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Forget morality | Aeon

Along the Chemin de la Croix in Languedoc, France. Photo by Raymond Depardon/Magnum

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Forget morality

Moral philosophy is bogus, a mere substitute for God that licenses ugly emotions. Here are five reasons to reject it

by Ronnie de Sousa + BIO

Along the Chemin de la Croix in Languedoc, France. Photo by Raymond Depardon/Magnum

Let me start with a disclosure. I am not a ‘moral philosopher’, but I have taught moral philosophy for several decades. I have come to regard the very idea of morality as fraudulent. Morality, I now believe, is a shadow of religion, serving to comfort those who no longer accept divine guidance but still hope for an ‘objective’ source of certainty about right and wrong. Moralists claim to discern the existence of commands as inescapable as those of an omniscient and omnipotent God. Those commands, moral philosophers teach, deserve to prevail over all other reasons to act – always, everywhere, and for all time. But that claim is bogus.

By ‘morality’, I refer to the sort of rules the transgression of which common sense decries as ‘immoral’, ‘wrong’ or ‘evil’. Such rules are generally regarded as obliging us without qualification. They prescribe duties not in virtue of your goals or role – such as ‘the duties of the secretary includes taking minutes of the meeting’ – but without qualification. They are claimed to ‘bind’ us merely in virtue of our status as human beings. And philosophers have constructed a vast industry devoted to the elaboration of subtle theories designed to justify them. Against morality thus conceived, I have five complaints.

First, most systems of morality are inherently totalising. Adhering to them consistently is impossible, and so each system is forced into incoherence by setting arbitrary limits to its own scope. Second, our preoccupation with morality distorts the force of our reasons to act, by effecting among them a triage that results in some reasons being counted twice over. Third, the intellectual acrobatics invoked to justify this double counting commit us to insoluble and therefore idle theoretical debates. Fourth, the psychological power of moral authority can promote deplorable systems of evaluation as easily as good ones. And fifth, the emotions cultivated by a preoccupation with morality encourage self-righteousness and masochistic guilt.

When making choices, I suggest, we should consider our reasons without asking what is ‘morally right’. This might seem preposterous. Let me explain.

Note that the word ‘ought’ and its relatives (‘must’, ‘should’, etc) are used in four different ways. Only one is ‘moral’. There is an ‘ought’ of prediction, as in ‘According to the forecast, it ought to rain tomorrow.’ A second ‘ought’ is of prudence or practical deliberation: ‘You ought to try an electric toothbrush’; ‘I should see a doctor about that lump in my breast.’ The third refers to legal obligation: ‘By law, I must file my tax returns this week.’ These are different uses, but they pose no obvious problems of interpretation. The fourth, the ‘moral ought’, is another matter. That’s the one that claims overriding authority for general rules such as ‘You ought to keep your promises’ or ‘You must not hurt innocent people.’

The moral is uneasily related to both prudence and law. Moral duties are apt to conflict with self-interest; and legality is neither sufficient nor necessary for morality. Morality is sometimes invoked in favour of a proposed law or against an unjust one; but it is widely agreed that in a modern pluralistic society the law should not enforce every moral norm. Lying is widely regarded as immoral, yet only under oath is it illegal. Modern law has also increasingly withdrawn from some ‘private’ domains. Sex and religion are obvious examples. Most now agree with what Pierre Trudeau said in 1967, when he was Canada’s justice minister, that ‘there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation’.

Without God, the moral terrorism that relies on hell loses some leverage

In short, many things are neither legally compulsory nor forbidden. But morality is not so restrained: a system of morality can, like God, claim total authority over every action and even every thought. Such a totalising system would seem oppressively intrusive. Yet the leading theories of morality can mitigate their overreach only by setting arbitrary limits to their own relevance.

In this respect among many others, morality seems like the ghost of religion. Religion is totalising by its very nature: God knows and judges everything you do and think. And terror, though less fashionable among Christians nowadays, is a tried-and-true instrument of faith. Many Christians have lived in terror of hell. ‘Divine justice never stands in the way,’ proclaimed the 18th-century revivalist preacher Jonathan Edwards. ‘Yea, on the contrary, justice calls aloud for an infinite punishment.’

And it works: the threat of hell (though not the promise of heaven) turns out to be a good motivator. Without God, however, the moral terrorism that relies on hell loses some leverage. And anyway, most moralists are reluctant to equate morality with fear of punishment. Still, morality hardly retreats. The most commonly defended systems of morality, when taken to their logical conclusion, extend their tentacles to every choice. Just as venial sins can be forgiven, so in practice some acts are exempt from moral scrutiny. But that is only in virtue of ad hoc intellectual acrobatics with which moral systems insulate themselves from their more repugnant implications.

