Moral Nihilism, Moral Chaos, and Moral Truth

The truth about morality is both simple and obvious.  It exists as a result of evolution by natural selection.  From that it follows that it cannot possibly have a purpose or goal, and from that it follows that one cannot make “progress” towards fulfilling that nonexistent purpose or reaching that nonexistent goal.  Simple and obvious as it is, no truth has been harder for mankind to accept.

The reason for this has to do with the nature of moral emotions themselves.  They portray Good and Evil to us as real things that exist independent of human consciousness, when in fact they are subjective artifacts of our imaginations.  That truth has always been hard for us to accept.  It is particularly hard when self-esteem is based on the illusion of moral superiority.  That illusion is obviously alive and well at a time when a large fraction of the population is capable of believing that another large fraction is “deplorable.”  The fact that the result of indulging such illusions in the past has occasionally and not infrequently been mass murder suggests that, as a matter of public safety, it may be useful to stop indulging them.

The “experts on ethics” delight in concocting chilling accounts of what will happen if we do stop indulging them.  We are told that a world without objective moral truths will be a world of moral nihilism and moral chaos.  The most obvious answer to such fantasies is, “So what?”  Is the truth really irrelevant?  Are we really expected to force ourselves to believe in lies because that truth is just to scary for us to face?  Come to think of it, what, exactly, do we have now if not moral nihilism and moral chaos?

We live in a world in which every two bit social justice warrior can invent some new “objective evil,” whether “cultural appropriation,” failure to memorize the 57 different flavors or gender, or some arcane “micro-aggression,” and work himself into a fine fit of virtuous indignation if no one takes him seriously.  The very illusion that Good and Evil are objective things is regularly exploited to justify the crude bullying that is now used to enforce new “moral laws” that have suddenly been concocted out of the ethical vacuum.  The unsuspecting owners of mom and pop bakeries wake up one morning to learn that they are now “deplorable,” and so “evil” that their business must be destroyed with a huge fine.

We live in a world in which hundreds of millions believe that other hundreds of millions who associate the word “begotten” with the “son of God,” or believe in the Trinity, are so evil that they will certainly burn in hell forever.  These other hundreds of millions believe that heavenly bliss will be denied to anyone who doesn’t believe in a God with these attributes.

We live in a world in which the regime in charge of the most powerful country in the world believes it has such a monopoly on the “objective Good” that it can ignore international law, send its troops to occupy parts of another sovereign state, and dictate to the internationally recognized government of that state which parts of its territory it is allowed to control, and which not.  It persists in this dubious method of defending the “Good” even though it risks launching a nuclear war in the process.  The citizens in that country who happen to support one candidate for President don’t merely consider the citizens who support the opposing candidate wrong.  They consider them objectively evil according to moral “laws” that apparently float about as insubstantial spirits, elevating themselves by their own bootstraps.

We live in a world in which evolutionary biologists, geneticists, and neuroscientists who are perfectly well aware of the evolutionary roots of morality nevertheless persist in cobbling together new moral systems that lack even so much as the threadbare semblance of a legitimate basis.  The faux legitimacy that the old religions at least had the common decency to supply in the form of imaginary gods is thrown to the winds without a thought.  In spite of that these same scientists expect the rest of us to take them seriously when they announce that, at long last, they’ve discovered the philosopher’s stone of objective Good and Evil, whether in the form of some whimsical notion of “human flourishing,” or perhaps a slightly retouched version of utilitarianism.  In almost the same breath, they affirm the evolutionary basis of morality, and then proceed to denounce anyone who doesn’t conform to their newly minted moral “laws.”  When it comes to morality, it is hard to imagine a more nihilistic and chaotic world.

I find it hard to believe that a world in which the subjective nature and rather humble evolutionary roots of all our exalted moral systems were commonly recognized, along with the obvious implications of these fundamental truths, could possibly be even more nihilistic and chaotic than the one we already live in.  I doubt that “moral relativity” would prevail in such a world, for the simple reason that it is not in our nature to be moral relativists.  We might even be able to come up with a set of “absolute” moral rules that would be obeyed, not because humanity had deluded itself into believing they were objectively true, but because of a common determination to punish free riders and cheaters.  We might even be able to come up with some rational process for changing and adjusting the rules when necessary by common consent, rather than by the current “enlightened” process of successful bullying.

