Brother Coyne - sorry, Jerry, I couldn't resist! - has a piece on Joel Marks in which he describes the latter's contribution to Opinionator as "a very odd column". I hope that readers of this blog, where we often discuss issues in metaethics, will understand why I don't think it odd at all. Marks has embraced a perfectly respectable position in philosophical metaethics: what looks like a form of moral error theory, closely akin to the abolitionist position of Richard Garner.
There's some confusion to be cleared up here, and it's much the same confusion that is often shown by Sam Harris. When we talk about morality being "objective" we are not interested in whether people's moral choices have certain properties that are independent of our desires - of course they do. Thus, it may be that a particular choice will lead to the suffering of certain people or certain other sentient animals. Another choice may lead to certain pleasures or satisfactions for those affected, while causing them no pain or other harm. Nothing is controversial about this, but pointing it out won't take us far towards saying that there are objective moral requirements in the sense debated by metaethicists.
(Well, it might; it might lead us to moral naturalism. But moral naturalism gives a rather deflationary account of moral objectivity; and in any event it has to be argued for, which is easier said than done.)
We can get closer to what an objective moral requirement would be when we think - by contrast - about ordinary value judgments. Let's take the good (!) old car example again. When I say, "This is a good car," I mean something like, "This car has the properties that we desire in a car." If I say, "This car (my friend's Porsche, say) is a better car than mine," I mean that it has those properties to a greater degree (perhaps using some sort of weighting system to add up the relevant properties).
My friend's (hi! I know you're reading this!) Porsche really does have certain characteristics, as does my Honda. But am I inescapably bound to prefer her car to mine irrespective of my particular desires? No, I am not. The "goodness" of the car is parasitic not only on properties (such as its mass, various performance characteristic, etc.) that will be the same whatever our desires may be, but also on what our desires actually are. Someone whose desires differ from those of the majority cannot be forced, on pain of being just wrong about something, to prefer one car to the other. There is an important sense in which car-goodness is not an objective property. It is not Out There, independent of how we feel about the characteristics of cars. It can't prescribe how I act, for example in purchasing one car rather than another ... on pain of being just wrong if I act in some other way.
With most value judgments, there's not a lot of intellectual resistance to this analysis. But the situation tends to change with moral judgments. If someone says, "Torturing babies is wrong," she is likely to mean something much stronger than, "Torturing babies is painful for them." The latter statement is doubtless true, and it is true independently of my desires in the matter. But a sadist who goes ahead and tortures babies may be making no mistake about anything in the world (though likewise we make no mistake when we judge the sadist to be "evil").
There is a pressure, perhaps built into our language itself, to regard the "moral wrongness" of torturing babies as an objective property, in the sense that car-goodness is not: to regard it as a property out there in the world independent of our desire for babies not to suffer pain.
But of course there is no such "objective" property. The pain exists. Our desire that the pain not happen exists. The mismatch between the pain and our desires exists. It is rational for us not to torture babies. It is rational for us to attempt to prevent others from doing so, and to enact laws that deter others from torturing babies. All of that's fine. And yet, there is this pressure (where does it come from? I'm sure some of my opponents will attribute it to God ... but that has all sorts of problems) to want something more, and to believe that this "something more" actually exists.
We seem to want this further property of moral wrongness that is independent of desires. I.e., we want this propert to exist. We seem to find it difficult to admit that there is no such property.
We seem to want objective prescriptivity to exist, even though objective prescriptivity would be a very queer thing indeed, as moral error theorists point out. Or at least many of us seem to want this, and to be convinced that there is such a thing. And yet, no one has ever seen such a thing, and it is hard to understand how the concept is even coherent.
Joel Marks has reached a point in his life where he no longer believes in objective prescriptivity, in inescapably binding standards of conduct, or in morally evaluative properties ("moral goodness", "moral forbiddenness", etc.) that are independent of our desires. For Marks, the "goodness" of choices and actions had better be no more metaphysically rich than the "goodness" of a car: a kind of summation of whether they have the metaphysically ordinary properties that "we" (and this "we" is always, in practice, at least partly a fiction) want in choices and actions of that type.
It might be said with some truth that Marks is leaving morality behind. That doesn't mean that he is leaving goodness behind. He might still make choices and carry out actions that we regard as "good" - perhaps because they conform to our inherited standards, or because, in any event, they have the properties that we want such choices and actions to have. But he is living without what is sometimes called the moral overlay, the illusion of desire-independent objectively prescriptive properties out there in the world.
It that sense, Marks is, arguably living beyond morality, though he need not necessarily be living beyond making value judgments (as he describes the situation he even seems to be doing that, but I think that's a further step).
As I said at the start, I don't find any of this odd. It's a difficult concept to convey at less than book length to people who are not already familiar with it. But it's a genuine issue in metaethics, and the problems it raises are quite familiar to people working within the field. Marks may still live much as he did before, and we may still make value judgments about him - he can't escape being judged by others. We may judge him to be a "good" or "virtuous" man, if all we mean by that is that he has the dispositions of character that we want in a man. For all that, he's thinking about his choices in a way that most people don't when they imagine that there are inescapably binding moral requirements.
I'm not sure I've conveyed this well. It really is difficult to tease out briefly, and I don't think I've done very well in oral presentations in the past or even, necessarily, in previous blog posts like this one. But something really has changed for Marks. He's abandoned objective ethics - not the belief that there are properties of our choices that exist independently of our desires, such as whether or not a choice, when acted on, will produce pain, but, rather, the belief in objectively prescriptive properties such as the property of being inescapably forbidden.
The more important question, perhaps, is whether this change - this movement beyond morality as it's commonly conceived - really matters. Marks thinks it doesn't. I tend to agree. Actually, I think it helps us to see things more clearly, and to consider what we think moral systems are really for.
That question will not have a straightforward, literal answer, since moral systems were not consciously designed, so they are not literally "for" anything. Still, the question makes a kind of sense. We can ask how moral systems actually function, and we can ask what we actually want in a moral system, if we still want such a thing at all. This then starts to give us a basis to assess - and, where appropriate, even debunk - the traditional morality that we've inherited.
How much of our traditional morality will we still approve of when we've subjected it to radical scrutiny? Maybe some it has to go.