This can be illustrated for all three of the most prominent systems of moral theory: Kantianism, utilitarianism, and virtue theory inspired by Aristotle. Each, if taken strictly, entails that everything comes under morality’s purview. Here’s a sketch of how they do so, and of how each tries to walk some of it back.

In Kantian morality, a ‘categorical imperative’ is supposed to follow from the simple fact that I am a rational being. Similar to how you can just see, as a rational being, that 2 + 2 = 4, you are expected to just see that an act is wrong unless you could coherently envisage a world in which everyone does it. This provides a test for every thought and deed. It not only applies when my actions affect others: Kantian morality explicitly burdens me with duties to myself. This is another manifestation of morality’s status as the ghost of religion. If God owns me, it is not absurd to suppose that God alone can dispose of me. But in secular terms this makes no sense. Sure, I might sometimes say I promised myself … But a promise can always be waived by its beneficiary. As the promisee, I can waive my own promise. To say I failed to keep it is just to say I changed my mind. Kantians recognise that some duties are ‘imperfect’: you could always give more to charity, but we shan’t blame you if you do the minimum. But placing that minimum is arbitrary. Some Kantians, though not Kant himself, might even grant that sometimes I really need to lie – to the murderer, for example, who asks me to reveal their victim’s whereabouts. But those concessions, however sensible, are not part of the Kantian system: on the contrary, any derogation to the categorical imperative is strictly inconsistent with it.

Does utilitarianism fare any better? The principle of utility sets the happiness of the greatest number as the ultimate value. Nothing in the logic of that principle can exempt any act or thought from being fed into the calculation of overall utility. Again, in practice, utilitarians will make exceptions. A racist’s distress, however genuine, at an African American’s success can simply be discounted, perhaps by appealing to a concept of ‘rights’, justified in some ingenious way by reference to utility. Moral claims, as always, outrank prudence – the rational consideration of one’s own interests – but most utilitarians want to keep an area of personal freedom relating only to the latter: whether to play hockey or chess is not a moral question.

Perhaps, given our fallible nature, inconsistency in a moral system is a defect we must live with

It is not clear, however, that utilitarianism can consistently insulate such questions from its own reach. For since my happiness is a component of the total, any harm I do to myself will affect the world’s net utility. If hockey can harm me, my choosing to play it should be, strictly speaking, immoral. Not even the trivial can be kept apart in principle from the morally significant. As Peter Singer has stressed, for the price of another pair of shoes, you might have saved some child from starvation. For a consistent utilitarian, you are guilty whenever you contribute much less to charity than what would entail your own destitution. Since most people find this to be more than they can accept, Singer has provided a calculator that will suggest how much you should set aside to save others from poverty. But that again sets an arbitrary limit to the principle of utility.

For an Aristotelian or ‘virtue theorist’, the case can look somewhat better. A virtue theorist can admit a plurality of values. The ideally virtuous person I could (but fail to) be differs from the virtuous person you could be. Even here, however, the totalising tendency can be made out. For whether there is a single model for all or a different one for each, you might not be actualising your own potential for human excellence as efficiently as you should. Aristotle himself avoids having to say that every act and thought is subject to moral praise or censure mainly by conceding, in the opening chapter of his Nicomachean Ethics, that ‘exactness must not be looked for in all discussions alike’. The morality-free space I can carve for myself is mainly due to the impossibility of knowing exactly what my potential might be.

In the end, then, in each moral system, some space is typically protected from the tyranny of totalising morality only by making arbitrary concessions about realms of life that are deemed insufficiently important to need controlling. The price paid is inconsistency.

Perhaps, given our fallible nature, inconsistency in a moral system is a defect we must live with. But that would still leave the institution of morality open to my second charge: the double counting of some reasons.

Reasons to act come in a host of different kinds. They can be driven by whims or by long-term concerns; they can relate to my welfare or to that of others; and they can pertain to any domain, from the aesthetic to the financial. Some take the form of rules claiming a special status in virtue of being moral reasons, which automatically outweigh other types of reasons. As we saw, morality can arbitrarily decide to ignore some of your reasons, such as your preference for one flavour of ice-cream or the colour to paint your door. But when a reason does wear the special badge of morality, then, most philosophers insist, it is ‘definitive, final, over-riding, or supremely authoritative’, in the words of William K Frankena in 1966, and ‘inescapable’, as Bernard Williams put it in 1986. What could justify such a status?

A crucial feature of moral reasons is that they are always based (or ‘supervenient’) on other, ordinary facts that can be specified without reference to morality. Suppose for example that you are considering doing X. You notice that doing X will cause someone pain. That might strike you as a reason not to do X. Call that reason A. Another fact might also strike you as a reason against X: that it will be boring, perhaps, or too expensive. Call that reason B. Moralists will tell you that your reason A, but not your reason B, also ‘grounds’ another reason not to do X, namely that it would be immoral. And on that basis, reason A but not reason B now gets to be ‘inescapable’, ‘overriding’ any reason you had in favour of X: that it would be exciting, say, or memorable. So now it seems that reason A, unlike reason B, gives you two reasons not to do X: reason A (that it will cause pain), plus the fact that X is immoral. But since this second reason was just grounded on reason A, what can it possibly add to it? How can it suddenly make reason A override all other reasons? It seems to be just a way of counting it twice.

