Friday, October 15, 2010

"Without a 'commander,' there really can’t be any commandments."

David B. Hart, in "The Desirist’s Unsatisfiable Desires" finds that Joel Marks, in his “An Amoral Manifesto,” is admirably honest in concluding that an atheist is logically compelled to "embrace amorality," but doubts his ultimate success in persuasively arguing that any kind of morality can be maintained nevertheless. Hart:
The philosopher Joel Marks is an honest man, it seems. For much the better part of a long career, he had had no difficulty in preserving a happy harmony between his atheism and his commitment to a basically Kantian moral philosophy.  ....

Over the past few years, however, he has had a kind of conversion experience, which has left him, he says, in the curious position of having to “learn to live life all over again.” As he explains in an article in the most recent issue of Philosophy Now, he has belatedly come to realize that for long years he has toiled under an illusion, and that he ought earlier to have examined his assumption that there is any such thing as right or wrong.

Much to his surprise, he now finds himself in agreement with all those “fundamentalists” who say that without God there can be no morality. Without a “commander,” it turns out, there really can’t be any commandments. And so, convinced atheist that he is, Marks finds himself compelled—just by intellectual honesty—to “embrace amorality.”

...He has not, however, simply thrown over his moral principles of old in favor of, say, prudently predatory selfishness; nor has he forsaken compassion for some kind of higher hedonism.... He may now believe that what we call morality is merely the residue of evolutionary processes, and that its real “purpose” has been to promote the survival of the species. But, even so, he can still choose compassion, he has decided, because it pleases him to do so; he calls this position “desirism.” ....

Of course if there is no God, then there can be neither moral right nor moral wrong in any objectively real sense. The “Good as such”—the source and end of moral truth, the highest object of the rational will, which has the power to unite the longing for truth with the imperative to act in this way or that—is found nowhere within nature. Not even those who believe in “natural law” imagine that it is. ....

Choose whichever you like—standard utilitarianism, Rawls’s theory of justice, attempts to ground moral thinking in evolutionary biology or neurophysiology—you will always find, if you subject your preferred ethical naturalism to sufficiently unflinching scrutiny, that at some primal and irreducible point it must simply presume a movement of good will, an initial moral impulse that, with a kind of ghostly Gödelian elusiveness, can never be contained within the moral system it sustains. All the polyphony of nature falls mute when asked to produce one substantial imperative, unless one believes (explicitly or tacitly) that the voice of nature has its origin and consummation in the voice of God. ....

Marks means well. But après moi le déluge, as Louis XV said (exhibiting a prescience rare for a Bourbon). Louis knew the French monarchy would not long survive him, but he knew also that there was enough vitality left in the moribund old estates of France to keep the inevitable at bay while he still lived. Similarly, Marks need not worry that he will live to see precisely what sort of society a truly amoralist culture might produce. And anyway, as he notes in his article, he has no children. [more]
The Desirist’s Unsatisfiable Desires | First Things