Friday, May 20, 2011

Is Nihilism Self-Refuting?

Woo, been a while since a post. Okay. Consider the following argument, contra moral nihilism, i.e. the view that nothing is moral or immoral:

(1) If a belief is true, then we ought to believe it.
(2) Nihilism is a belief.
So, (3) If nihilism is true, then we ought to believe it.
(4) It is not the case that we ought to believe nihilism.
Therefore, (5) Nihilism is not true.

Is there something to 1 such that, if a nihilist were to deny it, he would be leading himself to irrationality? It would seem so. The denial of 1 is, after all, "It is not the case that if a belief is true, we ought to believe it." This seems to almost undercut the entire idea of rational argument. Denying 1 would also mean that it's not the case that, if nihilism were true, then we ought to believe it. Maybe they're fine with that, but I'm sure as heck not becoming a moral nihilist if I don't have any obligation to.

The nihilist seems to be committed to 4, since any "oughts" related to things like intellectual virtue or intellectual honesty are false on nihilism; these are, after all, ethical ideas (honesty is a virtue).

Maybe the nihilist could find some way of understanding "ought" which is entirely unrelated to ethics, making it possible to affirm that if a belief is true, then we ought to believe it, along with an obligation to believe nihilism. All of this without committing to the truth of any moral theses. This already seems implausible as such. Questions of epistemic justification, intellectual responsibility, and warrant are probably inseparable from ethics in some way. Nevertheless, suppose the nihilists pull it off. This leads to there being at least some normativity and responsibility, and the possibility of normativity and obligation in one sphere makes it harder to see why the nihilist would deny normativity and obligation in the sphere of ethics.

The situation looks grim for the nihilist then. They can (A) deny 1, implying that we're free to believe whatever we please (including the falsity of nihilism), as well as making the whole project of rational argumentation dubitable, or (B) deny 4 and accept that there is some normativity and obligation, putting them at odds with their claims about ethics. Or maybe they'll come to terms and accept all our premises. :-)

That's all a little sloppy I think, but I hope it makes sense. If not, please tell me.
P.S., birthday in two days! Would be a nice birthday present if I could figure out the soundness of this argument.

4 comments:

Pikolit Pikolitium said...

I think a moral nihilist would disagree with your 1st statement.
(1) If a belief is true, then we ought to believe it.
I understand moral nihilism as the claim that we are just a bunch of atoms, nothing more. I mean there is no such thing as "ought" in that context. I would bring an example involving non-living things, but one could argue that there would be no choice involved. If we are just a bunch of atoms then perhaps we aren't any different from, say stones. One wouldn't say it is immoral for one stone to fall onto another and break it. What difference does it make that we have what we call "free will"? We just evolved to have certain features which made us more successful at reproduction. That we find killing people and (to even higher extent)the people who are related to us, can be explained by kin selection.
Hopefully, one day we will be able to simulate human brain, i.e. create what we think of as "intelligence".

Regarding the idea of rational argument, isn't it just an illusion? Perhaps, if our brains have evolved differently, we could have reasoned in some other way, thinking that was the rational way of thinking.

this are just some thought on the go... i might have not expressed some of my points to my desired level of clarity.
Cheers.

Pikolit Pikolitium said...

I think a moral nihilist would disagree with your 1st statement.
(1) If a belief is true, then we ought to believe it.
I understand moral nihilism as the claim that we are just a bunch of atoms, nothing more. I mean there is no such thing as "ought" in that context. I would bring an example involving non-living things, but one could argue that there would be no choice involved. If we are just a bunch of atoms then perhaps we aren't any different from, say stones. One wouldn't say it is immoral for one stone to fall onto another and break it. What difference does it make that we have what we call "free will"? We just evolved to have certain features which made us more successful at reproduction. That we find killing people and (to even higher extent)the people who are related to us, can be explained by kin selection.
Hopefully, one day we will be able to simulate human brain, i.e. create what we think of as "intelligence".

Regarding the idea of rational argument, isn't it just an illusion? Perhaps, if our brains have evolved differently, we could have reasoned in some other way, thinking that was the rational way of thinking.

this are just some thought on the go... i might have not expressed some of my points to my desired level of clarity.
Cheers.

Horapollo Aesymnetes said...

Things are true or false regardless of whether anyone wants to believe them. If you want to believe them, or not, that's your affair. I suspect that most moral nihilists can't help not believing in morality the same way moralists can't help believing in it: we don't have your evolutionary equipment banging away at our psyches, and when you don't, value subjectivity isn't just valid, it's obvious. I mean, what would it even mean that one 'ought' to do something that was contrary to one's subjective evaluations of ends and means? It's a non-assertion.

Many nihilists, myself included, really don't give a shit what most people believe because they're boring, stupid gorillas. Humanity is 99.999% Zeros.

awatkins69 said...

Fair enough, but at the least this argument is evidence that you can't be a consistent nihilist and make normative judgments about other people's beliefs. A lot of nihilists claim that they don't really care what others believe, when in fact all the evidence indicates that they do.

But if you really don't care, then this is admittedly mostly consistent. But then I'm not sure why you are discussing this with me. You may say that you as an individual just like to pursue truth, as a sort of brute fact. But first of all, I have never heard any good argument for nihilism, so I do not see how you can be pursuing the truth and believe nihilism. Second, there is no rational explanation for why you have this preference. And third, there is no reason why you would comment on this blog post, since certainly you do not care about what I believe and there is no reason for you to try to convince me otherwise. For instance there is no obligation to try to help your neighbor to understand the truth. Except for the first point maybe, these statements do not establish any inconsistency in being a nihilist and pursuing the truth; nevertheless, I suspect many nihilists will have a hard time honestly admitting to themselves that they don't think there is any rational explanation for why they pursue the truth or any rational explanation for why they should argue philosophy with others.

Also, value subjectivity and value nihilism are distinct theories. The former says there exists value and value either analytically reduces to subjective beliefs/preferences/etc. [this is a thesis about meaning], or else value is essentially dependent on subjective beliefs/preferences, etc [this is a thesis about ontology]. Moral nihilism on the other hand says there is no value whatsoever, either objective or subjective. On subjectivism, there are subjective oughts; on nihilism, there are no oughts at all.