September 28, 2022

Removing the ethics from bioethics

The New York Times philosophy blog likes edgy topics like does truth matter, isn’t it all relative, and can we have morals without God? The latest edgy assertion comes from bioethicist Joel Marks, a scholar at the Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics at Yale University, who has recently swung around to the view that there is no difference between right and wrong.

The New York Times blog for philosophers, The Stone,  likes edgy topics like does truth matter, isn’t it all relative, and can we have morals without God? The latest unsettling argument in the series comes from bioethicist Joel Marks, a scholar at the Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics at Yale University, who has recently swung around to the view that there is no difference between right and wrong. This is an argument which ought to be of great interest to anyone seriously interested in bioethical questions. 

Death camps, discrimination against homosexuals, and raising battery hens are not right, says Professor Marks. But they are not wrong, either. They are just preferences. As an atheist, he used to defend a deontological view of morality which did not require God to distinguish between right and wrong. However, he has now decided that this is just as unreasonable as believing in a divinity:

“It was the Godless God of secular morality, which commanded without commander – whose ways were thus even more mysterious than the God I did not believe in, who at least had the intelligible motive of rewarding us for doing what He wanted.”

Dr Marks used to be a strong defender of animal welfare who was utterly convinced that tormenting animals was absolutely, unquestionably wrong. But three years ago he had an “anti-epiphany” in which he suddenly grasped that morality was nothing more than a fuzzy subjective feeling. As he wrote in the journal Philosophy Now:

“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.”

Does this mean that he will take up an axe and become a New Haven Raskolnikov? No. It means that he takes a more serene, less combative approach to disputed issues:

“I retain my strong preference for honest dialectical dealings in a context of mutual respect. It’s just that I am no longer giving premises in moral arguments; rather, I am offering considerations to help us figure out what to do. I am not attempting to justify anything; I am trying to motivate informed and reflective choices…. But this won’t be because a god, a supernatural law or even my conscience told me I must, I ought, I have an obligation. Instead I will be moved by my head and my heart. Morality has nothing to do with it.”

Professor Marks is not alone in his amoralism (his word). His soul mate is Richard T. Garner, an emeritus professor at Ohio State University and the author of Beyond Morality, who has also abandoned “the trackless jungle of morality”. Both ethicists believe that the bonds of custom and habit are enough to build and maintain a harmonious society. There are other ethicists who play riffs on the same theme: that morality is completely culturally conditioned or that it is a convenient fiction. All very entertaining, of course, but how are they going to maintain harmony in the coming battles over euthanasia and assisted suicide? ~ New York Times, Aug 21

Michael Cook
amoralism
bioethics
morality