Tag Archives: nihilism

New paper completed: “A Genealogical Defense of Normative Nihilism” ; feedback welcome

“One ought not torture for fun.” Few would challenge this norm. But why? A common answer is that norms are “prescriptive”, telling us how we should act. Moreover, such norms are regarded as “authoritative”, possessed with a “binding force” that “governs” rational beings. What is the nature of this “normative force” and its “binding power”? Philosophers sometimes talk about different strengths of normative force, invoking the traditional distinction between hypothetical and categorical norms.

Hypothetical norms are “weakly” binding and exemplified by social conventions e.g. “One ought to use the small fork for salads.” Few people would consider it wrong to use the big fork because this norm only “binds us”if we want to impress high society. The force of hypothetical normativity is thus tied to our individual desires; if my desire to rebel against high society is stronger than my desire to fit in, I am hypothetically bound to not use the small fork.

In contrast, categorical norms such as “One ought not torture for fun” are “strongly” binding in the sense of not being conditional on anyone’s actual or ideal desires. If a psychopath desires to torture others for fun, they are nevertheless obligated to not torture for fun. Unlike their hypothetical cousins, categorical norms are considered “objectively prescriptive” (Mackie, 1977), enjoying what Aquinas calls “the binding force which is proper to a law”.

Suppose categorical force is merely a dressed up version of hypothetical force. How could we tell otherwise? The existence of a “binding” categorical force is not an obvious or trivial truth, nor detectable by any scientific instrument (that I know of). On these grounds alone, a skeptic might propose the “bindingness” of categorical force is merely hypothetical force masquerading as something stronger,a remnant of an old brain disposed for religiosity and magical thinking.

The normative realist claims categoricity is felt as forceful because it really is forceful in virtue of the binding power of “irreducible” normative facts. In contrast, the normative nihilist claims the bindingness of normativity derives its “force”merely from biological and cultural values, but there is no ultimate fact about which values are “better” than any other because, from the physicalist point of view, the universe is cold, uncaring, and ultimately valueless. Nietzsche’s statement of the worldview driving normative nihilism is definitive: “Whatever has value in our world now does not have value in itself, according to its nature—nature is always value-less, but has been given value at some time” (Nietzsche, 1974, p. 242, emphasis added). Nietzsche offers a “physiological” explanation of the source of normativity by tracing the concrete human origins of the concept of categoricity, explaining away the phenomenology of “binding” normative authority as a figment of an over-active brain.

Critics accuse normative nihilists of being either incoherent or hypocritical because in defending the view they “help themselves” to normative concepts, and thus undermine their own attempts at making a meaningful, rational, or intelligible claim. Thus, normativists are doubtful genealogical stories have any revisionary implications for our normative concepts. And even if they did, normativists pull out their trump card tu quoque argument: even if an evolutionary critique of moral norms were successful, it would thereby “prove too much” by casting doubt on all norms, including the epistemic norms that rationally “bind” nihilists to avoid saying “This genealogy both happened and did not happen.” Skeptics have dealt with this “global” challenge creatively, but few have opted to bite the bullet on epistemic nihilism for fear of committing “intellectual suicide” (Sorensen, 2013).Philosophers are by professional reputation defenders of epistemic authority and—not surprisingly—tend to dismiss the prospect of Global Normative Nihilism(GNN)as absurd or self-defeating.

My central thesis is once we distinguish between hypothetical and categorical strengths of epistemic authority the charge of self-defeat rings hollows, for the following reason. If epistemic norms only “bind” us hypothetically with respect to our contingently held desires and/or values, pointing out epistemic nihilists have “binding” hypothetical reasons to avoid holding contradictory beliefs is consistent with the nihilistic claim that acting in accord with epistemic norms is not good in-itself, because nature is valueless. The psychological inevitability of normal humans to feel “bound”by epistemic norms does not entail we are categorically bound to follow them. Naturalists have no beef with hypothetical forms of “binding force” because this locution is understood as a conceptual metaphor. The naturalistic worldview driving normative nihilism predicts that organisms project hypothetically binding values on a valueless world.

Read the full paper HERE: Williams – Genealogy QP 2 version 1.7 8-16-2013


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Current WIP, feedback appreciated: A Genealogical Defense of Normative Nihilism


Williams – Genealogy QP 2 version 1.4 7-25-2013

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Quote of the Day – Wittgenstein on Value (spoiler: there is no value)

“In the world everything is as it is and happens as it does happen. In it there is no value—and if there were, it would be of no value.”

~Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

Sounds about right to me.

