A Philosophical Polemic Against Moral Nihilism

A Philosophical Polemic Against Moral Nihilism November 18, 2011

Jesse is undeterred by my argument that at least some of our moralities (or elements of them) can be objectively defended even though the physical universe (taken as an entirety) does not care about them:


I haven’t gone deeply enough through the other posts you linked to, and I will — but I think ou avoid the question that I am asking.

Relativity works no matter what you or I think. Atoms give off photons when hit with certain kins of energy. If you and a serial killer jump off the Empire State Building, you will both fall at 9.8 m/s/s and die.

The physical universe doesn’t “care” about what we think — the laws that govern it just are. They work the way they do with zero regard for the behavior of the conscious beings in it.

So, in light of that, I can’t come up with any scheme of behavior that is valid in the same way as Relativity, Newton’s laws, or Quantum Physics is.

Give me any moral proposition you care to — I will make that bet. Any moral idea you come up with and I can argue why it is absolutely immoral. Give me any objective good — name one, any of them — and I bet you five bucks I can come up with a perfectly self-consistent reason why it’s objectively evil.

Slavery? Economic growth. Many of the civilizations that had slavery int he ancient world were quite advanced, and in fact might have owed their advancement to slavery itself.

Murder? Hey, gets rid of competition for resources. More for the rest of us and the species.

Helping old ladies across the street? Absolutely evil. It increases the chance a person who can’t contribute will survive and take more stuff from the rest of us.

Jonathan Swift was able to justify cannibalism.

Understand now what my problem is? Not that I want to be a sociopath, I just have never successfully come up with the same rock – solid argument for behaving like a non-sociopath that I can come up with for why Newton’s mechanics works.

My lengthy philosophical and (occasionally) polemical reply is below the fold:

The first thing that is puzzling is why the fact that seriel killers and I are both subject to the same laws of gravity that there is no difference in moral validity to the ways that we live our lives. There can be no relevant differences between us since we can be conceived of, from a physical point of view, as bodies of mass subject to gravity? This means that no other categories for analyzing us make any valid sense or have any truth to them? If we are going to be this reductionist and sophistical about what are true existences then let’s just go whole hog and say that even thinking about us as “bodies of mass” is not valid since really these can be further reduced to atoms or subatomic particles or some sort of quantum indeterminacies.

There are other levels of categorizations of beings beyond physics. We can talk about chemical and biological and psychological and, yes, even ethical realities without being reductionistic and saying only discussions of quantum mechanics are valid since everything in some sense could eventually be boiled down to that.

And in dealing with different spheres of life there are different standards of validity. To pretend that one thinks that the only way to assess any truth claim is in terms of physics calculations is to be willfully obtuse and in practical contradiction. You do not live your life rejecting all beliefs that are not derived from your careful calculations of physical laws. When you decide what to watch on TV tonight, or who to marry, or whether to punch someone or shake their hand, or who to vote for or what career you want, etc., you are not making predictions about physical events and such physical predictions would be utterly worthless to your thinking about such issues.

And neither are you making these kinds of choices in some utterly arbitrary way. You are not acting in a way that eschews all reasons. You are not a random decision generator acting chaotically. You are a creature with a reason that has been exquisitely honed to make innumerable rational calculations throughout your day which allow you to survive and to thrive. You are also a creature that has the blessing and the curse of deliberate rational capacities that allow you to make complex decisions that even your highly tuned subconscious mind is not equipped to make perfectly. And when you make these choices, you implicitly understand that a whole range of things are objectively good for you and another whole range of things are objectively bad for you. You implicitly understand all sorts of objective means/ends relationships connected to these goods too. And I have written many posts explaining how these can be cashed out in naturalistic, factual terms.

Now, I get it that there are some hard cases of fundamental values choices where highly valuable ends, or the means to attaining them, seem to conflict in deep ways. And there are hard cases of empirical uncertainty about what means really will best achieve the ends we choose. We cannot pretend to give a simple algorithm in any one post for solving all possible ambiguous problems in the future. We can only address specific values questions as carefully and contextually as possible as they arise.

