Rejecting Morality
October 22, 2014
Stuart W. Mirsky in Comparative Ethics, Ethics, Kant John Stuart Mill, Michael Huemer, Moral Philosophy, Richard Garner, Stuart Mirsky

Continuing my efforts to look at the notion of moral valuing and the different explanations of how it works that it inspires, I recently had occasion to read Beyond Morality by Richard Garner. Actually I read his updated on-line version, Beyond Beyond Morality, which seems to be his effort to improve his earlier published book. Presumably his basic thesis hasn't changed although he has attempted to amplify and strengthen it for his readers. In a nutshell, the book rejects morality as such based on his embrace of the Humean picture of moral judgment being grounded solely in sentiment. But unlike others influenced by the Humean account, such as the non-cognitivists (emotivism, prescriptivism) or the subjectivists (those who ground moral discourse in individual preferences and those who ground it in consensus preference within particular groups), and, of course, unlike intuitionists like Michael Huemer (who argue that moral claims are cognitively respectable because they address rationally knowable facts derived from our concepts, themselves), Garner (like J. L. Mackie before him) rejects the idea that moral claims state any facts at all. There is no moral knowledge, he argues, and that's a good thing.

He maintains that moral beliefs are always unresolvable because they stand on our capacity to argue which, he thinks, is evidence of one's rhetorical skill, not evidence of the arguer's greater knowledge of facts or logic. Framing any claim in terms of moral beliefs, he says, must fail because it's bound to produce more disagreement, not less. And, he argues, more confusion. Further, he maintains, moral belief systems have had an historically pernicious influence on human history, leading to fanatical excesses, wars and other interminable disputes. But that doesn't mean he rejects any capacity to differentiate our choices and choose what we do more or less wisely. His position is that we need to look elsewhere for a satisfactory account of how to guide our behavior, i.e., to the ancient thinkers, particularly some of the Greek and Roman philosophers (he likes Marcus Aurelius quite a bit) and to the sages of the ancient East (he's especially taken with Lao Tzu and the Buddha who he describes as more practical psychologist than religious teacher -- though he acknowledges that many of the Buddha's followers gave his teachings a religious cast).

After dispatching the moral claims of thinkers like Kant and many later ethicists, including John Stuart Mill (of utilitarian fame), he proceeds to examine the alternatives available to us if we reject morality as such. He makes a distinction, by the way, between ethics and morals, suggesting that the former is related to one's profession or place in society and life (business ethics, medical ethics, etc.) while the latter is taken to be absolute, overriding more particular ethical concerns and issues. It's this sense of absoluteness, that moral claims consist of knowable true statements, that he is rejecting. In particular he criticizes the claims of intuitionists, whether explicit like Huemer or implicit, which is what he takes the average moralizing person to be. He argues that there is simply no basis for claiming that anything is intrinsically good or bad or that thinking it is represents a claim of fact. There is, he asserts, simply no moral there there.

His antidote to the moral motivations we feel is to redirect us to attaining a deeper understanding of our own mental lives (he favors the Zen Buddhist approach to meditation -- something I've practiced myself, by the way, which he believes can help us to better understand our own motivations and deciding dynamics). He suggests that achieving this kind of insightful knowledge about ourselves can lead to a more settled, more balanced life without the intellectual and emotional agitations which moralizing causes in its exponents. Importantly, he argues that achieving this sort of state (which he also takes to be akin to the Taoist strategy of going with the flow) can show us how to behave in more productive and less harmful ways.

Of course, his emphasis on there being ways to behave suggests that he hasn't abandoned the moral side of things quite as radically as he wants to claim. As long as there are questions before us concerning what we should do in any given situation, even if we are urged to answer them by developing insight into our own motivations and thinking, and acting in accord with such insights, there are value questions about our actions to be answered. To the extent we understand "moral" valuing to be about assessing and choosing our actions, and not in the narrower sense of subscribing to and implementing formal belief systems with claims to objectivity via access to special kinds of facts, there is an apparent moral dimension to this, for even the idea of seeking increased personal awareness of ourselves has that sort of implication. Garner's target, in rejecting the idea of the moral, is morality as belief systems with supposed underlying knowledge sources, whether handed to humans from a divine "lawgiver," or believed to be intrinsic to human understanding (intuitionism), or equivalent to particular human states or conditions (naturalism). But one needn't take "moral" to refer only to such systemic thinking as long as one understands the term "moral" to refer to evaluating behavior in terms of agential deliberation and decision-making.

Morals and ethics are usually taken to be equivalent terms though, admittedly, we do make some distinctions in the sense that we often differentiate ethics from morals by supposing that the former are specific to particular social contexts whereas the latter have a kind of universal status that everyone ought to abide by. It's the latter universal "ought" that he most clearly objects to, claiming there is nothing universal about moral knowledge, that it is always personal and about finding the best ways to live in a world consisting of other persons like ourselves. Garner's account, which argues for applying introspective psychological insight to one's life, in order to find the best way to live and the best things to do, is certainly "moral" in a larger sense. To the extent "moral" is just taken to mean that kind of valuing we do with regard to our actions, there may be any number of reasons to act one way instead of another and all of these, including acting in ways consistent with our societal norms at times, can have a moral flavor. But this does not preclude the possibility that there may be some aspects of moral valuing which are universal in the sense of their being applicable to others as well as ourselves.

Of course it's that universal aspect that thinkers like Kant aimed to get at -- and even Michael Huemer, our latter day intuitionist. Garner, too, has something universal in mind to the extent that he argues we are best served by rejecting formal moral systems in favor of learning about our own feelings, motives and beliefs through introspective insight and meditative practice. Such advice is meant for people in general and is not personal only as even the Buddha's example shows. Even advice to find an inner peace by giving up the belief in the polarities (good vs. evil) of certain kinds of moral belief systems and turning, instead, to a search for harmonious existence in a diverse universe has a universalist implication. To the extent it's about recommending certain ways to behave to ourselves and others, it's moral, too. On balance, Garner's argument is strong against the idea of adherence to rigid moral belief systems which can demonstrate no grounding to justify their objective status. However, it doesn't really imply that all uses of the term "moral," when applied to value judgments related to our actions, choices and objectives in life, are illicit. Rejecting moral belief systems is not the same as rejecting the moral dimension in valuing itself.

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