Really, if you want to understand what moral nihilism means to me, you should just watch this video:
[Transcript below the cut at the end of the post.]
But apparently I am not allowed to outsource all my blog posts to Terry Pratchett, as much as that would improve my writing style. So now I must go about explaining my nihilism. Please note that I am strictly talking about moral nihilism here, which I’m going to refer to as “nihilism” for the rest of the post because I like saving on the typing. There are lots of other kinds of nihilism, and most of them make my head hurt (I am down with the existential nihilism though). I am not the person to ask about mereological nihilism.
When I say I’m a nihilist, I mean that I believe that there is no such thing as objective morality. All morality is just a kind of preference– when you say “X is morally right” you mean “I would prefer to live in a world where there was X.” It’s erroneous to think that there is an objective system of morals Out There, the same way that it is erroneous to think that, just because I prefer lima beans to microwave popcorn, there is an objective scale of tastiness with lima beans at the top and microwave popcorn at the bottom.
When I say I’m a utilitarian, I mean “I really like happiness, and I really don’t like pain. In fact, these feelings are so strong I want the most possible happiness and the least possible pain!” But I believe that there’s no way I can convince you to like happiness unless you already like happiness. If you believe that gaining honor through war is the highest goal of human life, or (like many medieval Christians) that suffering is good because it leads to the purification of the soul, the closest thing I can come to an argument is “look at all this unnecessary pain you’re causing! You monster!” Which is not really a good argument, because if they primarily cared about minimizing human pain they’d be utilitarians and we wouldn’t be having this argument.
When I argue for assisted suicide after counselling, I say “assisted suicide lets people die if the rest of their life would contain too much pain, which is good because pain makes people unhappy, which is bad because happiness is good, which is good because… I don’t know, it just is.” Similarly, someone else might argue “if people commit assisted suicide they will die, which is bad because they could have lived longer, which is bad because life is good, which is good because… I don’t know, it just is.” And a third person might argue “assisted suicide should be available upon demand, because that way people can die when they want to, which is good because people can control their own bodies, which is good because freedom is good, which is good because… I don’t know, it just is.” I see no reason to prioritize my “just is” over other people’s.
(Of course, you can value freedom or life as a means to happiness. But that’s not what I’m talking about. Many people do, in fact, view both of the above as ends in themselves.)
It’s true that human morality tends to share certain traits cross-culturally, which at first blush is evidence for some kind of objective moral system. But– well, first, I’m disinclined to accept that argument because I’d suddenly have to start believing that obedience to authority and maintaining purity are morally good instead of two of the largest sources of evil. And second, all of the moral beliefs found cross-culturally are things that have obvious evolutionary advantages for a social species. Is it more likely that there are objective morals that we have developed a “moral sense” for, or that humans who were loyal to their friends tended to survive better than humans that weren’t? And if the former, do vampire bats have a moral sense too?
Whenever I say I’m a nihilist, someone immediately concludes that I’m contradicting myself because I have a moral system and do things like “only buy ethically made clothes” and “eat veganish” and “give a tenth of my income to charity” and “blog about social justice.” This makes no sense to me. It’s like saying “saying you like lima beans is a fact about your brain, not a fact about lima beans. Therefore you should like lima beans and microwave popcorn equally!” My morality is an arbitrary preference I have, I arbitrarily happen to prefer happiness to unhappiness, and I act to increase the amount of happiness in the world. Where’s the contradiction?
There are also people who believe that, since I don’t believe morals exist except as human preferences, I shouldn’t judge other people’s morals. This makes no sense to me either. There is only so much happiness I can cause! If I want to maximize human happiness, I need to get other people on board with Happiness and the Maximizing Thereof. Social shaming is an excellent method of convincing people of things, particularly things that are fundamentally arational. (To put it another way: my arbitrary moral preference does not include an arbitrary moral preference for not shaming other people’s arbitrary moral preferences. Nyeh.)
(Arbitrary moral preference has stopped looking like words.)
Susan: Now, tell me–
Death: WHAT WOULD HAVE HAPPENED IF YOU HAD NOT SAVED HIM?
Death: THE SUN WOULD NOT HAVE RISEN.
Susan: Then what would have happened?
Death: A MERE BALL OF FLAMING GAS WOULD HAVE ILLUMINATED THE WORLD.
Susan: All right, I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need fantasies to make life bearable.
Death: NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASIES TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.
Susan: But Tooth Fairies, Hogfathers…
Death: YES. AS PRACTICE, YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.
Susan: So we can believe the big ones.
Death: YES. JUSTICE, MERCY, DUTY, THAT SORT OF THING.
Susan: They’re not the same at all.
Death: YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET YOU TRY TO ACT AS IF THERE’S SOME KIND OF IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD. AS IF THERE IS SOME– SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MIGHT BE JUDGED.
Susan: But people have got to believe that, or what’s the point?
Death: YOU NEED TO BELIEVE IN THINGS THAT AREN’T TRUE, HOW ELSE CAN THEY BECOME?