Moral nihilism

Moral nihilism (also known as ethical nihilism) is the meta-ethical view that nothing is morally right or wrong.

Moral nihilism is distinct from moral relativism, which allows for actions wrong relative to a particular culture or individual. It is also distinct from expressivism, according to which when we make moral claims, "We are not making an effort to describe the way the world is ... we are venting our emotions, commanding others to act in certain ways, or revealing a plan of action" (Shafer-Landau 2010, pp. 292–293).

Nihilism does not imply that we should give up using moral or ethical language; some nihilists contend that it remains a useful tool.

Forms of nihilism

Moral nihilists agree that all claims such as 'murder is morally wrong' are not true. But different nihilistic views differ in two ways.

Some may say that such claims are neither true nor false; others say that they are all false.

Nihilists differ in the scope of their theories. Error theorists typically claim that it is only distinctively moral claims which are false; practical nihilists claim that there are no reasons for action of any kind; some nihilists extend this claim to include reasons for belief.

Ethical language: false versus not truth-apt

J. L. Mackie argues that moral assertions are only true if there are moral properties, but because there are none, all such claims are false (Mackie 1997).

Other versions of the theory claim that moral assertions are not true because they are neither true nor false. This form of moral nihilism claims that moral beliefs and assertions presuppose the existence of moral facts that do not exist. Consider, for example, the claim that the present king of France is bald. Some argue that this claim is neither true nor false because it presupposes that there is currently a king of France, but there is not. The claim suffers from "presupposition failure". Richard Joyce (2001) argues for this form of moral nihilism under the name "fictionalism".

The scope question

Error theory is built on three principles:

  1. There are no moral features in this world; nothing is right or wrong.
  2. Therefore, no moral judgements are true; however,
  3. Our sincere moral judgments try, but always fail, to describe the moral features of things.

Thus, we always lapse into error when thinking in moral terms. We are trying to state the truth when we make moral judgments. But since there is no moral truth, all of our moral claims are mistaken. Hence the error. These three principles lead to the conclusion that there is no moral knowledge. Knowledge requires truth. If there is no moral truth, there can be no moral knowledge. Thus moral values are purely chimerical (Shafer-Landau 2010, pp 292–293).

Arguments for nihilism

Argument from queerness

The most prominent argument for nihilism is the argument from queerness.

J. L. Mackie argues that there are no objective ethical values, by arguing that they would be queer (strange):

If there were objective values, then they would be entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe (Mackie 1977, p. 38).

For all those who also find such entities queer (prima facie implausible), there is reason to doubt the existence of objective values.

In his book Morality without Foundations: A Defense of Ethical Contextualism (1999), Mark Timmons provides a reconstruction of Mackie's views in the form of the two related arguments. These are based on the rejection of properties, facts, and relationships that do not fit within the worldview of philosophical naturalism, the idea "that everything—including any particular events, facts, properties, and so on—is part of the natural physical world that science investigates" (1999, p. 12). Timmons adds, "The undeniable attraction of this outlook in contemporary philosophy no doubt stems from the rise of modern science and the belief that science is our best avenue for discovering the nature of reality" (Timmons 1999, pp. 12–13).

There are several ways in which moral properties are supposedly queer:

  • our ordinary moral discourse purports to refer to intrinsically prescriptive properties and facts "that would somehow motivate us or provide us with reasons for action independent of our desires and aversions"—but such properties and facts do not comport with philosophical naturalism (Timmons 1999, p. 50).
  • given that objective moral properties supposedly supervene upon natural properties (such as biological or psychological properties), the relation between the moral properties and the natural properties is metaphysically mysterious and does not comport with philosophical naturalism (p. 51).
  • a moral realist who countenances the existence of metaphysically queer properties, facts, and relations must also posit some special faculty by which we have knowledge of them (Timmons 1999, p. 51).

Responses and criticisms

Christine Korsgaard (1996) responds to Mackie by saying:

Of course there are entities that meet these criteria. It's true that they are queer sorts of entities and that knowing them isn't like anything else. But that doesn't mean that they don't exist.... For it is the most familiar fact of human life that the world contains entities that can tell us what to do and make us do it. They are people, and the other animals. (Korsgaard, p. 166)

Other criticisms of the argument include noting that for the very fact that such entities would have to be something fundamentally different from what we normally experience—and therefore assumably outside our sphere of experience—we cannot prima facie have reason to either doubt or affirm their existence; therefore, if one had independent grounds for supposing such things to exist (such as, for instance, a reductio ad absurdum of the contrary) then the argument from queerness cannot give one any particular reason to think otherwise. An argument along these lines has been provided by e.g. Akeel Bilgrami (2006).

Argument from explanatory impotence

Gilbert Harman argued that we do not need to posit the existence of objective values in order to explain our 'moral observations' (Harman 1977, chapter 1).

