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Answering To Moral Nihilism

by Francois Tremblay



An issue which attracts many atheists to the skeptical position is the issue of morality. It seems that the position that morality can be objective – that is, based on the facts of reality instead of opinion or belief – is seen as non-viable. However, I have presented a sufficient case in my article The Case for Objective Morality, which demonstrates that indeed objective morality is a possibility, and therefore the only desirable position. As the most definitive statement I have written to support objective morality against subjective/relativist objections, I will refer to it many times in this article. I will also come back to this desirability issue when I discuss the web site under examination in this article, since it will be pivotal.

There are three arguments that are prevalent in the skeptical cases against objective morality, and I want to answer them in this article also.

  • Evolutionary origins of morality.

    I answered this argument in my article “The Case for Objective Morality”. Basically, many atheists invoke evolution as the source of moral standards, that our sense of right and wrong evolved biologically and thus provides the only answer to moral questions. But biological evolution is not a means to find knowledge, it is a fact of nature. Psychological adaptations are based on a non-directed process, and are based on the human species and environment as it existed millions of years ago. The instincts of a tribal, status-based species living with almost no technology, are not applicable to today’s context.

  • Lack of consensus.

    Another argument is that most people do not follow objective standards of morality, and therefore those standards do not exist. This is, however, nothing more than a fallacy from popularity – the popularity of a position does not indicate its truth. And in fact, I also demonstrate in “The Case for Objective Morality” that everyone does follow an implicit sense of objective morality to a certain extent. Either way, popularity is irrelevant to the truth or falsity of any position.

  • Naturalistic fallacy.

    It is sometimes argued that the proponent of objective morality is committing the naturalistic fallacy (or, in a related objection, tries to bridge the is-ought “dichotomy”), because he is trying to use facts of nature in order to deduce moral judgment. But objective morality does not commit the fallacy because it does not directly transpose natural facts into moral judgments, but rather uses them as evidence. In fact it is the relativist who commits the naturalistic fallacy, by assuming that our unprocessed opinions and instincts about moral standards are automatically valid.

  • False dichotomy between absolutism and subjectivism.

    Some skeptics argue against absolutist positions, in the hopes that they have proven moral subjectivism or relativism by doing so. However, as I discuss in my opening case against Jason Gastrich, absolutism is incompatible with moral objectivity:

    Contextuality expresses the fact that an action does not exist in a vacuum. When we examine an action, we cannot ignore that the action takes place in a given context. The action of “killing” effects very different values whether it involves killing someone who has a gun trained on you, killing an innocent person walking down the street, killing an animal for food, killing a spider that entered the house, and so on and so forth. In each case, the being that is killed, the state of ourselves and the being, the actions necessary to perform, are all very different and lead to different results. In one case, our life is saved. In the other, we are a criminal. If we take contextuality out of the picture, then we are no longer talking about morality. We have taken away a part of reality which directly pertains to moral judgment. That is to say, we are no longer talking about morality, we are talking about a mental abstraction which has no more relation to action in the real world. http://www.objectivethought.com/debates/gastrich1a.html

    The page I will examine here is part of Fredrik Bendz’ web site, but specifically discusses moral subjectivism. This page can be accessed at http://www.update.uu.se/~fbendz/philo/objective_morality.html . In it, Bendz purports to refute objective morality and justify subjective morality as sufficient. Because of its technical nature, Bendz’ page is a good position to analyze for the skeptic side.

    Bendz’ arguments suffer from a number of flaws, but the most important flaw in his reasoning is the assumption that subjective statements are sufficient to justify everyday moral judgments, and not only that, but that such statements are ethically relevant. He does not argue why this must be so, but simply says that it is so without justification:

    Even if there is no objective morality, it may be true that somebody believes that this-and-that is true. The belief may be false, but it is still true that the person holds this belief. Thus when somebody says “I believe that it was wrong by Hitler to kill 6 million Jews”, he is expressing an objective truth (unless he is lying), because this is the same as saying “It is true that I believe it was wrong by Hitler to kill 6 million Jews”. It is a statement about the person in question, not the fabric of the world.”

    Now there are two ways to interpret these statements, both of which are fatal for Bendz’ subjectivist position. If by “statement about the person” he means that moral statements are contextual in nature, then his position is also compatible with moral objectivism. As such, the argument does not provide justification for moral subjectivism per se, but for all statements, without actually examining if they are relevant to ethics or not. And if he means that moral statements are detached from any reality, then moral statements cannot exist since all statements are ultimately derived or imagined from reality.

    In fact, as I discuss in “The Case for Objective Morality”, subjective statements are by definition insufficient as propositions on any topic. No atheist would consider subjective statements about the glory of God to be relevant to the actual issue of whether a god exists or not. No scientist would consider subjective statements about Creationism to be on the same level as the facts of biological evolution. Subjective evidence, by definition, is insufficient to establish objective facts, as I stated in “The Case for Objective Morality”:

    One may claim that in the absence of a possible objective morality, we must fall back on subjectivism. But that is unacceptable: in the absence of objective evidence for a proposition, we must remain silent. We must go to the extent that a rational evaluation of the evidence will take us, and no further.

    Bendz would reply that moral statements are qualitatively different from scientific or philosophical statements, but once again his arguments are nothing more than naked assertions:

    For example, if I claim that the president of the USA anno 1998 was William “Bill” Jefferson Clinton, what I’m actually stating is that “it is true that in 1998, the president of the USA was Bill Clinton”. If somebody says “I think every man has the right to wear arms” all he says is that it is true that he thinks so. He does not say anything about whether it actually is right, only that his opinion is such. Even if he is wrong, it is still true that he has this opinion. (...) Since it is quite impossible to know whether it is right or wrong to kill six million Jews, there is no foundation for the statement that it is true that it is right to kill Jews. We could not verify it empirically.