Unless, of course, some actual added value is conferred by the label despite its being grounded entirely on the original reason. And that is just what the moralist claims. Your original reason just consisted in the fact that X would cause pain in a particular person. But the morality of that reason is now said to derive from something else: namely, the fact that there is a general moral rule that says you shouldn’t ever cause anybody pain. The reason you have been given by the moralist is indeed another reason, because it is not just about this case but about everyone, always and everywhere.

Unfortunately, the quest for moral foundations makes things only worse

Notice, however, that this general rule, if indeed it is different from the reason you had in the first place (not to hurt this person) is brought in to justify it. The claim now is that it’s wrong to hurt this person because that would be an instance of a general moral truth: it’s always wrong to hurt anyone (unless it’s deserved, or a means to some good, etc – we can take an ‘other things being equal’ clause as given). But it is a fact of logic that a general statement can never be more probable (hence more credible) than a single instance. The general statement entails the particular, but not conversely. If your original reason is challenged, surely you would want to support it with something more credible than it was in the first place. Instead, the moral philosopher tells you that your reason has become overriding, because it is derivable from another reason less credible than itself. It seems that your confidence in your original reason should be diminished rather than raised by that ‘justification’. Why bring in the dubious to buttress the obvious?

This is where the moral theorists really get going. They recognise that a justification is just another reason, which can in turn be challenged, and so on. To stop the ‘and so on’ from going ad infinitum, they appeal to ultimate values or principles that serve as foundations from which both the original reason and the general rule can be deduced. If those foundations are absolutely certain, they will transmit that certainty to the particular reasons they entail.

Unfortunately, the quest for those foundations makes things only worse. This is my third complaint. For one thing, they are so abstract as to be hard to assess, and certainly still less credible than the lower-level reasons or principles they are brought in to justify. More importantly, their credibility is inevitably undermined by the irreconcilable disagreements they give rise to.

Consider again some examples. To warrant that a reason is a moral one, a Kantian, as we saw, will derive it from the categorical imperative, a wonderful device that is supposed to follow from the mere fact that you are rational, and both assumes that you are absolutely free and subjects you to an inescapably binding command.

A utilitarian will remind you that life is made of pleasures and pains, and you should always endeavour to occasion the former and prevent the latter – for all existent and future conscious beings who might possibly be affected by your action.

For Aristotle, the supremacy of moral reasons derives from the fact that they follow from what is ‘essential’ to you as a human being. For him, what is essential is both universal and unique to human nature. Note, incidentally, that the more we come to know about ourselves, the harder it will be to find those essential properties. For science is making increasingly clear how much we share with the rest of our mammalian cousins, and also how much individual humans can differ in what they experience as pleasures and pains. Insofar as modern virtue theory allows value pluralism, your obligation will be to become the best that your singular nature can be. Which is hardly easier to discern, let alone to accomplish.

These leading ideas – of rational action, of the value of happiness, and of achieving the best that our nature affords – are grand ideas. In their grandeur, they can once again remind us of some of religion’s grand ideas. For example: that the evil of the world is explained by the possibility of redeeming it by the sacrifice of an innocent God. Or that we are absolutely predestined to hell or to heaven, yet must strive to act as if what we do could change that. And very much like the debates over those theological topics, the debates among the foundations of morality are irredeemably insoluble.

That wouldn’t necessarily make them futile. Theoretical debates can have much to teach us, even if they are of no practical use. In a debate about ultimate values, we might get to ask when a reason is a good reason. We might be led better to appreciate the difficulty of weighing one reason against another. But each morality wants it all: only one ultimate value can be supreme. So the debate is on. No participant can avoid appealing to ‘intuitions’, a fancy word that just refers to what you believe in the first place without needing a reason. But intuitions conflict. In defence of their different ‘foundational’ intuitions, each advocate can only resort to question-begging assertion. For these foundations are, by definition, the ultimate values, the rock-bottom first principles. When they compete, there is nothing deeper to which they can appeal to settle the disagreement – except everything else. But that everything else is what we have without moral theory: competing reasons of all kinds, without any privileged class of reasons to which all others must yield.

The systems that sort reasons into moral and non-moral aim at identifying right and wrong. But those systems can themselves be bad. This is my fourth complaint.

