April 14, 2024

Bioethics is tough; why not abolish it?

Moral abolitionists want to do away with morality altogether.

Bioethics is like ice cream: there are many different flavours on a common base. There is utilitarian bioethics, deontological bioethics, natural law bioethics, principalist bioethics, Islamic bioethics, and so on. What they have in common is that some things are moral and others are immoral.

Unlike ice cream, though, bioethicists fight over the flavours. Their champions clash, sometimes violently, over whether particular actions are right or wrong. The battles can be exhausting and may seem futile.

Partly for this reason, a handful of ethicists want to do away with morality entirely. Moral abolitionism, as this theory is called, hasn’t attracted many academic followers so far, but, says Yale University bioethicist Joel Marks, it is the only way to settle disputes over animal welfare. “Morality does not exist and good riddance. In other words, we would be better off not believing in morality or using moral language (so let’s stop).”

Writing in this month’s issue of the Journal of Bioethical Inquiry, Marks writes that “moral justification actually facilitates animal exploitation; for by default, so long as there is no final resolution of the dialectic, ‘inertia’ favors the current, exploitative practices”. He proposes to replace the cut and thrust of dialectic with clear, vivid statements of the facts. If you make people aware of that animals are being cruelly treated and that eating meat is unnecessary, they will inevitably be moved to action, ie, to become vegans.

Marks is not the only moral abolitionist. The doyen of the field is Richard Garner, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Ohio State University who argues that “morality is a human invention based on biology, ignorance, credulity, fear, and a lust for control”. We would be far better off if we jettisoned the futile desire to label things right and wrong:

“Strong moral beliefs and feelings can convince us that compromise is surrender to evil, which is a crazy thought that leads to obstinacy, bogus moral posturing, and even terrorism. When we have put endless moral arguments to one side it will be much easier to hear and empathize with others, and to come up with solutions acceptable to all sides.”

Marks published a defence of moral abolitionism earlier this year, Ethics without Morals: In Defence of Amorality

Michael Cook
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moral abolitionism