See also


  • Bilgrami, Akeel (2006). Self-Knowledge and Resentment, Harvard University Press.
  • Harman, Gilbert (1977). The nature of morality : an introduction to ethics. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195021431. OCLC 2725781.
  • Joyce, Richard (2001). The Myth of Morality, Cambridge University Press.
  • Korsgaard, Christine (1996). The Sources of Normativity, Cambridge University Press.
  • Mackie, John (1977). Ethics: inventing right and wrong. London. ISBN 0140135588. OCLC 24729622.
  • Shafer-Landau, Russ (2010). The Fundamentals of Ethics. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-532086-2.
  • Timmons, Mark (1999). Morality without Foundations: A Defense of Ethical Contextualism, Oxford University Press.

Further reading

  • Garner, Richard T.; Bernard Rosen (1967). Moral Philosophy: A Systematic Introduction to Normative Ethics and Meta-ethics, New York: Macmillan.
  • Shafer-Landau, Russ (2003). Whatever Happened to Good and Evil?, Oxford University Press.
  • Garner, Richard T.; (1994). Beyond Morality. Temple University Press, .
  • Shafer-Landau, Russ & Terence Cuneo (eds.) (2007). Foundations of Ethics, Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
  • Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter (2006a). "Moral Skepticism," The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.). (link)
  • Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter (2006b). Moral Skepticisms, Oxford University Press.
  • van Roojen, Mark (2004). "Moral Cognitivism vs. Non-Cognitivism," The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.). (link)

About the queerness argument

  • Brink, David O. (1984). "Moral Realism and the Sceptical Arguments from Disagreement and Queerness", Australasian Journal of Philosophy 62(2): 111-125.
  • Garner, Richard T. (1990). "On the Genuine Queerness of Moral Properties and Facts", Australasian Journal of Philosophy 68(2): 137-46.
  • Mackie, J. L. (1946). "A Refutation of Morals", Australasian Journal of Psychology and Philosophy 24: 77-90. doi:10.1080/00048404608541486
  • Rosati, Connie S. (2006). "Moral Motivation", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
  • Shepski, Lee (2008). "The Vanishing Argument from Queerness", Australasian Journal of Philosophy 86(3): 371-87.

Amoral may refer to:

Amorality, the absence of morality; for example, a stone, a chair, or the sky may be considered amoral

Specific amorality, the absence of some particular moral standard, principle, code, or knowledge

Moral nihilism, the belief that the notion of morality is meaningless

Amoral (band), Finnish metal band


Amorality is an absence of, indifference towards, or disregard for morality. Some simply refer to it as a case of not being moral or immoral. Amoral should not be confused with immoral, which refers to an agent doing or thinking something they know or believe to be wrong.Morality and amorality in humans and animals is a subject of dispute among scientists and philosophers. If morality is intrinsic to humanity, then amoral human beings either do not exist or are only deficiently human. If morality is extrinsic to humanity, then amoral human beings can both exist and be fully human, and as such be amoral by default.

There is a position that claims amorality is just another form of morality or a concept that is close to it, citing the cases of moral naturalism, moral constructivism, moral relativism, and moral fictionalism as varieties that resemble key aspects of amorality.

Demons (Dostoevsky novel)

Demons (pre-reform Russian: Бѣсы; post-reform Russian: Бесы, tr. Bésy; sometimes also called The Possessed or The Devils) is a novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky, first published in the journal The Russian Messenger in 1871–72. It is considered one of the four masterworks written by Dostoevsky after his return from Siberian exile, along with Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1869) and The Brothers Karamazov (1880). Demons is a social and political satire, a psychological drama, and large scale tragedy. Joyce Carol Oates has described it as "Dostoevsky's most confused and violent novel, and his most satisfactorily 'tragic' work." According to Ronald Hingley, it is Dostoevsky's "greatest onslaught on Nihilism", and "one of humanity's most impressive achievements—perhaps even its supreme achievement—in the art of prose fiction."Demons is an allegory of the potentially catastrophic consequences of the political and moral nihilism that were becoming prevalent in Russia in the 1860s. A fictional town descends into chaos as it becomes the focal point of an attempted revolution, orchestrated by master conspirator Pyotr Verkhovensky. The mysterious aristocratic figure of Nikolai Stavrogin—Verkhovensky's counterpart in the moral sphere—dominates the book, exercising an extraordinary influence over the hearts and minds of almost all the other characters. The idealistic, western-influenced generation of the 1840s, epitomized in the character of Stepan Verkhovensky (who is both Pyotr Verkhovensky's father and Nikolai Stavrogin's childhood teacher), are presented as the unconscious progenitors and helpless accomplices of the 'demonic' forces that take possession of the town.

