Moral Nihilism, Intellectual Nihilism & Practical Ethics
Abstract: Arguments for moral nihilism – the view that there are no moral truths – are criticized
by showing that their major premises suggest epistemic or intellectual nihilism – the view that no
beliefs are reasonable, justified, ought to be believed, and so on. Insofar as intellectual nihilism ought be rejected, this shows that the major premises of arguments for moral nihilisms ought to be rejected also.
Philosophical discussions of moral problems seem to be attempts to discern the truth about the morality of abortion, the treatment of animals, our duties to the poor and what we should do regarding other pressing practical ethical issues.
But some people claim that there are no truths about what’s right and wrong, good and
bad, and just and unjust: there is nothing that, morally, we should do, and nothing we ought not to do either. This view is often called moral or ethical nihilism. On it, morality is “annihilated”: the metaphysical nature of the world is said to contain no moral value.
While some people accept moral nihilism without argument, influential philosophers have argued for the view. And some theists have argued that atheists should be committed to it: they claim there’s moral value only if there is a God and so those who think there is no God
should be moral nihilists.
If any arguments for moral nihilism are sound, the implications are significant: nothing is right or wrong, genuine moral progress is impossible, there have never been any moral mistakes, and there really is no reasoning in ethics, since there are no truths to discover or reason towards
through critical inquiry, discussion and debate.
Fortunately, there are no good reasons to accept moral nihilism, and better reasons to deny it. This is because all the common arguments for it have at least one major premise that we have very good reason to reject. What I wish to point out is that these premises suggest not just moral nihilism, but intellectual or epistemological nihilism – according to which that there are
no ways we ought to reason, that no beliefs are reasonable or justified, that nothing is known,
that nothing is intellectually valuable. On intellectual nihilism, there are no truths about these
matters, no intellectual facts or properties to make such claims true.
If we have strong reasons to reject these intellectually nihilistic implications (interestingly, even most moral nihilists think we do), this provides strong resources to reject moral nihilisms. Insofar as we are reasonable in thinking that there are ways we ought to reason
and conduct our cognitive lives, we have reason to reject arguments for moral nihilism since premises given in its favor have these rationally unacceptable consequences for understanding reasoning itself. Seeing this not only helps us see that there are moral truths (or, at least, that
there are no good reasons to deny this), but it also helps us see how to go about finding them in a
To defend these claims about the nature and methods of ethics, we can survey the history
1 Contemporary theories are not significant of ethics, focusing on the twentieth century.
improvements over early ones, so I will focus on the roots of moral nihilism.
First, logical positivists were moral nihilists. A.J. Ayer, in his positivistic-manifesto Language, Truth and Logic, argued that moral judgments are not true because they are neither true nor false. He claimed they are merely emotional expressions, “Boo’s!” and “Hooray’s!” for and against various actions. Positivists were quite impressed by science, but highly suspicious of anything “metaphysical,” including ethics.
Their major premise in their argument against ethical truth, however, was that any claim
that isn’t true in virtue of meaning or is not empirically verifiable is neither true nor false. While
moral judgments are like that, positivists failed to realize that judgments about what’s reasonable, or justified, or known, or should be believed or rejected are like that also. Judgments
like these are made about ordinary beliefs and issues in science, but no scientific experiment can
be done to determine whether claims like these are true, and these intellectual qualities are not revealed merely by thinking about the meanings of the words expressed in an intellectual judgment.
So, positivism suggests that intellectually evaluative judgments are never true also. Perhaps it suggests an intellectual emotivism, a theory that people (even scientists and
mathematicians) are, in effect, only cheering for believing some claim when they claim it to be
reasonable, well founded or supported by strong evidence, and booing when they claim the opposite. Positivists thought their views were reasonable, but it is doubtful that they thought they were only expressing their positive emotions for their own beliefs. They thought they were saying something that’s true, but, surprisingly, their own theories imply they were not.
Insofar as we have reason to think that logical reasoning is not (merely, if ever) the expression of emotions, we have reason to reject the premise that motivated positivists to accept moral nihilism.
Later moral nihilists fortunately weren’t motivated by logical positivism. C.L. Stevenson’s ethical emotivism was similar to Ayer’s, but his arguments were, first, based on the
observations that emotions sometimes get expressed in making moral judgments and that we sometimes use them to try to influence people. But this premise is part of a sound argument for emotivism only if it’s true that any judgments that sometimes express emotions and are used to
influence people are never true, i.e., are merely emotive. But if that’s true, then, since intellectual
judgments are like that, then they are never true also.
Stevenson also claimed that moral judgments have a motivational “magnetism”: he
claimed that sincere moral judgment necessarily motivates people towards action. This is
doubtful, but if it’s true then, following Hume’s theories of belief and desire, moral judgments are not beliefs since only emotions and desires can motivate in such a way. Emotivism is suggested again.
