The Nihilist by Paul Merwart (1882)
“Understanding Nihilism: What if nothing matters?”
©John Danaher (Reprinted with Permission)
John Danaher is currently an academic and senior lecturer at the National University of Ireland (NUI), Galway, where he teaches in the School of Law. He is the author of the blog “Philosophical Disquisitions,” from which this essay is taken, and a new book, Automation and Utopia: Human Flourishing in a World without Work (Harvard University Press, 2019.)
We spend so much of our time caring about things. Thomas Nagel described the phenomenon quite nicely:
[People] spend enormous quantities of energy, risk and calculation on the details [of their lives]. Think of how an ordinary individual sweats over his appearance, his health, his sex life, his emotional honesty, his social utility, his self-knowledge, the quality of his ties with family, colleagues, and friends, how well he does his job, whether he understands the world and what is going on in it. Leading a human life is a full-time occupation, to which everyone devotes decades of intense concern. (Nagel 1971, 719-720.)
Why so much intense concern? What if nothing we do really matters? What, in other words, if nihilism is true?
That’s the question I want to look at in this post. I do so with the help of Guy Kahane’s recent paper ‘If nothing matters’, which is an excellent and insightful exploration of the topic. It doesn’t defend the nihilistic view itself, but it does clarify what it means to be a nihilist and what the implications of the nihilistic view might be. In the process, it takes issue with a strange trend in contemporary metaethics which assumes that if nihilism is true, then nothing about our day-to-day lives would change all that much. Kahane finds this implausible and tries to explain why.
In what follows, I discuss the key elements of Kahane’s analysis. I start by explaining what nihilism is, and distinguishing between its evaluative and practical versions. I then look at the oddly deflationary attitude of some metaethicists towards the truth of nihilism. And I close by considering Kahane’s critique of this deflationary view. As we shall see, Kahane argues that if we come to believe that nihilism is true, then we are unlikely to be able to go about our daily business much as we did before. On the contrary, we can expect much to change.
1. What is Nihilism Anyway?
Nihilism is the view that nothing matters. It comes in two distinct forms. The first is evaluative nihilism, which Kahane describes like this:
Evaluative Nihilism: Nothing is good or bad — or — All evaluative propositions are false.
Remember that time a few weeks back when you were walking to work, it was raining heavily, you stubbed your foot and ripped the sole off your shoe, then got splashed by a car and ended up being late and soaking wet? At the time, you said that this was ‘bad’. If evaluative nihilism is correct, you were wrong to say this. Nothing is really good or bad because evaluative propositions that ascribe those properties to particular events or states of affairs are always false. And this is just to use a trivial example. Evaluative nihilism also applies to more serious evaluative propositions like ‘murder is bad’ or ‘pleasure is good’. None of these claims is true.
Evaluative nihilism is the core of nihilism. But the typical belief is that it entails another form of nihilism:
Practical Nihilism: We have no reasons to do, want, or feel anything.
The idea here is that values are what should motivate action, desire, and emotion. The badness of being wet and late for work should motivate me to avoid this outcome in the future. It should motivate me to leave earlier, wear more sensible raingear and footwear. But if nothing is really good or bad all that motivational force is sapped away. This is a normative claim, not a psychological one (we’ll touch upon psychology later). It is about having reasons for doing, wanting, and feeling. Practical nihilism strips us of all such reasons.
Practical and evaluative nihilism often go hand-in-hand, but they are separable. Kahane argues that evaluative nihilism only implies practical nihilism if you accept a consequentialist view of practical reason. If there are non-consequentialist constraints on action, then the goodness or badness of an outcome or state of affairs may not always be decisive in determining whether you have reasons for action. That said, it is worth treating the two forms of nihilism together since many who worry about the implications of nihilism worry about both.
But why do they worry? There are some misconceptions about the consequences of accepting nihilism. Many authors speak of nihilism in hushed and terrified tones. The idea is that if we really believed in nihilism we would be overwhelmed by the emptiness of our lives and driven to despair and suicide. In short, if nihilism were true then our lives would be worse. This is to misunderstand nihilism. To use the classic retort: if nothing matters, then it doesn’t matter that nothing matters. Or, in more evaluative terms:
No Cause for Despair: If nihilism is true, then its truth couldn’t make our lives worse (or better) for the simple reason that nihilism entails that you cannot say that a particular state of existence is worse or better.
Of course, how we react to the truth of nihilism is an empirical matter. It may be that some people do feel despair at the thought that nothing matters. But this is arguably because they implicitly cling to non-nihilistic views. They assume that things can really be better or worse for them; that they can have reasons for their despair. If nihilism is true, neither of these things is actually possible.
2. Deflationary and Conservative Metaethical Nihilism
Now that we have a firmer grasp of nihilism we can consider some broader issues. One is the role of nihilism in contemporary metaethical debates. Metaethics is the branch of moral philosophy that is concerned with the ontology and epistemology of moral claims. Moral claims are all about what is good and bad and right and wrong. Some metaethicists are cognitivists, who believe that moral claims are capable of being objectively true or false (i.e. that things really are good/bad and right/wrong). Non-cognitivists reject this view. There are many different schools of non-cognitivism, but the one that is the focus of Kahane’s analysis is that of the error theorists.
Error theorists hold that our entire moral discourse rests on a mistake. The mistake is that when we say something like ‘Torture is bad’ we think we are making a claim like ‘Water is H2O”, but we are wrong. The latter statement is capable of being objectively true or false; the former is not. In short, our moral discourse is in error: there are no objective values (or rights and wrongs). Famous error theorists include JL Mackie and Richard Joyce.