Ethical naturalism

Ethical naturalism (also called moral naturalism or naturalistic cognitivistic definism) is the meta-ethical view which claims that:

Ethical sentences express propositions.

Some such propositions are true.

Those propositions are made true by objective features of the world, independent of human opinion.

These moral features of the world are reducible to some set of non-moral features

Euthyphro dilemma

The Euthyphro dilemma is found in Plato's dialogue Euthyphro, in which Socrates asks Euthyphro, "Is the pious (τὸ ὅσιον) loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?" (10a) It implies that if moral authority must come from the gods it does not have to be good, and if moral authority must be good it does not have to come from the gods – a highly controversial idea at the time Socrates first presented it.Although it was originally applied to the ancient Greek pantheon, the dilemma has implications for modern monotheistic religions. Gottfried Leibniz asked whether the good and just "is good and just because God wills it or whether God wills it because it is good and just". Ever since Plato's original discussion, this question has presented a problem for some theists, though others have thought it a false dilemma, and it continues to be an object of theological and philosophical discussion today.

Hard determinism

Hard determinism (or metaphysical determinism) is a view on free will which holds that determinism is true, and that it is incompatible with free will, and, therefore, that free will does not exist. Although hard determinism generally refers to nomological determinism, it can also be a position taken with respect to other forms of determinism that necessitate the future in its entirety. Hard determinism is contrasted with soft determinism, which is a compatibilist form of determinism, holding that free will may exist despite determinism. It is also contrasted with metaphysical libertarianism, the other major form of incompatibilism which holds that free will exists and determinism is false.

Het verboden rijk

Het verboden rijk ("The forbidden kingdom") is a novel by Dutch author J. Slauerhoff (1898–1936). First published in 1931, the novel follows two narratives simultaneously—that of the Portuguese poet Luís de Camões, and that of a 20th-century Irishman, a radio operator and sailor. A sequel, Het leven op aarde ("Life on earth"), was published in 1933; a third book was planned but never finished.

Index of ethics articles

This Index of ethics articles puts articles relevant to well-known ethical (right and wrong, good and bad) debates and decisions in one place - including practical problems long known in philosophy, and the more abstract subjects in law, politics, and some professions and sciences. It lists also those core concepts essential to understanding ethics as applied in various religions, some movements derived from religions, and religions discussed as if they were a theory of ethics making no special claim to divine status.

J. L. Mackie

John Leslie Mackie (1917–1981) was an Australian philosopher. He made significant contributions to the philosophy of religion, metaphysics, and the philosophy of language, and is perhaps best known for his views on meta-ethics, especially his defence of moral scepticism. He authored six books. His most widely known, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (1977), opens by boldly stating that "There are no objective values." It goes on to argue that because of this ethics must be invented, rather than discovered.


A libertine is one devoid of most moral principles, a sense of responsibility, or sexual restraints, which are seen as unnecessary or undesirable, especially one who ignores or even spurns accepted morals and forms of behaviour sanctified by the larger society. Libertinism is described as an extreme form of hedonism. Libertines put value on physical pleasures, meaning those experienced through the senses. As a philosophy, libertinism gained new-found adherents in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, particularly in France and Great Britain. Notable among these were John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester and the Marquis de Sade.


Meta-ethics is the branch of ethics that seeks to understand the nature of ethical properties, statements, attitudes, and judgments. Meta-ethics is one of the three branches of ethics generally studied by philosophers, the others being normative ethics and applied ethics.

While normative ethics addresses such questions as "What should I do?", evaluating specific practices and principles of action, meta-ethics addresses questions such as "What is goodness?" and "How can we tell what is good from what is bad?", seeking to understand the nature of ethical properties and evaluations.

Some theorists argue that a metaphysical account of morality is necessary for the proper evaluation of actual moral theories and for making practical moral decisions; others reason from opposite premises and suggest that studying moral judgments about proper actions can guide us to a true account of the nature of morality.

Might makes right

Might makes right is an aphorism with several potential meanings (in order of increasing complexity):

The idea associated with the phrase connotes that a society's view of right and wrong is determined, like its perspective on history, by those currently in power. The term can be used in the descriptive, rather than prescriptive way, in the same sense that people say that "History is written by the victors". Because every person labels what they think is good for themselves as right, only those who are able to defeat their enemies can push their idea of what is right into fruition. The phrase is most often used in negative assessments of expressions of power.

According to Montague, kratocracy or kraterocracy (from the Greek κρατερός krateros, meaning "strong") is a government by those who are strong enough to seize control through the threat or use of force, coercive power, social persuasion, psychological manipulation or deceptive cunning. The term was used by Kropotkin in Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, but is now rarely seen. In terms of Master morality, those who are the strongest will rule others and have the power to determine both right and wrong, and what constitutes "the greater good". By this definition, the phrase manifests itself in a normative sense. This meaning is often used to define a proscriptive moral code for society to follow, as well as while discussing social Darwinism and Weberian themes of the authority of the state (e.g. Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft).

