The Call to Amorality (or Ethics)

Amorality: Amorality is the quality of believing that moral right and wrong (or good and evil) do not exist in objective reality“Amorality” is different from “immorality” although they are often confused. An amoral person denies the existence of morality, as opposed to an immoral person who violates a certain moral code, but may still believe in the underlying truth of that moral code. (Wikipedia) 

I read that above definition about being ‘amoral’ and with all this talk about moral relativism – there is something within this idea we all address on some level – the need for a liveable value/vice system we can acknowledge.  I find it rather hard to believe someone could live a life that was amoral in all regards – making no appeals to their sensibilities about ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ for such and such a situation…to be perfectly honest I am yet to meet someone who actually thinks this way.  

But a liveable ethic is going to be tough to flesh out – especially in the Christian arena of things – of the which – I am entangled in. I have had discussions with people of my faith in regards to what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’ – and there is not absolute consensus –  maybe there is no absolute truth either (wink wink)? We can’t seem to agree murder is wrong in all scenarios, or that guns/weapons are a problem in society, or which level of sexuality is acceptable (yet some of it is), or which faith systems we accept (but some are accepted), etc. I am not being amoral here – I think there is an ethic I adopt in each of those situations – there just isn’t a consensus. 

So why this issue in the New Year? As Christian people we have been slipping and allowing in ethics that are destroying both our faith and the communities around us. We gave no excuse for this – it just happened – and few ministers and denominations ever ‘bat an eye’ to the ethical dilemma’s they are in.

We have churches teaching children to go to war and ‘hate’ the other side of the planet – along with politicians who say this – yet no one says much. Abortion is always a 100% ‘no’ issue while handguns and war are both protected by your nations bill of rights. Churches resemble professional business enterprises and we find no problem with this much wealth (mammon) on the plates of a few (thank God for Capitalism!). Churches have become openly divisive in the West (including politics) and Nationalistic that we have lost our true essence on some level and sold good interpretation for ‘the one that upholds our nation’.  

The Christian faith is awash with conundrums of the such in the West – on a bigger level than we want to actually admit (and even if I over emphasize the strength of the problem – is that not better than under-estimating?). I think this New Year we need to start deciding with is our ‘liveable ethic’ and what are we teaching others by what we believe. Does it resemble the teachings in the book or the teachings in the local newspaper? It might actually be better to be amoral than fall on the ‘wrong’ side of some of these issues.

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23 thoughts on “The Call to Amorality (or Ethics)

  1. Does it resemble the teachings in the book or the teachings in the local newspaper?

    If the book is the Bible [ I presume it is], then this is the correct question.

    The lack of absolute agreement does not preclude the existence of absolute truth.

    I’d rather deal with immoral people than amoral people, although an argument can be made that amoral people just suppress their guilt and fear of what they’ve done better than others.

  2. “I’d rather deal with immoral people than amoral people” (Jim)

    I am not sure there is much of a difference to be perfectly honest – that definition is all about how someone define’s their beliefs on some good/evil scale – of the which say nothing about the actual individual except they might make a good barber (by slicing hairs that closely). Like i said I have never met anyone amoral in my lifetime – then again I am yet to peruse the psych wards and jails in more depth (which I am gathering someone totally amoral actually might be)

    I had a childhood friend over the day for some drinks and we go to talking about life – he was fresh out of jail for the Nth time since he was 18. He self-proclaimed himself an atheist – did not believe in God and what not – but he still believed in doing good for his family (which mind you included any sort of violence he could muster). That was as close to amoral as I have been in sometime. I kind of laughed as I talked with him and let him know even some atheists live very good lives and all that matters is living a life worthy of acknowledgment – not sure how that sat with him – but it did verify one point I had been making for sometime – there are more atheists in jail than the statistics I read will have us know (since I have a lot of friends that have spent time in the slammer who outright reject faith of any sort). Just throwing that out there.

    “The lack of absolute agreement does not preclude the existence of absolute truth” (Jim)

    But the lack of agreement is actually helping the scenario either – rather it’s causing the one thing God cannot author according to one of the letters – confusion. Even the moral absolutes we have within the faith we break so regularily I am not sure they are even totally accurate.

