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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Joel Marks on philosophical amoralism

More to come on this topic. For the moment, I just want to draw attention to this piece by Yale-based philosopher Joel Marks in which he describes how he came to be a philosophical amoralist (along the lines of Richard Garner).

Jerry Coyne and Jean Kazez have both commented on the piece rather critically (the former some time ago now). As you might expect, I'll be (essentially) defending Marks. However, the two critical posts that I've linked are well worth reading and discussing.

More tomorrow, but feel free to get some discussion going.

Note: I'm going to take off moderation for now, except on old threads, and see what happens - whether the spam level is deal-withable. As James Sweet suggested in a thread yesterday, things are now more manageable for us all without David Mabus annoying us. I'll enable the word recognition thingie to see if it weeds some rubbish out.

10 comments:

Evan Guiney said...

To preface: Im inclined to defend Marks as well, at least as far as renouncing 'objective' morality.

Regarding the criticisms of Coyne and Kazez, I found Kazez to be quite silly: the crux of her argument is a sloppy fallacy. She says that people will be more likely to do bad things (like betray Anne Frank) if they dont believe in objective morality. maybe so. But from this she thinks she can adduce the *truth* of objective morality?

Coyne gives a much more important rebuttal: he says that Marks may claim to be an amoralist, but that *functionally* Marks behaves just like a moralist, grounding his normative projects on values such as prevention of suffering, and attempting to make those normative perspectives universal.

Im not sure I have an answer for Coyne. Is amoralism just the shadow of the shadow of god?

Jean Kazez said...

Evan, You're simply confused about my post--read again. You may not have followed Marks's editorial either.

MARKS makes the claim that likes-dislikes statements can replace moral claims. They can do the same work, so nothing will be lost if we stop calling things right and wrong. That's *his* contention. I am merely responding to it. I am saying there isn't that replaceability.

Now, it's another matter how and why this replaceability issue is important. Why does it matter to Marks? Why does he bring it up? Why does it matter to me? What you certainly can't say is that by responding to Marks's contention, I'm automatically advancing the theory that the irreplaceability of moral talk yields its objective truth. Just no--didn't say it, didn't imply it.

Coyne is not "joining" the issue that matters to Marks. Yes, of course Marks is *functionally* a moralist. He told us so, so it's no big surprise! He told is he continues having all the same feelings he used to, and engaging in the same behavior, with respect to the treatment of animals.

What Marks is discussing is whether moral claims have truth-makers, i.e. whether there is anything "out there" for them to be about. To philosophers that's something deeply interesting. It's certainly not a point against Marks to say he behaves just like a moralist.

Marshall said...

I thought Marks was entirely on target, although I would infinitely rather read Rorty than Gardner. I was in a discussion elsewhere as to whether moral reasoning can be efficacious; my point was that when reasoning is merely academic, as Gardner seems to treat it ... the amoralist can misrepresent himself when convenient ... it just leads to an infinite regression of argument. What's needed, what Marks shows, is commitment, to a particular view of animal rights or whatever. Commitment doesn't require objectivity, or not universal objectivity.

I disagree with Jerry's claim that Marks is making a distinction without a difference, between "This is my opinion, to which I pledge my life, my fortune, and my sacred honor" and "This is The Way Things Are, and anybody who doesn't see that is a mental defective." Here is Fred Clark's take; about claiming objectivity for biblical literalism, but it applies to other forms of moral argumentation as well.

Jean says what objective moral values does is to allow that "the state of affairs itself makes my dislike correct and appropriate". That's the problem. One time I had a drunken superior behave very badly at a party; in the morning we were trying to sort it out and he said: "You must have been doing something wrong; look how angry I got!" The Hitler card, Jean?

1.) Psychologically, moral commitment feels like creating a "real" object. That seems to be necessary to acting on it as if "instinctively", in difficult as well as easy times. "We" should learn how to correct for that, as we do for other innate biases; learn to argue rather than assert.

2.) Socially, there's no problem with developing a social consensus which becomes a binding social fact, as for Searle, as with Nazi ethnic cleansing.

Peter Beattie said...

» Joel Marks: Instead I now focus on conveying information: about the state of affairs on factory farms and elsewhere, the environmental devastation that results and, especially, the sentient, intelligent, gentle and noble natures of the animals who are being brutalized and slaughtered.

Which is otherwise very simply and descriptively, i.e. usefully, called ‘consequentialism’. What Marks is trying to do is to say, ‘Oh no, this has nothing to do with morality, it’s just my personal preference’. And he says he never gives premises any more in arguments. But that doesn’t mean that the premises aren’t there. The only thing he has achieved by pretending that they’re no longer there is no longer even to have the chance to become aware of them and make conscious choices about them.

