, he believed that governments were more harmful than helpful, being essentially corrupt enterprises.
Philosophy makes me tired. It’s hard with no clear end in sight. Maybe just do your own thing, as long as no one else is bothered by it.