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Posted by on Jan 26, 2013 in Books, Ethics, Philosophy | 5 comments

Currently reading: Ethics without Morals by Joel Marks

I’ll have more to say elsewhere about Ethics without Morals: In Defense of Amorality, by Joel Marks. This book deserves a larger audience than it is likely to find in the rather expensive academic edition published by Routledge. Though Marks is an academic philosopher, there is little or no technical verbiage, and the text should be accessible to general educated readers. I suspect that a very similar book from a trade press, written by an author with more of a profile with the general public, could be a big seller in the mode of the most recent books from Sam Harris, but this one will probably find only a niche audience.

If you’re interested in such topics as moral skepticism, moral error theory, philosophical amoralism, and the like, you might want to track down Ethics without Morals – if you can’t justify the price yourself, perhaps get your nearest academic library to order it, since it’s a book that the library really should have (i.e. it’s an important contribution to meta-ethics).

Interestingly, at least to me, Marks defends outright moral abolitionism. I.e., he thinks that there is an overwhelming case for ceasing to use all the ordinary moral language – and not maintaining it for some sort of deflated or relativist view of morality, and not hanging on to the idea of an objective morality as a useful fiction, or a working approximation for certain contexts. Just as most secular people no longer describe certain acts as “sinful”, we would no longer describe certain acts as “right”, “wrong”, etc., or even as “good”, “bad”, and so on. Indeed, he’s convinced that thoroughgoing abolitionism would leave us better off (as judged by his standards of “better”, which he expects most people to share, not by any standard that he claims is objectively binding).

Marks is so abolitionist about prescriptive language that he doesn’t even much like the word “should”, when used to state a hypothetical imperative. He does, however, continue to use some words such as “desirable”, even though he acknowledges that on his theory nothing is objectively desirable. There are questions about convenience with some of these words, as well as about how misleading they are, what their downside is, and so on. (For a bit of a primer on these questions of how much language moral skeptics and the like should jettison, you might check out this post that I did a couple of months ago at Talking Philosophy.)

Although this book is short, it has some interesting (and once again, quite accessible) discussions of various philosophical points, so I may come back to certain of them. Meanwhile, I’m going to try to write a better review of Ethics without Morals than this series of brief thoughts – and send it off to Free Inquiry. That’s a job for tomorrow.

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  • keddaw

    Please ask him to do a reasonably priced kindle version and I might be persuaded to pick up a copy (as I have been by some of your other recommendations). Otherwise I’m afraid this is on the reading list but never moving upwards.

  • Ditto (although I’d prefer an unencumbered ebook to one bound by Amazon’s DRM). If the author dictated the price of this book I’d be dissuaded from buying it as a matter of principle. The likelihood, however, is that an anachronistic publishing model is the root of the cost. Still, I wouldn’t feel ethically justified in passing the cost onto a library (academic or otherwise) given that said cost seems massively disproportionate to the value of the text!

    On topic: the book certainly sounds interesting; I’ll check out the post at Talking Philosophy.

  • Pingback: Joel Marks on aesthetics wars | Talking Philosophy()

  • Charles Sullivan

    I’d be interested in reading this, but I’m stunned that a 150-page book can list price at US $125, even if it is hardback.

  • RussellBlackford

    Small print run for the academic market = high unit cost. If a trade publisher took the risk on it, the print run would be much higher and the unit cost would be much lower. But trade publishers will do only so many such titles. We really do need these sorts of print runs on some books or they wouldn’t be published at all (except maybe by vanity presses or self-publishing schemes).

  • sickerthnothers

    Seconded. I read your review and am anxious to read it but I’d never buy it priced as a textbook.