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Abolishing Morality?

Can we depend on a view of ethics based solely on passion and the will to compromise?

This is the view of Dr. Richard Garner, emeritus professor of philosophy at Ohio State University. Dr. Garner adds his contribution to the symposium on moral relativism in the January 9, 2011, issue of Philosophy Now ("Morality: The Final Delusion?").

Of the various perspectives on moral relativism presented thus far in this series, Dr. Garner's is at least the most consistent. His view is based on "moral error theory", which insists that it is a mistake to believe than anything like morality actually exists. Morality, he explains, is not something out there for us to discover - whether through our feelings, communities, or imaginations. Rather, morality simply doesn't exist; it's something we've made up in an effort to bring order to our relationships and responsibilities.

Dr. Garner proposes that we abolish all language and thinking that contains a moral component - anything "that implies objective values or objective moral rules that are independent of human decisions, desires, agreements, or demands." There is no such thing as morality. There are only our desires and what we have to do, in relationships with others, to realize as many of those desires as we can.

In order to make this work we have to, first, suspend all negative moral judgments; we have to stop thinking in terms of right and wrong. Instead, we need to examine our own responses to people and situations and be willing to identify and evaluate our feelings about this, that, or the other, and then consider how to move in the direction of what we would like to see happen. Instead of judging people, no matter what they've done, we need to face the real possibility that our view of the situation might be wrong or misinformed.

If we can avoid all moral judgments in such situations, and learn to do the hard work of introspection, what we'll be left with is the "ability to express and communicate our attitudes, feelings, and requirements."

But how does this help us in situations where something looking like a moral choice between two options - and especially, two people - might otherwise seem to be in order? Dr. Garner explains, "Instead of telling others about their moral obligations, we can tell them what we want them to do, and then we can explain why." He continues, "We can express annoyance, anger, and enthusiasm, each of which has an effect on what people do, and none of which requires language that presupposes objective values or obligations."

That done, we can then "start looking for compromise."

So there is no such thing as morality. All we have are situations and opportunities, before which we feel a certain way and identify certain outcomes we would like to realize, and the people to whom we must express our feelings and desires, in the hope that we can achieve some compromise in which all parties get something they want.

Dr. Garner evidences an unrealistically high view of human beings - that they can be honest about their feelings, suspend judgment against those with whom they disagree, realize compromises agreeable to all, and so personalize this process that it becomes a substitute for learning and practicing moral norms. Dr. Garner does not offer any instances where this has worked, only hypothetical situations where it might be worth a try.

The idea that human beings will defer to others, suspend judgment, engage in meaningful dialog, and agree to compromise sounds really good on paper. But I can think of nowhere where such an approach to ethical living has ever been tried and succeeded. People who have strong feelings and the power to realize those feelings - whether intellectual, social, or political power - are going to wield that power to their own advantage, while those who dither and defer seeking compromise are going to be left in the dust.

It is idealistic in the extreme to envision abolishing all moral language and judgments. People are moral beings, and even if their bottom line is only self-expression and compromise, those are moral oughts they - including Dr. Garner - cannot do without.

People are also sinners, and are reluctant to act in the interest of people other than themselves and their closest associates. Offers to compromise in many ethical situations are going to be received as towels tossed into the ring.

We cannot do away with the language of morality, and we cannot find within our own desires and best thoughts about others the keys to a truly moral society. This way may seem right to some people, but in the end, it is but another way to death.

Additional related texts: Proverbs 14.12; Jeremiah 17.9; Genesis 4.1-7

A conversation starter: "How do you feel about the idea of abandoning all moral language and judgments in order to discover the best ways for people to live together in peace?"

T. M. Moore

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
Books by T. M. Moore

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