However, it seems as plausible to think that intellectual judgments have this kind
motivational impact as moral judgments do. It would be as odd for someone to judge that some belief of his is entirely unreasonable, totally unjustified, and something he ought not accept, but yet feel no pull at all towards rejecting that belief. If this is as plausible as Stevenson’s claims about moral judgment and motivation, then intellectual emotivism is suggested again.
Finally, Stevenson said that he just can’t picture what a “moral fact” would be like, what would make a moral judgment true. But anyone puzzled about this should also be puzzled about what would make an intellectual or epistemological judgment true. It’s not at all clear what “in the world” makes it true that something is evidence for some belief, or that some evidence is
sufficient evidence, and some beliefs are rational, justified, known, ought to be held (or rejected) and so on. Ontological obscurity is common to both.
Thus, Stevenson’s reasons for ethical emotivism again suggest intellectual emotivism. If the latter is true, then Stevenson, like the positivists, only expressed his emotions when he argued for ethical emotivism. His claims that people should reject the notion of moral truth and accept
his views were only emotional expressions, not truths. Insofar as critical reasoning is more than
this, and there are truths about how we should reason, this gives reason to reject Stevenson’s case
for moral nihilism.
The theme that is emerging is this: when historical and contemporary moral nihilists
argue for their position, they do this by claiming that moral judgments have various features and,
since they have these features, they are never true. Some of these claims about what moral
judgments are like are quite plausible (e.g., that they are not empirically confirmable), and other times they are doubtful (e.g., that they are necessarily motivational). But any of these claims can be part of a sound argument for moral nihilism only if the premise validly linking them to the
conclusion is true. This premise is, unfortunately, often not stated, but the obvious candidate is something like this: that any judgment having these features is never true? either because such
judgments are neither true nor false or because there is nothing to make them true.
But this premise, as we have seen, has radical implications for judgments beyond morality, most notably intellectual and epistemic judgments that are essential to reasoning and science. It suggests that no judgments like these are ever true. But if they are never true, then it’s neither true that moral nihilism should be accepted, nor is it true that it should be rejected, and
this is true for every other normative judgment about belief and reasoning. This is a radically irrationalist consequence. If we have reason to think that we sometimes can reason, and that
judgments describing how we ought to reason and what we ought to believe (are justified, are
rational, and so on) are sometimes true, then we have reason to reject these arguments for moral
Writings of more recent moral nihilists, such as R.M. Hare, J.L. Mackie, and Gilbert Harman, confirm this theme that arguments for moral nihilisms have these intellectually nihilistic consequences. These philosophers also point to features of moral judgments that they
too fail to observe are also present in epistemic judgments. First, they note the existence of moral disagreements and argue that this is best explained, in part, by the hypothesis that there are no moral facts: if there were such facts, then more people would “see” them and there’d be less moral disagreement.
They offer no precise survey of the depth and breadth of moral disagreement (and moral agreement either), but it seems clear that there’s quite a lot of intellectual and epistemic disagreement also. Disagreements about what’s reasonable, rational, and known, and how we ought to reason, are common. Is the best explanation of these facts that there are no intellectual
facts? That’s doubtful. But if it is, what, if anything, would make it true that anyone should
accept the best explanation (a claim which there is considerable disagreement about also)? On intellectual nihilism, nothing makes that true, so it’s not true that we should believe what these
nihilists say we should believe. Perhaps they have strong feelings and desire that we agree with them, but that’s no reason to agree.
Many of these philosophers also claim that moral qualities – like rightness and goodness
– do not explain anything in the physical world – they do not have causal influence – and so we
should not believe in them. But intellectual and epistemic qualities, if they exist, seem as unexplanatory and causally inert as moral ones. If this is a reason to reject them, then that’s a reason to think that the claim that we should believe only in what helps explain the physical
world is not true either. Again, these arguments for moral nihilism are unsuccessful.
2 They This theme can be developed with all the common arguments for moral nihilisms.all have a premise that suggests a radical intellectual and epistemological nihilism that conflicts with much of what reasonably believe. This kind of nihilism might be true: there’s no clear
reason why it couldn’t be. But insofar as we believe, and believe reasonably, that we should have
evidence and reasons for our beliefs, we should be consistent in our beliefs, and that we should
change our views when pressed by the weight of the evidence, we have good reason to reject
these arguments. Rational reflection suggests that judgments about reasoning are sometimes true,
after all, they are not always false and are not merely emotive, and rational insight allows us to see what follows from this, including that we should reject the major premises of the arguments for moral nihilism.
Thus, we can, and should, reject moral nihilism, and reject it for good reasons. And the method to rationally investigate the nature of morality is the same we should use to investigate what is moral. This method is to identify unambiguous and precise moral conclusions and then
ask, “Why think that?” If we make all the premises explicit and reveal the assumptions that are too often left tacit, we on the road to making moral progress, first in thought and then in action.
1 Any text or anthology on ethical theory provides this history. See, e.g., Terrence Cuneo and Russ Shafer-Landau, eds. The Foundations of Ethics: An Anthology (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2006). 2 I do this in my Ph.D. dissertation, Truth in Ethics & Epistemology: A Defense of Normative Realism, available at