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Moeller has written an extended argument for what he terms "amorality", which is an attitude of refraining from making moral pronouncements on people's actions and characters, and in particular not claiming universal status for any such judgments. In the Introduction he argues for the minimization of the use of ethics or ethical discourse, and for greater awareness of the dangers of the ethical way of thinking about things. Against the moral crusader he puts "the moral fool", a term used in Daoism to describe a person who cannot see why thinking in terms of moral value is necessarily good. The book then proceeds to give multiple examples of cases where more harm than good results from such thinking.
At this stage one might get irritated with an author who writes with a (moral?) passion against the use of morality. This would be a mistake. Although it is extremely difficult to achieve a coherent systematic account of this philosophical position, and I think Moeller fails to do so, the book can more profitably be read as an account of the phenomenon of "the morality of anger" (Chapter 4) and its consequences. This refers to the feeling accompanying the perception that a wrong needs to be made right. Appeals to the morality of anger are typically to be found in the media, in just war ethics, in discussions around the death penalty, and in civil rights discourse – topics Moeller treats in Chapters 9 through 12. To me these are perhaps the most rewarding sections of the book. The author points out how advocates of the death penalty in the US have used the language of retribution and of the need for "closure" on the part of the victim's family to bolster the moral status of the death penalty.
I agree that cut off from its nourishing roots, moral indignation creates more havoc than help. To the extent that it is true that our contemporary global thought-culture has no normative grounding moral judgments will have something arbitrary about them (a thesis argued famously by Alisdair MacIntyre). Rather, says Moeller, stick to acting through feelings of love (for friends and family) and to regulating behavior in general by means of laws – understood (as traffic laws are) simply as amoral but useful regulations: "law light".
On the other hand it is rather extreme to write off the whole of the history of ethics. While the problems arising in Ancient Athenian culture set the ball rolling in the field of ethics discourse, Moeller begins with discussing the inadequacies of pre-Socratic Greek morality (evident in the tragic outcome of Creon's dealing with his daughter Antigone, in Sophocles' drama by that name) declaring any further attempt to seek some better, more encompassing moral framework, doomed from the start. But, a reader might ask, why not entertain the idea that because of what constitutes human flourishing, laws of the state should be applied so as to foster networks of friendship and family rather than in an absolutist way? It is only if there is no ethical grounding for the law (which is understood as an inadequate expression of the moral value underlying it) that it gets applied in this absolute and tragic way. But for Moeller there is precisely no such grounding (Chapter 8).
I appreciated the wide-ranging nature of Moeller's discussions, in particular drawing in useful explanations of Daoist and Confucian points of view. At the same time I would judge the discussions to lack something of philosophical rigour. For example in the chapter on just war ethics, there is no mention of the principles of double effect and of proportionality which underlie that approach to war. Similarly in the discussion on the supposed good of retribution, as redress for the crime, no mention is made of how the victim (or those effected by the crime) could also discern in themselves a feeling of compassion corresponding to their perception of the perpetrator as in himself or herself of value, and thus delink the morally right response to the crime to the death penalty.
In all, one feels by reading this book one matures one's moral perception, pace the author's (not very convincing, I have to say) chapter on the non-existence of any such growth in moral maturity (Chapter 7). The desire for the systematization of the basic idea Moeller has about amorality detracts, in my judgment, from the wealth of interesting examples he draws on to make his points.
© 2010 Patrick Giddy
Patrick Giddy, School of Philosophy and Ethics, UKZN, writes about himself: "I teach philosophy at the University of Kwazulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa. My areas of research include neo-Aristotelianism, in both its Alisdair MacIntyre and Bernard Lonergan guises, and philosophy of religion. Some recent publications have to do with development ethics, character, and professionalism."
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