Home > Morality > The Sunset of Morals

The Sunset of Morals

Joel Marks in an Opinionator post at the New York Times explains what convinced him that objective morals don’t exist after once believing in them:

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?

So someone else might respond completely differently from me, such that for him or her, the lie was permissible, the sunset banal, the universe nothing but atoms and the void. Yet that prospect was so alien to my conception of morality that it was tantamount to there being no morality at all.

He calls secular ethics “the clarion call of the ‘new atheists,'” but somehow manages to completely ignore the original new atheist’s entire book on this topic. Allow me to fill in some of the missing argument.

Marks supposes that for objective morality to exist moral actions must be inherently good or bad. A sunset’s beauty or banality does not transcend the experience of the conscious observer  – the beauty or banality are the descriptions of that subjective experience. Yet descriptions can be true or false. The viewing of sunsets has objective effects on observers. If a sunset excites the pleasure centers in your brain and you sense “beauty” that is an objective truth about a subjective experience.

Similarly, Joel Marks may just “dislike” animal cruelty and “death camps,” but animal cruelty and death camps cause objective harm to animals and people. Marks is correct that tossing conscious chickens into meat grinders isn’t intrinsically immoral. All that means is the objective pain experienced by birds doesn’t transcend the experience conscious animals. But, so what? How could it? What would that even mean?

When the pleasure centers of your brain are lit by the image of sunset we call that sensation, “beauty.” If you started calling it “banal” or “ugly” you’d be talking nonsense. When particular actions increase the misery to conscious creatures we call that, “immoral” or “wrong.” It is objectively true or false if more misery resulted.  If you started calling harm to animals and people, “moral” or “good” you’d be talking nonsense. Thus, we can judge the objective morality of an action based on the amount of good or harm that results.

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