The Case for Moral Nihilism

Does morality exist? What would it even mean to say that morality exists? And if morality does not exist, then how can there be moral progress (e.g., how can we say that it was moral progress to end slavery)? These are meta-ethical questions, in other words, not questions describing or prescribing what one ought to do, but questions concerning whether describing or prescribing what one ought to do is even coherent.  I will examine these questions, and more, in this post.

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What is Morality?

Philosophy is, broadly speaking, divided into three general categories: metaphysics (what is the nature of existence and reality?), epistemology (what is knowledge and how is it possible?), and ethics (what is the nature of good and evil and how should people live their lives to accord with what is good?). It’s this latter one that tends to have the most practical impact on people’s lives. Indeed, things like business ethics, governmental ethics, medical ethics, bioethics, and so on are where the rubber really meets the road. Yet, they still fail to answer the very basic question of “what is good?” and “how should I live my life?” for our everyday, mundane situations.

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Human Relations and Accountability

When a mob boss tells three of his underlings to commit a murder, and then the three underlings commit the murder, is the mob boss culpable? Most people would say yes, even though he himself did not commit the murder, because he is the boss. But isn’t it possible for the three underlings to have just ignored the bosses orders and done nothing, in which case he would have just been talking? No, most people would say, because the underlings did commit the murder and they have entered into a hierarchical relationship with the boss where they are obligated to follow his orders.

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Arguing Morals

It’s difficult to find someone who doesn’t think they’re at least trying to be a moral person. Even someone who thinks of themselves as immoral does so because he or she sees themselves as failing to live up to their own moral code, not because they are purposefully choosing the route of immorality because of some warped value system. But what does it even mean to be moral? Is someone who blindly performs an action that results in more overall happiness a moral person? What about a person who intends to increase overall happiness, but their actions end up having a neutral or even detrimental effect on the overall happiness of the world? If we consider telling the truth (or at least not lying) to be moral, what happens if telling the truth gets people hurt? Or what if lying can prevent that pain – even if it’s as benign as telling someone they look nice when they don’t?

The keen observer will notice there are two kinds of arguments here. In moral philosophy, we call these two schools of thought deontological moral arguments and consequentialist moral arguments.

Deontological morality refers to those things we see as intrinsically moral. We say that murder is wrong because human beings have an intrinsic moral value. Life is precious and should be valued for its own sake. There can be recourse to some justification, but the consequences on the world are not what justify deontological moral theories. This can be problematic, since we must say that if every life has intrinsic moral worth, regardless of the person’s impact on the world, then Martin Luther King Jr has the same moral worth as Adolf Hitler. Of course, it also means that if you’re the kind of person that works at McDonalds all day only to come home and play video games all night, you are just as protected under the law as the person who raises a family and regularly volunteers at the homeless shelter – the two situations will ideally receive equal protection.

Consequentialism is the idea that the moral value of an action is based on the affect it has on the world. This school of thought might handle the case of murder by saying that murder causes pain and suffering in the world. The victim will no longer get to live the rest of their life, experiencing its joys, accomplishing their goals, and being there for their loved ones, who will be worse off with the victim dead. One could even argue that it would be worse for the economy, and that it might be a financial drain on the victims family. For these reasons, murder is wrong. And since the victims life is judged on their worldly consequences, if the victim was more beneficial to the world, then we can say that their life was worth more than someone who was less beneficial, or even detrimental, to the world. In other words, Martin Luther King Jr’s life was worth more than Adolf Hitler’s life. Of course, it also means that the life of someone who regularly volunteers at the homeless shelter and raises a happy family is worth more than the life of someone who spends every day working at McDonalds only to come home and play video games. Thus, if we accept that people’s impact on the world determines their moral worth, then we must accept that some people are literally better human beings than other people and are therefore worth more protection under the law.

