Friday, May 4, 2012

The In-Between Time

One Young Moral Nihilist

I want to take a moment, if I may, to yap about moral nihilism.

Despite the fact that, growing up, I was not "properly socialized,"  (read: indoctrinated) certain ideas did make their way into my understanding of things, just from the popular culture. One of these was the pernicious notion that morality stemmed from some absolute, objective, separate from humanity, authority. Generally, that authority bears the name "God." A consequent of this is that without that authority, there was no source for and hence no morality. Well, as I mentioned earlier, I am a "from the cradle" atheist - meaning that I was never indoctrinated into a faith. I think you can see an issue developing...

Perhaps I was victim of a Piagetan/Kohlbergian stage of moral development, but the issue came to a point early for me. Nevertheless, I remained, for the most part, a very lawful, by most accounts, moral individual. As I began studies in philosophy, I found that morals were obviously not empirical entities - were not things you could point to and say "there it is." Were not properties or qualities of objects, acts, or results. One could point at consequences and evaluate them, but not at the values/morals themselves. As I dismissed the idea of morals/value being objective/empirical things...

...I became a "moral nihilist." I used to go around saying things like, "There is no morality." "Morality is a lie." And the like.

Well, that was then; this is now. :)

You see, I was labouring under a misapprehension. Despite finding that morality was not in any sense objectively absolute, I was still defining morality in terms of objective absolutism. Add these together and you get nihilism. The reasoning is very simple:

All morality arises from absolute authority.
There is no absolute authority.
Therefore, there is no morality.

Seems bulletproof, doesn't it?

The Agenda of "Nihilism"

Now "nihilism" is a fun word, wrapped in negative connotations and derisive, vilifying inferences. Well, of course it is; it was a word used by moral absolutists (namely the religious) to describe, deliberately unflatteringly, those who rejected their vison of what morality is. It was, in effect, an ad hominem. Nihilists have no morality, and you are a nihilist, so therefore your arguments about morality are icky. (Sorry, there is just no way for me to depict this "argument" seriously).

This really had, it seems to me, one purpose. Ethical absolutists are not really bothered if you are moral or not, whether you accept or reject the particular morals of their particular view. Indeed, I would argue that absolutists want rejection of their morals in order to have an enemy to polarize around (remember the "mosque at ground zero" kerfluffle?), but that's a topic for another time. What they are really frightened of is the idea that you might define morality in other terms - human-centered terms. As long as you bought into the absolute-authority/truth definition of morality, a context in which you could be "legitimately" lauded or vilified could be maintained. Religions "despise" opposed religions, but what they all despise is someone who steps outside of their religious context. Religions love to hate each other, but it is the non-religious who are all religion's real enemy.

In this way, being a moral nihilist is really playing the absolutists' game. Liberation form the absolutists' "morality" comes not just from rejecting the divine authority, but also from revamping one's entire conception and perception of morality - it comes from redefining morality. Otherwise, you are still a thrall of, and subject to, the absolutists' context.

This consideration is what I mean when I speak of reclaiming our humanity from the religions. Morality is a human function, in a human context, but the religiouns have annexed it, redefined it in their hobbled, inhuman terms, and then imposed that redefinition on all of our discourse.

Do It Like You Mean It!

If you really want to dismiss absolutist morality, don't stop half way, don't stop in the in-between time. Don't just dismiss the absolute authority that is claimed to be the source of morality, but dismiss also the definition of morality that requires an absolute authority. Nihilism is a stepping stone away from absolutism. Take the next step. Think of morality in terms that really frighten the absolutist. Define morality in a different way.

In studies of analytic ethics, one encounters a number of moral theories with different perspectives. Some seek to find moral truth - sometimes empirically, sometimes psychologically, sometimes analytically (via definitions and inferences), and of course, sometimes metaphysically/mystically - some equate morality with emotive outbursts, some others ... let's just say that a great many clever minds have come up with a great many clever (and not so clever) ideas. Often these examinations involve breaking down morality into basic components, things like prescriptivity (the command force of moral language), universalizability (universal applicability of moral principles), and many others. This suggests something interesting about morality, actually.

What if it turned out there is no moral truth? What if it turned out morality were a negotiated social construct? What if morality was not true in some objective, extra-human manner, but was an emergent property/quality of social interaction? This would mean that morality is not something that exists in a single individual's mind, but that is held among minds - that, although not objective, morality is inter-subjective. This would place moral evaluations beyond just the mind of any one individual, although that individual might take part in negotiations about such evaluations. No one of us would be the judge of all the earth.

"Everything is Permitted!"

This would provide us an answer to the old fanatics' bugbear, "Without God, where do you get your morals from? Without God, everything is permitted!" It seems to me whenever I hear this claim by the religious, that the obvious question comes to mind, "Permitted by whom?" The obvious answer is, everyone else, and me (as a participant in the social order/context in which I live). Where do I get my morals? From the people around me and social context in which I live. The source of my morality is that social context. And, surprise, surprise, it doesn't permit everything.

This is one redefinition of morality, such that we can coherently speak of morality without making reference to some absolute authority and without making claims to any "fact status" about values/morals. It is one version of the next step away from absolutism, leaving it, and it's flipside nihilism, in the dust. It is also a conception of morality that allows for flexibility, adaptivity, and change as we negotiate.

I put it to you that this is a more coherent, even more moral, version of morality precisely because it places morality squarely within a human context - of humans, by humans, and for humans. For example, we won't have absolutist reasons to slaughter one another, or bind our children as sacrifices to God.

Beyond Absolutism

There are even more astonishing possibilities. What if we were able to conceive of morality, not as an imposition from on high, but as a constructive, participatory human endeavor? What if we could actually conceive of ourselves as something other than intrinsically evil monsters that need to be kept in check by internalized prohibitions. Could morality be something we could participate in, rather than as chains to keep the monster in check...?

1 comment:

  1. I actually present this as more a public service as anything else (although it ends up being a teaser about my view of morality). When I was under the influence of moral nihilism, there was no internet (except perhaps some online communications between universities). People to speak with about this were effectively non-existent. Atheism was a lonelier time when I was growing up; I had to work it out alone. If I can offer some recourse other than moral nihilism to those who are in the In-Between Time, the benefit of my experience perhaps, then I am happy to do so. If I can save you a year or two in your inquiries, you may surpass me sooner and do more.


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