Ethical Nihilism and Values

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I'm teaching a 300-level ethical theory course next semester (actually two of them at different schools), really for the first time. I've taught 100-level ethics, focusing on applied ethics, focusing on theory with lots of applied interspersed, and an exact 50-50 mix. I've taught 300-level applied ethics courses before, both with a shorter time spent on each of many applied issues across the spectrum and as a more focused study of two or three issues (the latter of which I've also done at the 400-level). I've also done 300-level courses with theory and applied, with all the possibilities of what I've done in 100-level courses. What I've never done is a whole course just on ethical theory, so I had to hunt around for a textbook. I've chosen Stephen Darwall's Philosophical Ethics as my text. I looked through it somewhat carefully when figuring out which book I wanted to use, but I've begun reading it more carefully now and I've hit on something very interesting in the first chapter. Darwall argues that everyone has ethical views, even those who deny the legitimacy of ethics. I've always thought that. What was interesting in Darwall's presentation is how far he goes in counting views and attitudes as ethical, and I think the result is a much stronger argument against ethical nihilism than the ones I'd seen before.

I've long thought Nietzsche to be inconsistent in his ethical nihilism, at least as he's standardly interpreted. Some people hold that ethical truths are not person-independent and are therefore relative to the subject. It might therefore be wrong within my ethical scheme to do something that is perfectly all right within yours. This is one way to deny objective moral truths. That's not what Nietzsche is up to, according to standard interpretations (and according to any reading that has made sense to me, though I'm no Nietzsche scholar and have little interest in going further with it than I have). Nietzsche isn't interested in redefining what it means for something to be morally right or wrong. He takes the normal commonsense account of morality. He just says that there's nothing to it. It's an illusion.

That would be fine (or at least consistent) if he just left it there. He doesn't. He frequently makes comments about how bad it is to believe in morality (and even more bad to follow Christianity). How is it bad? It can't be immoral. There's no such thing. Maybe it just has bad consequences. Bad from what point of view? Not the moral one. Bad for us? By what standards? By our own preferences? What if mine aren't his? Maybe it's simply what's in our rational best interests. Where does the standard of rationality come from? You can arbitarily declare certain things rational, but ultimately what this explanation gets at is an attempt to base preferences in some notion of what's genuinely in our best interests rather than what we might ourselves prefer. Well, what counts as being in my best interests? It seems to me that it's whatever is good for me. Good? What's that? You can't define it in terms of ethics, since there's no such thing. You also can't define it in terms of what's in my best interests, because that would be circular. Ultimately all such evaluations return to some ethical notions at their base. Nietzsche just can't get away with ethical nihilism and also say the sort of thing he says against morality (and against Christianity)..

Now that's all old hat for me. I think it's a good argument against ethical nihilism, not because it counts against the view itself but because hardly anyone can refrain from making moral judgments like those Nietzsche regularly made. In the average introductory ethics class, it's fairly easy to disabuse people of a view like this simply by pointing out horrific things that they don't think anyone should do or things they don't want done to them for reasons beyond just thinking it's their own preference. Torturing young children just for the fun of it or boiling a baby to see its mother recoil are some good examples. Racism, beating up gay people, removing women's sexual organs as a cultural rite, and setting off a nuclear war are others. Very few people will want to say that those things are morally neutral. They might think that many of the issues people say are moral issues really are not. This is usually with things related to sex, though even that has its standard cases that most people would frown on (prostitution, excessive promiscuity, rape, incest, bestiality, and having sex with someone without protection if you have HIV are things most people think are morally wrong, and pressing them on them shows that they aren't really ethical nihilists or even relativists).

As much as I think that style of argument is quite effective, I think Darwall extends it much further. He lists off a number of genuinely normative attitudes that admit of an ethical dimension, attitudes a nihilist cannot consistently exhibit. Yet these are some of the most normal attitudes someone might have. He goes even further. These are attitudes without which a person would not even be a moral agent (for non-philosophers, the word 'agent' comes from the Latin for doer, and it only came to be used especially of those who work for someone else later, with an even more specialized sense of being a spy coming in even later; philosophers have never stopped using the term in its original sense). One cannot deliberate before making a choice if one has no reasons upon which to base one's decision. One cannot evaluate those reasons with no normative concepts. One cannot choose anything, even on a whim, without some values.