But it is not especially shrewd and knowing to pretend that one does not understand the objective goods for humans or the basic means to attaining them when one thinks philosophically. It is not especially wise to pretend that the best solution to such problems is to act like they must be formulated (laughably) as physics problems so that they will be a priori impossible to solve. The false assumption that only the means of solving physical problems are valid means of solving any questions of truth is one no one makes in daily life. Animals of all kinds understand how to make choices about what practices to pursue and which ones to avoid. It takes only a sophistical human being to play dumb and pretend not to grasp what the right sorts of ways of formulating an understanding of right and wrong action and good and bad ends are.

Even when Jesse offers sophistical hints about how one can rationalize slavery or pretend to not understand the value of helping old ladies cross streets, Jesse implicitly assumes that there are objective goods like survival and economic growth. Jesse does not bother to say to me that slavery might be good because it might economically ruin us all or that helping old ladies across the street would be bad because it would help the species survive. Implicitly, even at Jesse’s most sophistical, the default assumption is that only laughter would follow suggestions that all things being equal our survival is worse than our extinction or our economic ruin is better than our prosperity.

Now, there are choices to be made. How do we choose between the prosperity of the many and the prosperity of the worst off if these are in conflict? Do we want overall prosperity to go up even if it means that the worst off suffer more than they have to? There can be conflicts between mere survival and maximal flourishing. There can be conflicts between choosing between the good of more human lives and the good of better flourishing but less numerous human lives. These are real values conflicts that we would have to painstakingly debate with lots of empirical considerations and no easy algorithm for computing the relevance of them all.

But at least modestly enough I can say some things are airtight goods, all things being equal. If any of the following things could be maximized in all people to the astounding pleasure and satisfaction of all people, then no one could ever seriously (and without practical contradiction) deny their value: intelligence, emotional strength, economic prosperity, social harmony, athleticism, creativity, artistic ability, humorousness, technological inventiveness, unencumbered physical vigor, autonomy, friendship, courage, generosity, patience, kindness, playfulness, merriness, and loyalty. I could list numerous other intrinsic goods of human flourishing, each of which anyone who is honest would admit they would prefer to have if all things were equal and it would cost neither themselves nor anyone else any of the other goods to have it.They are intrinsic and indisputable goods.

You may think it is philosophically hardheaded and say that since there is no physical law that says we must attain these things that they is not an “airtight, valid” proof of their value but that is just using words that are contradicted by your practice and everyone’s practice (or the practice of everyone with full information and full appreciation of exactly the difference between having any of these goods and not having them).

Now I seriously do not think it is good philosophy that pretends, when doing philosophy, that we do not understand implicitly what is good and how it differs from what is bad. Intelligent, non-socio-pathic psychologists, economists, ecologists, medical researchers, parents, athletic coaches, and nearly everyone else on the planet understands implicitly that the goods I listed above are the ones that, all things being equal, they should be turning the attention of their disciplines to creating as much as they can. They may have to deal with very difficult and taxing decisions about trade offs between these values in cases where they cannot be equally maximized. But their disciplines have no problem taking for granted the goods of flourishing that in general they should be concerned with.

But it is somehow philosophically deep to pretend that this is not objective rather to explore what insights into the objectivity are possible? It is philosophically uncompromising to divorce one’s abstract formulation of the question of ends from all awareness of how practical engagement with the pursuit of ends works and all its wisdom? It is philosophically logical to imply that just because calculations of how to weigh competing values is indeterminate by quantitative means that there can never be any discernible better and worse?

If that’s really the best philosophical conclusion, the best we could do with respect to truth on these matters, then to be really consistent and live in a truthful way we should just halt the endless debating and studying about ethical conflicts. If there is no truth about these things, no objectivity, then let’s be serious and honest people who stop living in contradiction and acting “as though there are meaningful, objective distinctions to consider” and let’s be on with it. If you have no reason not to be a serial killer then don’t give me your mealy mouthed assurances you have no qualms with serial killing, prove it to me in practice. Start killing if there really is no valid reason not to.

