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, 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”

Immoralism?

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.

  • Ariel

    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

    As I understand, the nihilist posits only that there is no such thing as morally better or worse in reasons. There can still be a reason to choose e.g. that knife instead of this one to kill somebody (it’s sharper, you know!). The conclusion “there can be no such thing as rational actions” doesn’t follow.

    (1) 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”. (2) At least you cannot make the claim that only empirical facts can be true.

    I discuss only (2), because (1) is a longer story – maybe for later. For a moment, take (1) for granted: consider someone who discriminates between better and worse reasons. Why can’t he make the claim that only empirically verifiable propositions can be true (I don’t like talking about facts being true)? A murderer wants to kill somebody. He chooses a knife for this aim. Then we have an empirically verifiable proposition: “knifes of a certain sort are more efficient tools for killing people than other knifes”. Pace (2), our nihilist can still claim that only empirically verifiable propositions are true, he will just add “moral judgments do not belong to this category”.
    As I understand, you are trying to answer the above worry in the next passage:

    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.

    I’m at a loss to understand it. A decision of an agent is deemed “rational” with respect to particular objectives if (to the best of the agent’s knowledge) it’s efficient in producing these objectives. That’s it. What’s the problem? A moral nihilist will just add: “In my opinion moral judgments do not reduce to that sort of the situation – in moral judgments it is the validity (goodness) of the objectives that is always crucial. The instrumentalist account of morality is not believable; the instrumentalist account of rationality is fine with me”. Of course you may question his opinion, but you promised more: you promised an argument showing that nihilism is self-contradictory. And you still don’t have it.
    (You have only: “if the nihilist accepts my own account of morality, there will be a contradiction”. Sure. If the nihilist accepts a non-nihilistic standpoint while remaining a nihilist, there will be a contradiction. If the believer accept the atheist’s claims while believing in God, there will also be a contradiction. That’s obvious and even the nihilists will wholeheartedly agree … while still remaining nihilists :-). Your claim “nihilism is self-contradictory” promised more than such a triviality.)

    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

    I still can’t see it. I can use an instrumentalist account of rationality while admitting that the chain of instrumentalist explanations terminates. I can claim that places where the chains terminate are arbitrary to a substantial degree. In some cases I may be able to find biological/evolutionary explanations for the starting points, but I can still claim that such explanations don’t have much to do with moral reasons in the usual (everyday) sense of the phrase.

    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.

    This connects of course with (1) above. Perhaps I should read more of your essays to understand it – sorry, I haven’t done it yet, and that’s perhaps the reason why I feel so perplexed. Just a couple of questions (if you decide to answer them, it may be by providing a link to an essay (two at most, please!) where you deal specifically with a given question):

    (a) Do you claim that in our ordinary language “good” means “conducive to genuine flourishing”? (In my opinion it would be a really heroic claim – but perhaps it’s not the one you are making)
    (b) Do you claim that we should reform our morality, so that the word “good” from now on will become a synonym of “conducive to genuine flourishing”? (This is consistent with a negative answer to (a))
    (c) What’s the exact meaning of the phrase “genuine flourishing”?
    (d) Does “genuine flourishing” concern individuals, groups, or both? How do you resolve conflicts between the group and the individual perspective? (If you answer “yes” to (b), then I would expect you to convince us that your proposal fares better in this respect than conventional wisdom)

    Ok, this is already too long. There are other issues and more questions here, but I think it’s better to stop now.

    • Robert B.

      Do you claim that in our ordinary language “good” means “conducive to genuine flourishing”? (In my opinion it would be a really heroic claim – but perhaps it’s not the one you are making)

      I know you weren’t talking to me, but this particular question is one I’ve always found interesting.

      The word “good” is ordinarily used to mean “conducive to genuine flourishing” in some cases – very clearly so. Consider the following everyday sentences:

      “Have an orange, they’re good for you.”
      “You do good work.”
      “I’m good at math.”

      This usage is clearly referring to the flourishing of some capacity (or “power” in Nietzche’s terms) of human beings. Now, these usages are generally considered to be practical statements rather than ethical ones. But why should those be different things? Wouldn’t proper ethics have to be practical? And isn’t there an aspect of “oughtness” or praise in these “practical” sentences?

