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Moral nihilism, also known as ethical nihilism, is the meta-ethical view that nothing is moral or immoral. For example, a moral nihilist would say that killing someone, for whatever reason, is not inherently right or wrong. This view can lead to amoralism.
Moral nihilism must be distinguished from ethical subjectivism and moral relativism, which do allow for moral statements to be true or false in a non-objective sense, but do not assign any static truth-values to moral statements. Insofar as only true statements can be known, moral nihilists are moral skeptics.
Forms of moral nihilism
According to Sinnott-Armstrong (2006a), the basic thesis of moral nihilism is that "nothing is morally wrong" (§3.4). There are, however, several forms that this thesis can take (see Sinnott-Armstrong, 2006b, pp. 32–37 and Russ Shafer-Landau, 2003, pp. 8–13).
Non-cognitivism in ethics is the view that moral statements lack truth-value and do not assert genuine propositions. This involves a rejection of the cognitivist claim, shared by other moral philosophies, that moral statements seek to "describe some feature of the world" (Garner 1967, 219-220). This position on its own is logically compatible with realism about moral values themselves. That is, one could reasonably hold that there are objective moral values but that we cannot know them and that our moral language does not seek to refer to them. This would amount to an endorsement of a type of moral skepticism, rather than nihilism.
Typically, however, the rejection of the cognitivist thesis is combined with the thesis that there are, in fact, no moral facts (van Roojen, 2004). But if moral statements cannot be true, and if one cannot know something that is not true, non-cognitivism implies that moral knowledge is impossible (Garner 1967, 219-220).
Moral nihilism does not mean it is not in the best interest of individuals to act morally. It is just a statement about the meaning of sentences about morality. Many noncognitivists still believe in moral behavior, Hare has even tried to establish objectivity of moral reasoning without truth values. Amoralists can share noncognitivists views on metaethics, but make further claims against moral thinking.
Error theorists combine the cognitivist thesis that moral language consists of truth-apt statements with the nihilist thesis that there are no moral facts. Like moral nihilism itself, however, error theory comes in more than one form.
The first, which one might call the global falsity form of moral nihilism, claims that moral beliefs and assertions are false in that they claim that certain moral facts exist that do not exist. J. L. Mackie (1977) argues for this form of moral nihilism. Mackie, for example, argues that moral assertions are only true if there are moral properties that are intrinsically motivating, but there is good reason to believe that there are no such intrinsically motivating properties (see the argument from queerness and motivational internalism).
The second form, which one might call the presupposition failure form of moral nihilism, claims that moral beliefs and assertions are not true because they are neither true nor false. This is not a form of non-cognitivism, since moral assertions are still thought to be truth-apt. Rather, this form of moral nihilism claims that moral beliefs and assertions presuppose the existence of moral facts that do not exist. This is analogous to presupposition failure in cases of non-moral assertions. Take, for example, the claim that the present king of France is bald. Some argue that this claim is truth-apt in that it has the logical form of an assertion, but it 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."
Moral nihilists in history
The philosophy of Niccolò Machiavelli is sometimes presented as a model of moral nihilism, but that is highly questionable. His book Il Principe (The Prince) was silent on moral matters, which shocked a European tradition that throughout the Middle Ages had inculcated moral lessons in its political philosophies. But silence about morality is not tantamount to outright nihilism. Machiavelli does say that the Prince must override moral reasons in favour of power-maintaining reasons of State, but he also says, particularly in his other works, that the successful ruler should be guided by Pagan, rather than Christian, virtues. Hence, Machiavelli presents an alternative to the ethical theories of his day, rather than an all-out rejection of all morality. Complicating the matter is the evidence that the whole of The Prince was written primarily to please the newly-princely Medici family and thus may have presented ideas contrary to Machiavelli's actual views, his actual opinions being represented in, among other things, the Discourses on Livy.
Closer to being an example of moral nihilism is Thrasymachus, as portrayed in Plato's Republic. Thrasymachus can, however, be interpreted as offering a revisionary account of justice, rather than a total rejection of morality and normative discourse.
Criticisms of moral nihilism come primarily from moral realists, who argue that there are positive moral truths. Criticisms do arise out of the other anti-realist camps (i.e. subjectivists and relativists), however; and each school of moral nihilism has its own criticisms of the others (such as the non-cognitivists' critique of error theory for accepting the semantic thesis of moral realism).
Moral nihilism is also criticized by those skeptics who do not believe anything substantive can be said about morality at all, positive or negative.
A third standpoint of criticism is to deny that the basis of moral objectivity is metaphysical. It is therefore possible to agree with the moral nihilists' criticisms of moral realism whilst arguing that there is an alternative non-metaphysical basis for moral objectivity, such as the incremental integration of human experience.
References and further reading
- Garner, Richard T.; Bernard Rosen (1967). Moral Philosophy: A Systematic Introduction to Normative Ethics and Meta-ethics, New York: Macmillan.
- Joyce, Richard (2001). The Myth of Morality, Cambridge University Press.
- Mackie, J. L. (1977). Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, Penguin.
- Shafer-Landau, Russ (2003). Whatever Happened to Good and Evil?, Oxford University Press.
- Shafer-Landau, Russ & Terence Cuneo (eds.) (2007). Foundations of Ethics, Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
- Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter (2006a). "Moral Skepticism," The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.). (link)
- Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter (2006b). Moral Skepticisms, Oxford University Press.
- van Roojen, Mark (2004). "Moral Cognitivism vs. Non-Cognitivism," The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.). (link)