When the keepers of the official dogmas in the Academy encounter an inconvenient truth, they refute it by calling it bad names. For example, the fact of human biodiversity is “racist,” and the fact of human nature was “fascist” back in the heyday of the Blank Slate. I encountered another example in “Ethics” journal in one of the articles I discussed in a recent post; Only All Naturalists Should Worry About Only One Evolutionary Debunking Argument, by Tomas Bogardus. It was discretely positioned in a footnote to the following sentence:
Do these evolutionary considerations generate an epistemic challenge to moral realism, that is, the view that evaluative properties are mind-independent features of reality and we sometimes have knowledge of them?
The footnote reads as follows:
As opposed to nihilism – on which there are no moral truths – and subjectivist constructivism or expressivism, on which moral truths are functions of our evaluative attitudes themselves.
This “scientific” use of the pejorative term “nihilism” to “refute” the conclusion that there are no moral truths fits the usual pattern. According to its Wiki blurb, the term “nihilism” was used in a similar manner when it was first coined by Friedrich Jacobi to “refute” disbelief in the transcendence of God. Wiki gives a whole genealogy of the various uses of the term. However, the most common image the term evokes is probably one of wild-eyed, bomb hurling 19th century Russian radicals. No matter. If something is true, it will remain true regardless of how often it is denounced as racist, fascist, or nihilist.
At this point in time, the truth about morality is sufficiently obvious to anyone who cares to think about it. It is a manifestation of behavioral predispositions that evolved at times very different from the present. It has no purpose. It exists because the genes responsible for its existence happened to improve the odds that the package of genes to which they belonged would survive and reproduce. That truth is very inconvenient. It reduces the “expertise” of the “experts on ethics,” an “expertise” that is the basis of their respect and authority in society, and not infrequently of their gainful employment as well, to an expertise about nothing. It also exposes that which the vast majority of human beings “know in their bones” to be true as an illusion. For all that, it remains true.
To the extent that the term “nihilist” has any meaning in the context of morality at all, it suggests that the world will dissolve in moral chaos unless some basis for objective morality can be extracted from the vacuum. Rape, murder and mayhem will prevail when we all realize we’ve been hoodwinked by the philosophers all these years, and there really is no such basis. The truth is rather more prosaic. Human beings will behave morally regardless of the intellectual fashions prevailing among the philosophers because it is their nature to act morally.
Moral chaos will not result from mankind finally learning the “nihilist” truth about morality. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a state of moral chaos worse than the one we’re already in. Chaos doesn’t exist because of a gradually spreading understanding of the subjective roots of morality. Rather, it exists as a byproduct of continued attempts to prop up the façade of moral realism. The current “bathroom wars” are an instructive if somewhat ludicrous example. They demonstrate both the strong connection between custom and morality, and the typical post hoc rationalization of moral “truths” described by Jonathan Haidt in his paper, The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail.
Customs are not merely public habits – the habits of a certain circle of men, a racial or national community, a rank or class of society – but they are at the same time rules of conduct. As Cicero observes, the customs of a people “are precepts in themselves.” We say that “custom commands,” or “custom demands,” and even when custom simply allows the commission of a certain class of actions, it implicitly lays down the rule that such actions are not to be interfered with. And the rule of custom is conceived of as a moral rule, which decides what is right and wrong.
However, the rule of custom can be challenged. Westermarck noted that, as societies became more complex,
Individuals arose who found fault with the moral ideas prevalent in the community to which they belonged, criticizing them on the basis of their own individual feelings… In the course of progressive civilization the moral consciousness has tended towards a greater equalization of rights, towards an expansion of the circle within which the same moral rules are held applicable. And this process has been largely due to the example of influential individuals and their efforts to raise public opinion to their own standard of right.
As Westermarck points out, in both cases the individuals involved are responding to subjective moral emotions, yet in both cases they suffer from the illusion that their emotions somehow correspond to objective facts about good and evil. In the case of the bathroom wars, the defenders of custom rationalize their disapproval after the fact by evoking lurid pictures of perverts molesting little girls. The problem is that, at least to the best of my knowledge, there is no data indicating that anything of the sort involving a transgender person has ever happened. On the other side, the LGBT community points to this disconnect without realizing that they are just as deluded in their belief that their preferred bathroom rules are distilled straight out of objective Good and Evil. In fact, they are nothing but personal preferences, with no more legitimate normative authority than the different rules preferred by others. It seems to me that the term “nihilism” is better applied to this absurd state of affairs than to a correct understanding of what morality is and why it exists.
Suppose that in some future utopia the chimera of “moral realism” were finally exchanged for such a correct understanding, at least by most of us. It would change very little. Our moral emotions would still be there, and we would respond to them as we always have. “Moral relativism” would be no more prevalent than it is today, because it is not our nature to be moral relativists. However, we might have a fighting chance of coming up with a set of moral “customs” that most of us could accept, along with a similarly accepted way to change them if necessary. I would certainly prefer such a utopia to the moral obscurantism that prevails today. If nothing else it would tend to limit the moral exhibitionism and virtuous grandstanding that led directly to the ideological disasters of the 20th century, and yet still pass as the “enlightened” way to alter the moral rules that apply in bathrooms and elsewhere. Perhaps in such a utopia “nihilism” would be rejected even more firmly than it is today, because people would finally realize that, in spite of the subjective, emotional source of all moral rules, human societies can’t exist without them.