Moral Nihilism

This article from Quillette Why Should We Be Good? went viral, but it possibly gets some things wrong.

Today we are witnessing an irrepressible and admirable pushback against the specters of ‘cultural relativism’ and moral ‘nihilism.’ On the Right, thinkers such as Patrick Deneen and Jordan Peterson have responded to an increasingly cynical postmodern culture by arguing for a return to traditionalist and/or local values. More centrist thinkers such as Steven Pinker and Sam Harris have argued for a return to the Enlightenment’s emphasis on using reason and its handmaiden, empirical science, to develop an ever more objective set of ethical norms. And even on the far-Left, radical thinkers such as Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek have levelled scathing attacks against postmodern relativism and ‘totalitarian’ identity politics, calling for a return to ethics properly understood:


The author, possibly unknowingly, lumps philosophies together as being interchangeable when they may not be, and attributes beliefs to the aforementioned names based on his own biases, when such beliefs may be incompatible, wrong, or opposed.

What we’re seeing, as evidenced by the post-2013 rise of the IDW, is a push-back against collectivism, political correctness, sensationalism , moralizing, tribalism, and identity politics (which is related to moralizing), but this is not the same as a repudiation of moral nihilism or cultural relativism. It’s possible to oppose political correctness, collectivism, and moralizing, yet still be a moral nihilist and a cultural relativist, and this combination is more common than the author may think. In fact, we would expect it to be that way, because moralizing and political correctness are impositions of a value system (usually a left-wing one), whereas nihilism is a repudiation of such a terminal, unmovable, or preferred value system.

There are two basic forms of ethics:

An ethic motivated by something that is intangible and divine, which related to Kant’s categorical imperative. For example, the 10 Commandments. There is no materialistic antecedent for them; rather they are understood to be always true, and treated as the literal words of god. One should not steal, because it is wrong and proscribed. What does that mean in a materialistic sense? Who knows, but theft is bad.

The second is a consequentialist ethic, which means that the goodness or badness of an action is determined by its consequence, not its intrinsic ‘badness’ or ‘goodness’, which cannot be defined in a materialistic frame. But consequence can be defined in such a manner. Thus, one should not steal, not because it’s ‘bad’ or forbidden by god, but because the thief risks getting caught, which means a loss of personal utility for the thief, so the would-be thief has to weigh the pros and cons. Or one should not steal, because the victim loses utility.

Indeed, relativism and the moral nihilism with which it is often affiliated, seems to be in retreat everywhere. For many observers and critics, this is a wholly positive development since both have the corrosive effect of undermining ethical certainty. I think there are two motivations behind this disdain for relativism and moral nihilism: one of which is negative and one of which is positive

I think we’re seeing more moral nihilism. Were living in a society that prices individualism and individual quantifiable merit,more so than ever, whether it’s techies striving to get rich in Web 2.0 or high school graduates striving to get into elite schools. Millions of young people are cramming for AP tests and the SAT, in order to get however small of an edge over their competing classmates (and there is all the cheating that goes on in college, such as paper mills, although this far predates the current era). The rise and fall of Theranos seems to sorta encapsulate the wealth-at-all-costs sort of mentality we’re living in, but it also highlights example of individualism merged with nihilism.

However, the ethical system of the IDW (which includes Peterson, Harris, Pinker, etc.) leans towards the latter, which is more nihilistic than the former. A scientific approach to morality is an inherently materialistic and consequentialist one. That does not mean it’s worse, but it can in theory be used to justify actions that some in the former group may find morally reprehensible. [One can argue that it’s rational to steal if one faces no consequence, or if the payoff far exceeds the potential downside] Jordan Peterson’s lobster hierarchy system can be an apologia for unethical behavior, if one’s position in a hierarchy is of upmost importance, which to Dr. Peterson is is (or very close). In his best-seller 12 Rules For Life, he outlines a social Darwinist view that the dominance hierarchies (which he sometimes calls hierarchies of competence) underpin society, and such hierarchies that are found in nature (like in lobsters) is evidence of the immutability and inevitably of hierarchies. If humans, like lobsters, have no conceptualization of ‘right’ vs. ‘wrong’, then that lend itself to moral nihilism (although one can argue that humans are hard-wired with a sort of intrinsic ‘goodness’ that facilitates cooperation and communication).