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)

December 31, 2009

8.1 We would be better off not using the word ‘moral’

Given the widespread but apparently false belief that there are true, absolute moral values we would probably be better off eliminating from our vocabulary the words that imply the existence of such values – words such as ‘moral’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Such ‘moral abolitionism’ has been suggested by others who deny the existence of moral absolutes, including Greene (2002), Burgess (in an early unpublished work finally published in 2007) and Garner (2007). It would likely be better to refer to positions one favors or opposes rather than describe them as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. This would not prevent us from reasoning about values and their implications. It would also not prevent us from adopting and living by particular values we believe are in our interest, supporting/condemning actions vigorously or choosing to punish or fight those who violate norms we endorse. But it would eliminate language that implies there are values or obligations that command obedience of oneself or another because of their objective truth. Discussing values as personal (if sometimes widely shared) and relative would likely make ‘moral’ disagreements less intractable and more like other disagreements, increasing the possibilities for compromise. Compromise would not be required (nothing is)…but the choice would be more accurately focused as a practical decision to compromise or not rather than a decision that allows no compromise by definition.

Some who believe that moral values are not absolute (e.g., Joyce, 2001) nevertheless think we might be better retaining the fiction of moral absolutes and continue to speak of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’…that such talk would better reinforce the shared values a community has, providing a net benefit. Whether this is the case is, as Joyce and others have observed, an empirical question, but one might hope that people could see values for what they are and learn to better understand and reason about differences in them while still respecting their importance.

(One exception to eliminating the language of moral realism (i.e., that there are objective moral truths) might be for raising children, where a simpler approach may be needed to encourage particular behaviors. Greene (2002) observes that we might “simply allow or even encourage realist dialogue with those who are too young to handle the meta-ethical truth [that there are no moral absolutes]”(p. 279).)

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