Ideology Smackdown: The Ethics Of… Nihilism

Well I don’t know about you, but I’ve found the Ideology Smackdown remarkably cathartic. But all things must come to an end, and what better way to end this theme than with the ultimate ideology: the belief that absolutely nothing is true.

Now obviously if we take Nihilism in its simplest form then this is going to be a hell of a short article. The idea that nothing is true, or to be more specific, “the belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated” is one of my favourite sorts of philosophical theory – one that can be disproven by slapping its supporters until they admit that they’d quite like me to stop. idea that ‘nothing is true’ is an interesting philosophical idea, to be sure. But when you’re in the process of having the shit slapped out of you by an overly-enthusiastic ethicist, you’re very quickly going to come to the conclusion that; A) Pain is indeed an extremely real thing, B) you’d like it to stop, very very soon, and C) communicating this situation better be bloody possible, or else you’re in some serious trouble here.

To use a slightly less violent explanation, hardcore Nihilism is proven false every time you buy food. You experience the sensation of hunger, you express the desire to improve this situation to a seller of food, and together you overcome your problem through the purchase of food for you to eat. The value of satisfaction exists, based on the reality of your hunger, achieved through communication with a food seller, and known thanks to your nerve endings. Game, set and match – hardcore Nihilism is a load of bollocks.

Where’s your uncaring existential void now, huh?

But with the exception of some particularly broody teens, no one is really arguing that hardcore Nihilism is true. The far more popular argument is Moral Nihilism, which does believe that reality exists, but claims that any and all ethical rules human believe in are 100% of our own creation. Where most ethical systems argue that morals are a natural component of reality, much like physics or chemistry, Nihilists argue this is all make-believe – desperate efforts by humanity to impose sense upon a senseless, uncaring universe.

Nearly every serious moral system will agree that killing a child is a bad thing to do. Whether you’re religious and believe murder is a sin, a deontologist that sees such killing as unrighteous and dishonourable, or a utilitarian who judges that the costs of the murder vastly outweighing the benefits, the results are the same – killing a child is unethical, don’t do it. But a Nihilist would challenge how we came to these conclusions. Why are these method legitimate ways of judging if something is unethical? What are the scriptures of religion except books written by men? What is a deontological code of conduct other than ideas that we find pleasing? And what is the weighing of utilitarian costs and benefits other than an expression of ‘things we don’t like versus things we do’?

Get right down to it and all our great guiding ethical system are just ideas that we like – rules that we created to try to impose some order on a universe which couldn’t give a damn if we murder a child or not. Where is it written across the fabric of reality that killing of children is a bad thing? And why, if it’s such a bad thing, does the universe not try to stop us or punish us for doing it? Try to ignore the laws of physics and the consequences are immediate and obvious – jump off a roof and gravity will kick the shit out of you, each and every time. But you can go out today and murder as many children as you want, and guess what? The universe won’t do jack.

Faced with this bleak reality, humans have created systems to make themselves feel better about things, dividing life up into ‘good’ and ‘evil’ in an attempt to give life meaning. And while these system may indeed make some people happy, the fact remains that they are no more real than a child’s game of pretend. Nihilists argue that rather than shackling oneself to these empty ideologies, individuals should simply seek what is best for themselves, impose their own meaning on the void and enjoy life while it lasts. In this sense Nihilism is actually an optimistic ideology, encouraging us all to live life to the fullest and not to worry about right and wrong, since those concepts are only what we make of them.


There is no denying that Nihilist have a point here. As profound as our various ethical ideals may or may not be, the fact remains that they are purely human constructs. If humanity were to disappear from existence tomorrow, everything we know about ethics would immediately become irrelevant – not a lot of point in asking if killing a child is immoral when children no longer exist, right? But just because ethics depend on humans existing, does that then mean that they have no concrete basis in reality at all?

This brings up a pretty massive question about the field of ethics in general: what is the source of ethics? Nihilist claim that it’s just human creativity that gives us our rules of behaviour and that the universe doesn’t give a damn. I would respectfully disagree.

