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On the recent thread on CS Lewis, DC Kurtz stated this:

As an outspoken moral nihlist (I firmly believe that objective morality does not exist) I get recommended Lewis’s work a lot. And I was astonished at how poorly constructed his core arguments for moral reasoning are. They’re sophomoric thinly-veiled “gotcha” attempts that are designed to appeal to people who don’t actually understand how arguments are made and constructed. It’s really soured me on the field of apologetics as a whole, which I’m convinced is largely just pseudo-academics, even by theological standards. It’s not a serious field.

He was a little bit jumped on by others, a little harsh perhaps because this is not trolling and this should be an open exchange of interesting ideas. He followed up with:

Yes. Personally however I feel that relativism is simply a more palatable version of nihlism in that it uses the diversity of cultural stances on moral norms to dance around a silent admission that universal moral norms simply do not exist. When we look beyond that and examine the infinite complexity of human consciousness, the idea of a single consistent empirically verified moral standard becomes even more laughable. The only universal moral constant is the absence of a universal moral constant.

Thing is, I broadly agree with him, and you should know this from my voluminous writing on this topic over the years. Here is a selection:

So on and so forth.

To go over old ground again, and for new readers, morality is an abstract concept. Abstracts do not exist out there in the aether, for we should not confuse the map with the terrain. Abstracts are our conceptual way of piecing together a conceptual framework or map of the actual terrain of reality, but the conceptual framework is not the terrain.

We construct morality in our heads. There is no (Platonic) realm, out there somewhere, where morality resides. If all sentient creatures ceased to exist in the universe, morality, loyalty, maths and so on would also cease to exist (even if the instantiation of what we might interpret them in might in reality still exist).

In other words, I am a moral skeptic.

It all depends on how you define “exists”, because, in constructing conceptual moral frameworks, we bring morality into some kind of existence. Some people might interpret this as subjective morality, but we get onto complex ideas of truth, knowledge, cognitivism (and thus non-cognitivism), and suchlike.

Definitions, definitions, definitions.

To say one is a moral skeptic or nihilist is not to say one can or should or desires to go out murdering and cooking babies.

Now, to be sure, one would need to ask for a close definition of moral nihilism here to know we are all on the same page.

Indeed, moral nihilism is a form of moral skepticism, so it might be simplistic for me to definitely say I am both a moral skeptic and nihilist. Let wiki explain:

Moral skepticism (or moral scepticism in British English) 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….

Forms of moral skepticism

Moral skepticism is divided into three subclasses: moral error theory (or moral nihilism), epistemological moral skepticism, and noncognitivism.[1] All three of these theories reach the same conclusions, which are:

(a) we are never justified in believing that moral claims (claims of the form “state of affairs x is good,” “action y is morally obligatory,” etc.) are true, and, furthermore,
(b) we never know that any moral claim is true.

However, each method arrives at (a) and (b) by a different route.

Moral error theory holds that we do not know that any moral claim is true because

(i) all moral claims are false,
(ii) we have reason to believe that all moral claims are false, and
(iii) since we are not justified in believing any claim we have reason to deny, we are not justified in believing any moral claims.

Epistemological moral skepticism is a subclass of theory, the members of which include Pyrrhonian moral skepticism and dogmatic moral skepticism. All members of epistemological moral skepticism share two things: first, they acknowledge that we are unjustified in believing any moral claim, and second, they are agnostic on whether (i) is true (i.e. on whether all moral claims are false).

  • Pyrrhonian moral skepticism holds that the reason we are unjustified in believing any moral claim is that it is irrational for us to believe either that any moral claim is true or that any moral claim is false. Thus, in addition to being agnostic on whether (i) is true, Pyrrhonian moral skepticism denies (ii).
  • Dogmatic moral skepticism, on the other hand, affirms (ii) and cites (ii)’s truth as the reason we are unjustified in believing any moral claim.

Finally, Noncognitivism holds that we can never know that any moral claim is true because moral claims are incapable of being true or false (they are not truth-apt). Instead, moral claims are imperatives (e.g. “Don’t steal babies!”), expressions of emotion (e.g. “stealing babies: Boo!”), or expressions of “pro-attitudes” (“I do not believe that babies should be stolen.”)

Moral error theory

Moral error theory is a position characterized by its commitment to two propositions: (i) all moral claims are false and (ii) we have reason to believe that all moral claims are false. The most famous moral error theorist is J. L. Mackie, who defended the metaethical view in Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (1977). Mackie has been interpreted as giving two arguments for moral error theory.

The first argument people attribute to Mackie, often called the argument from queerness,[2] holds that moral claims imply motivation internalism (the doctrine that “It is necessary and a priori that any agent who judges that one of his available actions is morally obligatory will have some (defeasible) motivation to perform that action”[3]). Because motivation internalism is false, however, so too are all moral claims.

The other argument often attributed to Mackie, often called the argument from disagreement,[3] maintains that any moral claim (e.g. “Killing babies is wrong”) entails a correspondent “reasons claim” (“one has reason not to kill babies”). Put another way, if “killing babies is wrong” is true then everybody has a reason to not kill babies. This includes the psychopath who takes great pleasure from killing babies, and is utterly miserable when he does not have their blood on his hands. But, surely, (if we assume that he will suffer no reprisals) this psychopath has every reason to kill babies, and no reason not to do so. All moral claims are thus false.

Funnily enough, I end up pretty much setting all this out in my new, forthcoming book Why I Am Atheist and Not a Theist

I could go on, but I have laid it all out in my previous pieces. Check them out.


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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...