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How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Nihilism

Value Nihilism holds a curious position in the philosophical landscape. It is simultaneously respected as a position to take seriously yet most contemporary philosophers consider it a “last resort” option at best, a bleak alternative if all other attempts at “saving” morality are unsuccessful (an incentive to never stop hoping moral theories will eventually converge into a consensus). Often it is held up as a philosophical boogey-man to be avoided at all costs. Some would even claim that if your moral theorizing ends up with nihilism you have a good reason to reject that view because it’s too at odds with our common sense ways of thinking.

But it’s an elementary point in other areas of inquiry that evidence of all humans believing in X is not in itself evidence for the existence of X. If almost everyone on the planet believes in fairies, that all by itself does not provide a good reason to the fairy-skeptic that fairies do in fact exist because it’s possible everybody else is mistaken (perhaps the fairy-skeptic could provide an evolutionary or psychological explanation for why fairy belief stabilized in the population thousands of years ago in our ancient superstitious past). Whether or not everyone else thinks the fairy-skeptic is too conceptually “revisionary” in their suggestion to overhaul belief in fairies is irrelevant to the truth of the matter.

Similarly, if it turns out that humans are psychologically incapable of giving up on the idea that some actions are “intrinsically good/evil” because it’s just too psychologically intuitive or too useful to think otherwise, that would provide no reason all by itself to think there really are such things as intrinsic values “out there” independently of contingent preferences. I think it’s strange that so many philosophers want at all costs to hold onto moral discourse including phrases like “Hitler was just downright evil“, “Torturing for fun is just intrinsically bad and you really ought not to do it” and have actually convinced themselves that this makes for a good “explanation” of why evil people do what they do. But this appeal to moral “facts” to explain the situation pales in explanatory power compared to the fully naturalistic explanation that falls out of the scientific worldview. Ontological seriousness is just not compatible with the view that there really are values independently of contingent desires.

And that in essence is my sense of what Value Nihilism is all about. It’s the view that there are no objective values that hold independently of contingent desires. Value Nihilism is fully compatible with Value Subjectivism whereby we can form objective standards relative to the standards of evalulation of contingent, desiring beings like human animals. From an ontological point of view, all modern forms of expressivism, constructivism, or subjectivism are compatible with Value Nihilism. If we say that morality can be constructed out of the basic desires/preferences of Earthly creatures, the Nihilist wants to know: Why is it good to promote basic desires? Is the satisfaction of contingent desires inherently valuable? If so, where do these values come from? What gives it value? Is relative to a stance-independent standard? How does this standard exist independently of us? The scientific worldview has no room in it for wiggles in space-time to be “intrinsically valuable”, “worth pursuing”, or “intrinsically good/evil”, etc. Crudely put, all wiggles in space-time are ontologically on the same “level” as all other wiggles of space-time.

Nowhere in science will it ever make sense to say that there are some specially moral “facts” that provide binding normative reasons for acting or thinking in a certain way. Any binding normative force will only be loosely bound by the hypothetical nature of reason. If you are sincerely committed to playing a legitimate game of chess, then you really ought to follow the rules and do en passant properly and obey touch-rules, etc. But this is only if you have the desire to play a legal game. If you really need the tournament money to pay for your dying child’s medicine and you see that you can cheat and get away with it then you really ought to not follow the rules of chess. The rules of chess don’t “bind you”, because you are always free to say to these rules “Who cares? Nobody is forcing me to follow you.” Of course, it is still objectively true that you made a mistake from the perspective of the chess community.

My sense is that all norms have the same “binding” force as the rules of chess. That is, the binding is only hypothetical relative to contingent preferences. But there is no sense in which any wiggle of space-time is “necessarily obligated” to obey some prescription. Norms do not and cannot bind, authorize, guide, regulate, control, enforce, obligate, or compel any physical entity. They just do not have that power because they don’t exist except as stance-dependent properties. But as John Heil as argued, only substances can bear properties. And the most plausible candidates for substances are things like fundamental particles or space-time fields. Relative properties as such are thus quasi-properties that arise from configurations of more fundamental substances, whose “modes” include complex phenomena such as human societies and biospheres. Norms only have force if there is a preference that has an incentive to follow the norm. No incentive, no authority.

