Answering Objections From A Moral Nihilist

Earlier today I explained why moral nihilism is self-contradictory in reply to a comment by thedudediogenes on my earlier attack on moral nihilism from last Friday.

thedudediogenes also wrote:

How I look at morality is influenced most strongly by Nietzsche, Mackie, Leiter, Garner, Greene and Blackford. I think we project our moral sentiments onto the world.

Yes, as a psychological matter of fact, we do sometimes project our moral sentiments onto the world, but this is not mutually exclusive with there being objective relationships of goodness and badness in the world which either justify our particular feelings as correct or are the basis for realizing our feelings are incorrect. Our feelings of preference should be towards those things that conduce to our flourishing and our feelings of aversion should be towards those things that harm our flourishing.

I view belief in moral facts or truths as similar to theism belief – as an intellectual comfort blanket.

That is a simplistic interpretation of both moral truths and of theism. Neither are purely comforting to those who think they are true.

Moral facts, say, “Slavery is wrong” play no explanatory role in our understanding of the world.

Moral facts are not explanations, they are conclusions which determine that an action is the best, the worst, or somewhere in-between. The apprehension of the fact that slavery is wrong plays a deep role in our understanding of the world, which presently prevents millions of people from owning slaves.

(That is, to put it crudely, slavery’s being putatively wrong is not why slavery is illegal in the places in which it now is illegal.)

I hardly see how such a blanket statement could be made. Even were the initial reasons slavery was abolished in most parts of the world more cynical and less moral at the time, that is no reason to assume that it does not remain illegal out of moral judgments or (at least) moral abhorrence. And even were it legalized–or even were there ways to get around the law–there are still millions who would abstain from owning slaves on moral grounds, given the current state of values in the much of the world. And if it is true that slavery is wrong (damaging to overall flourishing and maximin flourishing) in the contexts where people think it is wrong, those people may be said to have true, rationally correct moral reasons against it.

But even if I am mistaken and there are no moral facts, surely people are motivated to do some things and to refrain from others by what they think are moral facts and because they think those things are moral facts. That is the definitional feature of Mackie’s error theory–there need not actually be any moral facts for us, nonetheless, to think and to be motivated as though there were.

Moral facts, then, if they exist, are inert in a way that other facts don’t seem to be.

I do not know exactly what he means by “inert”. If he means they have no ability to move us to action, then he is wrong for the reasons I just noted. Even if they did not exist, Mackie would be right that the misapprehension of them would still be enough to make them effective.

But by “inert” we might read thedudediogenes to be referring to another common argument among moral nihilists. He might mean that moral facts cannot be discovered to be facts because, aside from motivating us to action, they do not have causal influence on states of affairs in the world independent of our thought processes about the world. Presumably the only real kind of facts are mind-independent ones and they are proved to be really facts by the ways they observably change the universe by being present. So, the fact that there is a smoke in the air is demonstrable by its effects by which we smell or see it as it affects the air and our noses and our eyes. Smoke changes our perception of the world by its presence and enters into observable causal connections with other physical things, and through all of this the fact of its being is foist on us whether we want to believe it or not.

So, on this reasoning, moral facts would not exist because they do not do things like change the other empirical facts about the world by their presence and thus alert all objective observers to their presence–whether those observers feel like acknowledging them or not. We cannot infer moral facts through any tangible, sensible, or scientifically observable manifestations they make in the empirical world.

But if it is sensible to talk about “moral facts” these are not facts about empirical objects but about actions, such that some actions in particular cases are the best actions even when they go against shortsighted perceptions of our self-interest. The only way to say that a moral claim is a fact is the same way that we would say that a hypothetical imperative expresses a fact. It is a fact that if you want to make an omelette you must use eggs—given the definition of an omelette. Similarly, given the mathematically describable dynamics of strategic decision-making studied in game theory, and given the ways that we humans flourish in our powers, it is a fact that betraying others’ trust is usually not the best available action and so it is a fact that it is immoral to do so in those cases where you are shortsighted and feel like betraying others anyway. It is also a fact that it is in your objective interest to flourish in your powers since they are you and so their effective realization is your effective realization. And there can be no good reason, short of concession to sheer inability, to desire to realize yourself less than you can.

