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Amoralism and moving past morality

June 2, 2009

On Saturday, I presented an article on Mormon Matters about the consumer model of religion — something that had been talked about in a different post at By Common Consent. Even though I did a rather poor job of talking much about anything in the article (…definitely not one of my best works)…the post inspired a lot of discussion about atheism. My point was to distinguish myself from new atheists like Richard Dawkins and the others…because atheism is not a worldview, and as such, we aren’t groupable in the same way people who share religions (which are very specific worldviews, generally) are. When we are, it is because of socially co-morbid factors — atheists generally tend to be against discrimination from theists because of a socially co-morbid occurrence of theistic discrimination. But this doesn’t make that a necessary trait for atheism (in the same way that not all theists will discriminate against atheists).

That went around and around, and my point was not that atheists don’t have worldviews…but rather, these worldviews are separate from atheism and so, not all atheists share the same worldview…It would make little sense to start holding all theists as having the same worldview when theism tells you rather little about the theist…a Hindu has very different specific beliefs from the Mormon.So, eventually, someone asked me…if atheism isn’t your worldview…what is? Who are people who “represent” you, if not Dawkins and the rest?

One of my points was to say that I enjoy not following an authority. I like not having a “church” or church equivalent. But I can say that I have positions and belief systems. Nihilism, existentialism, a belief in subjective experience (such as moral foundations existing as a function of emotions or pragmatic concerns) over objective and external reality (which may be unknowable, nice agnosticism), and I hinted about these things in a previous post here. And…I found out that I was having a hard time not finding old dead guys or up-and-coming researchers to represent me.

So, I decided to search around. What the heck am I anyway? I think I have quite a few beliefs that don’t put me anywhere common.

I found out about moral error theory. And also amoralism. And these things didn’t sound too bad. But what does it all mean?

I have argued about subjective morality. I guess my point is that…from seeing so many people, it seems relatively clear to me that the diversity of moral opinions really tell us more about the subjective experiences and biases of the people who harbor certain moral opinions than they do about any objective, external morality. Some people try to assert that their moral system must be objective because of God or something else…but it quickly becomes clear that even this statement just tells me something about the person and his biases rather than about the universe.

My position is something like…even if there is an objective moral system out there, this utterly doesn’t matter, because we humans are ignoring it and seeming to go by the seat of our pants. And the systems we come up with often evolve with time or with distance. They change by situation, depending on what we value more or less. So, subjective trounces objective. This has fueled my existentialism and belief in the subjective.

It also allows me to kind of consider a kind of moral nihilism or moral error theory (but in the end, perhaps I’m just morally agnostic? — basically, it doesn’t matter if there is objective moral truths, so I don’t care to commit to say there aren’t). If we’re just taking blind stabs here, couldn’t it be possible that all of our moral theories are incorrect? Why yes, they could. But, it doesn’t matter because we really don’t care about what is true. Rather, we care about what we subjectively feel and what we socially determine. We care more about what is practical. That’s why I linked to Ockham’s Beard about Evolution, Morality, and Truth. Often, we assume that our moral systems point toward truths…but really, do we have anything to suggest this is the case? We might be going toward something that helps us all get along or some other subjective value, but is that “truth”?

So, from reading about amoralism and moral error theory, I’ve pondered a few things…do we need to be so arrogant as to presume “morality”? Do we need morality? The idea of people like Richard Garner and others is that morality is a sham. It’s a sham because we are playing up the idea of “intrinsic” values and “objective” duties and “natural” rights and all of these things that are actually subjectively determined, and then we are deceiving ourselves into thinking they are something more than they really are. A moral wrong is a travesty that requires objective retribution, perhaps divine, we say. And I mean, of course we will subjectively think so, but from the diversity of moral viewpoints, we can and may be wrong. Worst of all, the universe doesn’t seem to be giving us any hints.

So, I was reading a google preview of Paul Bloomfield’s Morality and Self-Interest (so cheap I can’t take the time to get the real books)…and most specifically a pdf from it by Richard Joyce called Morality, Schmorality. Joyce’s ultimate argument was that, in the end, we don’t need morality…instead, we can use things that do not quite reach up to morality (and therefore do not have some of the deficiencies of morality) such as “prudence.” Equating prudence to a morality produces grotesque disagreeable consequences, so Joyce’s argument is that just by being prudent, we don’t have something that has the “special feature” of morality (that is objected to by moral error theorists), but we don’t come up with crazy and wild people. Ugh, I’m already at 900 words and I can’t really do so much justice to all of the ideas that I’ve addressed or linked to, but one thing I kinda got at…so…what are we to do about all the kinds of moral systems we do have, even if they are objectively wrong?

One possibility is to look at them in a fictionalist way — to realize that they aren’t objectively true, but still find them useful. Personally, with the interplay of nihilism and existentialism, objective and subjective, I think this is appealing. In the same way that things can be theoretically objectively meaningless (supposing nihilism is true), yet we can still act with a subjective meaning or valuation (existentialism in a fictionalist tradition), then the same could be true of our morals. And we might do this not because it’s the moral thing to do (that doesn’t make sense), but merely because it’s prudent or pragmatic.

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One Comment
  1. Nice post! I think it is definitely more clear and more conducive to agreement to, as you say, “move past morality” and use terms like prudence or whatever other amoral term one actually means by calling something moral. One can really only argue moral principles on moral grounds, but amoral qualities like prudence can be studied, measured and argued on factual, scientific grounds. Whether or not something is prudent can be determined factually unlike morality.

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