Surprisingly many philosophers have held that a person who is truly virtuous will have all the virtues. This doctrine of the ‘unity of the virtues’ is grounded in the idea that the exercise of a skill should not count as virtuous unless it serves good ends. It implies that no one is truly virtuous for, as Christians are wont to remind us, we are all sinners. But despite its popularity among philosophers, this doctrine is repugnant to common sense, as well as indefensible in the light of recent empirical research on the piecemeal nature of moral development.

As illustrated by many a caper movie, pulling off a major crime requires several traits traditionally regarded as virtues: prudence, courage, intelligence. More importantly, a person’s life can be dominated by a devotion to evil goals every bit as fervent, and quite as dependent on prudence, courage, intelligence and especially ‘honour’, as that of the most admired paragons of conventional virtue. The possibility of a bad morality challenges us to define what counts as a good one. Unless you just assume that your morality is unquestionably the only right one, the term seems to fit any system of principles and values by which its adherents feel ‘bound’ – in some metaphorical sense that is both specific and hard to pin down.

Amoralists have little hope of weaning many others from their addiction to guilt and blame

When feeling bound by a moral rule in that special way, the rule’s transgression, by oneself or others, is liable to trigger ‘moral’ emotions such as guilt or indignation. A Nazi might feel indignant at his colleague’s lack of zeal in persecuting Jews. A fundamentalist jihadist might feel guilty for secretly teaching his daughter to read. Deciding between good and bad moralities will once again lead to a wild-goose chase after foundations. It can only add a distracting complication to the already difficult task of assessing the force of reasons. In their psychological profile, in the way that they structure a life and give rise to moral emotions, bad and good moralities are alike.

Perhaps, as Nietzsche argued, such emotions, rooted in fear and resentment, are what above all motivates us to believe in morality. For morality licenses a right to blame that we are reluctant to forfeit. This brings me to my last complaint: morality licenses ugly emotions. It encourages us to feel contemptuous of others who fail to share our principles, or superior to those who fail to live up to them. It allows us a daily twinge of the pleasure that St Thomas Aquinas promised the elect, whose eternal bliss, he assured us, will be enhanced by witnessing the torments of the damned. Furthermore, it invites us to wallow in a certain kind of regret we dignify as morally superior by calling it ‘guilt’. Guilt is the primary moral emotion. The benefit claimed for it is that it motivates you to behave better in the future. But simple regret is no less apt to inform and guide future choices. Unlike guilt, regret is not tied to the moral domain: I can regret missing a concert as readily as acting unkindly. We can learn from the past without laying claim to moral authority.

What do we lose by giving up morality? As an amoralist, I continue to prize what is beautiful, or good, or interesting, or virtuous – in the morally neutral sense of the Greek term aretē. I daresay I care about most of the things that many moral people care about. That includes the wellbeing of others, as well as my own. What I give up is above all the convoluted process of sorting my reasons into moral and non-moral. Insofar as that process aims to provide me with fresh reasons to act, it could do so only on the basis of double counting, or by attempting to derive my existing reasons from obscure and disputed intuitions about ultimate values. I have plenty of reasons to be kind, not to cheat or lie, just as I have reasons to read some books rather than others or travel here rather than there. Why worry about which of those reasons are ‘moral’? The label adds nothing to the reasons. And if nevertheless I cheat or lie, those same reasons can lead me to regret it. The guilt I don’t need.

As the philosopher Joel Marks has argued before me, to renounce morality is to wake up to the fact that in every choice we are governed by desires. Some desires are for something we just want for itself; others are for ways or means of satisfying those. All constitute or are grounded in reasons to act. Those reasons can be almost exactly those that move a moralist. I merely forgo that added layer of pseudo-reasons that lets some of them count twice. I have perfectly good reasons for my desire not to cause harm, not to act unfairly, or to be kind. These reasons derive both from my first-order reasons and from my reflection on them. They matter not because of morality, but because I care.

For an amoralist, moral discourse is nothing more than misleading rhetoric. Given the psychological power of the emotions that sustain moral fervour, we amoralists have little hope of weaning many others from their addiction to guilt and blame. Neither do I expect professional ethicists to resign their jobs. Exploring the consequences of an act or policy envisaged is always to be encouraged. I hope only to have cast some doubt on the wisdom of dressing up some of our good reasons in the mantle of morality’s spurious authority.

Some speculative debates are undoubtedly fascinating in their subtle complexity, even when, like those of theology, they lack an existing subject. But even those who do not simply reject their theist presuppositions might concede those debates to be stubbornly undecidable, as well as of doubtful practical relevance. Similarly, the history of moral theory is full of baroque edifices of thought that might be intriguing to the historian of ideas. But they are no less irrelevant, at best – or toxic at worst – to the conduct of life. Better to just assess and compare your reasons, and ignore moral theory’s labyrinths of futile debate and the high-minded contempt encouraged by the moralistic stance.

EthicsThinkers and theoriesVirtues and vices

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