If moral facts exist, if morality is in that sense a “real phenomenon”, it is a sui generis phenomenon; no other “real phenomena” can be trangressed. The laws of physics can’t be broken, the “laws” of morality can freely be broken. I’m clearly not the only one who finds that “queer”, to borrow Mackie’s term.

Yes, and bats clearly cannot be used in baseball because it would be impossible to get winged creatures of such strength to stay still in the hitters’ hands. And because their bodies are not long enough or inflexible enough to be used for hitting a pitched baseball.

Law in the sense of “moral law” and law in the sense of “physical law” are homonyms. No moralist has ever thought that a condition of being a moral law was that no one could ever violate it. Moral laws have always been in principle violable. If they could not be violated then no one could ever choose to violate them. If no one could choose to violate them, they would not be matters of choice. If they were not matters of choice they could not be subject to moral appraisal.

The only sense in which there are “natural moral laws” is the sense is that, in given circumstances, if one were to choose against the recommendation of a moral law for a shortsighted short term interest, one would be harming one’s own ultimate effectiveness in power. What constitutes one’s ultimate effectiveness is a matter for factual investigation. Those are law governed natural relationships. Various functions in reality are either more or less effectively realized. These functions are naturalistic through and through and are as “governed” by the laws of nature as everything else.

I cannot effectively function as a human being without a brain. This is determined by the laws of nature. It is a fact that were I to damage my brain, I would damage the functioning through which I come into being at all. It is a fact that this harms my own objective interests as the essentially brain-having being that I am. I have this interest in the preconditions of my own existence since it (obviously) depends on them and I necessarily depend on it in order to be at all.

(FYI Greene’s dissertation is freely available online, as are several papers by Leiter that are tangentially related. Unfortunately, his “Moral Facts and Best Explanations” isn’t easily found online. Additionally Blackford has written numerous blog posts and columns explicating his views, and Richard Garner’s book “Beyond Morality” is also available online. To anyone still reading this comment, all are highly recommended.)

Your Thoughts?

The considerations spelled out in the above post should offer a greater context and justification for the ideas in the following, roughly logically ordered, posts. Listed below are some of the most salient posts I have written on problems in value theory, metaethics, moral psychology, practical ethics, and normative moral theory. There are a lot of them but you do not need to read them all to understand any of them whose titles interest you in particular. So don’t avoid all of them for fear you cannot read all of them.

Goodness Is A Factual Matter (Goodness=Effectiveness)

Grounding Objective Value Independent Of Human Interests And Moralities

Non-Reductionistic Analysis Of Values Into Facts

Effectiveness Is The Primary Goal In Itself, Not Merely A Means

What Is Happiness And Why Is It Good?

On The Intrinsic Connection Between Being And Goodness

Deriving An Atheistic, Naturalistic, Realist Account Of Morality

How Our Morality Realizes Our Humanity

From Is To Ought: How Normativity Fits Into Naturalism

Can Good Teaching Be Measured?

Some People Live Better As Short-Lived Football or Boxing Stars Than As Long Lived Philosophers

The Objective Value of Ordered Complexity

Defining Intrinsic Goodness, Using Marriage As An Example

The Facts About Intrinsic and Instrumental Goods and The Cultural Construction of Intrinsic Goods

Subjective Valuing And Objective Values

My Perspectivist, Teleological Account Of The Relative Values Of Pleasure And Pain

Pleasure And Pain As Intrinsic Instrumental Goods

What Does It Mean For Pleasure And Pain To Be “Intrinsically Instrumental” Goods?

