Atheism and Amoralism
On April 1, 2010, ethicist Joel Marks sat at his computer and wrote a confession to the readers of his column “Moral Moments” which had been a regular feature in the magazine Philosophy Now for a decade. His confession was not that he had done something immoral. No, his confession was that he could not have done anything immoral, at any time, because it turns out that there really is no such thing as morality. Or so he had come to conclude. The author of “Moral Moments” had come out of the closet as an ‘amoralist’. As he puts it in the first part of his “Amoral Manifesto”:
[T]his philosopher has long been laboring under an unexamined assumption, namely, that there is such a thing as right and wrong. I now believe there isn’t.
Marks immediately proceeds to explain the reasoning behind his “shocking epiphany” (bold added):
The long and the short of it is that I became convinced that atheism implies amorality; and since I am an atheist, I must therefore embrace amorality. I call the premise of this argument ‘hard atheism’ because it is analogous to a thesis in philosophy known as ‘hard determinism.’ The latter holds that if metaphysical determinism is true, then there is no such thing as free will. Thus, a ‘soft determinist’ believes that, even if your reading of this column right now has followed by causal necessity from the Big Bang fourteen billion years ago, you can still meaningfully be said to have freely chosen to read it. Analogously, a ‘soft atheist’ would hold that one could be an atheist and still believe in morality. And indeed, the whole crop of ‘New Atheists’ … are softies of this kind. So was I, until I experienced my shocking epiphany that the religious fundamentalists are correct: without God, there is no morality. But they are incorrect, I still believe, about there being a God. Hence, I believe, there is no morality.
You get the point: the New Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris, are “soft atheists” because they deny God yet still want to affirm moral realism. The problem is that their position isn’t a coherent, stable one, because it seeks to affirm some phenomenon — in this case, objective moral norms — while denying the one metaphysical framework that could plausibly account for that phenomenon. Marks summarizes how he reasoned his way from “soft atheism” to “hard atheism”:
Why do I now accept hard atheism? I was struck by salient parallels between religion and morality, especially that both avail themselves of imperatives or commands, which are intended to apply universally. In the case of religion, and most obviously theism, these commands emanate from a Commander; “and this all people call God,” as Aquinas might have put it. The problem with theism is of course the shaky grounds for believing in God. But the problem with morality, I now maintain, is that it is in even worse shape than religion in this regard; for if there were a God, His issuing commands would make some kind of sense. But if there is no God, as of course atheists assert, then what sense could be made of there being commands of this sort? In sum, while theists take the obvious existence of moral commands to be a kind of proof of the existence of a Commander, i.e., God, I now take the non-existence of a Commander as a kind of proof that there are no Commands, i.e., morality.
In some respects, Marks’ confession shouldn’t be so surprising. After all, theists have been making the same kind of argument — no God, no morality — for aeons. Moreover, a number of influential atheists have already “made the good confession”: Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, J. L. Mackie, and (more recently) Alex Rosenberg.
So I’m not going to dwell here on what I think should be reasonably evident to those who reflect on the metaphysical foundations of morality. Instead, I want to focus on some comments Marks makes in the second part of his “Amoral Manifesto” which, while tangential to his concerns, I find to be quite revealing and hugely significant. For what Marks hints at in these later remarks is that a consistent atheist ought to be not only an amoralist who denies objective moral norms but also an arationalist who denies objective rational norms.