      People do use the word “good” (and related terms like “right” and “wrong”) to mean “conducive to genuine flourishing.” People also use the word in a moral or ethical sense that they imagine is distinct – but I hold that it isn’t, that to offer an orange because it is good for you is to make an ethical or “ought” statement, with the implicit premise that you ought to do things that are good for you. If I’m right, Dr. Fincke is merely identifying one common usage of “good” as superior to or more fundamental than other usages. He’s not using the word in a nonstandard or novel way, nor is he trying to claim that everyone who uses the word “good” means exactly what he does. (And when you think about it, if everyone was in agreement about what the word “good” meant, we wouldn’t need to study ethics.)

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

      The issue here is that there is no reason to think that all normative claims are also ethical ones, which is what you seem to rely on. I think, for example, that one can have a normative view of what it means to know or to be a knower, but there seems to be absolutely no ethical commitment there whatsoever. So, even if one can say that the “good” in the orange case is a normative claim — and I’m skeptical about that — there’s no reason to think that that usage is therefore an ethical claim, and then no direct link from that, then, to the instrumental definition of what moral means.

    • Robert B.

      Oh, wait, I think I get it. You use “normative” here to mean relating to correctness or incorrectness, right? I thought you meant relating to community standards or a typical person.

      First of all, I don’t know about Dr. Fincke, but for myself I don’t feel very concerned, in terms of philosophical fundamentals, with what human beings feel is the right thing to do. There’s no reason why what we feel to be good has to be the same as what actually is good – if the two match up, it is because of evolution or a healthy society or good luck or some other contingent factor, not because of logical necessity. And given the human brain’s imperfect track record, it is entirely unsurprising that they do not always match.

      So, given that, it’s hard to see how an ethical statement and a normative statement could be distinguished. (That’s “normative” in the sense I think you mean, referring to correctness or incorrectness.) They’re both simply talking about what a person should do. Isn’t it tautological to say that we should do whatever is correct to do?

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

      First, I use “normative” as basically a synonym for “ought” or “value”; it’s another way of talking about the same distinction. I prefer to use “descriptive/normative” instead of “is/ought” or “fact/value” because I think it’s clearer. For example, take your statement of “Oranges are good for you”. That can be a completely descriptive comment, saying that oranges contribute to health with no normative or ought force. “Have an orange” may simply be a suggestion with, again, no actual normative force. Or it can be a normative prescription.

      Anyway, my real comment was that while all ethical claims are normative, not all normative claims are ethical, which means that you can’t examine how good is used in other normative statements and say that that’s how good is to be taken in ethical ones. While they are all normative, what good means will vary based on the subject matter discussed. After all, even if we take your statement about oranges to be a normative claim, that in no way makes it an ethical normative claim.

    • Ariel

      The word “good” is ordinarily used to mean “conducive to genuine flourishing” in some cases – very clearly so.

      Since I’m not sure what “genuine flourishing” means (I’ve already said that much), there is nothing particularly clear to me here.

      “Have an orange, they’re good for you.”
      “You do good work.”
      “I’m good at math.”
      (…)
      And isn’t there an aspect of “oughtness” or praise in these “practical” sentences?
      (…)
      People also use the word in a moral or ethical sense that they imagine is distinct – but I hold that it isn’t, that to offer an orange because it is good for you is to make an ethical or “ought” statement, with the implicit premise that you ought to do things that are good for you.

      One issue (mentioned already by Verbose Stoic) is that not all normative claims seem to be ethical ones. I will come back to this just in a moment. I want to start with another observation: it is that sentences of this sort are not always associated with “oughtness”. My impression is that the “oughtness” aspect is external, it comes with our independent evaluation of a given activity. Compare:

      “Be careful, he is a good swindler.”

      This is like your “being good at math” example and I would say that it carries no “oughtness” aspect. In addition, if you want to argue that “x is good for you” functions in fact as a moral statement, you would have to consider also sentences where a moral verdict conflicts (quite explicitly) with the utility verdict. E.g.

      “Cheating is wrong, but sometimes it can be good for you.”

      I can easily imagine a context in which such a sentence would be uttered without producing any puzzlement at all. Treating such sentences as contradictory (giving conflicting ethical assessments) seems to me inadequate as a description of our linguistic habits. Can you “explain away” the impression that only the first part of this sentence (not the second one) concerns morality and that there is in fact no inconsistency here?

      Dr. Fincke is merely identifying one common usage of “good” as superior to or more fundamental than other usages. He’s not using the word in a nonstandard or novel way, nor is he trying to claim that everyone who uses the word “good” means exactly what he does.

      I would like to have a confirmation from Daniel, but I also think that’s probably what’s going on here. It is in fact my (b) possibility: we take one usage and we try to reform other uses (commonly referred to as “moral”) so that they fit this mould.

