Moral nihilism

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Moral nihilism (also known as ethical nihilism) is the meta-ethical view that nothing is morally right or wrong.

Meta-ethics is the branch of ethics that seeks to understand the nature of ethical properties, statements, attitudes, and judgments. Meta-ethics is one of the three branches of ethics generally studied by philosophers, the others being normative ethics and applied ethics.

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Moral nihilism is distinct from moral relativism, which allows for actions wrong relative to a particular culture or individual. It is also distinct from expressivism, according to which when we make moral claims, "We are not making an effort to describe the way the world is ... we are venting our emotions, commanding others to act in certain ways, or revealing a plan of action" (Shafer-Landau 2010, pp. 292–293).

Moral relativism may be any of several philosophical positions concerned with the differences in moral judgments across different people and cultures. Descriptive moral relativism holds only that some people do in fact disagree about what is moral; meta-ethical moral relativism holds that in such disagreements, nobody is objectively right or wrong; and normative moral relativism holds that because nobody is right or wrong, we ought to tolerate the behavior of others even when we disagree about the morality of it.

In meta-ethics, expressivism is a theory about the meaning of moral language. According to expressivism, sentences that employ moral terms – for example, "It is wrong to torture an innocent human being" – are not descriptive or fact-stating; moral terms such as "wrong", "good", or "just" do not refer to real, in-the-world properties. The primary function of moral sentences, according to expressivism, is not to assert any matter of fact, but rather to express an evaluative attitude toward an object of evaluation. Because the function of moral language is non-descriptive, moral sentences do not have any truth conditions. Hence, expressivists either do not allow that moral sentences have truth value, or rely on a notion of truth that does not appeal to any descriptive truth conditions being met for moral sentences.

Nihilism does not imply that we should give up using moral or ethical language; some nihilists contend that it remains a useful tool.

Forms of nihilism

Moral nihilists agree that all claims such as 'murder is morally wrong' are not true. But different nihilistic views differ in two ways.

Some may say that such claims are neither true nor false; others say that they are all false.

Nihilists differ in the scope of their theories. Error theorists typically claim that it is only distinctively moral claims which are false; practical nihilists claim that there are no reasons for action of any kind; some nihilists extend this claim to include reasons for belief.

Ethical language: false versus not truth-apt

J. L. Mackie argues that moral assertions are only true if there are moral properties, but because there are none, all such claims are false (Mackie 1997).

J. L. Mackie Australian philosopher

John Leslie Mackie was an Australian philosopher. He made significant contributions to the philosophy of religion, metaphysics, and the philosophy of language, and is perhaps best known for his views on meta-ethics, especially his defence of moral scepticism. He authored six books. His most widely known, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (1977), opens by boldly stating that "There are no objective values." It goes on to argue that because of this ethics must be invented, rather than discovered.

Other versions of the theory claim that moral assertions are not true because they are neither true nor false. This form of moral nihilism claims that moral beliefs and assertions presuppose the existence of moral facts that do not exist. Consider, for example, the claim that the present king of France is bald. Some argue that this claim is neither true nor false because it presupposes that there is currently a king of France, but there is not. The claim suffers from "presupposition failure". Richard Joyce (2001) argues for this form of moral nihilism under the name "fictionalism".

Richard Joyce (philosopher) British-New Zealand moral philosopher

Richard Joyce is a British-Australian-New Zealand philosopher, known for his contributions to the fields of meta-ethics and moral psychology. He is Professor of Philosophy at Victoria University of Wellington.

The scope question

Error theory is built on three principles:

  1. There are no moral features in this world; nothing is right or wrong.
  2. Therefore, no moral judgements are true; however,
  3. Our sincere moral judgments try, but always fail, to describe the moral features of things.

Thus, we always lapse into error when thinking in moral terms. We are trying to state the truth when we make moral judgments. But since there is no moral truth, all of our moral claims are mistaken. Hence the error. These three principles lead to the conclusion that there is no moral knowledge. Knowledge requires truth. If there is no moral truth, there can be no moral knowledge. Thus moral values are purely chimerical (Shafer-Landau 2010, pp 292–293).

Arguments for nihilism

Argument from queerness

The most prominent argument for nihilism is the argument from queerness.

J. L. Mackie argues that there are no objective ethical values, by arguing that they would be queer (strange):

Moral realism is the position that ethical sentences express propositions that refer to objective features of the world, some of which may be true to the extent that they report those features accurately. This makes moral realism a non-nihilist form of ethical cognitivism with an ontological orientation, standing in opposition to all forms of moral anti-realism and moral skepticism, including ethical subjectivism, error theory ; and non-cognitivism. Within moral realism, the two main subdivisions are ethical naturalism and ethical non-naturalism.

If there were objective values, then they would be entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe (Mackie 1977, p. 38).

For all those who also find such entities queer (prima facie implausible), there is reason to doubt the existence of objective values.

In his book Morality without Foundations: A Defense of Ethical Contextualism (1999), Mark Timmons provides a reconstruction of Mackie's views in the form of the two related arguments. These are based on the rejection of properties, facts, and relationships that do not fit within the worldview of philosophical naturalism, the idea "that everything—including any particular events, facts, properties, and so on—is part of the natural physical world that science investigates" (1999, p. 12). Timmons adds, "The undeniable attraction of this outlook in contemporary philosophy no doubt stems from the rise of modern science and the belief that science is our best avenue for discovering the nature of reality" (Timmons 1999, pp. 12–13).

In logic and philosophy, an argument is a series of statements, called the premises or premisses, intended to determine the degree of truth of another statement, the conclusion. The logical form of an argument in a natural language can be represented in a symbolic formal language, and independently of natural language formally defined "arguments" can be made in math and computer science.