In fact, send your thoughts on the virtues of slavery to those involved in the sex trade. Here’s an idea—track down a sex slave and give them your disquisition on how slavery is not objectively bad. Find some domestic abuse shelters and show them what a clever person you are and how you can twist things around so that the wife-beaters are moral champions. Why save all this nihilistic wisdom for irrelevant philosophy blogs. Live by your words.

Write stirring defenses of despotism and publish them in millions of copies you donate in war ravaged countries in hopes that the next dictator might gain philosophical inspiration from your sophistries. What would be the difference, right? The laws of gravity don’t care so who gives a fuck?

If you oppose serial murder, despotism, sex slavery, genocide, etc. and fully intend to make arguments against them then either you are implicitly conceding that there is a theoretical objectivity possible towards which it is worth aiming or you contradict yourself every time you marshal an argument as though there is one but when you fully well know there is not one.

If you are going to make arguments for the best means to objective ends, then make them as objectively as you can and admit that implicitly your very attempt to use reasons presupposes you believe in objectivity. Even if it is a contextualized kind. Even if you recognize it is a matter of goods for humans and not for all species or that some moral disputes can be settled objectively differently in different times and places where objective factors are different.

But to me, philosophical truth and responsibility involve either consistent nihilism or acknowledgment that there are degrees of objective truth and that values discussions are not matters for pure arbitrariness.

Finally a few brief teasers on Jesse’s teaser arguments about slavery, cannibalism, etc. Whether or not slavery benefits the enslaved economically and whether economic prosperity that is confined only to a few at the expense of a great majority in the long haul is greater than otherwise, are empirical questions. It may very well be borne out empirically that even for those at the top a significant bit of prosperity in other classes is beneficial and that the situation is really win-win and not zero sum. I do take very seriously though the hard moral questions about whether this is true.

Secondly, though, even were abolition of slavery an economic drag on the richest, I do not think that flourishing human life is defined by material wealth so much as its ability to increase overall power outside of itself. I am powerful insofar as I spread my power outside myself and have it function in others too. When I empower you I can take pride and credit in things you accomplish to the extent that my contribution to them made them possible. Who would not prefer to be George Washington, whose power still lives on in the country, values, and institutions which he so magnificently helped to create, than, say a third world dictator whose only legacy is an impoverished and weakened people? Power is in our ability to flourish according to the objective goods we all—when not being sophistical—understand embody effective human living and is in our ability to spread that flourishing beyond ourselves.

Anyone can kill and destroy other powerful beings. How much harder is it to empower them? How much more power does it require of you and manifest in you to do the latter than the former? You can smash someone’s i-pod to pieces. Can you invent an i-pod? You can sew discord, hatred, war, and economic ruin. Can you create economic prosperity for all (or at least raise the standards for the worst off so that they meet Rawls’s maximin standard, so that any necessary inequalities are maximally tolerable for the worst off)?

You can create “self-consistent” schema wherein heinous practices would be justified theoretically. And there are imaginable circumstances where possibly, say, cannibalism, or (at least temporary) steep inequalities between workers and the wealthy exist because these would genuinely be, in empirically demonstrable ways, the most efficient routes under specific circumstances to creating the maximal flourishing possible for a specific people in terms of all the goods I listed (and more). But that does not mean that just any abstract theoretical world in which those practices are best actually has anything, empirically speaking, to do with our world, in our time and place. And so I don’t care about theoretical models in which possibly we would have to justify heinous things that in our world we clearly don’t have to justify. Yes, I will concede that under the wrongest and most diabolical circumstances even horrible things might be our best recourse. I have only ever argued for moral objectivity in contexts and cannot say that never could cannibalism be our best recourse. But just because our judgments of approvable actions are contextual in this way does not mean they are wholly arbitrary and lacking in any true validity.

Your Thoughts?


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