Consider some actual values. Darwall gives the example of a nihilistic rock musician who put in a lot of work to make a new album and is proud of it. What is there to be proud of? Presumably it includes the fact that he put a lot of work into it, but it's got to be more than that. You can put a lot of work into an album that you also think still sucks. You've got to think there's something good about the album. You've got to value something about it. You've got to view it with esteem, thinking it has merit or worth. These are all terms Darwall uses in presenting this example. He seems to be to be correct. I don't know how you could consistently hold that there's no such thing as normative value and then be proud of your album. You might think someone is a complete jerk for treating you a certain way. You might think your new outfit is really cool. You might admire someone. You might view someone with contempt. No one can really live a remotely normal human existence without having attitudes like these. Yet every single one of them is a normative attitude. It involves ethical evaluation.

But wait! It gets worse for the nihilist. Do you desire anything at all? If you prefer or want anything as opposed to something else, then you're valuing something. That means you're thinking of something as more valuable, at least to you, than the other thing. There are some worked-out ethical theories that say that there's nothing more to ethics than that people value things. I don't think such views come close to capturing what ethics is all about, but at least that view admits that there's something to the normative, even if it's just something about us. Those who completely deny any normativity anywhere are accepting a really radical thesis. Maybe Nietzsche didn't hold such a view. Maybe he did but would have retreated if pressed. Still, people commonly list this as one of the potential ethical views on the map. It's just a completely unworkable view as it's often stated. As radical as I thought it was, I hadn't realized just how radical a true ethical nihilism really is.


Ok, I've ordered the book. Do you know any good books on Christian Ethics. I've been hunting without much success. I got this and it's companion volume. Oh, and I almost forgot, there is that Bible thing too. :)

But I was wondering if you knew any other good texts.


I don't know of any good books on ethical theory from a Christian perspective (I haven't looked closely at Geisler's, but it doesn't seem to me to do the job). There's an out-of-print (I believe) book by Ed Wierenga on ethical theory, and he's a Christian philosopher, but I don't know of anything in print. It's also out-of-date, since it doesn't deal with current work on the issues.

Richard Hays has a good book on Christian ethics called The Moral Vision of the New Testament, focusing mostly on New Testament texts, building an overall theological perspective on ethics and then looking at particular issues. He takes some controversial views that I wouldn't agree with, including a full-blown pacifism, but the book comes with great recommendations from people I like a lot. It's basically biblical theology about ethics. There's a similar Old Testament book by Christopher Wright that I haven't looked at but has been recommended by a number of people. I can't remember the name of it. There are lots of single-issue books that are great (Peter Craigie on war in the Old Testament, John Piper on loving enemies, D.A. Carson on love in general).

Hey Jeremy, I missed this post the first time around. That's one of the values of carnivals, I guess. I spent some time last year thinking about this question in Nietzsche, and I have a response on his behalf: he is a value fictionalist. Normative claims are all false simpliciter, but the enlightened have learned to play a game in which some of them are true. If you're interested, I have a short paper on the subject, linked here (it's the top one listed right now).

Yes, I'm aware of your paper. I haven't read it yet. I remember reading your blog post about it, though. That was actually why I said it the way I did ("according to standard interpretations"). Since I'm not that interested in the historical Nietzsche, it doesn't bother me too much what he held. I do think this is a problem for real ethical nihilists, because I haven't met anyone yet who doesn't complain about something in normative terms.

Ethical nihilism does not have to mean what you imply, a lack of any value judgments. It doesn't even have to mean that an individual does not approve or disapprove of the actions or character of another. It can mean only that there is no universal truth to the value judgments that any person has. Ethical nihilism can mean that "the statements anyone makes about ethical issues only reflect their personal feelings and do not reflect any larger universal truth." A person can believe that and can act normally and make choices according to their preferences, and can even use terms like good and evil, right and wrong, but with a slight change to the meaning of those terms. An ethical nihilist who says "Bob is evil" can mean that "Bob has traits that I negatively value", without contradicting his nihilist belief that there is no universal truth to that assessment.

Charlie, the view you're describing is more accurately called subjectivism or emotivism, depending on how you work it out in the details. From the way you're putting it, it sounds more like subjectivism.

I happen to think subjectivism is semantically untenable, for reasons that A.J. Ayer made clear when he presented his emotivist view way back in the first half of the 20th century. I'm not sure what Ayer replaced it with was much better, either. But the view is clearly distinct from the nihilist view that takes ethical statements to be mistakes. Emotivism and subjectivism don't take ethical judgments to be mistaken. They just take them to be something very different from what we generally take them to be.

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