In this way, consequentialist arguments can sound almost cynical. But lets look at a situation where consequentialism seems to win our over deongoloty. Lets say you’re living in Nazi Germany and you’re hiding Jews in your basement. A Nazi officer comes by and asks if you are hiding Jews. Deontologically speaking, not lying is the more moral action. Not lying is even one of the ten commandments (more on this later). But telling the truth – that you’re hiding Jews in your basement – might have the consequence of getting them hurt or killed. So the consequentialist argument would be to lie, since that will have a greater moral outcome – the people you are hiding will be more likely to survive and go unharmed if you lie.

So we can see that sometimes these different schools of thought can be applied and seem more intuitively moral. So is it legitimate to use an argument from one school of thought against the argument from another? I contend that in many places – politics, religion, society – this is what people are doing without realizing it.

Religion often uses deontological arguments for morality. When a commandment says not to kill or steal, it brooks no arguments. We are not to do these things because they are intrinsically wrong. Of course, the problem with making arguments about the intrinsic value of actions, people want some justification for it. Immanuel Kant attempted to make deontological justification for moral arguments with his categorical imperative using reason alone. Religion attempts to justify deontological moral precepts with recourse to God. This runs into the sticky problem of Euthyphro’s dilemma, which can be stated: are moral commands moral because God says they are, or does God say they’re moral because they are intrinsically moral? In other words, should I obey God because if I don’t then God will punish me, or should I obey God because God is the arbiter of intrinsic moral values? In the first instance we end up with a consequentialist argument – I should act moral because if I don’t, I will be punished, and if I do, I’ll be rewarded (or that my actions determine whether I become close to God or not). The latter is deontological, but it’s problematic in that A) God is no longer required for morality and is therefore not sufficient for recourse on matters of morality and so B) we still must find some justification for why some particular action is considered moral or immoral.

Although moral commandments are at least ostensibly deontological moral beliefs that are justified with recourse to God (assuming the previous discussion is not problematic), it’s still popular for religious apologists to couch religious morals in consequentialist theory. For instance, the often quoted Leviticus 20:13 condemning homosexuality makes no mention of why homosexuality is wrong except to say that homosexual acts are “detestable” or an “abomination” (depending which version of the bible you read). This is a deontological argument, as it doesn’t say what detrimental consequences homosexual acts will wrought on the world. But when gay rights issues are talked about in politics and the media, it’s often consequentialist arguments – that marriage is meant for procreation, that allowing gays to marry will ruin marriage, that allowing gays to marry will lead us down a slippery slope into pedophilia and bestiality, that gay couples make bad parents, that gay marriage will lead to more abortions, and sometimes even that homosexuality causes natural disasters. None of these arguments are biblical, nor are they backed by evidence, but it creates an impasse when deontological theories of morality run into consequentialist theories of morality.

This same sort of impasse can be seen in politics. I’m not talking as much on what is usually seen as the left-right scale so much as the statist-libertarian scale. When I say statist, I mean someone who believes that the state (or government) must exist, at minimal in the Hobbesean sense, in order to maintain law and order. When I say libertarian, I mean someone who believes that state (government) should not exist in an anarcho-capitalist sense. Most people fall on the spectrum somewhere on the statist end, and this is for consequentialist reasons. There might be deontological arguments for the state in fascist or Leninist and Maoist communist thought, but I’d say the majority of people see the state as a tool meant for maintaining law and order. People may disagree on the roles the government should take, but they all agree that the government has a legitimate role to play. Liberbarians, in the anarcho-capitalist school of thought, make the deontological claim that government shouldn’t exist. They justify this with recourse to the non-aggression principle, which is based on self-ownership and property rights. Of course, even anarcho-capitalists often defend their views using consequentialist arguments based on the ideas of the negative unintended consequences in foreign and economic policies (for example, the minimum wage creating more unemployment or regulations that hurt small businesses while doing nothing to big corporations) and blowback in military policies (for example, the U.S. drone program creating more terrorists than it kills). The impasse occurs when statists attempt to attack the deontological theory of the non-aggression principle using consequences (“without the government, there would be chaos”) and libertarians attempting to use this deontological argument against this form of consequentialism. It’s also a problem when a deontological theory, such as the non-aggression principle, is defended using consequentialist arguments. If we accept the non-aggression principle, than we must say that it should be a moral theory that applies to any situation, regardless of the consequences. Even if adopting anarcho-capitalism causes an endless economic depression, it is still more moral than allowing the violence of government intervention to exist, regardless of how well the economy works under that government. However, if it’s true that the non-aggression principle will bring about greater economic prosperity and restrict fewer civil liberties, and we accept that the non-aggression principle is only justified with recourse to these consequences, then statism is in trouble without a deontological leg to stand on in defending the existence of the state.

