Late-life conversions contain an element of sadness. A long personal history is disavowed; personal achievements before conversion appear tainted or false; in the enthusiasm of the new perspective, an individual obliterates his old self. For the young, radical change can be charming. Among gray-heads, alas, it smacks of desperation.
So I was saddened to read a two-part “manifesto” by Joel Marks in Philosophy Now, breathlessly proclaiming his transformation into an “amoralist.” The problem: for the last 10 years, Marks has authored the “Moral Moments” column in the journal. He’s clearly conflicted about the future of the column – much of the manifesto concerns the question whether an amoralist can dispense moral advice.
I peruse Philosophy Now on occasion, and must confess I usually found Marks’ pieces uninteresting because of their method and content. The method was an unreal rationalism, of a type rarely found outside the sheltering walls of academic philosophy departments. Possibly in consequence, the content avoided most problems central to morality and focused on a few liberal causes: vegetarianism, animal rights, and gay marriage, for example.
Marks isn’t a young man: he’s a professor emeritus, and his photo irrevocably ranks him with the gray-beards of the world. All this time, he’s been a Kantian and a moralist. Late in life, he has experienced a change of heart. “In fact,” he exults, “I have given up morality altogether!”
His explanation has a strange, old-fashioned sound to it – one might call it Sartre resartus. Marks is an atheist, and he has just now concluded that “without God, there is no morality.” Moral actions, he writes, obey moral commands, and such commands can only be legitimate when issued by a Commander: hence, no God – no Commander – no commands.
But what of reason? Marks was never a believer; blaming a disappearing God for his conversion strikes me as disingenuous. His faith was in rationalism, in a universally valid metaphysics: in a “theory of morality” to which one must appeal by the use of logical argument. The theory to which his heart had assented was Kantian. That faith now lies shattered, and in the shipwreck all belief in the viability of moral theories has been lost as well.
I find it strange that Marks, having denied God and abjured Kant, nowhere in his manifesto questions the rationalist method that has delivered to him a heap of broken images.
I find it strange, too, that Marks doesn’t question his store of opinions in light of his radically changed perspective. He was a zealot about animal rights as a Kantian – he’s going to stay a zealot as an amoralist. He can do this, he explains, because he has become a “desirist.” Whereas he once defended animal rights on principle, now he’s just indulging a private passion.
This will not do.
From Socrates onward, moral philosophers have placed great store on criticism yet drawn a subjective line beyond which criticism isn’t welcomed. Thus Plato’s dialogues are unintelligible unless one knows the moral conventions of Plato’s day, and the works of Kant would be inscrutable to anyone unacquainted with Christianity. All rationalist philosophers criticize selectively: there’s much about their cultures they wish to keep.
Similarly, Marks calls himself a “moral fool” for having clung to his moral theory, yet appears desperate to justify the judgments derived from it. Why on earth should an “amoralist” object to vivisection? Because that’s how he feels about the question, Marks argues. His desires revolt against vivisection. But weren’t those desires trained under the foolish Kantian dispensation? Had he been born a person devoid of moral principles, would he care now about vivisection? And if the answer is “no,” how can anyone committed to logic continue to care?
Marks’ desires are Kantian, in the same way that Kant’s were Lutheran. Philosophers know they must find a stopping-place for criticism, or else slide into nihilism. This isn’t wisdom on their part: it’s a failure to summon the courage of their convictions. Rationalism and criticism fail spectacularly as guides to right action, but rather than confront this disaster head-on, philosophers pick and choose their stopping-places, usually at the point where their desired conditions come under attack.
Marks is enamored of metaphysics: it’s what he means by “morality.” Yet his is a strange cosmic edifice that can be torn down to the last brick without changing any of the routines inside. His is a feeble set of abstract principles which can be abandoned without much effect on practical life. If this is the sum of his transformation, he’s done nothing to get excited about.
Although he now calls himself an amoralist, Marks is one step shy of becoming a vulgar moralist. He has given up on moral theories. Good: morality isn’t about theories but about actions. He has given up on metaphysics. Good: morality, being practical, is engendered by history and community, not by abstract cosmic frameworks.
But he clings to rationalism, possibly because it’s part of this professional training. This is the bridge Marks must cross if he really wishes to come to terms with his own conclusions. He has rejected metaphysics, but will not grapple with what he calls, with apparent distaste, the “sociological kind” of morality.
His great revelation is that a metaphysics of morality doesn’t exist. True. Morality isn’t reasoned: it’s given. Who is the Giver? Even if one believes in God, he can only work through his creation. The community – which extends back to the dead and forward to those not yet born – legislates right action to the individual. This becomes sociology, mere object of study, only to a professor or a morally inert soul.
The community is also the Commander, and its commands are absolute yet local, not cosmic, in nature. The individual, confronted by situation X, will be enjoined to behavior Y. Such commands can be aggregated into a commandment or a ruling principle only in the style of the pirate’s code – as guidelines rather than rules. From “Thou shalt not kill” onward, local exceptions will always abound.
Does this leave us in the grip of orthodoxy and convention? Depends on what we mean by those words. Convention issues from community: it’s what morality feels like to those who aren’t academic philosophers. But convention need not entail hypocrisy, smugness, or intolerance.
Despite what Marks asserts, every moral ideal is an impossible thing. Perfect courage or honesty, for example, are impossible states of being. The conventional moral life is therefore a striving for perfection, an inching toward the light, which affords every opportunity for honesty and humility. It has the advantage over metaphysics that one can look to flesh-and-blood examples for inspiration, rather than to syllogisms in books.
I can only wish Marks well in his pilgrim’s progress from metaphysics to reality. I hope he can cross the bridge to a farther shore: understanding morality as the impact of history and tradition on human nature, worked out in a specific environment by a specific community. Although his manifesto fairly hums with uncertainty and doubt, the answers are right in front of him.
Only after has figured it out will he be able to resume his column and offer moral advice with a clear conscience.