This is just a quicky and dirty rendition of some of the motivations underlying Moral Nihilism or Value Nihilism. My own views are leanings towards the view that if you are going to be a Moral Nihilist then you should also be a Global Normative Nihilist, because it seems to me that the arguments for why moral norms must be merely hypothetical are also good argument for while any other type of norm must also have a merely hypothetical nature. Some philosophers might think this is an unsurprising finding, and it’s exactly what they’d expect. But that’s because they’re philosophers! But I think that the implications of this way of looking at the world stands in stark contrast to the onto-theological worldview that has been prevalent for pretty much the entirety of human history. I don’t think an intellectual understanding of Normative Nihilism changes one’s underlying motivational structure, but I do think it enables a subtle shift in how we understand ourselves relative to the Cosmos at large. Conceptualizing ourselves from the perspectives of the universe at large is humbling when we consider that our values are just that: ours. And we should cherish them and promote them the best we know how. But we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking these values are imbued with a special intrinsic “goodness” that holds for all rational agents. That’s a philosophical pipedream.


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Metaethical Testimony: Do Laypersons Really Believe in Moral Objectivity?

I’m increasingly convinced that Derek Parfit is right to claim there are only two ontologically serious positions in metaethics: Nonnatural Realism and Nihilism. Either there are true “moral values” or “moral facts” built into the fabric of reality, or there are just atoms in the void. Take your pick. Since Nihilists believe there are no mind-independent moral facts, any possibility of moral normativity – our habit of thinking/talking in terms “oughts” and “shoulds” – can only be justified on the basis of the contingent desires/needs of sentient creatures.

Another way to think about this is to consider the difference between hypothetical and categorical oughts. A hypothetical ought takes the form of “If you desire X, you ought to do Y”. For example, “If you want to play chess, you ought to follow the rules” or “If you are hungry, you ought to eat something”. Hypothetical oughts are never “binding” in the sense that you must follow them or that the universe “demands” you to. If you don’t want to play chess, then there is no sense in which the universe “demands” you to follow the rules. If determinism is true then perhaps you can’t help follow these hypothetical oughts. But that could be a case of acting in accordance with a rule as opposed to being “obligated” to follow a rule. To follow a rule, the rule must somehow make a difference to your behavior. The rule must act as a binding control input that gives you a plan or guide for action.

And to be categorical, a rule must somehow be “necessary” or “required”. You are bound to obey categorical oughts whether you want to or not. Plato’s story of the Ring of Gyges nicely illustrates the difference between hypothetical and categorical oughts. The Ring of Gyges is a magical ring that makes its wearer invisible. Suppose you find this ring and slip it on and now have the ability to get away with any crime without suffering any consequences that you don’t want. Suppose further that you have certain selfish desires as well as desires to help your friends and family. Now it occurs to you that if you commit a horrible crime against a neighboring and rival clan, you and all your friends and family will be much better off. With the ring on, you could easily get away with this act. Here’s the crucial question: do you have a binding reason to not commit the crime? If so, how does this binding work? In what sense will you be irrational if you do your act?

There are only two real answers to this question. The binding authority could come from the existence of Objective Moral Facts or it could come from the fact that in committing the crime you will really deep down be hurting yourself or your community in the long-run, so acting immorally is irrational. However, it seems downright weird to think that the reason why it’s wrong to commit genocide is because self-inflicted harm. Error-theorist Richard Joyce makes the point that it’d be bizarre to claim what was morally wrong with the Nazi’s is that they were really hurting themselves in the long-run.

So it seems like there are either binding Objective Moral Facts or no such facts at all. If there are no such facts, then any and all normativity can only ever be hypothetical. Without objectivity, the “binding-ness” necessary to categorical oughts is but a mere illusion and only stems from instrumental rationality (however complex and abstract).

Metaethical error-theory is a two-pronged view. The first prong is the claim that ordinary moral discourse is ontologically committed to the existence of Objective Moral Facts and the second prong is to claim that all such discourse is untrue due to a missing referent. When someone says “killing an innocent baby for fun is always wrong no matter what and you really ought not to do it”, they are committing themselves to the existence of Objective Moral Facts. But since error-theorists argue there really are no such facts (for various reasons), there are all committing an error. The metaethical error-theorist is akin to the atheist with respect to religion. When someone says “God loves you”, the atheist thinks this is untrue because the term “God” fails to correspond to anything in reality, like “unicorn” or “Sherlock Holmes”.

Error-theory has come under attack from two different angles. The first angle is to defend the existence of Objective Moral Facts and hence that people aren’t mistaken in making such judgments. The second angle is to argue that ordinary people aren’t really committed to strong forms of moral objectivity in the first place. In this post, I’d like to critically examine the second angle.