First of all, trying to describe a source of ethics is a bit of a flawed question – ‘source’ tends to imply some sort of higher power bestowing us with knowledge from on high, or some sort of fine print on the side of an atom somewhere, explicitly laying out the rules. This obviously doesn’t exist, at least as far as we know. But if by ‘a source of ethics’ we mean objective realities that prove our ethics right, then suddenly we have a very different question on our hands.

Nihilists are correct that the universe doesn’t give a crap how we behave. The universe doesn’t give a crap about anything though, because the universe is not alive or sentient (again, as far as we know). Oh it might seem to care if we transgress against the laws of science, what with the immediate consequences, but that’s just cause and effect in action – and right there we have an answer for the ‘source of ethics’ as well.

If you went out and killed a child today then no, the universe would not smack you down the same way as if you jumped face-first off a roof onto concrete. But you better believe that consequences are still coming your way, in rather dramatic fashion. For starters you have the psychological reactions of the kid’s parents, everyone who witnessed or heard about the act, and of course of yourself. Secondly, you have the consequences that come with breaching social norms as hard as you just did – you’re looking at exile from your community if you’re lucky, and being bludgeoned with sticks if you’re not. And finally you have the very practical consequences that come with ending a human life – the total loss of that individual’s potential, the waste of all resources spent on that child so far, the physical cost of replacing the child for the parents, and so on and so forth.


To be sure, these are all very human-based consequences, but so what? Ethics may only be relevant if humans exist, but the same could also be said of physics if the universe suddenly lacked all physical objects – no such thing as gravity when there’s no mass, right? And since both mass and humans do exist then both physics and ethics are very much based in reality.

At this point Nihilists will likely argue that, sure, the consequences our ethical systems produce may indeed be real, but whether those consequences are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is not. How can we possibly argue that one set of consequences is better than another when all we have to measure it is human perception? Once again all we’re describing here  are ‘things we like’ and ‘things we don’t like’; hardly a solid foundation for telling people what to do, right?

At which point I would immediately revert back to slapping them in the face.

SlappingNow obviously the way we all view the world is different, and different people and different cultures disagree about what is good and bad. But are we seriously going to try arguing that conflicting opinions can both be right at the same time? If I’m laying into a Nihilist’s face and think that the pain I’m causing them is actually a wonderful thing, are they seriously going to accept that perspective as totally valid, even though they personally think the pain is a terrible, awful thing they want stopped immediately? And what if they were total masochists and wanted to act on their own perception that the pain is bad? If my opinion that the pain is good is equally valid, what happens then? How do we decide what should be done?

This problem is known as Moral Relativism – the idea that what is right has nothing to do with facts, and everything to do with cultural norms – and it suffers from the very serious problem that it has zero way of resolving conflicts. If a Nazi wants to kill all Jews and a Jew wants to stay alive, then moral relativism says that both are right because those opinions are both true within their own cultures; a position that does precisely bugger all to help us decide what should happen next. Less ridiculous ethical systems will look at the consequences of each position, note the massive costs caused by the Nazi’s plan for extremely questionable benefits, and determine that the Jew wanting to stay alive is obviously the superior choice. Nihilism on the other hand would just shrug and wander off.

While the optimism and freedom offered by Nihilism have their appeals, when you get right down to the question of ‘How should we live’, it quickly becomes clear that it’s just wilful ignorance dressed up in a fancy philosophical hat. Whether you like it or not, every action we all make will have consequences both for ourselves and for others. And whether you like it or not, ignoring these consequences does not excuse you from responsibility for them.

Yeah the world can indeed be a cruel and uncaring place, and yeah, the lack of some clear and obvious Meaning of Life can indeed be terrifying. But coming up with some half-arsed pseudo-philosophical idea to help you hide from these problems is a pretty terrible was of dealing with those realities. And when that system incidentally gives the strong a way to feel entirely justified in treating the weak however they want, it’s time to get real.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s