A very thought-provoking recent entry in the NY Times column, The Stone, entitled, “Confessions of an Ex-Moralist” in which Yale philosopher/ethicist Joel Marks comes clean about the precarious relationship between moral relativism and moral nihilism, among other things. Not unlike the book of secularist essays we covered last week, Marks had devoted his professional life to the task of establishing morality apart from divine sanction. He found it to be an impossible project, even a deluded one. In fact, he goes so far as to say that in his former scheme, morality itself became a kind of unassailable God.

What’s particularly interesting to me is where he ends up: in the absence of any “ought,” he looks to his heart and his desires as his guide. Desires which, when divorced/set free from moralistic “shoulds,” turns out to look curiously like an ethical life. While we, of course, would never repudiate the reality of God-given notions of right and wrong, the problem of how we actually interact with those standards leaves us in a similar place, i.e. if the Law has ultimately been fulfilled in Christ, we are left face to face with the often frightening question of what it is we want to do. The realm of inspiration in other words. If the whole thing sounds a bit like the John Wycliffe quote we posted last week – “to fulfill the law is to do the works thereof… freely, willingly, and without compulsion of the law, even as though there were no law at all” – well, perhaps that’s no coincidence, ht SMZ:

I had thought I was a secularist because I conceived of right and wrong as standing on their own two feet, without prop or crutch from God. We should do the right thing because it is the right thing to do, period. But this was a God too. It was the Godless God of secular morality, which commanded without commander – whose ways were thus even more mysterious than the God I did not believe in, who at least had the intelligible motive of rewarding us for doing what He wanted.

And what is more, I had known this. At some level of my being there had been the awareness, but I had brushed it aside. I had therefore lived in a semi-conscious state of self-delusion – what Sartre might have called bad faith. But in my case this was also a pun, for my bad faith was precisely the belief that I lacked faith in a divinity.

One interesting discovery has been that there are fewer practical differences between moralism and amoralism than might have been expected. 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…

So nothing has changed, and everything has changed. For while my desires are the same, my manner of trying to implement them has altered radically. I now acknowledge that I cannot count on either God or morality to back up my personal preferences or clinch the case in any argument. I am simply no longer in the business of trying to derive an ought from an is. I must accept that other people sometimes have opposed preferences, even when we are agreed on all the relevant facts and are reasoning correctly.