This all seems a bit abstract, but there is a somewhat more practical reason to consider the deontological vs. consequentialist arguments when it comes to government. This might be referred to as the Euthyphro’s Dilemma of Government. This dilemma has to do with the morality of charity. Statist arguments, particularly those on what is considered the left, state that there is a moral obligation to take tax money from those who make more money and distribute it to those who are not well off. The libertarian will argue that this is not a moral action, since the tax money is taken by force, violating the non-aggression principle, and there is no choice involved in giving this money. This, of course, assumes that there must be a choice involved in moral actions – an act is immoral if one could have chosen otherwise and not committed that act, but chose to do so, and vice versa, an act is moral if one could have chosen otherwise and not committed that act, but chose to do so. So given this, is it immoral for money to be taken at the threat of force from person A and given to person B, even if A had more than needed and B less than needed? And hence we come to the impasse. The deontological libertarian will say yes, it was an immoral act since the non-aggression principle was violated and person A had no choice in the matter anyway. The consequentialist statist will say no, it is not immoral because person A is not left wanting overall and person B can now live a more comfortable life.

I mentioned it briefly earlier, but when it comes to what morality even is, in either the deontological school of thought or the consequentialist school of thought, we might distinguish between prohibitions and virtues. Prohibitions would be morals such as not killing, not stealing, and not lying. Virtues would be morals such as giving to the poor, cleaning up trash in the streets, or rescuing someone in danger. The issue becomes: can we say that someone is moral if they simply follow all the right prohibitions but never do anything virtuous? What about someone who constantly does virtuous things, but also constantly lies, cheats and steals? Does a moral person have to both refrain from doing bad things and endeavor to do virtuous things? Does an immoral person have to both refrain from doing virtuous things and endeavor to transgress against moral prohibitions? Consequentialists may be able to argue over metrics by which to judge these things, but to my knowledge, most deontological arguments are of the prohibitive kind – both Kant’s categorical imperative and the libertarian’s non-aggression principle are the prohibitive flavor of morality. So how might virtue ethics fit into these systems? Would a deontological theory of virtue ethics be nothing more than a list of precepts to follow, a code with no justification or resource?

The age old question, in the end, is which school of moral thought is the better one? Which will lead to a more moral society? Deontology has an air of being more noble, in that it brings up a sense of duty and struggle to do the right thing, even if it doesn’t seem like the right thing. I’ll apply the non-aggression principle, even if I think my life would be easier if I broke it. And yet people are generally judged on the consequences of their actions. I would argue that a mix of both are needed. The ground, I would say, should be deontological, but their application in the real world – and judgments on where deviations are allowed – should be based on consequentialist ideas. Of course, this becomes messy, and trying to pin down the optimum socio-political-economic system or deciding how justice and mercy should be applied could get bogged down in minutiae. This leaves us at another impasse. What I think the important message is, though, is that people need to realize when they are using consequentialist arguments against deontological theories and vice versa, because otherwise everyone will simply continue to talk past each other and no progress will be made.

Is Human Suffering Bad For Humanity?

