Arguments For & Against Moral Nihilism

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  • 0:01 Moral Nihilism
  • 0:56 Arguments For Moral Nihilism
  • 2:50 Arguments Against…
  • 4:49 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Like most philosophical theories, moral nihilism has supporters and opponents, and each have strong arguments. Explore the arguments for and against moral nihilism, and test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Moral Nihilism

Who's to say what's right and wrong? Morality, the distinction between right and wrong, is often assumed to be natural, universal, pure. But what if it's not? What if there is no right and wrong? What if there is no inherent meaning to any of this? Hmm. Hard to stay positive in a lesson on nihilism, the philosophy of meaninglessness.

Nihilism, for example, holds that life is inherently meaningless, without natural value or purpose. But nihilism can also be broken up into various branches. Moral nihilism states that there are no inherent morals in any action. So, does this mean that morality is meaningless? Well, yeah. But also, no. Just try and stay positive, and you'll see what I mean.

Arguments For Moral Nihilism

Moral nihilism claims that nothing is inherently moral or immoral. So, whereas most societies hold killing to be naturally immoral and rescuing a puppy from a burning building to be moral, nihilists would say that neither action is inherently right or wrong.

Notice how much I'm using the word 'inherently?' That's important. Moral nihilists believe that things are without natural morality, but that does not mean that they cannot be given morality. Things like right and wrong are therefore constructed by humanity, something assigned to actions in order to give them psychological, social, or economic value. Therefore, the value in morals is arbitrary, subjective, and possibly changeable.

This means that morals are not universal, objective, or reflections of pure cosmic truth. They are, like everything else in our societies, constructed, and that's what the nihilist argument is based on. We are emotional and communal creatures, who need to be able to express our feelings in order to create social groups. So, according to moral nihilists, we assign things categories of right and wrong, as a way to express our feelings and to create structures that we can build into societies. A large social group, a society, is fragile, so having these structures is important.

We can form opinions and beliefs as a society or as individuals, and by expressing them as morals, we give them a deep sense of importance. So, morals do have meaning, but it's only the meaning that we give to them. It's not naturally, universally, or inherently true. This is why we don't assume that other animals are evil or immoral; they are just parts of nature. Morality is something we constructed to define our species alone.

Arguments Against Moral Nihilism

Moral nihilism is only one of many, many theories about morality. And it's one of the only ones to really assert that morals are actually meaningless. That means that there are quite a few theories that disagree with nihilism. Almost every religion includes the belief in inherent morals, and as far back as we have writing, there are philosophers who explained morality through various cosmic, universal, and even evolutionary models. In fact, many biologists, anthropologists, and psychologists believe that morality is something encoded into our DNA, something fundamentally as much a part of us as our need to form communities. Therefore, even if morals exist just to help create strong social groups, they can still be seen as universal because they are part of our genetic instincts, part of what makes us human.

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