Moral nihilism means rejecting the notion that anything can be inherently moral (right) or immoral (wrong). I believe moral nihilism is justified because I’m not aware of any reason to suppose actions can have an intrinsic must not-be-done-ness or must-be-done-ness. Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong and The Myth of Morality were the two most important works in persuading me about this.
Some people worry that if they become persuaded of moral nihilism it will undercut their ability to make moral arguments. Perhaps they even fear turning into people they don’t want to be. I hope to show that these fears are misplaced.
Moral nihilism: More plausible – Less comfortable?
I was happy to come across David D. Friedman’s Amazon.com review of Michael Huemer’s book, Ethical Intuitionism. Friedman and Huemer are authors of the two best books I’ve read on the topic of libertarianism. Here’s the part of the review most relevant to me.
[Huemer] does not provide an adequate response to the one challenge I am concerned with, the view that combines ethical nihilism with evolutionary psychology.
The claim of that view is that there are no normative facts, that nothing is good or bad and there is no moral reason to do or not do anything. It explains our moral beliefs […] by evolution — they were beliefs that increased the reproductive success of those who held them in the environment in which we evolved, and so got hard wired into their descendants.
That approach challenges intuitionism in two ways. First, it explains the evidence, my ethical intuitions, on the basis of facts of reality I already believe to be true. Once we have one explanation there is no need for another. Second, it raises the question of how, if there are moral facts, we could have acquired the ability to know them, since at least some of them would presumably have led us to modify our behavior in ways that reduced our reproductive success — make us less willing, for instance, to slaughter the men of a neighboring tribe and take their women.
Friedman closes the review by explaining that, despite its parsimony and explanatory power, he cannot accept moral nihilism.
Despite these problems, I have not yet abandoned my current moral position, in part because the alternative position fails to answer the questions I want answered, indeed implies that they are unanswerable, that there are no actual oughts. In part also, I fail to adopt the nihilist position because I am unable to believe it. That inability is psychological, not logical. I cannot actually believe that there is nothing wrong with torturing small children for the fun of it or murdering large numbers of innocent people, both conclusions that follow from the view that nothing at all is wrong or right.
I think I understand Friedman’s concerns. Here I’ll try to put them in their proper place.
Is there nothing wrong with torturing children for fun?
Speaking as a moral nihilist — I say that torturing children for fun is wrong. Not wrong in a cosmic, mind-independent way. To me wrong is shorthand for “it’s an idea that is offensive to my moral intuitions”. The name for this attitude to moral statements is Expressivism. I believe I experience the wrongness of the idea of child torture as intensely as they do. I used to be a moral realist so I have some basis for comparison.
Ditching moral realism doesn’t turn you into a bad person
If you’ve done away with moral realism doesn’t that mean you feel free to do things that are abhorrent?
Thankfully the answer is no. Even though moral facts don’t exist, in a healthy human, strong moral feelings and empathetic response do. If I could be sure I would ‘get away with it’ I still wouldn’t do the Bad Things that a psychopath would calmly contemplate. I would feel repulsed by the idea of doing them, and I am sure I would feel overwhelming guilt if I did carry them out. These strong disincentives have nothing to do with ideas of permission or forbiddance.
Moral realism doesn’t give an advantage in persuasion
Doesn’t denying moral facts undercut your ability or motivation to make moral arguments? I don’t believe it has to. While being a moral nihilist and a libertarian, I made the video George Ought to Help, which implicitly makes a moral argument against the state, specifically against the welfare state.
I’m motivated to make moral arguments because I believe they can bring about changes in the world that harmonise with my preferences. My preferences (which reflect my moral feelings) include increasing prosperity and reducing suffering. I’m convinced that propertarian anarchism is by far the most suitable path yet conceived of towards that end.
My moral arguments don’t rely on the assumption that moral facts exist. Instead, they appeal to a preference for coherence and consistency in moral judgments on the part of the people I’m making the argument to.
For instance, you and I feel that X is wrong (meaning that it offends our moral feelings). Y closely resembles X in ways A B and C. If you condemn X doesn’t it make sense to condemn Y too?
I encourage people to examine whether their judgments cohere with one another. In my view it’s fair to say that the moral judgments of most supporters of the state are incoherent, for instance.
Cut your losses
I believe that in efforts of persuasion, moral realism doesn’t help you. If a person doesn’t already feel that threatening violence against peaceful people is wrong (e.g. threatening to assault a friend to compel them to donate to a cause you consider worthy), then no amount of outraged brow beating about moral facts is going to change their mind. You should consider cutting your losses and ending the conversation.
A stronger foundation
If two moral realists disagree with one another, they get to a stalemate because (I claim) they rely on assumptions that are implausible for the same reasons. A moral nihilist can query these directly without threatening their own position. She might ask: How have you gained knowledge about moral facts? By what mechanism? Why treat this conviction as something other than merely a very strong feeling?
I encourage you not to be afraid of moral nihilism. It doesn’t make you a wicked person. It coheres better than moral realism with what we know about the world, and you sacrifice no persuasive power by accepting it.