One way to go about defending the view that common sense morality is not deeply committed to Objectivity is to do some sophisticated philosophy-of-language and claim that apparent assertions of fact really mean something like imperatives, or expressions of desires (e.g. Boo stealing! Yay friendship!) or our thoughts about ideal hypothetical reasoners (constructivism). I think this is a deeply problematic approach for the same reason I think ultra-sophisticated theologians like Paul Tillich do not represent the religious views of ordinary people.

The other way people have argued for this view is through experimental philosophy. A representative example of this work is Shaun Nichols paper “After objectivity: an empirical study of moral judgment”, published in Philosophy Psychology (2004). In the study, Nichols asked undergraduates questions like:

John and Fred are members of different cultures, and they are in an argument. John says, “It’s okay to hit people just because you feel like it,” and Fred says, “No, it is not okay to hit people just because you feel like it.” John then says, “Look you are wrong. Everyone I know agrees that it’s okay to do that.” Fred responds, “Oh no, you are the one who is mistaken. Everyone I know agrees that it’s not okay to do that.” Which of the following do you think best characterizes their views? (Check one and give a brief justification for your answer.)

—It is okay to hit people just because you feel like it, so John is right and Fred is wrong.

—It is not okay to hit people just because you feel like it, so Fred is right and John is wrong.

—There is no fact of the matter about unqualified claims like “It’s okay to hit people just because you feel like it.” Different cultures believe different things, and it is not absolutely true or false that it’s okay to hit people just because you feel like it.

Nichols compared judgments in cases like these to cases about disagreement other physical facts like whether the Earth is flat. In contrast to the flat Earth case, “a sizable number of participants gave nonobjectivist responses to the moral case (17 of the 40 participants)”. Thus, Nichols concludes that error-theorists are wrong to think that ordinary moral discourse among laypersons is deeply committed to the existence of Objective Moral Facts. However, Nichols does admit that a commitment to objectivity is a “core” feature of morality, is universally present in young children, but is “defeasible” as evidenced by the diversity of opinion in his undergraduate polls.

Has Nichols “empirically refuted” the “armchair” reflections of error-theorists who naively thought common folk are committed to Objectivity? Hardly. First of all, the subjects of Nichols study were WEIRD, i.e. from Western Educated Industrial Rich Democratic societies. That’s a huge reason to be skeptical about over-generalizing from these results. Moreover, half of these subjects were from into philosophy courses. If there is any place on Earth where moral relativism is likely to be more over-represented it is in undergraduate intro philosophy courses. Nichols can hardly make the leap from WEIRD undergrads taking philosophy courses to “core features of everyday morality”.

But is there any empirical evidence to show that everyday people are in fact committed to moral objectivity? I believe there is. According to a recent survey of 1,000 Americans from across all 50 states, “the vast majority of Americans (87%) believe in the concept of sin.  “Sin” was defined in the research as “something that is almost always considered wrong, particularly from a religious or moral perspective.”

Maybe there is some hedging to be had with defining sin as something that is “almost always” wrong as opposed to “always wrong” but I’m pretty sure that the most natural way to understand the question is in terms of situations like the Ring of Gyges and Moral Objectivity. The concept of sin seems necessarily committed to objectivity given that sin stems from God’s moral authority, which certainly isn’t constrained by contingent human desires for well-being, happiness, and group cohesion.

Moreover, I am skeptical about Nichol’s “experimental” approach for the following reason. Almost all epistemologists agree that people believe things on the basis of testimony from their trusted peers. Moreover, it seems plausible that people also rely on moral testimony from people like Church leaders (e.g. A pastor telling their flock gambling is wrong). What I’m interested in is the concept of metaethical testimony. I think it’s very plausible that almost all mainstream religious Clergy are committed to some strong from of Moral Objectivity. When they teach their congregation about sin and God’s Moral Law, they are likely arguing for metaethical Realism of the strong sort committed to the existence of Objective Moral Facts “enforced” by God’s will or “flowing out of” God’s perfectly Good nature. On this view, God is the source of the “binding” power that secures the demanding-ness of categorical oughts like “One ought not to torture for fun even if you have the Ring of Gyges”.

So even if Nichol’s managed to get lay Church-going folk to answer a questionnaire seemingly indicating a nonobjectivist view, I think it’s likely that the answers would be very different if their Objectivist pastor was sitting right there next to them giving metaethical testimony and reminding them of the existence of God’s Moral Law and to think carefully about the nature of sin.

In conclusion, I reject the claim made by experimental philosophers that they have shown error-theory to be mistaken in assuming laypersons are ontologically committed to the existence of “binding” Objective Moral Facts.

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