    I have raised questions of ‘ire’ concerning the conundrum of how a person who follows Christ can condone murder or hate – yet I see it all to often (ie: this stupid Iraq War seems to cause this delirium). That’s one example, I could go on with ministers of this gospel getting stupidly rich in the name of God and non-profiteering – all the while not sharing that money in a accountable way. The list gets quite endless after a while – and I am supposed to find an absolute in that?

    Name one absolute (moral) truth?

    Also our faith systems and denominations need to be taken to task irregardless of some moral absolute because they are breaking them anyways – and even accepting ideas that do not make them any more moral than a single entity in society (including local community groups or parent/teacher groups – which I think are sometimes more progressive and meaningful).

    I think as people of this faith we have over-looked a lot of stuff for the sake of keeping this faith together – I say ‘screw that’ – this faith has a pile of blood on it’s hands and sitting back and thinking all is forgiven is far too nieve for me to embrace. Things have to change progressively – so much so – there should be no dividing line, racism, sexism, lack of justice, or hatred emminating from our stinky little corner of the supposed civilized world. Yet, oddly enough, it still exists and I am not going to pretend to smile – and the biggest problem is all the damn things Christians let slide on their morality or do not make a clear stand on.

  3. Hey Jason! Happy New Year!

    I think that just as it is hard for a straight forward person to accept that there are folks in the world who find lieing much easier than facing and telling the truth so to is it hard for a moral person to believe there are those who are amoral and visa versa.

    There truly are evil people in the world, Jason.

    Pam

    Anyway, I just mostly wanted to say ‘hi’.

  4. Thanks Pam – that’s awfuly kind of you – and a great New year to you also (I would say that to all people on Gracehead but it likely would not get posted – but still they deserve my best wishes).

  5. I know…

    It is easy to love folks who love us in return but Jesus asks us to love as He loves us and He loved us first. That is not so easy but I think in the end will reap rewards we can’t even imagine.:0)

    Pam

  6. Hi Jay, just dropped in for the holidays and found your interesting post. You’ve met me so now you’ve met an amoral person. We’re not as “evil” as we’re made out to be.

  7. Hineini, debate to me the what being amoral means – is nothing seen as moral (ie: taking care of your child – which one would classify as responsible or ‘good’ – or is everything in life without merit?). I doubt your amoral status. However, my childhood pal from jail – I have no doubts about how amoral some of his ideas truly are (since they are lived and not just believed).

  8. Hineini if you are amoral – was the segregation of the blacks in America not evil? What about Hitler’s ideas of genocide? Is child labor a good thing? What about someone beating their wife for drunken pleasure? Drinking and driving? Shooting an innocent man in a robbery – for $20.00? I mean this list can become endless – but you say you are amoral – I don’t think living amorally is possible?

