Why Moral Nihilism Is Self-Contradictory

My post against moral nihilism on Friday received many stimulating replies. I hope to address those replies, or their general concerns, as there is time and occasion in future posts. In this post–and in another I have written for later today–I want to start by answering thedudediogenes. He is the most seemingly self-conscious moral nihilist among my commenters and, as such, he was able to crystallize some of moral nihilism’s key points of contrast with my position.

In this post I will answer his query as to why I claimed that there were inherently practical contradictions in being a moral nihilist while nonetheless adhering to moral norms.

He asks me:

Supposing moral skepticism is right, why OUGHT the non-existence of moral facts or truths affect how I live my life? I suppose I could attempt to change my moral sentiments, but I quite like them the way they are. I like disliking rape and murder and torture and misogyny and homophobia. I am a moral skeptic, but why must I live nihilistically (whatever that might mean)? Where does that “must” come from?

Rational action is guided by reasons. In a rational action we perceive as best we can what is in our interest and we act accordingly. This is a matter of form. Some actions are rational in the sense that they involve pursuing what appears to be best for us, but irrational in that they are made based on illogical inferences. Other actions are rational in that they are made out of perception of what is best for us and rational in that they involve no logical errors, but they are still mistaken because, due to factors unbeknownst to us, they do not actually achieve what is best for us in fact. Actions not done for any reasons at all would be a-rational.

Doing an action for a reason means thinking that the reasons supporting the action are better than the reasons for all the alternative available actions or for inaction. If there is not a consideration of better and worse in reasoning then it is a-rational, not rational. If an action is, in such a way, not done for reasons, then it is not rightly called rational.

So, if you posit that there can be no such thing as better or worse in reasons then there can be no such thing as rational actions. There cannot even be irrational actions. You need to forego all such references to such judgments. You cannot even judge it rational to follow your own likes over your dislikes. That is merely arbitrary. You cannot judge epistemological choices to believe without evidence to be irrational and you cannot judge your empiricism to be rational. And you cannot tell me that there is some sort of flaw or wrongness in my reasoning when I disagree with you about moral nihilism.

So, if you deny that there can be better and worse reasons for actions, you deny the validity of reason and you contradict this denial in practice each time you offer me reasons full well believing that they are more rational than mine and that they are in support of better founded conclusions than mine.

Now, if you accept that there can be reasons that are “better” and others that are “worse” for guiding actions, taken on a case by case basis at least, then you will not be able to dismiss the sorts of considerations I mean when I talk about “moral” and “immoral”. At least you cannot make the claim that only empirical facts can be true. If you say that then you cannot say that the choice to believe in accord with empiricism is in any sense truly better than the choice not to. This means you cannot say it is in any sense truly rational to do so. You may not even say you do it because it is simply “useful” to do so since this implies that usefulness provides a valid (i.e., “true” or “good”) reason to do it and then you’re back in the same trap.

You must, for as long as you are a rational being make value judgments as though they are perceptions of some truth about value–even if the only value judgment is that doing what one likes most is the objectively valuable thing. You have to admit some things can be “better”. You must acknowledge that some values can be “true” even if they are not just empirical facts that can be catalogued by science. (But, actually, I think these truths are reducible, in philosophically defensible ways, to facts which are empirically objective.) You have to accept norms on some level have standards of better and worse. Morality–properly demythologized, taken not in absolutist terms but in pragmatic, consequentialist terms and contextualized so that it only refers to what conduces to genuine flourishing in specific times and places–is just a species of such norms. Saying a moral judgment is true should be no more scandalously superstitious than saying that science yields truer accounts of the world than superstition.

To avoid practical contradiction, you need to avoid all implicit and explicit attitudes that the reasons for which you act, and assent to beliefs, are governed by truths about better and worse. This is a sheer impossibility for as long as you are a rational being and, especially, for as long as you engage in arguments about anything.

I will address the rest of thedudediogenes’s remarks in another post, already written, which will appear this afternoon.

In the meantime,

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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.


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