Ethical Nihilism and Moral Choices.

I’m just curious about one thing. What moral code do most ethical nihilists subscribe to? And what reason do they give to subscribing to that one code? (As I understand ethical nihilists’ claims, no one moral code is superior to another. From cannibalism to extreme veganism.)



I suspect there is no Pew Survey of Ethical Nihilists yet.

Are you asking about philosophers who defend ethical nihilism or are you asking about people believing the same?

If you are interested in the philosophy the go-to website is here:

From the website:
Moral Nihilism = Nothing is morally wrong.

Moral nihilism here is not about what is semantically or metaphysically possible. It is just a substantive, negative, existential claim that there does not exist anything that is morally wrong. It is, however, usually supplemented with an explanation of why people hold moral beliefs that are false … This thesis of moral nihilism has been supported by various reasons, including the pervasiveness of moral disagreement and our supposed ability (with the help of sociobiology and other sciences) to explain moral beliefs without reference to moral facts. Since people do take moral nihilism seriously and even argue for it (Mackie 1977, Joyce 2001), moral nihilism cannot be dismissed as readily as Descartes’s deceiving demon.

They would choose an ethical code that’s based on their personal values. They would apply it to themselves and not insist it on others, except to the extent that a given society adopts a shared ethical code.

For example, a country of ethical nihilists could make murder illegal based on shared values. A cannibal from another culture wouldn’t be criticized as being immoral, but he wouldn’t be allowed to eat anyone.

Of course, the cannibal could be criticized, for inconsistency, if he tried to espouse any ethics that are inconsistent with murder being OK. Frankly, it’s hard to come up with much of an ethical system that doesn’t rely on either some religious code or else the value of human life.

If nothing is morally wrong . . . does that imply that nothing is morally right, or that everything is morally neutral?

Let me rephrase that:

If nothing is morally wrong . . . does that imply that everything is morally right, or that everything is morally neutral?

Ethical nihilism wouldn’t preclude The Golden Rule, would it? TGR ethics are ultimately based on empathy rather than coercion. In that way, maybe ethical nihilism is, ironically, the “highest” form of ethics.

Depends on how you understand the Golden Rule, I think.

The Golden Rule is, basically, that you ought to treat others the way you would like them to treat you.

But if we interrogate it further and ask why we ought to do this, (at least) three possible answers present themselves.

First, I should treat you the way I would like you to treat me because I hope, or expect, that this will maximise the chances of you treating me the way I would like to be treated. This isn’t, ultimately, an ethical argument; it’s an appeal to self-interest. It only becomes a moral argument if I treat my own welfare/satisfaction as a moral good. Empathy, on this view, is simply a useful quality which tends to maximise my chances of securing my own welfare/satisfaction. And a corollary of this position, I think, is that if there is no prospect whatsoever of your treating me as I would like to be treated (or if there is no reason to think that the chances of your doing so will be affected by how I treat you) then there is no reason why I should treat you as I wish to be treated.

That’s a morally nihilistic position, I think, but I struggle to see it as the highest form of ethics.

Secondly, I should treat you the way I would like you to treat me because that will maximise your welfare. I should do this regardless of any hope or expectation of reciprocation from you, or indeed of any direct or indirect benefit to myself. That treats maximising your welfare as a moral good, and it’s not a morally nihilistic position.

Thirdly, I should treat you the way I would like you to treat me because that will maximise your welfare and, because of my empathetic qualities, it will gratify me to secure or increase your welfare. That’s a morally nihilistic position, but the argument only holds good to the extent that I do, in fact, have empathetic qualities. If I’m a sociopath who is entirely lacking in empathy, there is no reason why I should treat you as I would like you to treat me. Less dramatically, if I have empathetic qualifies, but just not with respect to you, this position again affords no reason why I should treat you as I wish you to treat me. Or if my empathy towards you is outweighed by my irritation with you, there is no reason why I should observe the golden rule in my treatment of you.

In short, this comes down to saying that I should treat you as I want you to treat me because (and, therefore, only for so long as) it gratifies me to do so. Again, I can’t really see this as the highest form of ethics.


But note that it says that no act is inherently right or wrong, rightness or wrongness depend on a value system, and you can’t compare value systems without assuming some values.

