The Moral Markers

Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass”
Illustration by John Tenniel, 1875

The Moral Markers

From time to time, I pause to picture how the recent phases of my life would look to me if there were no God in the pictures.  It’s a sort of thought experiment. Philosophers are given to performing them.  But perhaps any inquirer could ask, how would my topic look if I deleted such and such a datum or interpretation?

Painting with a limited palette is instructive in the same way.  How would my landscape look if I left out the browns or the greens?  Or lifted out all the colors and made a black and white sketch instead?

Sure, if I lifted out the colors, my picture would give me less information.  With fewer data to work from, I would interpret the scene differently.

So this comparison I draw from time to time, between my life seen theistically or atheistically, satisfies curiosity and in my case tends to confirm theism – as taking in more data and empowering my life’s experiments.

Since, at earlier life junctures, I have been successively an atheist, an agnostic, and a follower of a certain Eastern (Vedandist) model of ultimate reality, it interests me to remember what the previous worldviews gave, practically and humanly, and what they left out, in the terms that belonged, more integrally, to my life.

One worldview that, by contrast, I have never tried to believe is the one erasing the moral markers of experience and regarding them as mere “projections.”  I’ve never supposed that, if the world and everything in it were viewed more “authentically,” the viewer would find herself beyond good and evil.

I once had a collegial friend who had written on Nietzsche and Heidegger and believed that life at its deepest disclosed a remote Valhalla where moral distinctions could not penetrate.  She was of Viking descent, as it happens, had blond hair and wore shorts with authority.  We had great good times together despite — or because of — our differences.  She swam and skied, I lived and wrote in cafes.  She was sure life was unintelligible, with only speechless Nature having the final say.  I tried persistently to find the underlying significance of human experience and wanted to put my findings into words.

I relished our complementarity but knew that if, in the course of life, we ever came to a fork in the road that called for a moral choice, our friendship might not weather it.

I hoped that would not happen but it did.  We came to a fork where one path allowed loyalty while the other bent toward betrayal.  It was as if – on the soul level – I could see her sitting in one of those long Viking ships and raising an oar in farewell.

When I say that “never” had I tried to live as if reality were amoral, I mean never – until the other day.  Out of curiosity, last weekend I put on, like a new pair of glasses, the lens of moral neutrality.  Two realizations descended right away.

The first: my life just became unrecognizable.

The second: a lot of people, among them esteemed opinion-shapers, wear the lens of moral neutrality every day.

Hey, we’re not in Kansas anymore!  Where are we, Auntie Em, and what just happened?

I think I just entered what is laughingly called The Modern — and lately Post-Modern — World.  Where everything is made of brute forces and moral assertion equals mere social pretense.  Abbie’s purposive strivings and struggles, with varying degrees of success and failure, to do the best she could in her life, have just flattened into  –


now spurting, now flagging,

bent on surviving but going nowhere

 except toward more or fewer

spurts of energy.

The novelistic turns of my life, my striving to do my best so far as I could see what was best and to avoid the worst – above all to avoid cynicism – all that gets poured into the energy blender:

whirr and blip, whirr and blip,

till it all goes flat.

So this lens is quite different from the atheist and agnostic lenses that I have worn at earlier life phases.  In my experience, those skeptical lenses obscured some parts of the landscape.  As an atheist, I took in less of the information pertinent to consequential decisions that in any case couldn’t be avoided.  Nevertheless, with or without theistic belief, a purposive and meaningful life was still fully possible.  Theism hasn’t made life easier.  It did tend, at least in my own experience, to make it fuller – of relevant information and a constructive orientation.

The consequences of moral neutrality seem much more radical.  It doesn’t just omit some of the data.  It flattens all of it.  The peaks and the valleys become two-dimensional.  How does it manage that?  Let’s say that, before putting on the lens of moral neutrality, first one had to read about it.  Up till then, one had lived through one’s time oriented by a set of purposes that, whether rightly-aimed or destructive, had taken shape sincerely, in response to concrete experiences.

Once wearing the new lens however, one had to put daylight between oneself and the purposes that earlier had been fully one’s own.  This very setting-aside gesture made room for the “objective” claim that the moral markers weren’t really there.  One’s life purposes were now deemed to be mere evanescent shapes soon to vanish in the whirrs and blips of underlying, random energy.

So, just because I put on the received lenses, I’m expected to walk around pretending that a currently-approved abstraction can take the place of the aims I originally desired in my actual life?

As the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass assures Alice:

“Sometimes I’ve believed as many as

six impossible things before breakfast.”

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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