Described thusly, error theorists seem to embrace nihilism. You might think this would cause them to cast off ordinary moral practice. But strangely enough they do not. Many of them adopt an oddly deflationary attitude toward their metaethical insights. Yes, it is true that there is no objective good or bad or right or wrong, but this shouldn’t change much about how we live our lives. Consider the following passage from Mackie:
The denial of objective values can carry with it an extreme emotional reaction, a feeling that nothing matters at all… Of course this does not follow; the lack of objective values is not a good reason for abandoning subjective concern. (Mackie 1977, 34)
Mackie’s suggestion here is that even if his error theory is correct it is possible for people to care about things and to continue to live their lives as they always have. This is reinforced elsewhere in his work when he talks about the practical utility of continuing to behave in a ‘moral’ way. As some have put, we should be error theorists in the seminar room; but practical evaluative realists in the streets.
Kahane thinks this deflationary attitude is itself in error. It fails to take seriously the implications of evaluative and practical nihilism. As he sees it, in order for us to follow Mackie’s lead, it must be possible for us to do two things after coming to accept the truth of nihilism:
- A. We must continue to have the subjective concerns we used to have before coming to believe in nihilism (i.e. believe that some things are worthwhile, not worthwhile etc).
- B. We must be able to use these concerns to guide our actions (i.e. engage in instrumental reasoning).
While Kahane thinks it might be possible for us to conform to something like instrumental reasoning, he is much less convinced that we will continue to have the same subjective concerns. He has an argument for this which we will consider next.
3. Against the Deflationary View
Kahane’s argument is somewhat elaborate. I’ll describe a simplified version. The simplified version focuses on two claims about our normative psychology, i.e. by what should happen if we come to believe in the truth of nihilism. The empirical reality might be somewhat different, and Kahane concedes as much, but he thinks his argument works off a number of basic truisms about how our psychology functions.
The two main claims are as follows:
Belief Loss<: If we come to believe in the truth of nihilism, we will lose many (or all) of our evaluative beliefs.
Covariance thesis: Our subjective concerns covary with our evaluative beliefs in such a way that the loss of the latter is likely to result in the loss of the former.
These claims then get incorporated into an argument which runs something like this:
- (1) If we are to continue to live as we did before, then we need to retain our subjective concerns.
- (2) If we come to believe in nihilism, we will probably lose many (possibly all) of our evaluative beliefs.
- (3) If we lose many (possibly all) of our evaluative beliefs, then we will probably lose our subjective concerns.
- (4) Therefore, if we come to believe in nihilism, we will probably not continue to live as we did before.
This is a probabilistic argument. It is about what is likely to happen rather than what will definitely happen. How can its key premises be defended?
We’ll start with the second premise, which is the belief loss claim. The first obvious point in its favor is that evaluative nihilism straightforwardly entails the falsity of evaluative beliefs. If no evaluative proposition is true, then any beliefs we have in such evaluative propositions must be false. The question is whether this subsequently implies that we will lose our evaluative beliefs. The logical implication is straightforward, but human psychology does not always track logic. It is conceivable that people could hold contradictory beliefs in their heads at the same time. But this is an unstable state of affairs. Over time, we might expect them to favor one or the other. Kahane uses a thought experiment to illustrate his thinking:
Suppose Bob believes that two people he knows (Anne and Claire) are witches. But suppose you manage to convince Bob that witches do not exist, i.e. that no one has been or ever will be a witch. Will he continue to believe that Anne and Claire are witches? It is difficult to see how, at least in the long term. His acceptance of the general proposition (“there are no witches”) is going to be in constant tension with the more specific propositions (“Anne is a witch” and “Claire is a witch”). Eventually, something would have to give.
This certainly seems plausible. And if we expect this to happen in the case of witch-belief, it seems natural to expect it to happen in the case of nihilism. After all, the two scenarios are structurally similar. If I come to believe in the general proposition “Nothing matters”, it’s hard to see how I could continue to believe in specific propositions like “My job matters”. It is, of course, possible that I could waver in my commitment to nihilism, believing in it at times and disbelieving in it at others. This might cause me to oscillate back and forth between believing that my job matters and believing that it doesn’t. But if I am unwavering in my commitment, my other evaluative beliefs should slowly ebb away.
This brings us to the third premise which holds that this loss of evaluative belief should impact upon my subjective concerns. Kahane doesn’t give an elaborate argument for this view. He seems to think the covariance of evaluative belief is a basic truism of our psychology. To reject it, one would have to embrace an epiphenomenalist view of evaluative belief. This would hold that evaluative belief has no causal impact on our ‘pattern of concerns’. There may be some materialist approaches to the philosophy of mind that accept this notion, but these approaches have their costs.
If the second and third premises are correct, then the conclusion follows. The deflationary view of error theorists like Mackie looks to be implausible. Believing in nihilism is likely to have a knock-on effect on our lives. We probably couldn’t be nihilists in the seminar room and evaluative realists in the streets. We could only be one of these things.
… Kahane’s argument seems right to me, at least when it is interpreted within its own self-imposed constraints. Kahane deals with normative psychology, not empirical psychology. It would be interesting to have more empirical evidence about the effects of nihilistic belief on someone’s behavior, but I suspect it would be difficult to conduct any tests on this. I also think that further engagement with the epiphenomenalist view would be interesting.