Against Moral Intuitionism

Moral vs. Non-Moral Values

Maximal Self-Realization In Self-Obliteration: The Existential Paradox of Heroic Self-Sacrifice

On Good And Evil For Non-Existent People

My Perfectionistic, Egoistic AND Universalistic, Indirect Consequentialism (And Contrasts With Other Kinds)

Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

Further Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

On The Incoherence Of Divine Command Theory And Why Even If God DID Make Things Good And Bad, Faith-Based Religions Would Still Be Irrelevant

God and Goodness

Rightful Pride: Identification With One’s Own Admirable Powers And Effects

The Harmony Of Humility And Pride

Moral Mutability, Not Subjective Morality.  Moral Pluralism, Not Moral Relativism.

How Morality Can Change Through Objective Processes And In Objectively Defensible Ways

Nietzsche: Moral Absolutism and Moral Relativism Are “Equally Childish”


Is Emotivistic Moral Nihilism Rationally Consistent?

The Universe Does Not Care About Our Morality. But So What?

Why Be Morally Dutiful, Fair, or Self-Sacrificing If The Ethical Life Is About Power?

A Philosophical Polemic Against Moral Nihilism

Why Moral Nihilism Is Self-Contradictory

Answering Objections From A Moral Nihilist

If You Don’t Believe in Objective Values Then Don’t Talk To Me About Objective Scientific Truth Either

On Not-Pologies, Forgiveness, and Gelato

Yes, We Can Blame People For Their Feelings, Not Just Their Actions

Why Bother Blaming People At All? Isn’t That Just Judgmental?

Is Anything Intrinsically Good or Bad? An Interview with James Gray

My Metaethical Views Are Challenged. A Debate With “Ivan”

On Unintentionally Intimidating People

Meditations on How to Be Powerful, Fearsome, Empowering, and Loved

Is It Ever Good To Be Annoying?

No, You Can’t Call People Sluts.

Why Misogynistic Language Matters

Sex and “Spirituality”

Can Utilitarians Properly Esteem The Intrinsic Value of Truth?

No, Not Everyone Has A Moral Right To Feel Offended By Just Any Satire or Criticism

Moral Offense Is Not Morally Neutral


About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Patrick

    Mathematical facts are relational. Given the definition of 1, 2, plus, equals, and 3, 1+2=3.

    You’re positing that morals work the same way. But this isn’t inconsistent with moral nihilism.

    If you posit a definition of “good” or “moral” or whatnot, you can possibly find objectively true factual claims about morality that hold… given that definition.

    The problem is the objectivity, or factual nature, of that definition.

    After all, you can make claims about even the most subjective matters into objective factual claims if you posit definitions and then speak about the relationships between those definitions. “It is more noble to fly kites than to ride horses” can be an objective factual statement if you permit me to define “noble.” But whether my definition of “noble” is objective or factual is a much tougher challenge.

    TLDR: The claim that there are no moral facts is not the same as the claim that no factual statements can be made about the ideas people call morals.

    • Robert B.

      Mathematics is formally constructed from definitions and premises. But we can verify that these definitions are empirically appropriate. If there is a single apple at one end of a table, and a pair of apples at the other end, that’s one apple and two apples. If you put them together, you’ll have three apples. These quantities are real and factual, and they would work the same way if we defined the symbol sentence “1 + 2″ so that it equaled 5, or so that it had multiple correct answers, or even if we didn’t have mathematics at all.

      Similarly, if the ethics Dr. Fincke describe correspond to actual cause-and-effect relationships that we can empirically observe, then they have a factual nature. We can understand this ethic as a real, or at least verifiable, pattern of relationships between actions and consequences.

      We can’t formally prove that this relationships are properly called ethics. But then again, we can’t formally prove that the definitions and so on that we learn in algebra class are properly called mathematics. We recognize mathematics as mathematics because of its eminently practical and widely applicable nature, and we can recognize ethics (that is, the “right thing to do”) in the same way.

    • Patrick

      That argument doesn’t help you.

      Try this:

      Take the statement, “Water polo is objectively more blorglesnorfing than soccer.”

      Can I, using the framework given in these posts, prove that “on some level” this statement is objectively true or false?

