Ethical Nihilism

Atheism is intrinsically linked to nihilism.  Atheists will deny this.  But it doesn’t change anything.  However, now and then, some atheist thinker will come along and acknowledge this truth.  Someone like the philosopher of science Alex Rosenberg.  Below the fold are some excerpts from his essay.  

Darwinism thus puts the capstone on a process which since Newton’s time has driven teleology to the explanatory sidelines. In short it has made Darwinians into metaphysical Nihilists denying that there is any meaning or purpose to the universe, its contents and its cosmic history. But in making Darwinians into metaphysical nihilists, the solvent algorithm should have made them into ethical nihilists too. For intrinsic values and obligations make sense only against the background of purposes, goals, and ends which are not merely instrumental. But the leading Darwinian philosophers have shied away from this implication and instead have embraced ethical naturalism. And this despite the ever-increasing power of Darwinism to explain away normative ethics as a local adaptation.

[….]

Nihilism consists in the following claims: a) normative terms–good, bad, right, duty, etc–do not name real properties of events or things, either natural nor non-natural ones; b) all claims about what is good in itself, or about categorical moral rights or duties, are either false or meaningless; c) the almost universal beliefs that there are such properties and that such claims are true can be “explained away” by appropriate scientific theory. Nihilism takes the form of what J. L. Mackie [1977] calls an “error theory.” It does not deny that beliefs about norms and values can motivate people’s actions. It does not deny the felt “internalism” of moral claims, nor does it deny that normative beliefs confer benefits on the people who hold them. Indeed nihilism is consistent with the claim that such beliefs are necessary for human survival, welfare and flourishing. Nihilism only claims that these beliefs, where they exist, are false. It treats morality as instrumentally useful —instrumentally useful for our nonmoral ends or perhaps the nonmoral ends of some other biological systems, such as our genes for example. As such, it must undermine the values we cherish. If Darwinism underwrites Nihilism, Dennett cannot be right about Darwinism’s salubrious effects for “the meanings of life”. However Nihilism can be, as one might say, “nice”, provided that in its explaining away of ethics, it also shows that we are in fact disposed to behave nicely–-to cooperate, be altruistic, show guilt and shame, anger and resentment in just the way we would if some morality were true, right, or real. Darwinian Nihilism is the thesis that the theory of natural selection and its application to biological data explains why morality is at most an instrumentally useful illusion. According to the Darwinian Nihilist, the theory of natural selection can both show that we are in error about the status of moral claims, and, perhaps more importantly, can explain this why the error is so widespread.

[….]

Darwinian Nihilism explains away ethics by showing that our ethical beliefs reflect dispositions very strongly selected for over long periods, which began well before the emergence of hominids, or indeed perhaps primates (vide the vampire bat). These dispositions are so “deep” that for most people most of the time, it is impossible to override them, even when it is in our individual self-interest to do so, still less when there is no self-interested reason to do so. Hence, the Darwinian Nihilist expects that most people are conventionally moral, and that even the widespread acceptance of the truth of Darwinian Nihilism would have little or no effect on this expectation. Most of us just couldn’t persistently be mean, even if we tried. And we have no reason to try.

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9 Responses to Ethical Nihilism

  1. Justin says:

    Darwinian Nihilism as described here, which is at least more honest than its other atheistic cousins, still has a problem – it cannot escape purpose and meaning. You cannot argue on the one hand that purpose and meaning are an illusion or that moral beliefs are “false or meaningless” and then argue that morality is “instrumentally useful” on the other. Useful for what? They haven’t answered the question as to why the system is fundamentally built to select certain behaviors over others. And they can do all the hand waving and explaining they like, but there are behaviors that are objectively more useful than the alternatives. Why?

    Atheism, even at this level of integrity (which is rare), still ends in self-contradiction. And at the end of the analysis, Darwinian theories don’t get you all the way to the answer.

  2. David Yerle says:

    I am an atheist and have always believed that the absence of God implied nihilism. In fact, the existence of God would also imply nihilism if one was to have autonomous morals, since there is no inherent meaning in doing anything because God tells you to and you don’t want to go to hell.
    I still believe in empathy which of course has been generated over eons by natural selection, so in a way I agree with you. However, the fact that my empathy has evolved by natural selection says nothing about the objective moral values of the universe (since there are non) and my life continues just as empty…

  3. Michael says:

    I am an atheist and have always believed that the absence of God implied nihilism. In fact, the existence of God would also imply nihilism if one was to have autonomous morals, since there is no inherent meaning in doing anything because God tells you to and you don’t want to go to hell.

    Meaning does not have to be “inherent” to escape nihilism. It only has to be rooted in a reality higher and deeper than our biology and ourselves.

    I still believe in empathy which of course has been generated over eons by natural selection, so in a way I agree with you. However, the fact that my empathy has evolved by natural selection says nothing about the objective moral values of the universe (since there are non) and my life continues just as empty…

    Empathy is not the only biological urge generated by naturalism selection. And in fact, it’s one of the weaker ones (being a latecomer and all). Maybe that explains why we can’t have a civilization built on empathy alone and instead need to prop it up with things like laws and codes.

  4. Michael says:

    Hence, the Darwinian Nihilist expects that most people are conventionally moral, and that even the widespread acceptance of the truth of Darwinian Nihilism would have little or no effect on this expectation. Most of us just couldn’t persistently be mean, even if we tried. And we have no reason to try.

    Ah, the smell of wishful thinking. Has he ever heard of the Gnu community?

  5. David Yerle says:

    Nihilism can be escaped in many ways. Idiocy is one of them. Belief in a higher power can make you escape nihilism if you convince yourself it gives some kind of meaning to your existence. But that only works if you don’t ask any further questions. “Higher” and “deeper” are vague concepts which are hard to define. A being without a physical body does not have to be either. A being which is smarter or “wiser” (another hard-to-define concept) does not have to be either, since such values are subjective and inherently human.
    I am fully aware that empathy is not the only biological urge generated by biological selection, but it is the only one that can generate acceptable morals, unless you consider a morality where struggle for dominance or aggression are its basis. Hunger and thirst don’t work great either, since they have little normative value.

  6. Well isn’t this an entertaining read……Someone who is above all the foolish atheists and knows so much more than they do, how unique. Trouble is you are all rhetoric. “Atheism is intrinsically linked to nihilism. Atheists will deny this. But it doesn’t change anything.” you have already told the atheist who/what they are and you don’t sound interested in any opinion that doesn’t fit what you already THINK you know.
    The wisest man is the one who realizes how little wisdom he has.
    There is a reason that religion is fading away and people like you are helping that. Thank You
    I am curious if you believe in hell and what your definition of god is.

  7. The Deuce says:

    Nihilism consists in the following claims: a) normative terms–good, bad, right, duty, etc–do not name real properties of events or things, either natural nor non-natural ones

    The problem is, atheistic materialism implies the exact same thing about normative terms like true and false as well, and hence is self-contradictory. Rosenburg doesn’t come right out and say this directly, but he does say that beliefs (as well as all other propositional attitudes and the contents of thoughts in general) don’t exist, and if you reject those, you reject the idea of truth and falsehood as well.

  8. The Deuce says:

    Incidentally, Ed Feser did a series on Rosenberg and eliminative materialism which is rounded up here: http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2012/05/rosenberg-roundup.html

  9. Jacque says:

    @AA: What a hugely ironic post.

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