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John A De Goes

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Amoralism 101

I’m amoral. In fact, I’m as amoral as they come.

After reading this post, you may decide this is as bad as it sounds. Possibly far worse. Or, you may decide it’s totally benign.

But one thing’s certain: the term probably doesn’t mean what you think it does.

Amoralism

The word “amoral” can be confusing. Many mistake it for “immoral”, since the words are pronounced similarly. But they have radically different meanings.

An immoral person is someone who is morally evil, in the same way that a moral person is someone who is morally upstanding. They imply different kinds of behavior with respect to some standard of morality.

Amoral, on the other hand, is something else entirely, and has very few implications on the way people behave.

Just like atheism refers to the state of not having a belief in any deity, amoralism refers to the state of not having a belief in right or wrong.

I’m an amoral atheist, but you don’t have to be an atheist to be amoral. Amoralism is perfectly compatible with theism, it just requires a different way to think about moral language (good becomes what you will eventually determine to be in your best interests because of the influence of an omnipotent god, for example).

In fact, almost no atheists are amoral! My “fellow” atheists are mostly moral atheists, and truth be told, they don’t even really like me!

Being an amoralist doesn’t mean you’re a raging psychopath or a hedonist given to short-term pleasures at the expense of everything else. It just means you don’t believe in morality. Everything else varies, based on who you are.

Degrees of Amoralism

Amoralists don’t fall into a single bucket. There are strong amoralists and weak amoralists, and within each of these groups, there are narrow amoralists, and broad amoralists.

Strong amoralists like myself think the concept of morality (as understood by most people) is fundamentally incoherent. Weak amoralists don’t believe in morality, but neither do they think morality is necessarily incoherent (compare with strong versus weak atheism).

Narrow amoralists, like all amoralists, reject moral judgements, but may hold to other kinds of judgements involving intrinsic worth or value.

Broad amoralists like me, however, reject the concept of inherent superiority, inferiority, worth, and value. Things are not better or worse than others, and they don’t matter or not matter in any objective way — they simply are, and we like them or we don’t; they matter to us or not.

The Amoral Perspective

The amoralist perspective is radically different from the moralist perspective. Yet everyone, including moralists, apply the amoral perspective to some areas of their life, like eating cereal and brushing teeth. And even to some scenarios that come awfully close to classical moral concerns.

A few examples will help demonstrate what I mean.

Lions

Two lions chase a zebra across a plain.

The first lion catches up, and mounts a vicious attack. She digs into the zebra with her claws, tearing its skin open and causing excruciating pain for the zebra.

While the first lion begins biting the zebra’s neck, the other lion uses its sharp teeth to rip a whole in the zebra’s abdomen, causing further pain and suffering.

Finally, the zebra collapses, and the second lion begins eating the zebra while it’s still alive — trembling with fear and suffering in immense agony.

Monkeys

A male gray langur stumbles onto a family, which consists of a single male, multiple females, and lots of baby langurs, all heavily dependent on their mothers for protection, nurturing and food.

The langur manages to overpower the other male, and then proceeds to systematically kill every baby langur in the group. The helpless and defenseless baby langurs watch as each of their siblings is brutally killed, one after the other. Each one’s life cut short by an act of random violence.

Reaction

How do you react to these two stories?

I empathize with the zebra and the baby langurs. I want to save them from the suffering and death that awaits them. I’m angry at the aggression and violence (even though I understand it).

Yet I look at these two scenarios, and like most moral people, I do not see right or wrong, good or evil. I see animals trying to get what they want — in this case, at the expense of others getting what they want.

They’re just animals, you’ll hear many moral people say.

Indeed, this is an amoral perspective. Though most people will not think of these animal behaviors in a moral way, these scenarios still have the ability to elicit very strong emotional reactions in us. Reactions strong enough to inspire us to action.

In my case, if I could, I would save the zebra and the baby langurs.

Amoralists may view the world in a non-moral way, but that doesn’t mean they don’t care about things. Nor does it mean amoralists won’t be inspired to action by the things they do care about.

Because of this, amoralists can look like and behave like anyone else. Knowing they don’t believe in morality won’t help you predict their behavior. In fact, some amoralists even use moral language (although they mean different things).

A Few Implications

Hopefully by now, you have a gut-level understanding of how an amoralist views the world, and how this view doesn’t really imply any course of behavior.

But now I want to go a little deeper into my own particular bucket of amoralism.

I believe the fundamental difference between an amoralist like me, and a moralist, comes down to the interpretation of statements like the following:

“Murder of strangers for personal pleasure is wrong.”

To a moralist, this is a statement about reality. Murder is wrong like energy equals mass times acceleration squared. They’re statements about reality, and if the person making the statement dies tomorrow, that doesn’t make it any less true than it is today.

To me, however, this is a just statement about the speaker’s head — no more. It tells me the speaker doesn’t like “murder of strangers for personal pleasure”, in the same way they might not like coffee, only with a far greater intensity, and with a threat of collective negative repercussions for transgressors.

If this sounds like emotivism, it’s because it’s not far from that. Although I understand that people are making claims about reality, because I reject such claims as incoherent, the propositional content I receive from such claims is strictly about the brain of the person making them.

Variations on a Theme

The amoral perspective applies not just to “right” and “wrong”, but all their endless variations, such as “should”, “ought”, “obligation”, “responsibility”, and so forth. Not to say all these are exactly equivalent, but to an amoralist such as myself, they are subtle variations on the same theme.

Each expresses different nuances of the speaker’s head. And ultimately all of them — every single one — comes back to so and so likes or doesn’t like such and such, usually with an implicit threat of negative repercussions.

Communicating with Force

Moral language has force. If you try to speak non-morally, that’s the first thing you notice.

If I tell you how your behaviors make me feel and what I want from you, that’s probably not going to feel very threatening. On the other hand, if I tell you that it’s “not OK” for you to be doing something, and that you “should” be “ashamed” for your “childish” behavior, your response will probably range from mild irritation to downright rage.

Personally, I believe that’s why moral language developed: a way to extract something you want from others by talking about your desires as if they were objective facts of the physical universe.

Regardless of whether or not that’s true, however, I’ve found it more effective to communicate without force. More generally, I think in non-violent societies, in which we can’t just pummel our fellow humans into doing what we want, non-forceful communication is more likely to make us happy than the alternatives.

Different Perspective

Being amoral in an almost entirely moral world is an extremely rare thing, and gives me a unique perspective on the affairs of humans — the debates they have, the reasoning they use, the conclusions they come to, and so much more.

This is what prompted me to write this post. There’s so much moralizing and forceful language in the world, my own perspective doesn’t get any airtime.

That’s definitely something I’d like to change.

Not because I want to force people to give up morality or moral reasoning. But rather, just to give a voice to the people like me (all 6 of us!), quietly sitting on the sidelines, shaking our heads because everyone’s speaking in a language that doesn’t make any sense to us.

Well, hello world, we’re here! We’re not scary or anything. For the most part, we’re just like you.

We just talk a little funny.

Feel free to share your questions or concerns below.