      Well, lets consider it under two possible scenarios.

      Scenario 1: Blorglesnorfing is defined to refer to an objective trait about a sport. It doesn’t matter what, just some objective trait that can be measured in the most objective manners possible. In this scenario, I can prove that the statement is objectively true or false.

      Scenario 2: Blorglesnorfing is defined to refer to a purely subjective evaluation of a sport. It doesn’t matter what, just some purely subjective matter of opinion. In this scenario, I can STILL prove the statement to be objectively true or false “on some level” as described in the above posts.

      But there’s still a difference. Even if scenario 2 is objectively true or false “on some level,” its not the same level or the same type of objectivity as scenario 1.

      And that difference is what moral nihilists tend to refer to when they argue for moral nihilism. Maybe that difference doesn’t matter to you, and that’s fine, you can do what you like. Just don’t think you’re addressing the claims of moral nihilism if your framework doesn’t acknowledge the difference between these two scenarios.

    • Robert B.

      Uh, it seems like you’re kind of arguing past me here. Or at least, I don’t understand how your response relates to what I said. I was talking about how these ethics refer to empirically observable cause-and-effect relationships – the sort of thing that’s not true “on some level,” just plain old true. You’ll have to actually explain how I’ve failed to demonstrate that, rather than just reiterating the original problem.

    • Patrick

      If your moral facts refer to if/then statements with subjectively valued ifs, then your moral facts are not the kind of moral facts that moral nihilists deny exist.

  • Jim

    I believe you are merely arguing over a definition. Most people believe morals are presupposed, which is the problem I believe most moral nihilists have with it. They would not like to use a word that could be confused with moral presupposition (because that’s the way its been used throughout most of history).

    Similar to how some people who no longer believe in God will sometimes become a naturalistic pantheist, rather than give up the term, they will assign the term a new definition (God = universe). Those who do not wish to give up the term morals will redefine it rather than make up a new term, but then there will be some (moral nihilists) who think we should not use it at all.

    In my mind, I consider both of you moral nihilists, but that all rests on one’s own definition of “moral”. I would only argue moral nihilism with someone who believes morals are presupposed, otherwise, it’s normally just a waste of time (arguing over the definition of morals).

  • thedudediogenes

    One can be a moral nihilist and not want to jettison use of moral language (J.L. Mackie, Richard Joyce and Richard Garner are moral skeptics who want to continue to use moral language, while Joshua Greene and Joel Marks prefer to jettison such language.)

  • Jim

    I’m a moral nihilist that wants to keep the moral language (mostly because I don’t see a new language catching on). I suppose what I was trying to say is that moral nihilism is more about rejecting moral presupposition. I don’t believe you’re arguing that moral law doesn’t exist, just as you wouldn’t argue that civil law doesn’t exist, only that it is artificial.

  • Robert B.

    @ Patrick:

    Ah, thanks. That makes it very clear.

    But consider that Dr. Fincke proposes to consider good to be the maximum flourishing of our own individual powers. That is, he says we should each try to maximize our ability to do all the sorts of things that we can do. If we decided instead to pursue some different value, we would have to try to increase our power anyway, since we can only seek that other value by means of some power. We can’t call this subjective – assuming that values exist at all, maximizing one’s own power must be one.

    Now, you hold that values in fact do not exist at all, except as feelings or desires. But I hope that you hold that position because perception of good and evil seems so subjective in practice, because there does not seem to be any way to factually resolve disagreements about it. That would be an excellent reason to disbelieve in objective good – if something is never truly objective, then obviously it doesn’t exist as an objective thing. But if we can formulate ethics based on objective truth, grounded in first principles that are independent of any contingent facts about humans (individually or as a species), complete with empirical and/or logical methods to resolve disagreements, then we’ve shown that ethics/morals/goodness can exist objectively. At which point, there’s no reason to believe that they don’t so exist.

    • Patrick

      The existence of tautologically or necessarily true statements about goal driven behavior is not the same as the existence of “moral facts.”

