A Nihilistic Idealist

A friend commented that the ideas summarized in my last two posts were nihilistic. For the record, said friend was not intending to be critical. “Nihilism” often has negative connotations. It’s associated with the idea that life is meaningless and lacks intrinsic value. Some people are turned off by this idea because they feel their continued existence depends on meaning and value. I don’t feel that way so I wondered: am I a nihilist? If so can I continue to be a utopian idealist?

Let’s focus on moral nihilism, which roughly captures the essence of popular nihilism. Moral nihilism is the position that nothing is morally right or morally wrong. Instead, things just “are.” The concepts of “right” and “wrong” in this context are human inventions. Some people hear this position and draw fallacious conclusions. One might be: if there is no such thing as right and wrong, then killing your neighbor ought to be legal.

The fallacy here is that killing your neighbor is antisocial. Functional human societies evolved an understanding that antisocial behaviors (like murder) diminish society, so it’s best to discourage and punish those behaviors. Functional societies also understand that pro-social behaviors (like helping others) boost society, so it’s best to teach and reward those behaviors. Intentions matter too. If you clearly intended to do something pro-social but screwed up, society may cut you some slack. A moral nihilist holds that there is no such thing as right and wrong, but they understand a society’s attempt to remedy antisocial behavior.

So on the question of “is it ok to murder your neighbor,” the answer “no, it’s wrong” is actually telling us “no, society agrees that it’s antisocial.” It may even be telling us “no, for I believe that society ought to agree that it’s antisocial.” The terms right and wrong are problematic because they claim absolute answers to relative questions. They also tend to be “ought” statements disguised as “is” statements. Human genocide would certainly seem “right” to local plant and animal populations that are suffering because of their human neighbors. The word “pro-social” doesn’t swap here. As terms, pro-social and antisocial clarify that orderly human society is what we agree we want. These terms acknowledge our anthropocentrism.

Now the question is exposed: Can a nihilist can still wear the team human hat?

My position is this: a nihilist can hold that human existence lacks inherent meaning or value whilst wanting to maximize human potential and minimize suffering. A nihilist can laugh because “one day we’ll all be dead and none of this shit will matter,” yet still attend town-hall meetings or make prudent investments.

So yes, I think I can be both a nihilist and a utopian idealist. I’ll take it a step further. (1) Ascribing meaning to existence and (2) believing in moral standards probably inhibit one’s ability to contemplate perfect society. Being a little nihilistic clears some of the self-righteous clutter.