Category Archives: philosophy

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So, after dismissing morality as a harmful, outdated idea, where does Moral Abolitionism leave us?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.

Fear and Trembling by Soren Kierkegaard

“Much is said in our age about irony and humor, especially by those who have never been capable of engaging in the practice of these arts, but who nevertheless know how to explain everything.”

I think it’s safe to say that I was not prepared for this book. I was drawn in by the premise—Kierkegaard, one of the fathers of existentialism, writing a treatise on faith, using the story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son Isaac as his basis—and its length, a scant 95 pages. It sounded right up my alley, but I hadn’t counted on Kierkegaard’s writing style, which is intentionally dense and off-putting to discourage the casual reader (me). So it turns out that this little pamphlet actually took longer to read than the 400 page Robin Hood.

But anyway, on to the content of the book. As mentioned above, Fear and Trembling is a meditation on the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac as recounted in Genesis 22. I say Abraham’s sacrifice because, although God actually provided a ram to replace Isaac, Kierkegaard argues that, in the most meaningful sense, Abraham did sacrifice Isaac since he remained willing up until the final moment, when the ram appeared.

This is one of the most difficult stories in the entire Bible, and Kierkegaard doesn’t shy away from the difficult questions it raises. Interestingly, however, he doesn’t focus on why God would ask Abraham to commit the act, as many theologians do. He rather focuses on Abraham and what his reaction to the request reveals about him and, in the bigger picture, faith itself.

As the conclusions Kierkegaard reaches, I’ll share what I understand of them here, in greatly condensed form. Kierkegaard says that Abraham is the only example of true faith he knows of, and he defines faith in a very complex way which I’m going to try to communicate in a few points:

a) Faith requires a basic belief in the object of the faith. b) Faith requires complete resignation of the finite world into the hands of God, followed by c) a resignation of infinite matters as well, so that d) finite matters can again be appreciated. Further, Kierkegaard argues that true faith requires more than hope, since hope requires a belief that the event believed in will actually happen. Abraham’s faith was true, he says, because Abraham believed that God would restore Isaac to him even though he also believed it was impossible that Isaac should be restored. Kierkegaard points to faith as an example of the absurd: believing that things that will not happen are going to happen is the paradox of faith.

There’s a lot more in this book (the information I described is mostly in the middle third), including some interesting questions about whether or not ethics can be superseded by a divine command and whether or not it is possible to act both within the boundaries of true faith and ethics at the same time (Kierkegaard argues that for Abraham, the ethical choice—that of not sacrificing his son—was actually a temptation away from the absolute best choice of following God’s command), but to be honest, these sections were both interesting and opaque to me.

I don’t really know how to end this review. I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I’ve exhausted or even fairly explained Kierkegaard’s views in this short post. There’s a lot here, and I may return to it in the future.

(Cross-posted from 50 Books Project)