Ethical Realism

September 18, 2010

Joel Marks’s Moral Anti-Realism: An Atheistic View that Morality Requires God

Filed under: ethics,metaethics,philosophy — JW Gray @ 10:06 am
Tags: , , , , ,

I am unimpressed by atheists giving theism too much credit by assuming that morality requires God, and now I have read An Amoralist Manifesto by Joel Marks, where he discusses how he found himself persuaded by such horrible theistic arguments. The fact is that people had morality long before they thought the supernatural had anything to do with it. The reason to believe in morality has little to do with God, but a two thousand year old Christian tradition made people depend on religion and supernatural sources for morality. Many people then became unsure how morality could work without God.  (Hence, Nietzsche’s declaration that “God is dead.”) Aristotle, Epicurus, and many Buddhists had no problem having moral theories without requiring the supernatural. (More information here.)

Joel Marks agrees that moral realism requires God despite the fact that commandments have nothing to do with intrinsic value or realness of morality. What anyone likes or commands has nothing to do with the intrinsic value anything has. If everyone thought pain is intrinsically good, they would be massively deluded. If Marks equates moral realism with commandments, then it’s not that surprising that he would reject moral realism – but I don’t know of any moral realists who think of moral realism that way.

He adds that right and wrong don’t exist, but even a moral realist might agree with that. In what sense does right and wrong exist? Let’s say that we know pain is bad. In that case we could say that causing pain is wrong just because it does something of negative value. Wrongness doesn’t seem very “important” unless something is at stake. I can imagine a Christian thinking, “You are an atheist, but why do you think hurting people is wrong? It’s only wrong if God tells you not to do it!” But now that we realize that the badness of pain can have something to do with why hurting people is wrong, I think it is quite clear why God doesn’t have to enter the picture.

If morality doesn’t exist, then should we still talk about morality? What do we do? He suggests that we talk to people who believe in morality “as if” it is real:

[Discussing morality for an anti-realist is] exactly as if I were talking with a religious believer about the proper treatment of other animals: whether or not the believer knew I was an atheist, it would be perfectly proper for me to try to convince her that there is Biblical support for a benign ‘stewardship’ of other animals – would it not? I need not believe in the concept of stewardship myself, nor in its divine sanction, in order to invoke it undeceivingly when arguing with someone who does. Just so, it seems to me, morality.

First, I agree that we have good reason to persuade religious people to believe what is true. Second, I agree that we can help religious people understand how to be rational. (We can use the Socratic method, for example.)

However, it’s not entirely clear why Marks wants a religious person to believe something false. If there are no Biblical references to stewardship, and we have no stewardship, then why does it “make sense” to try to dupe religious people?

Duping religious people seems quite disrespectful. I suppose he could want to manipulate others for personal gain. He makes it clear that he does not want to be deceptive, but I’m not convinced.

If it is important to protect animals, then showing a religious person how protecting animals is compatible with their religion does make sense. However, if it isn’t important to protect animals, then perhaps he is just duping people and trying to manipulate them. In the same way he shouldn’t be manipulating utilitarians or Kantians and using their moral theories just to dupe them. For example, if abortion is neither wrong nor right, then he has no good reason to dupe anyone into thinking it’s wrong.

Sure, he wants to use moral theories to talk to people who believe in moral theories, but how can two anti-realists talk to each other about “moral” issues? On that topic he says the following:

Yet, as with the non-existence of God, we human beings can still discover plenty of completely-naturally-explainable internal resources for motivating certain preferences. Thus, enough of us are sufficiently averse to the molesting of children, and would likely continue to be so if fully informed, to put it on the books as prohibited and punishable by our society.

This is something like a social contract. Of course, if enough of us don’t like people of African descent, then I guess we could make them slaves — or if enough of us dislike Islam, we could ban mosques. The “majority rules” attitude is absurd, and most anti-realists strongly disagree with it. This sounds like an amateurish sort of cultural relativism that basically says that we can and will force people to behave how the majority desires no matter how obviously unjust such a system is.

Marks made it clear that he rejects moral realism and moral theories, but it’s not entirely clear whether or not he think we can reason about morality at all. It sound to me that he doesn’t think so. If we can’t reason about morality at all, then morality will no longer have a philosophical basis. We will end up throwing morality to the wolves. We will just let people make compromises and try to manipulate each other to find agreement.

In conclusion, Marks’s anti-realism is one of the worst anti-realist positions I’ve heard about. I am not convinced that Marks is an expert moral anti-realist. Perhaps Marks has found himself as a fish out of water. He doesn’t know how to be a moral anti-realist because it’s too new for him. The shocking new belief that God doesn’t exist has lead many people to amateurish attempts at understanding the world as atheists, and now Marks’s supposed shocking realization that moral realism is false has lead him to an amateurish attempt at anti-realism.