  9. Emmanuel Levinas begins his book “Totality and Infinity” with the statement “Everyone will readily agree that it is of the highest importance to know whether we are not duped by morality.” For those that are familiar with Levinas’ thinking they will know that Levinas distingushes sharply between ethics and morality, a distinction that not everyone makes. I don’t want to make a big deal about this distinction except to point out that to conflate these two words can cause us problems especially the way your questions were formed above societyvs.
    Your questions about whether segregation or the Shoah were evil are moral questions and so to give simple answers of yes or no would pose a problem from an amoral position. I want to try and honestly address your scepticism without trying to weasel out of the questions by relying on semantic distinctions or finding fault in your above offered definition. With that said I think it might be helpful to enlarge the categories we are speaking of and acknowledge their porous boundries. What I mean by this is that wholesale acceptance or rejection of objectively existing morality is going to be a tricky thing and look quite different from different perspectives. Just as we would not place any single person or group in the “moral” or “immoral” category we face similar challenges with a label of “amoral”
    I want then to make two brief points and you can tell me how this fits with your thinking and whether you think these ways of thinking are legitimately amoral or whether they belong in another category.
    1) The first point you actually aluded to in your initial post when you mentioned moral relativism. Without going into overly complex explanations, one can hold that morality, or in fact “good” or “bad”(evil) are entirely context dependant. It isn’t necessary to deny completely the existence of good or bad, morality or immorality but simply to point out that reference to these categories is so dependant on context that any attempt to extrapolate moral judgement into another context becomes impossible or significantly complex as to be of questionable worth. Thus to speak of morality as “exist[ing] in objective reality” becomes very problematic when we need to ask what reality, when and with whom.
    2) The second point shares some similarities to the first but the problems arise earlier in our thinking about morality. You have heard me quote Levinas enough to probably be sick of him already but I believe his criticism of morality and the danger we face of being duped is a good one. We need to remember that for Levinas our responsibility to the other is prior to any thinking we do, it comes before any system of knowledge and of course before any morality, be it universal or contextual. Attempts to base moral choice or action on guidlines such as belief, precident or some absolute scale of good and evil gets the self too wrapped up in its own interpretation of these same guidlines or measures and our responsibilty to the other (ethics for Levinas)is sacrificed. The best example of this I can offer is the one Levinas speaks about as well. In the story of the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22 Abraham recieves the command from God to take Isaac (the son whom Abraham loves) to Mt. Moriah and offer him as a burnt offering. This story demonstrates the paradox we find ourselves in when we speak of morality. Abraham is called to sacrifice his son but also his moral duty to his son to meet the ethical responsibility he has to the other, to God. “In a word, ethics must be sacrificed in the name of duty. It is a duty not to respect, out of duty, ethical duty. One must behave not only in an ethical or responsible manner, but in a nonethical, nonresponsible manner, and one must do that in the name of duty, of an infinite duty, in the name of absolute duty.” (Derrida, “The Gift of Death” pg 67.)

    Let me know what you think and if this is fair to your questions. Hope your holidays were safe and enjoyable.

  10. First off let me state I admire Levinas and Hineini of this stance – it takes boldness ofr such an endeavor to be taken – again one foot at a time. However, even with the utmost respect – I will have to take a stance on a position I posited (or dumped).

    “Just as we would not place any single person or group in the “moral” or “immoral” category we face similar challenges with a label of “amoral”” (Hineini)

    On a general scale this works – the ideal is true – no one race or people group is better than another – of this we can be sure.

    “one can hold that morality, or in fact “good” or “bad”(evil) are entirely context dependant” (Hineini)

    This is true to some extent – but then again context is part of the human fabric and cannot be ignored as of it were irrelevant. Context may very well define what value/vice will be used – but nonetheless – one of the 2 will be used in any situation. How can someone say such a thing like ‘I deny any moral existence’ – when in fact we are the very drawing boards (and this in the context of the situation). Segregation was a horrible atrocity – how do I know this – the lives of the panthers, X, and King all speak to both the sophistication of the problem and it’s demeaning of them as individuals (and as a community) – this in the context of their times. Context cannot be removed – it can become ledapitated – but it cannot be excused from the scenario.

    “Thus to speak of morality as “exist[ing] in objective reality” becomes very problematic when we need to ask what reality, when and with whom.” (Hineini)

    To live amorally is to live a quite useless existence – it’s to not make a stand nor have an opinion. We speak of reality – nothing objective about it – reality is what it is – whether the oppresor wants to see it or not. The gas chambers in Nazi concentration camps did not wait for some thought about objectivity – they just were…what’s our response – that was evil of one race to perpetrate on another. I really cannot think of a time and place for me to consider the chambers as useable – can you?

    “Attempts to base moral choice or action on guidlines such as belief, precedent or some absolute scale of good and evil gets the self too wrapped up in its own interpretation of these same guidlines or measures and our responsibilty to the other (ethics for Levinas) is sacrificed” (Hineini)

    Possibly…but even personal ethics and values (even intuition) have to be right some of the time. To say all scales are wrong is to admit that no scale is right – then by what idea shall we sally forth to an ethical system? With nothing comes nothing and the expectation of nothing. I think if we tip the scales too much to the other side (no moral guideline) then we also sacrifice the other in the midst of that – being only mindful of what we think is right…everyone is wrong some of the time.

    “One must behave not only in an ethical or responsible manner, but in a nonethical, nonresponsible manner, and one must do that in the name of duty, of an infinite duty, in the name of absolute duty.” (Derrida, “The Gift of Death” pg 67.)”

