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  • The Moral Fool: A Case for Amorality
  • Geir Sigurðsson
The Moral Fool: A Case for Amorality. By Hans-Georg Moeller. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. Pp. x + 212. Paper $24.50.

Hans-Georg Moeller's thought-provoking The Moral Fool: A Case for Amorality aims at-and succeeds in-shaking up the reader and seducing her to consider seriously the nature and role of philosophical ethics and morality. In clear and unambiguous [End Page 305] language, the author assumes the role of a "moral fool" who "does not know if the moral perspective is good at all" (p. 5), which enables him to suspend judgment about its advantages or disadvantages in a manner reminiscent of classical skepticism, and thus open up the vista for uncommon perspectives on ethics, morality, and their actual consequences. While the book focuses in particular on ethics and morality as they have developed in and through the Western world, Moeller's critique proceeds mainly from Daoist and Zen-Buddhist perspectives, though one can certainly also hear the voice of Friedrich Nietzsche echo between (and occasionally in) the lines. Indeed, Moeller makes use of two important and interrelated arguments that Nietzsche presented in his Genealogy of Morality and Beyond Good and Evil. First, the distinction between good and bad/evil is suspect and often relative. Second, morality may be founded on something amoral (p. 9); that is, the reasons for assigning moral value to certain things, deeds, or persons often rest on some other interests. This Nietzschean critique has been taken further into systems theory as developed by Niklas Luhmann, who somewhat cynically conceives of morality as a social device for dividing people into acceptable and unacceptable. Moeller avails himself of insights like this as well.

It is clear that Moeller's main motivation for presenting his arguments for amorality is his perception that ethics has failed and that moral arguments are mainly used in an ineffective, indeed counter-effective and often hypocritical manner. A similar sense can be found in the ancient Daoist critique of Confucianism, where moral distinctions in terms of rigid principles were rejected as mostly thought-inhibiting prejudices that prevented one from being capable of embracing the continuous novelty of life situations. Confucius' "fetters and handcuffs" of constantly seeking to aggrandize himself through crude moralisms cannot be shaken off, says the Zhuangzi's Shu-shan Choptoes to Lao Dan, since "Heaven does the punishing."1 Moeller sees such a mix of moral irrelevance and hypocrisy at work in most if not all types of human experience-politics, private life, media, aesthetics, et cetera-arguing that moral deliberations are at best useless or redundant, and at worst extremely harmful. It is certainly true that we are constantly bombarded with attempts at moral justification for the most heinous and self-serving acts by all kinds of powerful individuals and institutions, in particular in the political and economic arenas. The media also lure us into a constant need to pass simplistic moral judgments. Morality, in many ways, has become the new opiate of the masses.

Nevertheless, it is far from obvious that this deplorable situation should call for a wholesale rejection of morality. Is it not rather the case that our notions of ethics and morality (which Moeller criticizes) have become too narrow? Is it perhaps the intensified focus on analytical ethics in academia and its offspring, "applied ethics," which pretends to be "practical" (in the sense of profitable) in its specialized ability to resolve real-life dilemmas, that should be the object of scrutiny here? After all, Socrates and the ancient Greek thinkers did not conceive of ethics in such a narrow means-ends-oriented way. For most of them, ethics was primarily an attempt to reflect systematically and holistically on what constitutes the good life, not unlike what we find in ancient Chinese philosophy. We may have gone overboard in our expectation [End Page 306] that through philosophical (analytical) argumentation, we are able to determine, almost scientifically, which actions are morally acceptable and which are not. As Moeller himself notes, it was not until the modern age, notably with Kant and the British utilitarians, that ethics came to be presented...