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.