Moral Nihilism, Moral Fictionalism, and Moral Theorizing

Zdzisław Beksiński, AA78, 1978

In this post, I shall briefly sketch my fundamental approaches to morality and to my writing about it on this blog.

Moral realism is the dominant metaethical view among philosophers in the West. It is the view that objective moral facts exist. For the purposes of this definition, a moral fact is simply a true moral proposition. And a moral proposition is simply a declarative sentence asserting that something has a moral feature or quality. For instance, the declarative sentence “torture is wrong” asserts that torture has, at least in some sense, the moral feature or quality of wrongness.

Moral realists differ somewhat in their accounts of what makes a moral fact objective. But they generally agree that the relevant notion of objectivity involves being disagreement-independent. What this is supposed to mean is that if multiple parties disagree about the truth of something, only one of them can be correct. This notion of objectivity, it is said, comports with the way in which we’d say certain non-moral facts (e.g., the true proposition “water contains hydrogen”) are objective. And it is in this sense that moral realists believe that moral facts are objective.

Moral nihilism is a rejection of moral realism. But it is more than that. After all, one could reject moral realism for a variety of reasons. One could reject it by understanding moral sentences as expressing things like exclamatory or imperative sentences rather than declarative sentences. Since moral propositions are declarative sentences, this would mean that there are no moral propositions and consequently no moral facts whatsoever. One also could reject moral realism by holding that moral facts exist but are subjective. This would mean that even when multiple parties disagree about the truth of moral propositions, it would be possible for more than one of them to be correct.

The moral nihilist rejects moral realism for neither of these reasons. To the contrary, he affirms that moral sentences express propositions, and he affirms that these propositions are to be understood as making objective claims rather than subjective ones. What he denies is that any of these propositions are true. Instead, he holds that all moral propositions are objectively false. Sometimes this position is referred to by the term “moral error theory”, with the term “moral nihilism” being reserved for a narrower position. That distinction will be ignored. For this post (and, unless otherwise stated, this blog as a whole), moral nihilism and moral error theory are one and the same.

Despite deeming all moral propositions to be false, the moral nihilist can pretend that some of them are true. An analogy to how this might work occurs commonly in athletics. Take the athlete who trains daily in order to maintain his strength. In truth, training on every day probably isn’t needed to maintain strength: he probably could maintain it if he trained on merely most days. And he often knows this deep down too. Nevertheless, he continues to assert to himself, either by thought, word, or deed, that he must train on every day to maintain his strength. Why?

The answer is that he knows what will happen if he doesn’t abide by this fiction, that if he doesn’t tell himself that he must train each day. He will have less motivation to train on a given day and thus will be more likely to succumb to the temptation not to do so. And he knows that this in turn will be detrimental to his strength in the long term. It will put him on a slippery slope that ends with him failing to train even on most days, which actually is required for the maintenance of his strength. So, for the purposes of his athletic regimen, he does not think about what he actually believes about daily training. He instead sets aside his actual belief and pretends that he must do it.

The moral nihilist can make a parallel move. In some, perhaps many, situations, it is useful to pretend that certain moral propositions are true. The moral nihilist who does this treats morality as a sort of useful fiction to achieve certain goals. This approach—that moral nihilism is true but that morality is still a useful fiction—is known as moral fictionalism. And I myself am a moral fictionalist. So for achieving what goal do I see morality as a useful fiction?

It’s very simple. I, like many people, have a grand vision for how I want the world to be. This vision includes, among other things, total obedience to the envisioned state. Now, there are many reasons based on personal interest to obey the state, the chief of which is the interest in avoiding punishment. But there are times in which obedience does not serve one’s personal interests. In fact, there times in which disobedience serves them instead, such as when obedience calls for doing something against one’s personal interests for the good of the state or of others whom one doesn’t want to help.

It is for times like these morality can act as a useful fiction that helps to secure obedience. A man who asserts to himself that it is his moral duty to obey the state, even when it commands him to do something against his personal interests, is more likely to obey the state than a man who doesn’t do this. For it is easier for the latter man to rationalize his failure to obey. This is especially true when not obeying wouldn’t thwart his personal interests, such as when he can get away with his rebellion.

Now, a man doesn’t need to actually believe that it’s his moral duty to obey the state for him to be more likely to obey it. He, like the athlete who trains daily, can pretend that it is his moral duty. So long as he does that, he can assert to himself that it is his moral duty to obey and thereby generate greater motivation for himself to obey. Moral thinking among the citizenry therefore can serve a useful function despite being fictitious.

Those, in sum, are my views on morality. As far as writing about morality on this blog goes, however, I enjoy engaging in moral theorizing from the viewpoint of moral realism, where I examine or show the implications of realist moral theories. Sometimes these implications turn out to support certain elements of my grand vision for the world. This is good. I’d rather have moral realists support elements of this vision for the wrong reasons than not support them at all. So, I’ll often write posts about ethical issues as though I were a moral realist myself. But that I am not. There’s no need to worry about this style of writing becoming confusing either. It will be clear when I am not in the role of a realist and am instead in my true nihilist mindset.

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