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Joel Marks is a philosopher, now at Yale, who has been writing a column on morality for Philosophy Now for some 13 years.  For most of that time he has endorsed and promoted the Kantian notion that people should treat other people as ends in themselves and not as the means to their own ends.  Three years ago he had an "epiphany" in which he realized his position as a "soft atheist" was untenable.  Recalling that Socrates had argued in Euthyphro that to acknowledge that God was 'good' and 'just' implied that we knew what these qualities are prior to and independent of knowing God, led him (and others) to the idea of secular morality which, simply put, is the notion that moral beliefs do not require a God.  Marks 'epiphany' was the realization that secular morality is also a religion in that it "purports to issue commands (moral obligations, prohibitions, and permissions) without a commander (God)".  The issue here is that the commands in both religious morality and secular morality are intended to apply universally.  However, in secular morality how can one make sense of a universal command if there is no central authority issuing the command?  As a result of this reasoning, Marks now takes a "hard atheist" stance, in which he denies not only the existence of God, but also the existence of morality.

Marks posits that one argument for God's existence is the 'obvious' design of the universe.  This argument can be refuted by that provided by evolution and the notion of selection, which says that design is only apparent since biological evolution can account for this appearance without any recourse to God.  To Marks this is analogous to the presence of morality: it only appears that there are 'moral commands'.  In reality this appearance can be explained by evolution's selection of certain behavior and motives that have proven useful in promoting survival of the species and such selection is not necessarily universal, but relative to a particular set of environmental and social conditions.

Having abandoned morality as a characteristic of life, Marks recognizes he will face the continual problem of living in a society that will pay homage to morality and believe in its existence.  If faced with a question such as, "Is vivisection wrong?", Marks envisions a change of subject to the meta-ethical question, "What is wrongness?"  Yet, any answer to that question, he feels, would have the same force as the assertion that unicorns are a type of horse: there is a common conception of what a unicorn is, but that has little bearing on whether unicorns actually exist and no help in providing access to one for the purpose of riding it.

What does Marks propose in place of morality?  In a word, desire.  We want certain things to occur or not occur.  This is actually not original and has become incorporated in what is called the 'philosophy of desirism', which basically offers that one's actions are determined by their beliefs and desires.  As so stated, there is no recourse to something universal.  In fact it appears as though individualism is the standard until it is further understood that these individual beliefs and desires are the product of one's social exposure, which invites a relativist interpretation rather than individualism.  However, as our time is limited, I don't want to explore that path too far today.

Let us return to Marks' reasoning.  I think most of you (not all) would argue that morality does not require a God, but would you extend that position to include the notion that secular morality is a religion?  Do you agree that a universal command doesn't make sense if there is no central authority issuing the command?  And if there is no 'central authority', does this necessarily mean that there is no morality which applies to all humans?  (Note: Marks ultimately extends his argument beyond humans to "all sentient beings".)  How do you feel about Marks' notion that evolutionary selection can account for the appearance of morality as simply that which has proven to be useful to the survival of the species?  If you agree with him, do you see that utility as a product of 'desirism'?  We desired it, it helped us survive, let's encode it as something "moral"?

Marks is fairly new to me, but he does present a somewhat different approach to the issue of morality.  I look forward to discussing this approach with you Sunday.  See y'all then.


Those interested in reading Marks further check the following:

For a brief statement on 'Desirism' see:




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  • Daniel B. D.

    Sorry. I had said yes because the topic sounds really interesting, then remembered a prior commitment. If things change, then I would show up unannounced.

    September 21, 2013

  • Gene R.

    Footnote on last week's discussion. I ask that those with direct Japanese experience please correct me if I'm wrong on this. In our discussion of that the Japanese had more affinity for relationships and team spirit than we Westerners. I think we failed take into account another characteristic of Japanese psyche that is intricately related to this affinity. That is a very strong sense of responsibility toward their fellow members of their society. Reputedly, the strength of this borders on obsessional and even carries a deep sense of shame when one fails to live up to expectations. This mutual sense of responsibility provides a shared values basis to support the trust necessary to enter into these relationships.

    September 20, 2013

    • Craig Y.

      Shame is what society puts an invisible pressure on an individual, a gentler way, if you will. For an Easterner, your neighbor did you wrong, you hope to shame him to change instead of throwing the book at him. The Easterner seldom admit mistakes, because it is a shame on his character. To him, the Westerner too easy to apologize and commit again.

      September 20, 2013

    • Craig Y.

      Now the world is getting smaller. We are in a sense live on that 1 ace of land. There is no great frontiers anymore. We need to work together or kill each other.

      September 20, 2013

  • Craig Y.

    Sorry not able to attend. But I want to add my 2 cents. If you read the morality of Egyptians, Hebrews, Greeks, Chinese. They are very similar. Have they all lied to us or a service of the ruling class? I think not. A lot of more destructive ideologies, like the Nordic gods, or the Aztec gods, or the legalistic schools in China did not last long, often overtaken by kinder, gentler ideas, like Christianity of Confucianism. May be those are ideas IN THE LONG TERM is more conducive to social welfare and harmony for the society as a whole.

    September 19, 2013

  • Jeff K.

    Sorry to have to miss out again. Hope to be able to attends soon.

    September 19, 2013

  • Demba

    Insightful preview of the complexity of a subject ....

    September 19, 2013

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