    Kinda like a uni-bomber, abortion clinic murderer, or a suicide bomber. They all made the biggest sacrifice for their agenda and 2 of the 3 in the name of God. Who defines absolute duty? Us or someone’s vision of God? I will defer to Yael on the point about Avraham – but even in that case – God quits speaking to Avraham after that incident with Isaac – gotta wonder why? Duty is only as good as it’s reason. To support a God that kills is a moral ideal – that God wants you to die or others. I don’t know about you – but I know that’s a line I refuse to cross without adequate proof. To think the 2 ideas (morality and immorality) can co-exist in oneness is to believe even the suicide bomber is legit in his quest. How many people have to die before people of faith admit the obvious ‘murder is wrong’.

    That being said I respect the man Levina’s and yourself – but to believe the morality is without merit is like ordering a bologna sandwich and then getting something only made with cheese and lettuce – something is lacking.

  11. Hineini,
    Levinas is a great philosopher to study. Derrida should be taken with a grain of salt or two.

    Levinas’ quote about being “duped by morality”. Who or what is doing this duping and what makes it different than self-deception?

    Do you believe the existence of the universe [existence itself] is a good thing, a bad thing, or an indifferent thing? What context would you use to decide your response?

  12. “To live amorally is to live a quite useless existence – it’s to not make a stand nor have an opinion.”(societyvs)

    I’m not to sure how you get this to be honest. In my post that you responded to I tried to sketch out, admitedly very briefly a stance and possible reasons for taking this stance. I think what might be happening is your confusing amorality with immorality in a way. I am not rejecting or deciding agianst what is moral, but trying to show the difficulties in thinking about the moral/immoral distinction or morality in general.

    When you write “Possibly…but even personal ethics and values (even intuition) have to be right some of the time. To say all scales are wrong is to admit that no scale is right”(societyvs) you seem to be offering me a choice of right and wrong which, amorally, is of course no choice at all. Again it might be helpful to explain that I am not trying to say evil deeds aren’t evil or come to the defense of making immoral choices. I simply identified my position as amoral or outside of morality if you will. I hope this helps but if not, maybe I’m reading you wrong.

    Jim,
    I’m not sure which texts or ideas shouldn’t be taken with a grain of thought but thanks for the caution anyway. As for your other questions I think they are closely related.

    I’m not so sure that it’s a who or a what that is doing the duping but maybe a when. Ethics (our infinite responsibility for the other) for Levinas is first philosophy so when something challenges this, be it morality, existence, the self or whatever, and claims for itself a privilaged prior role it threatens this responsibility we have to the other. So to answer your following question existence, or being, when it takes the form of the self’s perserverance-in-being (to borrow Levinas’ term) it, in fact, murders the other and asks, along with Cain the self-interested question “Am I my brother’s keeper?” I’m not sure this is clear as I am still very much a novice when it comes to Levinas’ thought and the inevitable misrepresentations are no fault but my own. Does this help?

  13. “I’m not to sure how you get this to be honest” (Hineini)

    I am trying to wrap my head arounf the idea of being amoral – which is an interesting position to take. I have provided a definition at the top so explain to me the phrase ‘an amoral person denies the existence of morality’? It seems to me in that definition the person who is amoral does not believe in a morality per se but then it goes into very little of what that stance truly is.

    One can make many assumptions based on that very sentence – including that amorality is saying nothing is good or evil – but I have a tough time thinking anyone could live by such an ideal since it would first be a self-admission that nothing that happens to themselves or from themselves can be placed in the idea of value/vice. Whereas in reality (where we live and not just in our thinking) each country sees fit to make laws to govern the ideas of value and vice – not saying there is unifomity across the globe – but the very idea of every society doing this points towards the human ideal that value and vice do exist.

    “but trying to show the difficulties in thinking about the moral/immoral distinction or morality in general.” (Hineini)

    True. I am not looking for some absolute moral that every society must bend or break with – but maybe even some of that exists within the idea of morality. I am merely stating that every human does make choices based on value and vice – no matter the context or place – it seems like something so human and inate that to think one could become ‘amoral’ has me thinking it is next to impossible (based on the human condition/being and relation one with another).