We would all be aware that even the most “exalted” and “noble” moral emotions, even those accompanied by stimulating music and rousing speeches, have a common origin; their tendency to improve the odds that the genes responsible for them would survive in a Pleistocene environment.  Under the circumstances, it would be reasonable to doubt, not only their ability to detect “objective Good” and “objective Evil,” but the wisdom of paying any attention to them at all.  Instead of swallowing the novel moral concoctions of pious charlatans without a murmur, we would begin to habitually greet them with the query, “Exactly what innate whim are you trying to satisfy?”  We would certainly be very familiar with the tendency of every one of us, described so eloquently by Jonathan Haidt in his “The Righteous Mind,” to begin rationalizing our moral emotions as soon as we experience them, whether in response to “social injustice” or a rude driver who happened to cut us off on the way to work.  We would realize that that very tendency also exists by virtue of evolution by natural selection, not because it is actually capable of unmasking social injustice, or distinguishing “evil” from “good” drivers, but merely because it improved our chances of survival when there were no cars, and no one had ever heard of such a thing as social justice.

I know, I’m starting to ramble.  I’m imagining a utopia, but one can always dream.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

3 thoughts on “Moral Nihilism, Moral Chaos, and Moral Truth”

  1. In spite of that these same scientists expect the rest of us to take them seriously when they announce that, at long last, they’ve discovered the philosopher’s stone of objective Good and Evil, whether in the form of some whimsical notion of “human flourishing,” or perhaps a slightly retouched version of utilitarianism.

    I would put Haidt in this category.

    I know, I’m starting to ramble. I’m imagining a utopia, but one can always dream.

    Helian, If I may presume, I recommend the poetry of Robinson Jeffers to you. You see what is and what is coming (“as through a glass, darkly”), but are not resigned to it. That railing against fate is very Western, is indeed the source of our civilization, but is not compatible with peaceful sleep and a modicum of tranquility during the day. There is a balance.

    For example, these words written in 1938:

    Contemplation Of The Sword

    Reason will not decide at last; the sword will decide.
    The sword: an obsolete instrument of bronze or steel,
    formerly used to kill men, but here
    In the sense of a symbol. The sword: that is: the storms
    and counter-storms of general destruction; killing
    of men,
    Destruction of all goods and materials; massacre, more or
    less intentional, of children and women;
    Destruction poured down from wings, the air made accomplice,
    the innocent air
    Perverted into assasin and poisoner.

    The sword: that is: treachery and cowardice, incredible
    baseness, incredible courage, loyalties, insanities.
    The sword: weeping and despair, mass-enslavement,
    mass-tourture, frustration of all hopes
    That starred man’s forhead. Tyranny for freedom, horror for
    happiness, famine for bread, carrion for children.
    Reason will not decide at last, the sword will decide.

    Dear God, who are the whole splendor of things and the sacred
    stars, but also the cruelty and greed, the treacheries
    And vileness, insanities and filth and anguish: now that this
    thing comes near us again I am finding it hard
    To praise you with a whole heart.
    I know what pain is, but pain can shine. I know what death is,
    I have sometimes
    Longed for it. But cruelty and slavery and degredation,
    pestilence, filth, the pitifulness
    Of men like hurt little birds and animals . . . if you were
    Waves beating rock, the wind and the iron-cored earth,
    With what a heart I could praise your beauty.
    You will not repent, nor cancel life, nor free man from anguish
    For many ages to come. You are the one that tortures himself to
    discover himself: I am
    One that watches you and discovers you, and praises you in little
    parables, idyl or tragedy, beautiful
    Intolerable God.
    The sword: that is:
    I have two sons whom I love. They are twins, they were born
    in nineteen sixteen, which seemed to us a dark year
    Of a great war, and they are now of the age
    That war prefers. The first-born is like his mother, he is so
    That persons I hardly know have stopped me on the street to
    speak of the grave beauty of the boy’s face.
    The second-born has strength for his beauty; when he strips
    for swimming the hero shoulders and wrestler loins
    Make him seem clothed. The sword: that is: loathsome disfigurements,
    blindness, mutilation, locked lips of boys
    Too proud to scream.
    Reason will not decide at last: the sword will decide.

    Jeffers “God” is pretty much Nature and His laws natural law, to wit:

    The world’s God is treacherous and full of
    unreason; a torturer, but also
    The only foundation and the only fountain.
    Who fights him eats his own flesh and perishes
    of hunger; who hides in the grave
    To escape him is dead; who enters the Indian
    Recession to escape him is dead; who falls in
    love with the God is washed clean
    Of death desired and of death dreaded.

    Note “washed clean … of death dreaded”. For what it is worth.

  2. These were written at a time when poets managed to reach an audience outside of academic literature departments. I often wonder whom modern poets are trying to reach, and what emotions inspire their work. I find nothing in what I read beyond a desire to strike pious poses. You might call it “socialist realism,” only conforming to modern PC instead of Marxism. There are probably lots of good poets out there, but it’s hard to find them. The gatekeepers all share a uniform ideology.

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