Moral nihilism is an argument from ignorance.

There’s a lot of different positions on ethics. That is true of any other area of knowledge. But unlike those other areas, there are a lot of people who dispute whether ethics actually exists.

A lot of the disputes revolve around the word “objective.” I’ve commented in the past about how I think that word is usually unnecessary because of its vagueness, and leads to pointless disagreement. There are two main ways in which people use “objective”:

1. “X is objective” means that the existence of X does not depend on it being experienced (i.e. is accessible to all observers).
2. “X is objective” means that X is a matter of fact and can be evaluated by outside observers.

In her entry, LaFave points out that something can be subjective in meaning 1 but yet be objective in meaning 2. For example, esthetic judgments may be subjective in meaning 1, but there are people who have expertise in evaluating esthetic judgments (e.g. food critics, movie critics), which indicates that esthetic judgments are objective in meaning 2. There is no necessary connection between the two meanings, which makes discussion difficult unless one is very clear about which meaning is being used.

When people use the word “objective” in reference to ethics, they easily switch from one meaning to the other without even realizing it. So for example when they say “how can morality be objective if people disagree on what’s right?”, they are using “objective” in meaning 1. People don’t usually disagree about observable facts, because those facts are accessible to all individuals who have an open mind. But when they say “morality is subjective because values are just preferences,” they are using “subjective” in meaning 2. In that view, moral judgments are similar to your evaluation of ice cream flavors.

Basically, in these disputes, “does ethics exist” is equated with “is ethics objective.” But this is a problem in itself: that something is not “objective” does not mean it does not exist. A headache is “subjective” according to meaning 1, but headaches definitely exist, can be studied and remedied. Your personal preferences, or my personal preferences, are mostly “subjective” in both meanings, but that does not mean you actually have no personal preferences. Of course you still have personal preferences, even if they are “subjective.” So establishing that something is “subjective” (in either meaning, or both) does not prove in any way that it does not exist.

Note that this only applies to unsophisticated advocates. People who understand the field to some extent understand that answering no to “is morality objective” only entails that moral realism is false, not that morality does not exist.

But there is a greater problem with moral nihilism, and that’s the fact that it’s based on an argument from ignorance. I have written a few entries on presuppositionalism and the presup script, where I’ve pointed out a similar flaw. We can simplify the presup argument as such:

1. Reason, truth, the uniformity of nature, morality, etc. exist.
2. Secular worldviews cannot account for these features of reality.
3. Therefore God exists.

This is, of course, an oversimplification, and there’s a lot of verbiage included in this whole process. But I formulate it this way to illustrate the problem: point 2 is an argument from ignorance. No Christian out there knows for a fact that there is no secular worldview that can account for reason or truth, and presuppositionalists are ignorant of even the most basic secular worldviews. They simply assume that this is the case and argue from there.

One may reply that it’s my burden of proof to show that there is a secular worldview out there that accounts for reason or truth. But that’s not logically sound. You can’t use a proposition in an argument when you can’t actually show that proposition is true. No presup actually knows that “secular worldviews cannot account for truth.” The best they could say is “I don’t know of any secular worldview that can account for truth” (which would only show their ignorance and little more).

A logical argument would need the added premise that there is something inherent to the secularity of secular worldview that makes them incapable of accounting for reason or truth. If a secular worldview by definition cannot account for reason or truth because there is something about secularity that makes it impossible, then the argument could be reformulated like this:

1. Reason, truth, the uniformity of nature, morality, etc. exist.
2. Secularity necessarily entails being unable to account for features of reality.
3. Secular worldviews cannot account for these features of reality.
4. Therefore God exists.

The problem, of course, is that point 2 is false.

You probably wonder what this has to do with moral nihilism. Well, the argument for moral nihilism is pretty similar:

1. Moral judgments exist.
2. No moral realist worldview can prove that these judgments are objective.
3. Therefore moral judgments are subjective.

This argument suffers from the same flaw as the presup argument: point 2 is an argument from ignorance. No moral nihilist actually knows that no moral realist worldview can prove that moral judgments are objective. They assume the truth of the proposition and demand that moral realists shoulder the burden of proof. But like presups, they are not allowed to use propositions nilly-willy. Either they know point 2 is true or they do not.

Presumably a sound argument would be similar to the one above:

1. Moral judgments exist.
2. Proving that moral judgments are objective is impossible.
3. No moral realist worldview can prove that these judgments are objective.
4. Therefore moral judgments are subjective.

