Morality Posts – Moral Nihilism

I’ve focussed mostly on moral realism in these posts, but wanted to make a few brief comments about moral nihilism before I transition out of the subject of morality.  I’m not going to get into the details of the different kinds of moral nihilism (you can read Wikipedia for that) – in this post I’m just using it as a term to describe someone who believes that objective moral truths do not exist.

First, as I’ve mentioned before, after I decided that I didn’t have enough reasons to claim belief in Christianity I pretty much became a moral nihilist.  But I still had desires to live my life in the moral ways of compassion and empathy, and that was what I did.  And even further, moral nihilists could hold to a very basic set of values and conclude that certain moral actions lead to the fulfillment of those values (although they might believe that this whole process is a very subjective one which I would agree with to a certain extent).  I’ve discussed this sort of “practical” morality here and here.

As far as evidence against moral realism goes, there are examples from my own life that cause me to question moral realism as well.  I was raised in a Jewish family and so violating the Mosaic laws brought on great guilt for me for many years of my life (even after converting to Christianity.)  Eating pork is just one example of this (happens to be the popular example among Jews.)  Turns out that believing that Jesus is God is an even better example – the guilt I felt when considering conversion to Christianity was quite strong.  These guilt feelings really were no different than the guilt feelings I had or have when it comes to more common forms of morality.  There really is no way of distinguishing between these guilt feelings (or if there is, I have never had the ability to do that.)  This leads me to believe that our cultural groups can have a very strong impact on what we believe to be moral truths.  I can see why this as well as evolutionary evidence could lead one to believe that there are no objective moral statements, but what I have been trying to express in these posts is that this is not at all a conclusion that we are forced to.  Just because our cultures (or even evolution) can influence different people to contradictory conclusions about morality does not at all mean that there are not objective moral truths that somehow exist.  Our cultures have also been able to influence different people to contradictory conclusions about how old the earth is, but this doesn’t force us to conclude that there is not an objective fact of the matter.  It is quite possible that there are also objective moral facts of the matter.  I am just not convinced strongly one way or the other.

Lastly, theists have a strange way of suggesting that moral nihilists are being “contradictory” when they mention anything related to “good” or “evil”, but this really isn’t the case.  Some of this really just comes down to natural language and communication that is close to universally accepted.  If someone punches you in the face for no reason at all, you don’t have to be a moral realist to say “that guy is a jerk” or even “that was wrong”, because those are statements that would be agreed upon by most everyone in our current societies.  In this sense there really isn’t anything contradictory about moral nihilists using this kind of “moral” language.  Now if they said that is just plain wrong in a cosmic sense, then of course that would be contradictory, but that isn’t what they mean when they talk in this way.  Another related point is that moral nihilists could still rightly point out the internal inconsistencies of certain religions (such as terrorists harming unarmed civilians in the name of an all good God.)

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4 thoughts on “Morality Posts – Moral Nihilism

  1. I’m not sure how “agreed upon by most everyone” becomes a rational basis for morality. It seems like you have to come to grips with the fact that per atheism, life is an accident of particles bouncing around in an empty universe, and morality is little more than emotional mush. I mean this question sincerely – what am i missing here?

  2. Hi James. My other posts on morality have some interesting thoughts that might have some answers to your question… have a very small hunch they won’t satisfy you though. 😉

  3. A lot of people seem to fear that, if there’s no piece of parchment floating in space — with a set of rules on it that we must obey — then society will collapse into chaos. It’s as if religion alone can hold back the tide of wantonness. In fact, today most people in Western countries pretty much ignore the old-fashioned religious strictures in ways that would make their ancestors cringe, and yet they manage for the most part to mind their own business, show up for work, and tuck their kids in at night. People aren’t constantly rioting in the streets (and even the traditional sports championship riot only lasts one night in the victorious city), nor are masses of people committing wholesale burglaries or murders, despite the way it looks on the news. Crime has dropped greatly over the decades, and not because everyone’s suddenly attending services.

    We get along with each other because that works very well, and getting into fights works poorly. In moments of personal crisis and self-doubt, we’re tempted to join a religion or other ethical system that offers ground rules so we feel tethered to the Earth. The rest of the time we feel okay and can naturally take care of the various daily moral challenges.

    This isn’t to say religions don’t have a place in society. But their ethical offer — their “pitch” — amounts to a version of “scare the customer and then sell the remedy”: it’s self serving. Besides, their moral solutions often fail to fix the problem: every system of thought, even arithmetic, contains contradictions which cannot be avoided, per Godel’s Theorem (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gödel%27s_incompleteness_theorems ). By extension, this applies to moral systems, too. Those who accuse humanists of “moral relativism” must themselves make ethical judgments outside their own rules, such as when they’re required to punish the wicked but also honor their parents, and then it turns out Dad is abusing Mom or robbing clients or driving drunk on Saturdays. Now what?

    Finally, Occam’s Razor requires us to use the simplest explanation for the phenomena we’re trying to describe. With ethics, it’s much easier to find the source of morality in the natural unfolding of our daily lives — within our efforts to resolve dilemmas and conflicts and quandaries — than to impute the source of ethics to a divine being whose nature, qualities, and very existence are uncertain. Simpler still are the results of recent research that seem to indicate that morals arise naturally, are universal, and thrive when considered logically, regardless of our religious affiliations. (E.g., http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/01/130129121939.htm )

    So we end up ad-libbing our ethics anyway, regardless of their source. If we’re honest with ourselves, we realize there’s no solid ethical ground under our feet, no matter how we twist and turn. The challenge is to be willing to float through the empty space of moral uncertainty, guided by our natural inclination to get along with others.

    We’re moral beings whether we like it or not, whether we source it in our religions or our inclinations. Instead of arguing about who has the most valid source of morals (“My morals are better than yours!” — oh, please!), we can direct our ingenuity and heartfelt energies to helping each other resolve ethical dilemmas, so that everyone involved ends up better off.

    After all, when everyone’s happy, the ethical problem tends to disappear.

  4. Thanks for the comments Jim! Many good points in there. While I sometimes have a difficult time dealing with the uncertainty of big questions like morality, you are right that this shouldn’t stop us from coming together and making the practical effort of working together to come up with solutions to moral dilemmas.

    I’ve been enjoying reading your perspectives on your blog.

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