I think if you ask most people, regardless of their race, religion, sex, gender, orientation, socioeconomic status, nationality, etc. that if they could wave a magic wand and make the world such that everyone had food, clothes, medicine, a loving family, and a sense of well-being at the expense of nobody else, they would do so without a second thought. Why wouldn’t you? Who wouldn’t want to end suffering and create happiness? One of the biggest reasons some people have for doubting their religion is the problem of evil – if there is a benevolent god, then why does suffering exist? Why do bad things happen to otherwise good (or at least, innocent) people?

Well, I’m here to make the case that maybe human suffering makes humanity as a whole better. This isn’t a political or religious statement, nor do I even endorse the idea that suffering is good, but I’d like to propose sort of a thought experiment. So humor me, if you will.

People who suffer offer an artistic perspective we would never have without suffering.

It’s somewhat of a truism that artists are often people who have endured hardship. The experience of hardship is often what gives them material for their art. People who are able to focus their pain into something productive create some of the greatest works of art. Kurt Godel may have suffered from delusions. Michelangelo may have been autistic.  Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo produced art based on the struggle of Mexicans (and themselves). The people who created blues and jazz struggled with slavery and racism. Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Tupac Shakur, Robin Williams, Mitch Hedberg and the list goes on. The idea being, if these people didn’t suffer, would they have created the diversity, novelty, and quality of art that they had? If everyone in the world grew up with all of their needs fulfilled, a loving family, and an accepting society, would they have made the impact that they had? Is it necessary for people to suffer in order to gain some insight or ability to create amazing art? Or could someone have done this without having the experiences they did?

Helping those who suffer makes people with the means to help better humans.

One of the tenets of many religions is helping the poor. The bible says “But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.” One of the Five Pillars of Islam is “Giving Zakat” which is giving to the poor. Many other religious have ideas like this. These are considered not only moral acts, but virtuous acts. Doing this makes you a good person and can earn you a place in God’s grace. But what happens if there is no poor to help? What happens if nobody is wanting and everybody is equal? Is there any theology that tackles the idea of the end of suffering? What happens when there is something akin to heaven on earth? How will the meek inherit the earth if there is no more meek? Is it good to have the less fortunate around so that the more fortunate can become moral by helping them?
The poor don’t know that their function in life is to exercise our generosity.” -Jean-Paul Sartre

Combating suffering brings us great technological advances.

The mother of invention is necessity. Many of our modern technologies have come about because someone realized there was a problem, and then invented a solution. Scientific advances are often made in attempts to solve a problem – an enormous majority of biochemistry and cell biology research is funded by grants awarded to cancer research. How many advances might we have made if cancer wasn’t a problem that needed fixing? How much would we understand about bacteria if we didn’t have the problem of antibiotic resistance and vaccinations? How much would we know about the brain if there weren’t such thing as mental illness? And maybe mental illness even creates scientific, mathematical, and engineering insights we wouldn’t have otherwise? How much technology has been produced by places like DARPA in order to keep a wartime advantage? Would NASA have come about if it wasn’t for the Cold War?

These questions can be strange to ask, but it’s difficult to deny that much of the art, science, technology, and even morality that we enjoy and take pride in has been a result of suffering of one kind or another. Would it be worth it to eradicate all suffering if it were to reduce artistic output, slow progress, and take away something meaningful from many people?

Simulated Reality (NSFW)

What does it mean for something to be real? This seems like an obvious answer: things are real if I can see and feel them. My house is real. My cup of coffee is real. My trip to Greenland was real (although ill-advised). My computer is real. But are the things you see on your computer real? What does it mean for something to be data – does it exist in the obvious way that we think something is real? Can a computer have a mind that thinks and feels – and if so, is that mind real?

These might seem like esoteric questions, or even pedantic bickering, but the answers have real world applications. For instance, violent video game usage is often correlated with aggressive behavior. But does that make playing the violent video game itself immoral? If one takes a consequentialist view, then it is – things that cause people to do immoral things are immoral. But not all people who play violent video games do violent things – it is not a direct cause-and-effect scenario. To say this would be to take any sort of agency out of the person playing the game – their actions are merely an effect of external factors. But there are those who would wish to seek certain types of legislation to keep certain video games off the market, or at the very least, out of the hands of impressionable children.