What would a proof of 2 look like? It would need to demonstrate that moral judgments are inherently subjective, that when we say things like “murder is wrong” that wrongness cannot be directly observed by others and that we necessarily aren’t referring to any fact of reality.

Moral nihilists claim that when we say things like “murder is wrong,” we mean “murder is wrong for me.” But that’s not what we mean when we say it. When we say “murder is wrong,” we actually mean that murder itself is wrong, not just that it’s wrong for ourselves. If someone asked us if they should murder someone, “well, murder is wrong” would be a meaningful answer. And if that person then tells us, “it’s wrong for you but not for me,” then we would be justified in thinking there’s something wrong with that person. It makes as little sense as a person refusing to admit the existence of a stop sign.

Of course a moral nihilist may reply to the paragraph above by saying that moral realists are simply deluded. That may be so, but it has not been demonstrated. Likewise, you can deny the existence of a stop sign by saying that perception is not reality and that my sense of sight is somehow deluding me into thinking there’s a stop sign there. That may very well be true, but it needs to be demonstrated, otherwise there’s no particular reason to believe any specific claim of delusion.

Let’s say that every single human being on this planet is being deluded when they say “murder is wrong,” and they actually mean “murder is wrong for me.” That’s fine, but then the question becomes, how is this happening? What is it that is making everyone (regardless of the society they were born in) be wrong in the same way? This to me seems like a rather stringent prerequisite for moral nihilism to clear before it can even be considered as credible. Therefore it seems extremely unlikely that moral nihilism could ever be found to be true.

Note that I am not saying something like “well, people used to believe the Earth was flat, so it was extremely unlikely for the Earth to be round.” We are talking about a direct observation of a moral judgment, which is not derived from any other proposition. The vast majority of the Earth’s population being wrong about “murder is wrong” is comparable to the vast majority of the Earth’s population being wrong about the existence of the Moon.

Remember the two meanings of “objective.” Based on these, what does it mean for moral judgments to be “subjective”? It can mean one of two things:

1. The existence of moral judgments depends on them being experiences. They are not accessible to all observers.
2. Moral judgments are not a matter of fact and cannot be evaluated by outside observers.

The first proposition makes sense, since all judgments, all evaluations, all knowledge is ultimately contained within our minds and are not accessible to all observers. But that’s not saying much. People don’t use the fact that logical or scientific arguments are “subjective” in this sense to argue that logic or science are “subjective.” It is not really seen as relevant at all. So why should it be relevant in the case of ethics?

One may reply that science is about real entities that exist outside the mind, but that’s not true. Laws of nature do not exist outside the mind. The entities that we discover laws about do exist outside the mind, but so do the actions that we evaluate morally. There is no more “law of gravity” floating somewhere in space than there is “moral goodness.” Both are based on observations but ultimately they are founded on things that are not found outside the mind. Same for logic, of course.

So if moral judgments are “subjective” in meaning 1, then why don’t we have science nihilists or logic nihilists? Why concentrate on morality and ethics?

The second proposition doesn’t make much sense. We evaluate moral judgments made by others all the time, and we use matters of fact in order to do so. Now again, one may reply that this is all delusional thinking. That’s all well and good, but one would have to provide some evidence for that proposition before we take it into consideration.

Suppose we have a discussion on a moral issue, such as cheating on one’s spouse. Examples of factual matters that may be discussed include reciprocity (would you like to be treated that way?), consent, the unhappiness of the spouse if they found out, and so on. Now suppose a moral nihilist came in and said, “well, you both think you’re discussing a moral judgment about cheating, but you’re wrong- actually, you’re just discussing your personal preferences.” But all these matters being discussed are factual matters, not preferences. If the moral nihilist thinks so, then he has to demonstrate how all these matters are actually personal preferences.

One thought on “Moral nihilism is an argument from ignorance.

  1. […] I don’t see how (3) or (4) could be an issue (except in some minor ways which would mostly hinge around formulation, some of which I’ve examined in this entry), and (5) is the logical conclusion, therefore the argument clearly hinges around (1) and (2). As such, there are two obvious ways in which the argument could be refuted: either by showing that (1b) we have a specific duty to inflict suffering in the case of procreation or that (2b) we have a specific duty to provide pleasure in the case of procreation (there is also the moral nihilist position that there is no such thing as duties, which I will not address in this entry: for my general arguments against moral nihilism, see this entry). […]

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