Joel Marks could have a more reasonable anti-realist position than he discusses in the article, but what he has said so far is so unimpressive that it could encourage bad thinking, it could make atheists look like immoral heathens, and it can make philosophers look out of touch with reality.


  1. I’m not following his point of transition from Kantianism to amorality. The argument (in its obviously brief form) seems disjoint:

    > while theists take the obvious existence of moral commands to be a kind of
    > proof of the existence of a Commander, i.e., God, I now take the non-existence
    > of a Commander as a kind of proof that there are no Commands, i.e., morality.

    He seems to have taken the view (in the article, at least) that either deontological morality is true (and apparently only true if the rules are established by God through revelation), or there is no morality at all. His conviction that there isn’t a God to have issued moral rules doesn’t seem like it could be related in any way to a rejection of Kantian ethics – how could it? I’m wondering if he even was particularly expert in Kant’s moral philosophy.

    His thinking at any rate suffers from a confusion of having started with a strawman representation of the relationship between (at least the Christian) God and morality, namely that it consists in a series of commands issued by way of revelation via Moses’ tablets and so-on. While there are certainly some who have treated the Bible like a code where literally what’s written down in the physical book is what you are supposed to blindly try to piece together and follow, this is not, for example, the Roman Catholic interpretation of morality.

    I’m neither Roman nor Catholic, and I’ve never played one on TV, but I’m at least aware that morality in that school of thought emanates from the notion of “natural law” (see here: which is said to be “written in the human heart” by God, and which is in service of “eternal law”. It is said to be developed from the application of reason (not via revelatory dictate) on the fundamental precept of “do good and avoid doing evil”, where “good” is identified with the ontological sense of “being” (see here:, but being is not the ultimate end – it’s a means to the ultimate end of union with God. There isn’t, to my knowledge, a concept (in, at least, orthodox Christianity) of not knowing what is right or wrong unless it is revealed in commands to you directly from God. Rather, what we think of as the essence of good is said to have already been “installed” by God in us. It’s not discovered by reading about something God is said to have said.

    At any rate, the largest point of confusion for me is that he’s gone and argued himself into the very silly position (in the portion of the remainder of his life in which he continues to believe this) of not even being able to believe in the correctness of his own convictions, yet he still desires to establish some kind of set of rules for people to follow. Presumably this is so he can eliminate the rush of adrenaline or gutteral stirrings he experiences when he hears of or witnesses a practice which he previously believed to be morally wrong. He seems to be arguing that, because he dislikes the experience of this discomfort, it makes sense for him to influence others to refrain from such practices because once the practices are made illegal it’s less likely that they will occur and therefore more likely that he will no longer feel this discomfort.

    I don’t see how these two ideas fit together. It seems that if you believe that it is true that moral statements do not have truth-value, the most sensible and practical thing to do is to re-train your physiology in such a way that there is no such reaction in the presence of these practices, and certainly not to engage in them yourself. It would be far easier to develop the necessary sense of apathy in one’s self than it would be to try and organize all society around avoiding practices that personally give you physical discomfort.

    If nothing else, it would be highly amusing to follow the nonsensical conclusions that will be derived from this outing. It seems that it can only turn out to have been a tremendous waste of intellectual energy, and for that reason it’s a little sad to see it unfold, not to mention the regrettable release of another false advertisement that atheism is equivalent to anarchy and nihilism (his use of the term ‘hard atheism’ in connection with amorality is uniquely cringe-inducing).

    Comment by James — September 20, 2010 @ 8:28 am | Reply

    • I don’t think I can make much sense out of Marks’s views. First, even Kant didn’t necessarily require us to believe in God. Here are my thoughts on that issue:

      Second, I can kind of see that a Kantian could become an anti-realist because they tend not to talk much about intrinsic values. (Robert Audi is one exception.) It isn’t clear what “grounds” their morality despite the fact that intrinsic value seems to explain why morality is categorical (overriding) quite well. Once intrinsic values are dismissed, anti-realism will become a pretty easy switch. (Of course, he isn’t “just” an anti-realist.)

      Third, he has to accept an argument that is something like this:

      1. Either torturing babies is wrong or God doesn’t exist.
      2. God doesn’t exist.
      3. Therefore, torturing babies isn’t wrong.

      We know that “torturing babies is wrong,” so his argument has come to the wrong conclusion — and we are more certain that torturing babies is wrong than that the premises are true. That means that one of his premises is false rather than that torturing babies isn’t wrong. Which one? We don’t have to know to reject the argument, but I reject the first premise.

      I agree that Marks’s essay is cringe-inducing and it supports horrific stereotypes about atheists. I have no choice but to find his reasoning to be out of touch with reality. Sometimes philosophers need to come back to Earth, which is a regrettable stereotype about philosophers.

