Why Moral Anti-realism Isn’t Mad Dog Moral Nihilism

15 11 2010

Just because the rules of cricket aren’t written into the very fabric of the universe doesn’t mean there are no rules by which we ought to play, should we choose to do so. And just because we’re not rationally obligated to adhere to this particular rule set, nor bound to follow these rules on pain of eternal torment from some otherworldly being, will we simply start playing by any rules we choose.

And yes, if everyone resolved that cricket was not much fun and decided to abandon it, or concluded the rules should be changed to resemble badminton, then cricket, as a sport, would necessarily change.

Likewise morality.

But, given the serious import we all place on morality – as well as the benefit it lends us all to play by its rules – it’s even less likely we’ll ever, as a group, decide no longer to play, or decide to change the rules so that it no longer resembles morality.

Morality, like cricket, need not be necessary in order for it to be important enough to concern ourselves over the maintenance and enforcement of the rules.




7 responses

15 11 2010
James Gray

We tend not to want to be moral, but we want other people to be moral. You can make a good case about why we should want others to be moral, but that doesn’t mean that we should personally agree to be moral as well. Morality could be a “personal choice,” but its not clear why we should make that choice.

If anti-realism isn’t “mad dog nihilism,” then a great deal of arguments should be offered. Do you think Hobbes embraced mad dog nihilism? I think what Hobbes had to say is quite similar to what I would expect of any rational nihilist.

If moral reasons aren’t “overriding” (similar to the rules of a sports game), then my personal interest can give me a good reason to hurt others. That’s exactly why a rational person would hurt others to begin with. That’s why a corporation makes decisions that hurts lots of people. It’s because the CEO wants to keep his job by making the company the maximal profit possible.

15 11 2010
John S. Wilkins

I think mad-dog nihilism is an invention; so far as I can tell nobody has ever held it (I am open to correction). It’s a bit like the mythological “Epicureanism” that theists hate, and probably was “identified” by those same theists.

I think that morality is something humans do, in virtue of being humans (social animals). Of course, if that game changed then so would the chances of us being moral.

15 11 2010
Tim Dean

Hi James. I think there are very good reasons to want to play the moral game by the rules. Hobbes (a non Mad Dog) said as much, and I reckon he, David Gauthier, Ken Binmore et al are right. And we have both internal (conscience) and external (fear of punishment, desire for praise) forces to motivate us to play nice. We also have good instrumental reasons to defect, but that’s an unsustainable strategy when you’re likely to be punished for doing so. And morality is ‘overriding’, in the sense it’s the most important game we play, trumping convention, cricket and self-interest. But it’s still a game, to stretch the metaphor one step further.

And John, I think you’re right – at least about philosophers. I posted this more in response to the religious folk who continually accuse people like me of being Mad Dogs. Woof!

16 11 2010

Just to float an argument to test its integrity-

I think that part of Mr. Gray’s argument is under-appreciated by thinkers such as Mr. Dean, or for another example, Mr. Arnhart. Morality is something we just do, but only in certain situations, and only in regards to certain people. It is not difficult to name half a dozen atrocities that illustrate this point. Moreover, I think Mr. Gray’s contention that when it is in a person’s interest to harm others, net of all benefits and costs, then that person will be much likelier to engage in harmful behavior than when it is not in their interest is factually accurate. Morality, in Mr. Dean’s account, evolved to solve the problems of communal living. It strikes me that Mr. Dean’s theory should predict that as human beings live in societies that are increasingly individualistic, they will be less likely to believe in an absolute morality and more likely to behave immorally when it is in their personal interest to do so. If this is not the case(which I hope it is not, I rather enjoy Western decadence) then it should stand as a serious challenge to the hypothesis that morality evolved to solve the problems of social living. Of course, all else is not equal. Modern criminal justice systems, as well modern labor markets, national I.D. numbers, credit histories, and so on and so forth make gaming the system and harming other people very difficult and costly, so I don’t think that falling levels of crime and violence would serve as real refutation of the challenge. Both argument and counter-argument may be formulated in such a way as to be untestable. But I have a suspicion that, for activities where immoral behavior is not formally punished in one way or another(think family disruption in the U.S.), that on the margin people in the West may actually have decided, in many little ways, to change the rules in such a way as to do away with morality.

16 11 2010
James Gray

Hi James. I think there are very good reasons to want to play the moral game by the rules. Hobbes (a non Mad Dog) said as much, and I reckon he, David Gauthier, Ken Binmore et al are right.

Then I agree that there are few to no “mad dog nihilists,” but I have to wonder why we would ever even talk about “mad dog nihilism.” It’s almost a straw man argument in that very few people would even accuse anti-realists of being that stupid. Of course, people do think very stupid things, so it might be worth talking about, just like other “myths” found in the public consciousness.

16 11 2010
John S. Wilkins

I think that mad-dog nihilism identifies what moral realists think they would have to be if they weren’t realists (if they became Mackian error theorists, for example). I often here people like the esteemed Cardinal of Sydney say that if God did not exist, Dostoyevskyan libertinism is the result. Apart from it being an argument from consequences, this says a lot about them, not moral realism. They seem to think, for example, that religion is the only way to constrain humans because humans are basically psychopaths.

28 09 2013

We have to look at the relevant distinctions between theories. Does ethical universalist subjectivism, such as divine command command theory or ideal observer theory, entail nihilism? If no, then the relevant distinction between nihilism and universalist subjectivism is that nihilism is the denial of universal moral truths, I.e., those that are applicable to everyone- whether this truth is derived from divine commands, the perspective of an ideal observer, or some objective fact about the world (as in the varieties of ethical naturalism) or that is non-reducible (ethical non-naturalism). But then, nihilism would be the same thing as relativism; they would be coextensive. It is incoherent to say that relativism is the same as or is coextensive with nihilism, because error theory and non-cognitivism are both species of nihilism, and neither are encompassed by relativism. Therefore the answer to our question, does universalist subjectivism entail nihilism, must be yes. If the answer is yes, then nihilism is coextensive with anti-realism: error theory, emotivism, and relativism all result in nihilism- Boghossian has argued that relativism results in nihilism. The relevant distinction, the thing that these species of nihilism have in common that is not the denial of universal moral truths is that they deny the existence of objective moral truths, ie., moral realism. So the relevant distinction between nihilism and universalist subjectivism is the denial of objective moral truths. But this is the same thing as moral anti realism. Since there is no way to distinguish nihilism from moral anti realism that does not conflate nihilism with relativism, and since relativism does not encompass all theories which are said to be nihilist (error theory, emotivism) and is just a species of nihilism, then moral anti-realism = nihilism.

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