I was surprised at how much I identified with this NY Times opinion column on morality. The author is Joel Marks, a bioethicist and emeritus professor of philosophy. In the essay, Marks describes how he came to realize that morality was not objective, and how this realization affected his actions and interactions with others.
A quick summary of Marks’ thought process goes like this (though you should read the whole thing if you find this summary isn’t enough for you):
A friend had been explaining to me the nature of her belief in God. At one point she likened divinity to the beauty of a sunset: the quality lay not in the sunset but in her relation to the sunset.
But then it hit me: is not morality like this God? In other words, could I believe that, say, the wrongness of a lie was any more intrinsic to an intentionally deceptive utterance than beauty was to a sunset or wonderfulness to the universe? Does it not make far more sense to suppose that all of these phenomena arise in my breast, that they are the responses of a particular sensibility to otherwise valueless events and entities?
Hume said something similar. Though my thought process was not quite the same as Marks’ or Hume’s, I do agree that morality, like beauty, is subjective, and moral rules do not actually exist.
The problematic thing once realizing this is… what do I do now? What is the basis for choosing a “moral” action over an “immoral” one? And if I want to convince another person not to commit an action that I find offensive (Marks gives the example of [tossing] male chicks, alive and conscious, into a meat grinder, as happens in the egg industry) how could I do so? I can no longer say “don’t do it because it’s wrong.”
My own answer to this problem was to focus on what I want to do in situations that have a so-called “moral” valence. How do I feel about things like lying, stealing, or injuring others? In examining my feelings, I find that I generally want to treat people well. I like being honest, and not hurting people, and not taking their things. I don’t treat people well because it’s a moral rule, I do it because I want to. Others’ happiness makes me happy, and their suffering makes me sad. I think most people are similar.
What struck me about Marks’ essay was how similar his answers were to mine. For starters, he too focuses on desires:
It seems to me that what could broadly be called desire has been the moving force of humanity, no matter how we might have window-dressed it with moral talk. By desire I do not mean sexual craving, or even only selfish wanting. I use the term generally to refer to whatever motivates us, which ranges from selfishness to altruism and everything in between and at right angles. Mother Theresa was acting as much from desire as was the Marquis de Sade. But the sort of desire that now concerns me most is what we would want if we were absolutely convinced that there is no such thing as moral right and wrong. I think the most likely answer is: pretty much the same as what we want now.
For instance, I used to think that animal agriculture was wrong. Now I will call a spade a spade and declare simply that I very much dislike it and want it to stop. Has this lessened my commitment to ending it? I do not find that to be the case at all.
For Marks, animal agricultural elicits the same feeling that any of us would experience if an innocent person were being tortured or detained in squalid conditions. It is an empathic response to the suffering of other conscious creatures. Naturally, we want it the suffering to stop. Again, rules do not dictate this experience for us. It is simply there, and we act upon it.
How, then, do we get others to act with us? My answer has been to teach others what I know. Humans naturally respond to the suffering of others. The key is to teach people about what others are going through, to imagine themselves in another person’s shoes. When they do that, their actions naturally incline toward greater empathy and consideration.
Marks says much the same:
…to argue that people who use animals for food and other purposes are doing something terribly wrong is hardly the way to win them over. That is more likely to elicit their defensive resistance.
Instead I now focus on conveying information: about the state of affairs on factory farms and elsewhere, the environmental devastation that results and, especially, the sentient, intelligent, gentle and noble natures of the animals who are being brutalized and slaughtered. It is also important to spread knowledge of alternatives, like how to adopt a healthy and appetizing vegan diet. If such efforts will not cause people to alter their eating and buying habits, support the passage of various laws and so forth, I don’t know what will.
Indeed. Good does not come from forcing people to do what you say, or what you think they ought to do. It is better to be convince them*. (This is why I object so strongly to religious morality, in which people are not convinced or entreated, but simply told what to do. This has nothing to do with morality, and amounts to merely following orders.)
So I take it as good news that two people who agree about the non-existence of morality can come to similar conclusions about where to go from there. I think society will be better if we move away from moralistic thinking, and instead focus on showing others why we care about the things we care about.
*This isn’t to say, by the way, that we should not put dangerous people in jail. But we do this not because they have broken some moral law, but because we cannot allow them to threaten others’ safety or freedoms.