Moral Nihilism

A response to Chapter 20 in The Fundamentals of Ethics by Russ Shafer-Landau

What I find to be interesting is that, in light of my own religious explorations, I end up leaning more towards moral nihilism than most other moral theories in the book. Shafer-Landau calls it cynical; I think that it’s honest. We can’t prove that there is a moral structure; I think that it is very enlightening about our nature that we try! I do think there is a reason that humans are so drawn to “morality” but I think they are misguided. In a world without God, the moral nihilist is correct. Only in a world with God can moral theories be “on to something”- they’re searching for I AM. And because moral theories tend to strive to prove morality without I AM, I become disinclined with them; they take the place of gods, offering explanations for phenomenon.

Here is my religious Error Theory:

  1. There are no moral features in this world. There is the divine nature of God, and there is the counter-nature of sin. (See The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis for a picture of this: wholeness vs. emptiness. A blade of grass in Heaven is infinitely more substantial than all of Hell put together.) However, if we do not believe that there is wholeness in God, then our actions and feelings about things are more or less arbitrary. There aren’t “moral features”; things are what they are; when it comes to us, we are either striving for wholeness or allowing ourselves to crumble into emptiness. Striving to be “moral” doesn’t make a difference.
  2. No moral judgements are true. Even if our intentions are ‘good’ (to our relative standards), they can still have disastrous consequences. There is none righteous, no not one. We have our feelings about things (expressivism), but that’s it; there are people who get giddy over a murder and others who get thrown into a spiral of depression. There are those who would kill and feel satisfaction and those who can’t even place a mousetrap. How can we say who is in the right if ‘right’ does not exist?
  3. Our sincere moral judgments try, and always fail, to describe the moral features of things. Perhaps this is because we are limited as humans. Morality could be within the order of the universe; “behaving morally” could be our phrase for saying, “fulfilling one’s purpose in the universe” in the way that animals, seismic plates, and red wood trees fulfill their purpose. They abide by an order. But all these words are just me trying to figure it out; I’m a corrupted human. I can’t possibly say what is right or wrong. But I have within me a compass, and I- along with most humans on this planet- have a certain sense that there is something much more than our mere material existence. Moral judgements are man-made rules that often fall short or downright fail at achieving their intended goals- that is if morality is real. If it isn’t real, of course our sincere moral judgements always fail to describe moral features of things.
  4. There is no moral knowledge. Wouldn’t it be great if there was some perfect system that we could tap into and understand exactly how to live life? Unfortunately, according to the error theorist, there isn’t. According to the Christian, it’s not about your own ability to figure out a God; he is infinite. However, understanding that there is literally nothing that we can do that is “perfectly moral” within his eyes (the perfect observer?), alleviates the responsibility to gain all the moral knowledge. We do hold a responsibility to develop our relationship (such as you would with any friend) and learn about the divine nature of God. This is how we can live a fulfilling life on this planet, even when we face adversity. The development of this relationship allows us to be real, like the velveteen rabbit. It isn’t the rabbit who is important in himself, but the love the child has for him that makes him important. It isn’t about a hypothetical moral knowledge: moral knowledge does not exist. What does exist is being.

I don’t think that morality is fiction in the same way that fairies are (or, might be); I think it really is like mathematics. God is not illogical and moral theories attempt to understand his nature, even if those writing the theories aren’t acknowledging his existence at all. Just like math can give us a faulty image of the universe (such as when it provided a very logical formula demonstrating that the earth was in the center of the galaxy), ethics can present a faulty image of the nature of God. Perhaps this idea counters much of what I just said above- which kind of goes to demonstrate the point that we always fail at this kind of thing.

Expressivism states that moral claims are how we demonstrate our feelings towards something or another, as well as how we command others to act or reveal a plan of action. We can have confidence in our “morals” without having to assign them objectivity in the way that water is objectively wet. One of the contradictions Shafer-Landau discussed was Amoralists, who believe in something strongly but don’t act. I’d like to argue that a person could believe strongly in something but not have the means to abide by it; they could be struck with lack of funds, or even laziness. The other day I made eye contact with the Salvation Army guy outside the Walmart. We smiled at one another; his smile was so warm and inviting and I felt this urge to go talk to him. He is human, I’m human, and I do believe that part of our purpose in life is to really embrace connecting with other people. However, even though I had the urge, that day I continued to walk to my car. The next time I went to Walmart, I did put a few bucks in my pocket to put in the bucket; I walked up to him, tossed in my dollars, and started up a conversation. It felt really good to follow through with my conviction; it felt really upsetting to not the first time around- I was being “amoral” according to my feelings.

The bit about moral judgment was a little confusing- I will say, way back when I took a US Government class where we learned that humans present reality with bias. It’s best to present as much evidence as possible in a court of law because human testimony can be flawed; our personal bias goes so far as to distort details and change things without us consciously knowing that we’re doing it. Hopefully we are all trying to tell the truth but at a certain point, who actually knows it and can see through all the details? I think that perhaps this could be a counter for this counter.

The arguing logically bit about morality counter I’d like to reference back to the earth in the center of the galaxy argument. Will we ever have true premises when it comes to morality if each action is relative, not just within each situation but within the individual feeling-based conscience of the actor? Also, not many are arguing gravity. Maybe real substantial truth is able to stand for itself with such grit that the fact that we have “logical arguments” about morality demonstrates that it doesn’t have substantial evidence enough to back it up.

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