      I don’t feel very concerned, in terms of philosophical fundamentals, with what human beings feel is the right thing to do. There’s no reason why what we feel to be good has to be the same as what actually is good

      Sure. But it becomes a lot more complicated if you want to make claims like my (a) or even (b) in your modified version. The question then is not so much about “what human beings feel is the right thing to do” as “to what extend the projected usage conforms with ordinary usage of ‘good’”.

      it’s hard to see how an ethical statement and a normative statement could be distinguished. (That’s “normative” in the sense I think you mean, referring to correctness or incorrectness.) They’re both simply talking about what a person should do.

      Are you sure you want to say that norms regulating etiquette (like table manners etc.), cooking, grammar, esthetic, are moral norms? (Oh, damn all these immoral foreigners and lower class bastards, who spoil beautiful English!) Of course you can redefine your notion of a moral norm in such a way as to cover all these cases. As for me, I don’t want such a definition – looks pretty useless – but definitions are just definitions, so suit yourself.

    • Robert B.

      Dr. Fincke (and, I gather, Nietzsche), uses “general flourishing” to mean maximizing something’s ability to do whatever that sort of thing does. Humans “flourish” if they become more able to do the sort of things humans do, such as reasoning, feeling, and living. It’s important to point out that Nietzsche-style ethics value maximizing one’s own flourishing, not that of anyone or anything else. On the other hand, Dr. Fincke apparently concludes (as I do) that helping or not harming other people is usually beneficial to oneself in the long run.

      I doubt any logically coherent model of ethics would completely explain the way people talk about ethics, because humans in practice don’t always act or speak in a logically coherent way. One needs to demonstrate a rough correspondence between the formal and casual definitions of “good,” just to be sure one is discussing ethics rather than something else, but an exact match just isn’t going to be possible.

      Both your examples concern a specific exception to a general rule. If I were to say “cheating is wrong,” I would mean that “cheating is generally wrong because [practical argument, probably based on the Prisoner's Dilemma].” If I say that cheating is nevertheless sometimes good for me, there are two possibilities for what I mean. Maybe I’m being shortsighted and not considering the long-term considerations that led to the general rule, in which case I am making a contradiction or error. Or maybe I’m recognizing that, in some specific cases, the benefits of cheating may outweigh the general downsides. In other words, “Cheating is (generally) wrong, but sometimes it’s actually good for you (and therefore right.)”

      As for being a good swindler, the general rule is that it’s better to be skilled at something than inept. However, swindling in particular is not a good thing to do (except in a few rare cases, like scamming criminals to recover stolen property.) It’s not a contradiction to describe a skilled swindler with value-positive terms like “good,” because both goodness and badness are in play here. Skill is a positive value, but theft is negative, and it’s understood that the negative consequences of swindling people outweigh the positive consequences of doing it well. (In other words, you’re still screwing yourself over in the end, even if you get the loot and don’t get caught.)

      I don’t often use the word “moral” because it connotes an emotional judgement, but yes, I would say that your special cases of normative rules (etiquette and so on) are about ethics/goodness. It’s just that they’re contingent goods – they’re good for achieving goals that not everyone rightfully has. Being polite is good because it helps you get along with people, which most people need to do, but the specific good ways to do that vary widely depending on who these people are and your relationship to them. The norms of cooking are good if you want to create safe and tasty food. Aesthetics are good if you want to create something that people (or a certain group of people) find beautiful. And the goodness of “good grammar” is based on the assumption that this pattern of speech or writing will allow your audience to best understand you.

      I understand that this definition of good/ethical isn’t identical to the common one. I find it useful, though, because it makes ethics less ambiguous and more comprehensive. Any question of what I ought to do is an ethical question that can be answered on ethical grounds. There’s no need for any emotional, mystical, or societal quality that makes ethical “oughts” different from other “oughts.” And there’s never any conflict between what I ought to do for ethical reasons and what I ought to do for other reasons – any conflicts are between different parts of ethics and can be resolved according to consistent ethical rules.

    • Ariel

      Humans “flourish” if they become more able to do the sort of things humans do, such as reasoning, feeling, and living.

      Here goes my present understanding of your position – correct me please if I’m wrong.

      What you are proposing is really some sort of deontological ethics. At the start you have a list of moral obligations (delete “moral” if you prefer) grouped under the heading “flourishing”. A man ought to do whatever maximizes his flourishing – that’s a general rule. The details are explained by producing a list. On this approach, “flourishing” could be composed e.g. of such values as: correct reasoning, pleasure, life, love … (these are just examples – make your choice and compose your own list).

