Working Title: The End of Ethics
I’ve been writing for some time about my yearly meditations, where I pick a word of the year to guide me. My first word was narratives in 2016, followed by boundaries in 2017, and then authenticity twice, once in 2018 and again in 2019; my 2020 and 2021 words are yet to come, so stay tuned for that. I’ve written about how each of those words led to massive changes in my life, changes I never thought could arise from simply thinking about one word for 365 days. This practice has deepened my relationships with others, enriched my understanding of myself, and improved my intuitive abilities. I highly recommend you give it a try. There’s no better time than now, under the magnificent super buck moon.
In addition to recounting past words, I’m posting about my journey through my current word of the year, voice. My hope is that you can see in real-time how I open myself up to the ways the word works through my life. I believe the openness to the word, the curiosity, the willingness to see where it leads all give enormous power to this meditation. It pulls us out of our heads, disrupts our typical patterns, and invites us to leave our safe spaces and explore. I think I’ve felt silenced for many years, and so choosing voice this year has encouraged me to express myself again. It’s helping me lift my inner voice with passion and stamina. Ultimately, it’s led me to writing a book. How exciting!
I had an epiphany a few months ago—more like a visceral flight of ideas—and ever since, I’ve been obsessively researching, planning, and discussing this new book I’m writing. Quite literally, I was sitting at a local restaurant’s bar, enjoying a glass of wine, and reading Philippa Foot’s beautiful book, Natural Goodness. I’m sort of known for reading in bars these days, ha. Anyway, I’ve been reading this one, tiny-but-mighty work of philosophical genius for nearly twenty years. It has notations in the margins I no longer comprehend, vestiges of my undergraduate honors thesis. I love this book. As I read it through new eyes, however, I felt a sudden rush of excitement. My heart began to race. My cheeks flushed. Suddenly it all made sense. Everything I’d struggled to understand as an undergraduate philosophy major, the parts of my dissertation that never quite sat right, and strange experiences teaching my own undergraduate students all came together in one, unifying conclusion: we’ve made a crucial mistake spending thousands of years trying to make sense of morality. It’s time to abandon the project. Instead, let’s set a new agenda for understanding human behavior that might be more fruitful. Here’s my working abstract, which is continually evolving:
What if the framework for evaluating some actions as right and some actions as wrong never existed? That’s my big question: what if we went back far enough in hypothetical time, before anyone ever judged an action as wrong, and instead of judging actions as right or wrong, we did something entirely different? Throughout the history of philosophy, we have assumed morality needed elucidation. We built complex theories of what moral terms mean, where morality comes from, what moral reasons are, the nature of moral facts in relation to natural facts, and normative theories justifying why particular actions are right or wrong. None of these theories is without devastating flaw. I will argue we need to start in a different place, and if we start anywhere but “I will provide a moral theory,” we will never get to a moral theory. If we stop assuming morality from the outset, we’ll discover there is no reason for it.
I will start with a pragmatic argument for abolishing punishment in the home and throughout society. A few surprising things will follow. Most importantly, morality won’t follow. Then I’ll argue that instead of acting on moral reasons, human beings more simply express their various mental states, including beliefs, desires, values, emotions, needs, and appetites. If we want to build a better society, our focus should be on proactively improving and enriching our mental states for success as a species rather than judging, evaluating, and punishing each other after the fact through the limited, flawed, and divisive lens of morality.
The thought surprised even me! I’ve been a believer in moral objectivism—the idea that there are moral facts independent of human beliefs—my whole (philosophical) life. As I sat at the bar astounded that I could even think this thought, I began to outline my argument. I wrote it all out in my notebook with my palms sweating and my forehead pressed into my left hand, seeing my way through the maze that had mystified me for decades, as if I suddenly had access to the bird’s eye view. I packed up my books and scooped my heart off the floor, then moved to another venue, my favorite local jazz bar. I pulled out my notebook, turned the page, and wrote the argument again, just to see if I still had it. And I did. I felt like I was on the verge of a panic attack. I decided to put the notebook away and wait until the next day to re-write it on my computer, just to see if I could. And I did again. I almost passed out from the thought of it. I simultaneously thought “this is genius” and “this is absolute nonsense.”
I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced the physical joy and chaos of a new idea, but it is overwhelming. How can my body know the truth before I do? The feeling of reaching both hands in the air, snapping a few times as you smile from ear to ear, then clap once or twice before pounding the desk, “that’s it!” It’s surreal. John Stuart Mill might’ve been right; intellectual pleasures might be of the highest kind. It reminded me of a familiar feeling, sitting in seminar or during a Friday talk, when suddenly I could feel in my chest I knew the problem, the crux of the issue, the Achilles heal. My body told me when I was onto something, and I trusted that feeling implicitly. I’d try to see where to wedge my way in, and the pricked skin and racing heart always confirmed when I was on the right track.
Since writing the abstract, an introduction, and working my way through an outline, I began researching what other, recent philosophical thought had been published on the theme of abolishing morality. I found some very interesting threads! There was a special edition of Ethical Theory and Moral Practice in 2007 dedicated to the work of J. L. Mackie, who famously argued for what’s called “moral error theory.” Error theory basically says that since there are no objective moral facts, all moral judgments are false. That is, whenever anyone says, “killing is wrong” or “keeping your promises is right,” they are saying something intelligible, but strictly speaking, such sentences are all false because there’s no such thing as wrong or right in the world. Error theory is often used as an objection in philosophy more than a viable theory (like the way relativism is used), and so this resurgence of adherents is remarkable.
The part of this thread I felt in my body, reassuring me I was on the right track, though? This special issue of Ethical Theory and Moral Practice features a paper titled “Abolishing Morality” from Richard Garner, who was professor emeritus at Ohio State, where I got my PhD! We even overlapped a bit. I had been his graduate TA for one metaethics course back in 2006 or so. Then he went on to edit a follow-up book titled The End of Morality in 2019. Unfortunately, he passed away in 2020 from COVID-19, at age 84. Not only am I connected to one of the main champions of the modern idea of abolishing morality, but he also serves as an inspiration to me. He was doing this important work in his seventies and eighties, after a long career in academic philosophy. He gives me great hope that good ideas can come from anywhere, at any age, in any circumstance.
A final thread. Dick Garner’s friend and collaborator, Joel Marks, featured in both the Ethical Theory and Moral Practice special issue and in The End of Morality, argues that morality should be replaced with what he calls “Desirism.” In a nutshell, Marks advocates for a view like my own expressed in the Authenticity posts that we should do whatever we want to do. There are differences that will be worth fruitful philosophical analysis, but the thread is there, which is very exciting to me. It’s always better to be connected to an existing literature than to be an island. I can’t wait to pull all these threads together.
As I stare at the glorious super moon this evening, I want to set an intention. I’m sharing it with you to hold me to it. This is the moon of power, and I want to harness it on this special day. I plan to keep posting bits and pieces of the book, working them out, testing out theories, begging for feedback. If you read anything here that piques your interest, reach out! Let’s get coffee or a drink and chat about it. Please also make all the recommendations. Is there something I should be reading? Tell me! Is there someone I should be following or a cool podcast I should listen to? Please send me all the links! Thanks for your support, friends. It means the world.