One case in point: “I desire to influence the world in such a way that my desires have a greater likelihood of being realized.” That is exactly what everybody else doesn’t shy away from calling ‘trying to make the world a better place’. Marks should know full well that what we want the world to look like is what we think is ‘good’. If we didn’t think that this was something more than a personal preference, we couldn’t even claim any right to bother others with it. And, of course, there is the nasty little fact that most clearly immoral things are universally agreed to be immoral, such as torturing, killing, or injuring people. Is it really such a mystery that during our evolution we have also evolved some common moral instincts?

So, I think Jerry had all the right arguments right there: Marks is simply not calling a spade a spade, but is taken in by his own semantic sleight of hand. Yeah, and evolution. :)

Russell Blackford said...

Peter says:
"One case in point: 'I desire to influence the world in such a way that my desires have a greater likelihood of being realized.' That is exactly what everybody else doesn’t shy away from calling ‘trying to make the world a better place’. Marks should know full well that what we want the world to look like is what we think is ‘good’. If we didn’t think that this was something more than a personal preference, we couldn’t even claim any right to bother others with it. And, of course, there is the nasty little fact that most clearly immoral things are universally agreed to be immoral, such as torturing, killing, or injuring people. Is it really such a mystery that during our evolution we have also evolved some common moral instincts?"

Well, most of the statements here that are put forward here as if they were self-evident or unproblematic don't seem to me to be self-evident or unproblematic at all. I'd want to quibble about just about every sentence.

As Jean says, it is of great interest to philosophers whether moral claims have truth-makers in the most obvious sense of corresponding to something "out there". I don't think the answer is going to be simple, though.

We've had trouble on this blog wrestling with seemingly simpler claims such as what is meant by, and what makes it true that, "This is a a good car" or "Martin Scorsese is a great director." These claims are not going to be just arbitrary - my car may well be a "good" one by the standards likely to be adopted, quite rationally, by anyone I am actually likely to discuss it with, for example - but they may be shorthand for a lot of other stuff insofar as they are true. And insofar as they are understood in some naive way that understanding may be false.

Part of the problem is that we seem to find it easier to accept that "This is a good car" is shorthand for something more difficult involving what "we" desire in a car, which is going to be approximate, partly contested, and non-binding, than that "That was a morally forbidden act" is such shorthand. So, when someone says "This is a good car," perhaps nothing false is believed or conveyed. For our practical purposes the car may as well have a property of goodness, but we all realise that that's not how things really are, or if they are the property of goodness is something rather complicated and not how we think of it for our practical purposes.

That seems a much more bitter pill to swallow with properties such as moral goodness, moral forbiddenness, and so on. We seem to want these to be straightforward objective properties that are "out there", independent of our desires.

Peter Beattie said...

» Russell: I'd want to quibble about just about every sentence.

Exactly: “quibble”, but not fundamentally disagree. And we can, and do, quibble about almost everything: our species concept, the nature of time, the relative importance of natural selection and genetic drift, you name it. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t some fundamental agreement about these things.

Richard Wein said...

I think Marks was very careful to avoid saying anything that could possibly be construed as a moral claim. Yet that hasn't stopped Jerry Coyne and Peter Beattie from reading him as making moral claims. To which I say, "read his lips"!

Peter wrote: "Marks should know full well that what we want the world to look like is what we think is ‘good’."

I think you're making the same error I pointed out in a comment at Jerry's blog. Marks says "I want X", and you interpret that as "I think X is good", and then, conflating moral and non-moral goodness, reinterpret it as "I think X is morally good".

Even a moral realist can want a particular outcome (e.g. getting another slice of cake) without thinking that outcome is morally good.

Peter Beattie said...

» Richard Wein: To which I say, "read his lips"!

To which I replay, “read my words!” I said explicitly that I was aware of the fact that Marks says that he isn’t talking about ‘good’ etc., but that doesn’t make it true. Please try again.

Peter Beattie said...

*reply

Christian Munthe said...

My take on the "revelation" on Marks side is double. On the one hand, he seems finally to have found the solution to a personal riddle of his personal life, and hopefully he will now feel better about himself. On the other, however, setting out this personal enlightenment in the form of a generalised philosophical argument, as he seems to be intending, reveals a rather weak contact with the metaethical discussions of the last few decades. It is quite a while back that metaethical taxonomy abolished the crude opposition between 'emotivism' and 'objectivism' - although it is still used for introductory purposes for 1st term philosophy students in many places. In other words, the alleged fact that a person's moral convictions are or express or are experienced as preferences does not in itself in any unproblematic way imply the epistemic nihilism Marks seems to take for granted. In fact, not even the pioneering champions of that idea, Hume and, later, William James held this to be the case.