But I want to step away from this consequentialist argument, because there is an equally interesting question: Can an act be immoral if it is simulated? Computer graphics, robotics, and artificial intelligence is starting to reach a point where it’s difficult not to get our empathy mixed up in the simulation itself. Some people can feel sadness or anger at inanimate objects to greater or lesser extents, depending on how “real” the simulation is. This means that we feel empathetic toward simulations. If we accept that much of our moral sensibilities stems from our ability to be empathetic (sociopaths are people who do not feel empathy, which is why they act immoral) then it is not a stretch to say that these simulations have some level of moral character. But what sorts of implications does it have? Consider the following trailer for the video game “Hatred” which has quite a few people in an uproar (video is NSFW):

In case you don’t want to watch the video (or don’t care to stomach it) in this game, you play a character who decides he hates and despises the world and everyone in it, and so goes on a “genocide crusade” to kill as many people as he can in as brutal a fashion as possible until finally being violently gunned down. Your goal in the game is to just kill innocent people in a violent, and serious, fashion until you are killed. A lot of arguments I’ve read why people hate this game but not something like Grand Theft Auto 5, where you can also just go around brutally killing innocent people, is that in “Hatred” is is the goal of the game to brutally gun down and stab innocent people, whereas in GTA5 it is the persons choice to do this and has nothing to do with the goals of the game (and in fact will hinder your ability to accomplish those goals). I think people are not wrong when they say that “Hatred” somehow has a lower moral character than “GTA5” (although it’s a different subject, which I’ll address at some point, whether a work of art can have a good or bad moral character), but I think they’re wrong in using this argument.

In “Hatred” the simulations are very realistic. The victims sob, cry for mercy, and ask why. They are generated to look very realistic. This makes committing violent acts against them look and feel very realistic. And yet, anyone who see’s the trailer, or plays the game, knows that those people are not real. They aren’t feeling any real pain. There is no actual life that is really being extinguished. None of those simulated people had an real hopes or dreams or memories or loved ones. They are pixels. And yet, even ignoring the consequentialist argument – people playing this game may be influenced toward aggressive behavior – there is something that feels morally wrong about this game.

So, what happens when simulated people become even more realistic? What happens when they are able to simulate more of a sense of agency? When, if left alone, they do simulate a life that seems very real, very personal, and even very conscious? Would it be immoral to make a game – or a virtual reality – where people can just go on a killing spree and brutally murder these simulations? Would that make those players (or game developers) actual murderers?

And what about simulating sex acts that we find immoral? It’s not far-fetched to think that robots that simulate sex will one day become very real – perhaps sooner than we think.

Sex Robots

These things could become very realistic, and that doesn’t seem so bad. There are already such thing as sex dolls. Does it make a difference if the robot can simulate emotions? Desires? Or even fear and pain? And what happens if we make a sex robot that simulates a child in look, feel, and simulated emotions? We all know that the actual chassis itself is not a child, and that the simulation of a mind isn’t a thinking, feeling child that will have its life significantly altered by what someone does to it. So is it still immoral for someone who commit sexual acts against a robot that simulates the experience of a child?

These are certainly uncomfortable questions to consider, but I think with the accelerating pace of technology, they are questions that must be considered. And once these questions are considered, then there is always the hairsplitting about when a simulation of a person becomes something that is sentient, with its own first person subjective experience of the world. It’s amazing and fascinating that we now live in a world where such questions can be considered, but it’s equally as frightening, as we feel our way through Plato’s cave. I think these sorts of inquiries are going to be very real, possibly even within the next ten years. So, don’t shy away from the discomfort, because these things will come up, whether you pay attention to them or not.