Moral Abolitionism: Some Thoughts

In his article Morality: The Final Delusion, philosopher Richard Garner puts forward a radical belief: not only is there no objective standard for morality, but morality itself is a man-made concept. This concept is called Moral Abolitionism. Garner continues to say that

“[A]theists who… stop short of moral abolitionism will be stuck exploiting and supporting something nearly as superstitious and hazardous as the religion they have just rejected.”

Having read his article, and several others in a similar vein on Philosophy Now, I’d like to share some thoughts about the precepts set forth by the post-moralists.

Moral Abolitionism is a fairly consistent ideology
It’s always bothered me that hardcore atheists still manage to stump for some kind of objective morality. As Garner points out in his article, even the New Atheists themselves, determined to throw off the shackles of religious thought, still can’t bring themselves to deny that morality exists altogether, which seems to be the logical endpoint of a universe with an objective standard-bearer for morality. It’s a classic apologetic argument, but it’s still strong: how can one thing be better than another if there’s no standard of comparison? I realize that atheism and MA are, at the core, complimentary concepts; it’s evident, however, that embracing the former does not generally mean embracing the latter.

Unlike moral realists, post-moralists accept that they have no right to make any sort of moral judgement at all. Jesse Prinz, in his essay Morality is a Culturally Conditioned Response, says:

“Objectivists might reply that progress has clearly been made. Aren’t our values better than those of the ‘primitive’ societies that practice slavery, cannibalism, and polygamy? Here we are in danger of smugly supposing superiority. Each culture assumes it is in possession of the moral truth.”

By making such a bold statement, Prinz is saying what most post-moralists will not: there is no objective morality at all. From this, we can extrapolate that completely relative morality is essentially the same as amorality–a moral system with no rules is not really a system at all.

…but it’s ultimately unsatisfying
So, after dismissing morality as a harmful, outdated idea, where does Moral Abolitionism leave us? Garner addresses this briefly, claiming that moral judgements can be replaced by preference backed up by reasoning.

Instead of telling others about their moral obligations, we can tell them what we want them to do, and then we can explain why. We can express annoyance, anger, and enthusiasm, each of which has an effect on what people do, and none of which requires language that presupposes objective values or obligations. The moral abolitionist is equipped, as we all are, with habits, preferences, policies, aims, and impulses that can easily play the roles usually assigned to moral beliefs and thoughts.

But this, to me, is where it all falls apart. Not the central tenants of Moral Abolitionism–this seems to be the logical endgame for that–but Moral Abolitionism as a system of life. Garner offers, in place of an objective standard, a standard based on how we happen to feel, which, though marginally better than the one offered by Prinz, is still unlivable.

Setting the Example
Garner offers two examples of how Moral Abolitionism simplifies difficult decision: abortion and capital punishment. He states:

[M]oral abolitionists will advise any moralist or moral fictionalists who is not forced by circumstances to make some such choice to stand aside in mute support of those individuals who are.

This sounds good, but even in his own examples, he’s inconsistent. He states ” There is no way to determine whether the moral rights of the fetus are stronger than those of the mother because there are no such things as moral rights.” but then, later on, while refusing to take a stance on capital punishment, says

Apart from the stipulated penalties in the laws currently in force, any one of which can be changed, nobody deserves to suffer for any reason whatever. It is this rejection of the idea of “moral desert” that will finally make it possible to discuss remedies to crimes and incivilities without having to pander to moral ire and posturing. We have overdosed on desert, and it would be both healthy and economical to go on a diet.

I hardly know how to respond to this. By the logic put forth in the earlier example, no Moral Abolitionist could enforce any sort of punishment on a criminal unless they were themselves the one wronged; that is, in a Moral Abolitionist utopia, criminals would not be tried by a jury of their peers, but rather by the person or people their crimes were against. Further, since there is no way for anyone’s belief to be superior, the criminal would have nothing to worry about in the first place, since he couldn’t possibly be in the wrong.

I don’t doubt that Garner is an intelligent man, and I’m sure he’d take issue with my interpretation. Prinz even addresses my complaint to some extent:

[M]oral values do not become more true. But they can become better by other criteria. For example, some sets of values are more consistent and more conducive to social stability.

But he doesn’t–I would say cannot–explain why social stability is more desirable than anarchy, or why it is even important to have a consistent set of values. Is it wrong for me to eat my neighbor? If so, why? The extreme relativity in this pair of papers removes all grounds for condemning any behavior whatsoever. We cannot appeal to inalienable rights: happiness is no better than sadness, kindness no better than cruelty, murder no worse than charity. Maybe these men have considered the implications of their beliefs and have come to accept them; I cannot.

2 thoughts on “Moral Abolitionism: Some Thoughts

  1. mattynottva says:

    Yeah, this is a real tough one. I’ve never heard the term Moral Abolitionism before, but the concepts you explored in this post have been bouncing around in my head for some time now.

    I recently saw a photograph taken by the Hubble Telescope, showing a section of the night sky that seemed to be filled with something like 3000 galaxies. Also, I recently read that the edge of the Universe is over 78 billion light years in every direction, or something to that effect. Neither of these things contained entirely new information, but for some reason they affected me deeply.

    Your post overlapped with many of the thoughts and questions I’ve been carrying around lately. I wish it had been longer. It would also be nice if you could provide answers to all of the questions posed within. So, get to work on that, will you?

    • Haha, I really should do a follow up on this. It’s not the sort of thing that attracts a whole lot of attention, but it’s interesting to me. Thanks for reading, and for your thoughts on it.

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