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Ethics - nihilism

It is not normal to take morality seriously. Most people will give you a blank look if you ask them what ethical system they live by. You might get a response of "I just do what's right".

Ok, brilliant, so what is right? Do you just use your intuition to answer that question?

I am strange, I think it irresponsible to do things without considering if they are moral or not. People use Moral Language all the time without thinking about it: Wrong, immoral, evil, bad, selfish. I want a consistent, objective system that lets me know what to do. What about utilitarianism!

Utilitarianism seems to make sense. I don't find the repugnant conclusion all that repugnant, so that doesn't put me off. It is a simple, universal system. There are no exceptions for particular cases. It appeals to my intuitions.

Accepting utilitarianism instantly makes me and all those around me immoral. How do people live with themselves? They proudly announce they are organising a charity bake sale for some low-impact charity. It is sickening. Did they not know that every penny they spend on frivolous, inefficient, local charities is almost as bad as throwing it in the bin? Forget about the homeless in rich countries, you should be saving African children with mosquito nets.

Any spending on myself beyond the bare necessities also becomes immoral. You can try and rationalise not giving away almost all of your money, but that is just rationalisation. While I might move in the direction of the utilitarian ideal, it doesn't matter if you're at the bottom of the sea or just under the surface of the water, you are drowning just the same. Anything short of absolute selflessness is still immoral.

I struggled to find a justification for utilitarianism I could be happy with. It felt mostly right, but in the back of my mind I couldn't help ignore the lack of foundation for my belief. In 'The Righteous Mind', Haidt suggests there are many moral foundations that humans use in their intuitive moral judgements. Utilitarianism is based only on care/harm. Assuming we are trying to capture human values in a consistent system of morality, should we not try to incorporate all the foundations? Is utilitarianism better due to ignoring purity as a foundation? Maybe it makes sense to only focus on care/harm, since children do seem to recognise harm as immoral before other foundations, and it does seem to be universal?

At the end of the day, is utilitarianism just a nice clean system that happens to be pretty close to my own intuitions? Was there was never any real basis for believing it? For example, many people seem to value equality above care (ie. they seem to want equality at the expense of growth, if growth would result in increased inequality), this is a common moral foundation, I have no objective basis to say it is wrong.

As always, it comes down to the fact that morality is not rooted in reality. The is-ought problem. The issue of how do we get from 'the world is like X' to 'therefore.. you must do Y'. I have never seen a good argument that managed this feat, I do not see how it would even be possible to manage.

People approach morality in three ways (not normative theories, there are far more of those):

  1. There is the 'unthinking' case where the person behaves unconsciously to satisfy their short-term desires and conform to societal norms. This is likely suboptimal when it comes to serving their own self interest. It is likely 'not too bad' due to the heuristics that humans have evolved and reinforcement over the person's life. It is rational in many cases to conform, to do the same as others, to be nice, to cooperate. Humans are tribal and intuitively punish defectors.
  2. There is the 'egoist' case where the person considers what behavior and desires will best serve their own self interest, and acts upon them. This is the subjectively rational life (choices may be wrong, but correct based on knowledge at the time). Objectivism claims that this life is the only moral life.
  3. There is the 'moral realist' case, where the person accepts a moral framework that directly HARMS their own self interest because they believe it is right. For example, a utilitarian might live in poverty to help others. Sacrifice their child to save strangers. A deontoligist might refuse to lie even if it would help a friend, etc.

(It can be hard to tell the difference. Egoism's dark secret is that most people are egoists most of the time, and most egoists behave just like everyone else most of the time. Like most things in philosophy, only philosophers really care about what happens the rest of the time).

In the absence of a good reason to choose 'moral realist', my choice is 'egoist'. (I kick conscience's clutching hands from my ankle, erupt from the the water, and take a deep breath.)

Why should I beggar myself to help the poor, after all. What justification is there, other than my belief in utilitarianism? If it is not possible to falsify utilitarianism, then how can I be sure that it is correct? If I have no way of knowing it is correct, then why would I accept a theory that causes me to be worse off? Surely rational egoism is better. The consequentialism of self-interest. One can't get better than that (for oneself), by definition.

Of course this does not imply selfishness in the common sense of the word. It does not mean ignoring the welfare of others in all cases. For example, an egoist may sacrifice themselves for their child if they would rather die than let their child be hurt. Personally, I desire that poverty end, animals not be tortured, people have full and happy lives. Egoists may align with utilitarians in many cases, however I am not morally bound to be altruistic to the point of giving all my money to the poor, as I believe I would be under utilitarianism.

Stoicism holds that the good life is a virtuous life. Acting according to those stoic virtues makes me happy. It follows that doing good for others, being productive, being a good father, etc. are far from irrational, indeed it is rational for me to have these preferences over pure pleasure-seeking (ie. this is not hedonistic self-interest) if they best fulfill my desires.

The big difference is that utilitarianism entails sometimes acting out of duty, even if I know it harms my own self interest.

This is not a move from one moral system to another. To say that egoism is the best way to satisfy my interests is a tautology. It is not a normative claim. Is it immoral to behave against my own self interest? No. It is irrational. What I am espousing is not 'ethical egoism' or 'objectivism' which claim that it is a moral imperative to serve my own self interest, I am simply rejecting all ethical claims (ie. rational egoism not ethical egoism).

Moral Language is still useful. It still makes sense to say "people should avoid killing". It means that I would prefer a world where people avoided killing where possible. When I say something is "bad" I do not mean that it is objectively immoral. I mean that it is not an effective way of reaching the given goal. Systems like utilitarianism are still useful when debating how groups of people should best make decisions.

The step back from utilitarianism does mean:

It also means that there is nothing external to measure myself against, no objective concept of good and bad to float between. The only judge of my actions is myself. This is neither good or bad (naturally).

Assume we accept all of this. We agree there is no objective moral system. Is utilitarianism still useful to me personally? See Instrumental utilitarianism

For other consequences of accepting this view, see Living With Moral Nihilism

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Last modified 2019-08-16 Fri 16:28. Contact max@maxjmartin.com