    “I simply identified my position as amoral or outside of morality if you will.” (Hineini)

    If this is your definition of amorality then it is different than one offered by wikipedia and also more vague than the one it puts forth. I also will raise the obvious question then – do you think in terms of value and vice? I am not denying you may not like the Christian moral system – hey – same here – it’s diluted and leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth – I can see being out said that set standard of morals (as we see in the church and what not). But to say your outside morality altogether – I am not sure anyone on the planet can truly say that – being they are all subject to either internal laws that govern their way of life or the laws of society that govern their life (forcing on them a choice about what morality means to a whole community of people and themselves included).

    Your a parent right? If someone drives up and tries to steal your child on a playground and another person comes and saves your child – what is your reaction? Who was right and who was wrong? You cannot remain so objective when your the very core of your family and life is jeopardized – can you? Will you congratulate the one who saved your child or is that just something that ‘is’ – no need for a hug, reward, or a ‘thank you’? If you are truly outside of any morality – which would also include your own – then there is nothing intersting about this scenario – it’s neither got good or evil elements to it – according to the definition. Now I may be reading the definition wrong – but to be amoral is to ‘deny the existence of morality (good or bad) – no matter the scenario’.

    “So to answer your following question existence, or being, when it takes the form of the self’s perserverance-in-being (to borrow Levinas’ term) it, in fact, murders the other” (Hineini)

    So, I answer as someone outside of morality, then murder and selfishness cannot be seen as something good or bad – they just are. It may ruin another and cost another their very freedom but that person is not doing neither good nor bad – since for them the distinctive line for morality does not exist. In that above statement is murder and selfishness seen as vices?

    I think there is a slight difference in world-views between me and you – which is not truly a problem – but I also think it goes deeper. I have brought up an idea for quite sometime about what it truly means to ‘believe’ something – it would require action of some sort on that persons part (it’s built into the definition in my opinion). I am merely pointing out that truly be amoral (which you claim is a philosophy) then you must also live it for it to be truly believable (action or non-action in this case).

  14. Jason … back to the other part of your post — being able to live what we believe and teaching “hate” in the name of “rightness”… Regardless of the “amorality” of it all, the fact that “good” Christians often teach hate in the name of Jesus is just wrong! He said to be “as wise as serpents, and harmless as doves,” right? To use internal judgment, not external rants and phobiac reactions when it comes to how how we deal with “the world.”

    When did it come that anyone was given the right to set up the moral system for the world? And you’re right, often, when we make these “moral” calls, we simply look at westernized cultures … do we disregard what is “right” in the lives of indiginous people? Do we have the permission to set up world views for other people? Or are we simply given what is “truth,” and told to live the example?

    Often, our arguments about dogma and rhetoric are simple ruses to distract those looking at our life, I think. No one ever changed their beliefs by being battered, yelled at or threatened. (to paraphrase John Mayer) They might “say” it, but is that all it is? A belief in word only? Maybe that’s part of the problem with many organized religions. Maybe they really only believe half of what they profess.

    I’m with you. I’d rather be able to live what I say than to “think” I had all the right answers to the philosophical questions of right and wrong. Am I the person I say I am? In all situations? In the face of all — good or bad? If I worry about judging my own dogma and belief system, I have very little time to try to pronouce “right” and “wrong” on other people.

    BTW, I’m definately a pacifist, but no one better mess with my children! All beliefs, I believe, are subject to how they react under extreme situations!

  15. Hi HIneini
    Levinas’ concept of our infinite responsibility for the other is a moral imperative. Levinas is actually putting this point above others for a reason. Leviticus 19:18 – “Love your neighbor as yourself”. How do we love ourselves? Infinitely. At least I do.

    Morality can deceive because it is almost always bogged down in the constant negotiation with reality. Thus the need to focus on the other to avoid this pitfall. I suggest that the person deceiving us is ourselves with our secondary and terciary moralities. As Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “The most difficult thing for a man to do is not to deceive himself”.

    Thus Levinas’ “first philosophy” is the highest possible moral standard. Levinas was a very moral man. He opposed his old friend Heidegger for his support of the Nazis. Levinas was not an amoral person. If you want to study an amoral person, I’d recommend Heidegger. Take care.

  16. This ‘amoralism’ may be a direct response to people who have personified the concept of morals. I suspect that morals are not some absolute or independent force but more a description of how best to achieve a goal.