    • Robert B.

      What would be the same as a moral fact, then? What do you mean by that term, if a necessary truth about goal-driven behavior doesn’t qualify? I’m beginning to suspect that moral nihilists disbelieve in objective ethics because they’ve assigned it an impossible definition.

    • Patrick

      You’ve almost described error theory. The only discrepancy is that moral nihilists didn’t assign the definition of moral facts. Moral nihilism is a position that developed in response to an already existing position that, to this very day, seems to prevail amongst the general public. You need to understand it in its own terms, rather than engage in anachronism.

    • Robert B.

      What does “moral fact” mean?

    • Camels With Hammers

      Or, we can simply redefine moral facts so they can have a tenable definition which makes sense of much of people’s correct intuitions, while correcting for their mistakes. Why should we say, “Well the public has screwed up ideas about this, so let’s just jettison the word and then tell them that their entire experience of morality is FALSE” rather than just correct the mistakes of their account with one better, more naturalistically grounded, like mine is? How is it helpful to misleadingly say all morality is a fiction when it is not—only it’s popular theologically inspired misunderstanding is.

      People used to think thunder was created by the gods. Should we have said there is no such thing as thunder lest people think we were affirming the existence of gods? No, we say the experience of thunder is real, here’s a non-superstitious, factual and logical account of it that is consonant with the rest of scientific knowledge. We do the public a greater service if we do the same in morality rather than let the word be hopelessly defined by hopelessly false and outdated and superstitious notions. My post which started this whole chain of posts addressed just this:

  • thedudediogenes

    Let me take another stab at explaining what I meant by “inert”. That was meant as an explication of “Moral facts…play no explanatory role in our understanding of the world.” I’d like to say a bit more about playing an explanatory role.

    My view on this is best summarized by Brian Leiter’s paper “Moral Facts and Best Explanations”, published in the journal Social Philosophy and Policy and the collection edited by Mark Timmons collection of essays, “Moral Knowledge?”.

    Leiter begins by asking “Do moral properties [or facts - which he uses interchangeably] figure in our best explanatory account of the world?” His answer, no, is argued for as follows (roughly): Our ontology should be determined by what plays a role in our best explanatory schema of the world, and since moral properties play no such explanatory role, we should not think moral facts are real.

    There is a lot of meat in missing from that argument, but rather than try to reproduce Leiter’s argument here in full, I will suggest that one try and read the whole article. MOST of it is available in the Google Books preview of the Timmons volume, so one can at least get a better sense for the argument.

    I think Leiter’s closing paragraph still makes sense without having read the full article:

    We have seen, then, that the argument from explanatory impotence does not necessarily rule out moral realism. The moral realist, however, must bear a double burden. If she is to show that moral facts will figure in the best explanatory picture of the world, she must either (a) defend an account of moral facts as being identical with or supervening upon explanatory nonmoral facts, or (b) argue that dropping moral facts from our ontology results in some explanatory (or cognate) loss. To do (a), however, the moral realist must also do (b); that is, a defense of admitting substantive theses about identity and supervenience into one’s best theory of the world will inevitably depend on a showing of the explanatory or epistemic need for moral facts. Thus, if I am right that doing (b) – which both possible defenses of moral realism require – is probably not possible, then moral realism will have been refuted on explanatory grounds. Perhaps then we may, with greater confidence, join Nietzsche in saying taht when it comes to ethics, “it is a swindle to talk of ‘truth’ in this field.”

    • Camels With Hammers

      Okay, I inferred you might mean this and I addressed it in the post. Do you have an actual counter argument to what I said in the post or to my language of moral facts in my senses? Or are you going to just keep attacking the position that I also think is false (“queer” moral properties sitting inertly in the world) and which has nothing to do with what I actually talk about in post after post about effectiveness relationships, avoidance of practical contradictions, etc. Either read and interact with the substance of what I say or stop saying you disagree with it by referring to people who attack a different target than my ideas as unimpeachable authorities against me.