      I know that in the above quote you try to give a general characterization (on the face of it, it doesn’t look like the “list” approach), but taken literally this provokes only questions like: “well, making mistakes is also a sort of things humans do. Do they ‘flourish’ if they become more able to make mistakes”? At the moment I can think only of the “list” approach as a remedy – if you have something else in mind, let me know.

      In this context I’m a bit troubled by your later comment (originally concerning etiquette and such stuff):

      It’s just that they’re contingent goods – they’re good for achieving goals that not everyone rightfully has.

      What does it mean to “rightfully have” an item on one’s flourishing list? How the list is decided? By opinion poll? [My worry is that cross-culture opinion polls would produce rather unimpressive results, too meager as a basis for practical decisions.] Some other methods? And how the items on the list are weighted against one another? Opinion polls again, something else, or maybe you are inclined to admit a large degree of arbitrariness here? [I wrote a fragment here with seven more questions. I decided to delete it – it makes no sense to ask about too many things at the same time. This is just to let you know that I still find the proposal very unclear.]

      humans in practice don’t always act or speak in a logically coherent way.

      Yes, I guessed that you would remain unimpressed by my examples of colloquial usage – you present yourselves as reformists after all. However, at this moment I’m not sure at all how much of a reformist you are. The answer depends on the details of your procedure for compiling the “flourishing” list. You didn’t provide these details and in such a broad framework it would be even possible to recommend traditional Christian ethics as a final outcome :-)

      any conflicts are between different parts of ethics and can be resolved according to consistent ethical rules.

      My phrasing would be rather that you don’t have a concept of an ethical rule. You have a general concept of a rule, and that’s it, with “ethical” being an empty (rather useless) embellishment. (Why not call them “aesthetical” instead?) My opinion is that a richer terminology is more useful, e.g. it indicates and categorizes the types of contexts most relevant for a given discussion. But as I said, it’s only a definition, and quarrelling about words is generally boring. So make your choice.

  • Robert B.

    Actually, I’ve always found the idea that ethical truths can be reduced to empirical facts to be very important, and a strong litmus test for good ethics. After all, I’ve never seen any good explanation of how something can be said to “exist” or be “true” without a basis in empirical fact. (Whether these facts are accessible to science in particular is another matter – as a way of discovering facts, science is very powerful but cannot be infinitely powerful.)

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

      Mathematics and the rules of logic seem to be at least true if not existent, but they are not empirically grounded in any interesting way.

    • Robert B.

      On the contrary, mathematics has a profound empirical grounding. The very fact that we can use math to accurately model such a broad range of phenomena, from medication dosage to macroeconomics to electrons, reveals that math is a fundamental part of how we observe the world to work. How could something that is so often practical and useful be considered to have no empirical grounding?

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

      Isn’t this circular? You seem to be claiming that all things that have practical value must be empirically grounded by saying that if it has practical use it must be empirically grounded.

      What I mean here by “empirically grounded” is that its truth is generated and justified by empirical investigation. This does not seem to be true of mathematics or logic; there is no empirical investigation that can either justify or disprove one of their contentions. That they’re useful in the empirical world is not in doubt, but if we discovered that you could not, say, take the derivative of the velocity equation and get the acceleration equation that would not in any way show that derivation as a mathematical operation was wrong.

    • Robert B.

      Not so much circular, but maybe a bit tautological – if something (like math) verifiably describes the world, it must be empirically grounded by definition. And when we put math to use, and it works, haven’t we just verified that it describes the world?

      (You say that “empirically grounded” means “generated and justified by empirical investigation.” I don’t think “generated” is essential there. If you make a wild guess about something, or for that matter a theoretical prediction in the absence of data, you are generating that information other than empirically. But if you are later proved right by evidence, that information has become empirically grounded. The existence of Australia was predicted before its discovery on theoretical grounds, and it wasn’t even a good theory, but obviously Australia is empirically grounded now.)

      Therefore, if a piece of math, like the derivative, has any real-world application, that math has been empirically justified as true to fact. Empirically disproving a piece of math would require us to know everything about the universe, so we could be sure that the math didn’t match any of it. Obviously we can’t do that in practice. But consider a function where f(x) = the last nonzero digit in the decimal representation of x. I think a mathematician would find something “silly” about this function, even though it could be mathematically useful as an example of a function that is nowhere continuous, or with a really funky domain and range. “False” may not be exactly the right way to describe it, but my function is probably not real in the same way that unicorns aren’t real, even though f(x) is a valid mathematical function and “unicorn” is a valid English word.