    Thoughts?

  17. Sorry for taking awhile to get back to you.

    I’ve given your response some thought societyvs and I’m wondering if the disagreement doesn’t center around what I call judging (or deciding) and what you seem to be calling action.

    When I read you post I get the sense that you are very much commited to a pre-existing, internal “moral law” in the individual and that a soul or conscience or something like that intuitively knows right from wrong. This is something I’ve been moving away from for awhile so maybe I’m a little more comfortable with working outside this idea.

    I’ve tried to offer a couple ways of describing the difficulty of an maintaining an objectively existing overarching moral/immoral reality as described in the original definition quoted from wikipedia. The first point and maybe the clearest is that in denying this “internal law of right and wrong” moves the basis for any continued talk of right and wrong to a purely social/political discussion. Of course there are laws in our society and moral guidlines offered by various groups I am simply rejecting their being founded on some objective essence or “eternal truths”.

    The second point adresses the betrayal of ethics in continueing to maintain concrete moralities which are normative and universal. The example of Abraham quoted above demonstrates this aporia. I must apologize if my discussion seems to based on semantics and making a big deal of the difference between ethics and morality, one not often made, but I think its a very important distinction and addresses Jim’s question as well. Levinas was most vigours to reject the understanding that his thought simply offered another “moral imperative”. This is exactly what he was reacting against in his interaction with the Kantian tradition of ethics. A friend of mine described it like this:

    “…the problem of (Kantian) morality is that it surrenders too much of my responsibility to an abstraction. I can become, at one and the same time, observant of the law and indifferent to the neighbour because law offers us criteria by which to judge the morality or immorality of an act, person etc. But law (“nomos”) does not disappear. Where for Kant it is an “auto-nomos” (a self-legislating reason) that is the touchstone of morality, for Levinas it is a “hetero-nomos” (a law issuing from the other that is at each moment singular and new, i.e. a command). While morality or law is effaced in a Levinasian ethics, the commandment (love God/love neighbour) resounds. And, to some extent, to even speak of “the commandment” as a category is an abstraction and thus a kind of law — a “said” that must be “un-said”. [curtesy of Jason McKinney (used without permission) 🙂 ]

    I know this is a little technical but the point of morality as universal and normative law, a law that needs to be trangressed and “effaced” in order to honours our responsibility to my neighbour is the basis of my amorality, which is of course a poor description of the position but fits better than the moral/amoral position.

  18. “for Levinas it is a “hetero-nomos” (a law issuing from the other that is at each moment singular and new, i.e. a command). While morality or law is effaced in a Levinasian ethics, the commandment (love God/love neighbour) resounds” (Hineini)

    I have to say one thing – you may have won me over to this version of thinking – I slightly agree with you first off on the relationship thing and secondly with it eminating from the interaction one with another. I think the ethics of faith are found in relationships and how we ‘work one with another’ – I am thinking you are onto something.

    “I know this is a little technical but the point of morality as universal and normative law, a law that needs to be trangressed and “effaced” in order to honour our responsibility to my neighbour is the basis of my amorality” (Hineini)

    Oddly enough, I tend to think I agree also on some level. However I’d need more information to say I truly follow that type of thinking – but it appeals to me on some level. I think I hold to some ethics that ‘are’ and some things that ‘aren’t’ – but sometimes we need to break something in order to keep something (ie: laws). I guess I have a guiding ethic I use but it’s in continous work and not ‘set in stone’ as of yet…and may never be. Maybe we all have some level of this amorality to us.

  19. I consider myself an amoralist. I do not believe any actions or choices have any moral value. I make my decisions based on my personal desires and values. For example, I am nice to other people because it makes me happy to make them happy. I help others because I have empathy and I sympathize with their trouble. I take care of myself and avoid danger because I enjoy being alive. And I do a lot of other things based on my desires.

  20. Scott, you’d be the 2nd person on here to be an amoralist. However, I have to admit I also live by the certain ethic you proclaim and this is something we all have to decide for our lives. I would say I ‘treat others how I want to be treated’ because in all honesty – at the end of the day – it also benefits me (as much as the others around me). I guess I can be seen as ‘doing what I desire’ also…I would say I learned that over time though.

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