point of view: a modern nihilism philosophical/psychological positions and questions

October 4, 2006

8. Morality is real, but nihilism about its foundations can’t be avoided

Filed under: Uncategorized — Marc @ 10:08 pm

Steven Pinker (2002) observes that an evolutionary basis for morality invites nihilism (i.e., moral nihilism — the view that there are no objective moral truths) because of the nature of evolutionary adaptation, which happens by chance and persists because of its survival value. Pinker thinks nihilism can be avoided because moral behavior may have evolved in conformance with an objective morality grounded in the logic and benefits of reciprocal, cooperative behavior — it’s hard to argue someone has an obligation without being similarly obliged, and we benefit overall from certain behaviors. Even if there isn’t an objective morality, Pinker argues that our moral sense is ‘real for us’ and can’t simply be dismissed. But the logic of reciprocal obligation only applies if we already accept someone having an obligation to do something rather than just finding it desirable; not wanting you to hurt me doesn’t imply you have an obligation not to hurt me (see Harman in Harman & Thomson, 1996) or what might be the resulting obligation for me not to hurt you. The net benefits of cooperation also do not imply obligations; a given individual (or nation state) at a particular time may well be better served by acting selfishly. While morality is still ‘real for us,’ this too falls short of the objective grounding of morality needed to refute nihilism. That does not mean that moral practice and discussion are an unimportant part of our lives or that we are not willing to live by, defend and enforce those practices. But our beliefs and their defense cannot be grounded in more than our individual and community determination to pursue certain goals and adhere to certain norms of conduct. (See Krellenstein, 2006.)

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