      Update: The error in reasoning above is one of the worst errors we can make. The premises need to be more certain than the conclusion, so uncertain premises can’t lead us to a conclusion we know is false. This is what I call the error of having “absurd conclusions” in my discussion about four requirements for good arguments here:

      Update: Why would philosophers get out of touch with reality in this way? Perhaps their lifestyle can contribute. Many beliefs are obviously difficult to justify in words but they are justified. I know that 1+1=2, even though I can’t explain why. This is a familiar position for most people. They aren’t used to justifying their beliefs anyway. However, philosophers can’t do much with privately justified beliefs. That’s no good on paper. They need their beliefs to be justified publicly and put into words. There might be elements of morality that are hard to justify. Why it’s so important not to harm children might be difficult for some Kantians to explain, so it might be tempting (for an out of touch Kantian) to think that harming children isn’t so bad after all.

      Finally, I suspect that he does know quite a bit about Kantianism based on his history and career. His seemingly irrational beliefs might be shocking for a Kantian (or former Kantian), but it would be shocking for any philosopher to say what he has said.

      Comment by James Gray — September 20, 2010 @ 8:50 am | Reply

  2. If you think that Aristotle’s ethics do not have a supernatural (or divine) orientation, then you clearly don’t know what you’re talking about. The whole teleology of the ethical life, according to the Nicomachean Ethics, is that allows intellect to aspire to the contemplation of God, the unmoved mover that is the noetic source of the Good.

    Anyway, your reasoning in this piece is ludicrous. “We know that torturing babies is wrong”? No, we have inherited a moral code that tells us that, and that moral code grew up from the soil of a sacred or religious view of reality. If there are are no gods or is no God, then there is no objective right or wrong; there is only the regime of taste, preference, prejudice, and will. Happily, most contemporary men and women are against baby-torturing, because they have been raised to think that way. But the Huns who used to fling babes about on their swords were not raised with similar ideas. It is still worth asking what happens to us when the sacred canopy is rolled back, and only a complacent buffoon thinks otherwise.

    Comment by Andrew Lamb — September 29, 2010 @ 5:25 pm | Reply

    • If you think that Aristotle’s ethics do not have a supernatural (or divine) orientation, then you clearly don’t know what you’re talking about.

      My point is that Aristote’s ethics doesn’t require the supernaturel. You think that Aristotle’s ethics absolutely requires the supernatural to exist? He said that our most final end is happiness. If there is no divine, then we still have happiness.

      It also isn’t entirely clear that the prime mover is “supernatural” but I don’t really care if it is or not.

      Anyway, your reasoning in this piece is ludicrous. “We know that torturing babies is wrong”?

      That is more of an assertion I made than “reasoning” but it is certainly not ludicrous. It is shared by both moral realists and anti-realists. It is not controversial. It isn’t really worth arguing for.

      No, we have inherited a moral code that tells us that, and that moral code grew up from the soil of a sacred or religious view of reality.

      That is what you believe, but you aren’t even clear about your beliefs. Anti-realists might agree with you, but they still agree that torturing babies is wrong. It’s not clear how your belief that a moral code is based on instincts (or whatever) has any relevance to the fact that torturing babies isn’t wrong.

      There are Buddhists that have no beliefs in supernatural entities. They still have a moral code. They still agree it’s wrong to torture babies. Even if such a “truth” is intersubjective and based on an agreement (or social contract), that doesn’t mean that it’s not wrong to torture babies.

      If there are are no gods or is no God, then there is no objective right or wrong;

      First, my point was not about “objective right and wrong.” Marks rejects moral theories and moral reasoning entirely. R. M. Hare and any other moral theorists agree that moral realism is false, but they still think we can reason about morality.

      Second, you are making an unjustified assertion. I take it that your argument is that God is required for moral realism. Plato’s moral realism does seem to require “Forms” which seem too ambitious, but more modest forms of moral realism are possible. I spent a lot of time thinking about this issue and I’ve already argued about it for quite some time, and I think moral realism is true and I don’t think God has anything to do with it.

      Not only that, but this is a non-issue for philosophers. More philosophers are moral realists than anti-realists, but almost none of them think it has anything to do with God. I’ve spent a lot of time reading arguments for moral realism, arguments against moral realism, etc. God is not an issue. Your assertion not only lacks an argument, and it is not only controversial, but it has also been thoroughly debunked.

      Even if I wasn’t a moral realist, I would agree that moral reasoning is possible, even if it is based on “subjective” truth.

      One of the reasons that I am not an anti-realist is because what is “subjective” is just as real as everything else. The myth that what is in the mind is automatically delusional or illusory is silly.

      If you want to know why I am a moral realist, you can look here:

      There is a lot more to be said and there are other arguments for moral realism out there.

      Comment by James Gray — September 29, 2010 @ 10:07 pm | Reply

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