point of view: a modern nihilism

Presents the author's evolving views of the best current positions on certain core philosophical and psychological problems. These positions together suggest a skeptical or nihilist perspective modified by evolutionary psychology and contemporary philosophy that embraces our desire to live as best we can and the relative and psychological reality of values, free will and other phenomena while recognizing limitations on their foundations and our understanding. The below makes no claims to originality for most of the ideas expressed, drawing on a range of mostly unreferenced texts (which will be familiar to philosophers and psychologists working in this area). Readers may want to start at the bottom with the first entry. - Marc Krellenstein (personal info here)

October 4, 2006

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

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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