Moral relativism

Moral relativism may be any of several philosophical positions concerned with the differences in moral judgments across different people and cultures. Descriptive moral relativism holds only that some people do in fact disagree about what is moral; meta-ethical moral relativism holds that in such disagreements, nobody is objectively right or wrong; and normative moral relativism holds that because nobody is right or wrong, we ought to tolerate the behavior of others even when we disagree about the morality of it.

Not all descriptive relativists adopt meta-ethical relativism, and moreover, not all meta-ethical relativists adopt normative relativism. Richard Rorty, for example, argued that relativist philosophers believe "that the grounds for choosing between such opinions is less algorithmic than had been thought", but not that any belief is as valid as any other.Moral relativism has been debated for thousands of years, from ancient Greece and India to the present day, in diverse fields including art, philosophy, science, and religion.

Moral skepticism

Moral skepticism (or moral scepticism) is a class of metaethical theories all members of which entail that no one has any moral knowledge. Many moral skeptics also make the stronger, modal claim that moral knowledge is impossible. Moral skepticism is particularly opposed to moral realism: the view that there are knowable and objective moral truths.

Some defenders of moral skepticism include Pyrrho, Aenesidemus, Sextus Empiricus, David Hume, J. L. Mackie (1977), Max Stirner, Friedrich Nietzsche, Richard Joyce (2001), Michael Ruse, Joshua Greene, Richard Garner, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (2006b), and the psychologist James Flynn. Strictly speaking, Gilbert Harman (1975) argues in favor of a kind of moral relativism, not moral skepticism. However, he has influenced some contemporary moral skeptics.

Moral universalism

Moral universalism (also called moral objectivism) is the meta-ethical position that some system of ethics, or a universal ethic, applies universally, that is, for "all similarly situated individuals", regardless of culture, race, sex, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, or any other distinguishing feature. Moral universalism is opposed to moral nihilism and moral relativism. However, not all forms of moral universalism are absolutist, nor are they necessarily value monist; many forms of universalism, such as utilitarianism, are non-absolutist, and some forms, such as that of Isaiah Berlin, may be value pluralist.In addition to the theories of moral realism, moral universalism includes other cognitivist moral theories, such as the subjectivist ideal observer theory and divine command theory, and also the non-cognitivist moral theory of universal prescriptivism.


Nihilism (; from Latin nihil, meaning 'nothing') is the philosophical viewpoint that suggests the denial or lack of belief toward the reputedly meaningful aspects of life. Most commonly, nihilism is presented in the form of existential nihilism, which argues that life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value. Moral nihilists assert that there is no inherent morality, and that accepted moral values are abstractly contrived. Nihilism may also take epistemological, ontological, or metaphysical forms, meaning respectively that, in some aspect, knowledge is not possible, or reality does not actually exist.

The term is sometimes used in association with anomie to explain the general mood of despair at a perceived pointlessness of existence that one may develop upon realising there are no necessary norms, rules, or laws.Nihilism has also been described as conspicuous in or constitutive of certain historical periods. For example, Jean Baudrillard and others have called postmodernity a nihilistic epoch and some religious theologians and figures of religious authority have asserted that postmodernity and many aspects of modernity represent a rejection of theism, and that such rejection of theistic doctrine entails nihilism.

Nihilism (disambiguation)

Nihilism is a philosophical doctrine suggesting the negation of one or more putatively meaningful aspects of life. It has several forms:

Existential nihilism, the theory that life has no meaning

Mereological nihilism, disbelief in objects with proper parts

Metaphysical nihilism, the belief that there is a possible world in which there are no concrete objects at all

Epistemological nihilism, disbelief in knowledge

Moral nihilism, disbelief in objective moral facts

Political nihilism, the rejection of the necessity of fundamental social or political structuresNihilism may also refer to:

Nihilist movement, a cultural movement in 1860s Russia

"Nihilism", a song by Rancid from their 1994 album Let's Go

Outline of ethics

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to ethics:

Ethics – major branch of philosophy, encompassing right conduct and good life. It is significantly broader than the common conception of analyzing right and wrong. A central aspect of ethics is "the good life", the life worth living or life that is simply satisfying, which is held by many philosophers to be more important than moral conduct.


Perspectivism (German: Perspektivismus) is the view that perception, experience, and reason change according to the viewer's relative perspective and interpretation. There are many possible conceptual schemes, or perspectives in which judgment of truth or value can be made. This is often taken to imply that no way of seeing the world can be taken as definitively "true", but does not necessarily entail that all perspectives are equally valid. Leibniz integrated this view into his philosophy, but Nietzsche fully developed it It rejects both the idea of perspective-free or interpretation-free objective reality.

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