  • Patrick

    “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.”

    If I’m understanding you correctly, you’re deeply confused about what moral nihilists do and do not deny, which is… odd.

    I’m not aware of moral nihilism denying that statements like, “I value X” can be objectively true statements. And if by “X is valuable on some level” you mean the level of my subjective opinions about value, then moral nihilists don’t deny that either, to my understanding.

    But what of it?

  • Robert B.

    Wait, normative? I’m sorry, I don’t understand. I didn’t mean to be referring to norms, though I suppose I’m just as capable of not examining my implicit premises as anyone else.

    Would you mind explaining how norms or normative statements entered into my argument?

    • Robert B.

      Drat, this was meant to be threaded in response to Verbose Stoic at 1.1.1.

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

      “Descriptive/normative” is just another way of talking about “is/ought” or “fact/value”.

  • Robert B.

    @ Verbose Stoic:

    You seem to be using your words in a way that’s unfamiliar to me. What do you mean by “ethics” and “ethical” if you’re not referring to the study of what one ought to do? For that matter, I don’t understand how it’s logically possible for a suggestion to not be normative, by the definition of “normative” you gave.

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

      Sorry about the late reply, but there are a few issues here:

      First, what I call “normative” is ANY ought claim, but I deny that all ought claims are ethical. Part of this was accepting your notion — that, you’ll remember, I find controversial — that “Have an orange; they’re good for you” is actually a normative or strong ought claim. That may be true, but if your mother told you to have an orange because it was good for you and you decided instead to have a Twinkie, it would seem quite odd to say that you did something immoral. Unhealthy, sure, but not immoral. And so if the case you yourself cited really is a case of normativity, then there are cases that are normative but not ethical, and so you can’t simply say “There’s an ought in the sentence so it’s an ethical contention”, and so can’t read ethical good from any instance of normative good.

      So, suggestions. Let’s say that you want a snack, and your mother says “Have an orange”. That’s clearly just a suggestion; there’s no normative component there at all. Let’s say that she says “Have an orange; they’re good for you”. There still might not be any normative component because she may simply be giving you a suggestion along with a reason for why you might want to do that. Some people say that this is all we can get for ethics, but I disagree (that’s why this is controversial). For me, to be a real normative claim it has to have FORCE, in the sense that you can reasonably be said to be wrong in some objective sense, meaning that in this case you are “unsnacky” if you don’t follow the prescription. Which makes no sense here. There might be a normative of “healthy” here, but unless one argues that all snacks have to be healthy that doesn’t seem like a relevant concern.

      One problem I think you might be having is conflating “should” and “ought”. All suggestions are, in some sense, shoulds, but the term “ought” when we’re talking about normative things has a different and much stronger meaning than should, since should is a descriptive assessment and ought is an actual binding prescriptive rule, at least to me.

  • El

    Please show how something can be morally right or wrong, without appealing to an obvious logical fallacy.

  • asfas

    How does reason relate to what is good? Hitler used reason, just as Gandhi did. Those two are usually considered to be opposites in terms of their ethics, by most people. Reason is neutral.

    Also, as a nihilist, I say there’s nothing wrong with believing in ethics and pretending you believe in it. There’s NOTHING to say TRUTH HAS VALUE. Look at evolution. Our brains weren’t selected for because they help us find the truth. They were selected for because they help us survive long enough to pass on our genes. Don’t believe me? What do you make of cognitive biases?

    Reason is an instrument of our goals, which are guided by our emotions. Pure reason is neutral. That applies even when you use reason to make up a lie to deceive someone else, because in that case it would be true that if you said lie X to person Y, person Y is likely to perform action Z, which is what you wanted in the first place before you proceeded to lie. Perhaps a simple (and obviously incomplete) definition for it is that reason is merely the ability to derive some truth from nature. It helps us understand cause and effect. Helps us understand facts about the world around us, and about ourselves. But pure reason is neutral with regards to one value or another. I like to think of reason being a vehicle. And emotions are the driver that determine in what way reason is to be used.

    Things just are. That’s all there is to it. You are welcome (or unwelcome) to believe (or not believe) in whatever you want (or don’t want). Nothing really matters outside of our brains. Truth is of no value objectively speaking. I simply PREFER truth in this case. That’s all. I can’t make an argument that EVERYONE OUGHT TO VALUE TRUTH. Though, I could use force. Nothing can prove that’s wrong.


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