Worldview: Nihilism

“Nihilism (from the Latin word nihil, meaning “nothing”) is the view that there are no objective values; nothing is really good or bad in any objective sense. In particular, there are no objective moral values. According to Nihilism, nothing is ultimately right or wrong, good or bad, justified or unjustified. What’s more, there is no objective purpose or meaning in human life or the universe at large. There’s simply no right or wrong way to live your life. Whatever you choose to do is just as valuable- or, rather, just as valueless- as anything else you might choose to do.

For the bona fide Nihilist, if you were to put down this book and throw yourself off the nearest tall building, that decision would be no better or worse, in any objective sense, than continuing to read this book. Ultimately, it really doesn’t matter one way or the other. You may prefer to do one rather than the other (I hope it’s the second option!), but for the Nihilist, no human preference is more or less valuable than any other human preference.

According to Nihilism, then, everything just is what it is: end of story. There’s no right or wrong about it. Beyond our arbitrary personal preferences, there’s nothing good to pursue and nothing bad to avoid. Our moral questions literally have no real answers. As the Cole Porter song famously put it, “Anything goes!”

Nihilism clearly isn’t a very attractive or appealing viewpoint, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t true. Indeed, often the truth turns out to be quite different than we want it to be! Nevertheless Nihilism faces two formidable ojections that make it very hard to accept on a rational basis.

The first objection is that Nihilism conflicts with our strongest moral intuitions. Most people recognize that some things are just plain wrong, no matter what. For example, torturing and murdering children for sadistic pleasure is objectively wrong. Even if everyone in the world enjoyed it and wanted to do it, it would still be wrong. Some moral values really are independent of human preferences.

Of course, the Nihilist might insist that our moral intuitions are completely unreliable and should be disregarded. But we would need to have very good reasons to dismiss such strong and widely held intuitions. Are there reasons to embrace Nihilism that are more obvious to us than our moral intuitions? And if our moral intuitions are so thoroughly misleading, why should we trust our rational intuitions? Nihilism threatens to undermine our rationality just as much as it undermines our morality.

This leads to a second and even more devastating objection to Nihilism: it’s self-defeating. Presumably the Nihilist thinks that it’s rational to accept Nihilism. (Why would you believe something if you thought it wasn’t rational to believe it?) But when we say that a belief is “rational,” we’re making a value judgment about it, at least implicitly. When we distinguish between rational beliefs and irrational beliefs, we’re essentially distinguishing between good beliefs and bad beliefs. But if Nihilism is true, there’s nothing objectively good or bad about any beliefs! Whatever you happen to believe is just as valuable or, rather, just as valueless as anything else you might believe.

Therefore, a truly consistent Nihilist should say that there’s no objective distinction between rational beliefs and irrational beliefs. When it comes to beliefs, as with morality, “Anything goes!”

So if you’re a consistent Nihilist, why do you believe Nihilism? Whatever explanation you give, it can’t have anything to do with trying to be rational in your beliefs.”

(Anderson, What’s in a Worldview? 75-76)

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