Contemporary philosophy

Contemporary philosophy is the present period in the history of Western philosophy beginning at the early 20th century with the increasing professionalization of the discipline and the rise of analytic and continental philosophy.

There are several ways in which moral properties are supposedly queer:

Responses and criticisms

Christine Korsgaard (1996) responds to Mackie by saying:

Of course there are entities that meet these criteria. It's true that they are queer sorts of entities and that knowing them isn't like anything else. But that doesn't mean that they don't exist.... For it is the most familiar fact of human life that the world contains entities that can tell us what to do and make us do it. They are people, and the other animals. (Korsgaard, p. 166)

Other criticisms of the argument include noting that for the very fact that such entities would have to be something fundamentally different from what we normally experience—and therefore assumably outside our sphere of experience—we cannot prima facie have reason to either doubt or affirm their existence; therefore, if one had independent grounds for supposing such things to exist (such as, for instance, a reductio ad absurdum of the contrary) then the argument from queerness cannot give one any particular reason to think otherwise. An argument along these lines has been provided by e.g. Akeel Bilgrami (2006).

Argument from explanatory impotence

Gilbert Harman argued that we do not need to posit the existence of objective values in order to explain our 'moral observations' (Harman 1977, chapter 1).

See also

Related Research Articles

In analytic philosophy, anti-realism is an epistemological position first articulated by British philosopher Michael Dummett. The term was coined as an argument against a form of realism Dummett saw as 'colorless reductionism'.

Ethics branch of philosophy that systematizes, defends, and recommends concepts of right and wrong conduct

Ethics or moral philosophy is a branch of philosophy that involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct. The field of ethics, along with aesthetics, concerns matters of value, and thus comprises the branch of philosophy called axiology.

Ethical naturalism is the meta-ethical view which claims that:

  1. Ethical sentences express propositions.
  2. Some such propositions are true.
  3. Those propositions are made true by objective features of the world, independent of human opinion.
  4. These moral features of the world are reducible to some set of non-moral features

Non-cognitivism is the meta-ethical view that ethical sentences do not express propositions and thus cannot be true or false. A noncognitivist denies the cognitivist claim that "moral judgments are capable of being objectively true, because they describe some feature of the world". If moral statements cannot be true, and if one cannot know something that is not true, noncognitivism implies that moral knowledge is impossible.

In philosophical ethics, the term naturalistic fallacy was introduced by British philosopher G. E. Moore in his 1903 book Principia Ethica. Moore argues it would be fallacious to explain that which is good reductively, in terms of natural properties such as pleasant or desirable.

Moral universalism is the meta-ethical position that some system of ethics, or a universal ethic, applies universally, that is, for "all similarly situated individuals", regardless of culture, race, sex, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, or any other distinguishing feature. Moral universalism is opposed to moral nihilism and moral relativism. However, not all forms of moral universalism are absolutist, nor are they necessarily value monist; many forms of universalism, such as utilitarianism, are non-absolutist, and some forms, such as that of Isaiah Berlin, may be value pluralist.

Moral skepticism is a class of metaethical theories all members of which entail that no one has any moral knowledge. Many moral skeptics also make the stronger, modal claim that moral knowledge is impossible. Moral skepticism is particularly opposed to moral realism: the view that there are knowable and objective moral truths.

This Index of ethics articles puts articles relevant to well-known ethical debates and decisions in one place - including practical problems long known in philosophy, and the more abstract subjects in law, politics, and some professions and sciences. It lists also those core concepts essential to understanding ethics as applied in various religions, some movements derived from religions, and religions discussed as if they were a theory of ethics making no special claim to divine status.

Cognitivism is the meta-ethical view that ethical sentences express propositions and can therefore be true or false, which noncognitivists deny. Cognitivism is so broad a thesis that it encompasses moral realism, ethical subjectivism, and error theory.

Is–ought problem Philosophical problem articulated by David Hume in 1739

The is–ought problem, as articulated by the Scottish philosopher and historian David Hume, states that many writers make claims about what ought to be, based on statements about what is. Hume found that there seems to be a significant difference between positive statements and prescriptive or normative statements, and that it is not obvious how one can coherently move from descriptive statements to prescriptive ones. The is–ought problem is also known as Hume's law, Hume's guillotine or fact–value gap.

The open-question argument is a philosophical argument put forward by British philosopher G. E. Moore in §13 of Principia Ethica (1903), to refute the equating of the property of goodness with some non-moral property, X, whether naturalistic or supernatural. That is, Moore's argument attempts to show that no moral property is identical to a natural property. The argument takes the form of syllogistic modus tollens:

Ethical intuitionism is a family of views in moral epistemology. At minimum, ethical intuitionism is the thesis that our intuitive awareness of value, or intuitive knowledge of evaluative facts, forms the foundation of our ethical knowledge.

Philippa Foot British philosopher

Philippa Ruth Foot, FBA was a British philosopher. She was one of the founders of contemporary virtue ethics, inspired by the ethics of Aristotle. Her later career marked a significant change in view from her work in the 1950s and 1960s, and may be seen as an attempt to modernize Aristotelian ethical theory, to show that it is adaptable to a contemporary world view, and thus, that it could compete with such popular theories as modern deontological and utilitarian ethics. Some of her work was crucial in the re-emergence of normative ethics within analytic philosophy, especially her critique of consequentialism and of non-cognitivism. A familiar example is the continuing discussion of an example of hers referred to as the trolley problem. Foot's approach was influenced by the later work of Wittgenstein, although she rarely dealt explicitly with materials treated by him. She was the granddaughter of American President Grover Cleveland.

Quasi-realism is the meta-ethical view which claims that:

  1. Ethical sentences do not express propositions.
  2. Instead, ethical sentences project emotional attitudes as though they were real properties.

References

Further reading

About the queerness argument