You can be an ethical nihilist and still have a well-defined code of ethics (moral system – I won’t make any distinction here). You could even argue for your system and propose elements to be part of the legal system, but it would be based on values, and if anyone rejects your values, as an ethical nihilist, you couldn’t object, provided they’re being rational.

Of course, an ethical system that’s inconsistent has bigger problems than whether it’s a good or bad system: it’s not a valid system. Ditto ambiguity. And of course, pretty much any real-world ethical system has contradictions and ambiguity. So, an ethical nihilist could argue against a given system on purely rational grounds, but that’s pretty much beside the point of ethical nihilism.

This is how I was thinking of TGR ethics, but I can see how the other ways could be consistent with it too.

Why is that not a morally nihilistic position?

I’m no moral philosopher, but it seems to me that, while moral nihilism may preclude one from claiming an objective or metaphysical basis for one’s moral beliefs or values, it does not preclude one from having moral beliefs or values. Indeed, it would seem to throw the door wide open for anyone to espouse any moral position for oneself, as there is no objective counterpoint to invalidate it. If I choose to value other people’s welfare as morally important - based on my perception of how I would feel if I were in their shoes - who/what is to say that is wrong?

Answer: Nothing.

That’s moral nihilism (or?)

As far as self interest goes, I tend to discount it when that concept is applied, unqualified, to moral arguments. Any - every - act, thought, opinion, position, what have you, can, if you want, ultimately be reduced to self interest. I challenge you to present me with any act or thought that cannot be construed as being primarily motivated by self interest.

That’s why I think coercion is a more useful concept. Is this a choice you really want, if you could have any unconditional outcome, or is this a choice you are making with the outcomes limited, or at least highly weighted, by an external factor?

I think because it involves assigning a moral value to the welfare of the other. All the way back in post #2 we have a handy cite from the Stanford Encyclopediaof Philosophy (which, for want of a better, is the definition I’m running with) which says that moral nihilism involves the assertion that nothing is morally wrong. And it seems to me an assertion that anything is morally right is not consist with the assertion that nothing is morally wrong.

Actually, I think self-interest may the key to this (and, therefore, we cannot discount it). As I understand the moral nihilist, he would say that, objectively, the welfare of the other is not a moral good (because nothing is, objectively, morally good or bad) and the individual who explains his altruism by attributing moral good to the welfare of the other is really doing nothing more than saying that it gratifies him to secure the welfare of other people, and that gratification outweighs the dissatisfaction resulting from whatever material costs, inconvenience, pain etc he undergoes in order to secure their welfare. In other words, he acts as he does because that maximises his welfare. If it didn’t, he wouldn’t. And that, of course, is the third position, outlined in my earlier post, not the second.

Depends on what you mean by “external factors”, I think. Let’s assume it gratifies me to secure the welfare of another, and I will accept significant cost, pain, etc in order to do so. I am, in that sense, altruistic. This gratification may look like a purely internal factor, but of course it has been instilled in me by education, upbringing and culture, and is supported by social approbation. Are external factors like these classed as “coercion”? And, if not, what is?

Having no prior deeper understanding of moral nihilism than what has been referenced here, I was going off the Wikipedia cite given by the OP. The opening paragraph

Apologies for quoting myself, but finger slip posted before I had finished.

That paragraph pretty much says that moral nihilism does not preclude making moral judgments or having moral values, it just stays those judgments and values are not inherently right or wrong. If the assertion that it is not inherently right or wrong to kill someone is thought to be consistent with moral nihilism, then why wouldn’t the assertion that it is not inherently right or wrong to not kill them be consistent as well? And if it is consistent, would the my personal reason for not killing them - be it I don’t want risk incurring the revenge of that person’s friends, or I’m avoiding feelings of guilt, or I emphathize with them - matter insofar as my not killing them is consistent with moral nihilism?

In short, and to use your example, if not assigning “moral value to the welfare of the other” is consistent with moral nihilism, why is assigning such moral value, if I choose, not consistent with moral nihilism?

As far as self interest goes, like I said, you can construe anything and everything as being ultimately motivated by self interest. Self interest motivates the killer as well as the guy who jumps on the grenade. In that way, I think it is a truism that adds little to discussions of ethics or morality, without it being qualified in some way.

As for coercion and external factors, I suppose I’m thinking of them more in the immediate (or intermediate) and more or tangible sense.