    The problem is that subjectivists feel that they are correct in their positions, but since they do not believe in evidence, they do not feel the need to present any. Simply asserting their position seems to be sufficient, since that is their belief and they see no other reason to hold a position. But to any reasonable person, such lack of evidence demonstrates an incapacity to justify one’s position.

    In fact, we can verify moral statements empirically. As I point out in “The Case for Objective Morality”, moral standards come from the existence of universal values, which are derived from facts of nature such as biology and psychology, and contextualism, the fact that actions do not exist in a vacuum.

    We can use the example given by Bendz – the Holocaust – as an illustration of this. Political values, including the freedom of six million people to live their own lives free from murderous governments, are necessary because they provide an adequate “context for fulfilling our material, spiritual and social needs” (David Kelley, “Logical Structure of Objectivism”, p81). It is moral for us to seek governments which ensure individual rights because such governments provide the context by which our lower values can be effected.

    Obviously the people who died during the Holocaust were prevented from effecting any value at all, since they were killed. So claiming that “it is quite impossible to know whether it is right or wrong” and that we cannot “verify it empirically” is disingenuous at best: the empirical evidence of the pits full of corpses is quite clear. To try to deny this, is to deliberately ignore the moral gravity of death.

    The second major problem with Bendz’ analysis is that he confuses moral objectivism – the position that morality is based on objective facts – with moral intolerance. Thus he accuses proponents of objectivity as being fanatics, rejecting unpleasant truths, crackpots, and even comparing their behaviour with racists and Creationists.

    Another argument against the objectivity of values is that it is intrinsically contradictive. The reason is that moral objectivists treat moral judgements the same way they treat scientific facts. (...) The reason why this is contradicitive is that they give moral statements the same weight when deciding the truth as they do factual statements. The most obvious example is when they criticise moral subjectivism for leading to unpleasant results. For a moral subjectivist this would not be a problem, because how evil the truth is, it is still the truth, but to the moral objectivist, an evil truth can not be true, because it is morally wrong. If it is morally wrong it is false according to moral objecticvist, and hense scientific or philosophical explanations should be discarded if they are judged to be undesireable—thus moral objectivism is in the end one of the most extreme subjectivisms.

    He then gives the example of evolution as a morally dubious fact. Of course, Bendz himself does not contend that evolution is morally dubious, since he is a moral subjectivist, but I doubt he thinks that evolution is morally dubious even from an objective perspective. It is therefore hard to understand why he chose it as an example: it is certainly not justifiable. To equate evolution with moral duty commits the naturalistic fallacy as much as Bendz’ own subjectivist position.

    Therefore, his conclusion that moral objectivism entails acceptance of pseudo-science remains unjustified. He needs to present evidence that the moral objectivist must consider evolution as morally dubious, despite the fact that such reasoning commits the naturalistic fallacy. In my opinion, this is an impossible task.

    But more importantly, it is unclear why a moral objectivist must consider morally undesirable facts as false, or even what morally undesirable even means in this context. Natural facts cannot be morally desirable or undesirable, as they are not the result of human action, therefore moral subjectivism cannot be morally desirable or undesirable. If it was true, then holding it as true would be morally desirable, but since it is false, holding it as true is morally undesirable, but the action of holding something as true is very different from the actual concept , which is not an action at all and therefore cannot be morally judged.

    Furthermore, he is making a false dichotomy between moral statements and factual statements. This dichotomy could only exist if moral subjectivism was true, but in reality moral statements are factual, given that they are deduced from the facts of reality. The necessity of political freedom, for example, is a fact of reality – we do need a political system that promotes individual rights in order to be able to effect our other values – and therefore is as factual as any scientific statement, for example.

    The obvious conclusion of this essay is that we must take personal responsibility for what we allow to be the motives of our actions. We can’t blame it on “objective morality”, or that we were only doing our duty.

    But this is bizarre. How can one rationally put the blame for his own actions on an objective reality? This line of reasoning is much like a murderer blaming video games or television for his murders. This “blaming outside factors” defense that Bendz is saying must be rejected, seems to be a rather subjectivist stance. There is no objective way of justifying such rationalizations. Whatever actions we perform, they are, directly or indirectly, our objective responsibility, because of structural individualism. Obviously Bendz is a structural individualist, but that is the necessary consequence of moral objectivism, therefore he cannot use it to slander moral objectivism.

    Furthermore, what “personal responsibility” is Bendz talking about here? He has denied all objective standards, so how can we hold a person culpable for his own actions? If a person holds different values than his, surely Bendz cannot suspend his subjectivity to blame him, as that would be special pleading. His answer is that we may subjectively decide to believe in moral facts:

    Even though values are not part of the world, and even if someone does not believe that they are, he may have an opinion on what is desirable of undesirable. For example, a nazi who was convinced that the killing of six million Jews was not right, may still desire it. Either for personal reasons, in which case his opinion would not have much to do with morality, or because he would find a higher value to it.

    But this is only trying to justify one opinion with another opinion, which is circular. The absence of personal responsibility entailed by subjectivism cannot be countered by more subjectivism: such a justification is ad hoc reasoning which does nothing to dispel the fact that there is no objective standard of personal responsibility in such a system.

    I have to conclude that, like virtually all cases for moral subjectivism, Bendz’ arguments are little more than naked assertions without any basis in fact. They are based on a fundamental denial of any connection between moral judgment and facts, and given this denial it is no wonder that Bendz believes that moral objectivism leads to pseudo-science and crackpots. Given the sufficient case that we have for the existence and desirability of objective morality, such objections are adequately addressed by the general moral model that I present in that case.

    Last updated: January 1, 2005