Over the weekend, I had a conversation with a friend of mine about nihilism. He couldn’t see a way of avoiding nihilism as the conclusion of life, even on theism or Christianity. I tried my best to communicate that on Christianity the exact opposite of nihilism is true. Every life matters and every life has purpose.
I ultimately felt unsatisfied with my presentation during the conversation and wanted to express some thoughts on nihilism here.
Nihilism is the belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated. The latter half of that definition is obviously false. Nothing can be known? Except nihilism makes truth claims: there are no values; there is no knowledge; there is nothing to be communicated. That is to say, the latter half of the definition of nihilism is self-defeating.
But what about the first half? This is the definition we most commonly think of when we think of nihilism, or a nihilistic person. Nihilism determines that there is no purpose or value in life.
The conversation around nihilism is one that will keep you awake at night. A person contemplating nihilism could easily be contemplating something worse.
I would contend that the first half of the definition of nihilism is also self-defeating, just less obviously. I would contend that you can’t avoid purpose, meaning, and the good.
What is Morality?
When we speak of human values, or human morality, we are speaking of human action. This or that action is good or bad.
What do we mean by good or bad?
I like to take the example of an acorn. An acorn has the nature of, well, an acorn. We’ll call it acorn nature. And acorn nature tends toward acorn flourishing. What does acorn flourishing look like? An acorn flourishes as it grows toward becoming an oak tree. How does an acorn achieve this goal? It gets the right amount of water, sunlight, and nutrients. An acorn that does this is called a good acorn. An acorn that doesn’t is called a bad acorn.
Something similar is true of human beings. Like all things, we have a nature. And like every other nature, human nature tends in a direction. That direction can be generally identified as human flourishing. What does human flourishing look like? This is up for debate and a great conversation to be had. However, I do not need an exact definition of human flourishing to prove my point and the task of defining human flourishing would be too great for my purposes here.
Suffice it to say that all things have a nature and a corresponding end that their nature tends toward. For human beings then, an action is moral if it leads to human flourishing.
The Unavoidability of Moral Action
Here’s the key to the conversation surrounding nihilism: every action can be judged morally. When I say every action can be judged morally, I mean every action. Why? Because no action is taken without an end in mind, without a goal in mind, that is, without a good in mind.
I went to play golf yesterday. How could my decision and corresponding action to play golf possibly be judged morally? I determined it was good to go play golf. That determination can be judged on this basis: was it actually good for me to go play golf? Say my wife was at home sick in desperate need of me to take her to the hospital. Would it be morally good or bad for me to go play golf?
Moral judgments are inescapable. You cannot think of a human action that cannot be judged morally. By all means, give it a try. I’m going to skip to the human belief that claims all values are baseless: nihilism.
The Self-Defeating Nature of Nihilism
Nihilism claims there are no actual values and therefore life is meaningless. But again, I repeat, there is no human action (or inaction) that can be made without making a value judgment. This applies to the nihilist as well. Watch.
There is no value or purpose in life, therefore I’m going to do whatever I want.
There is no value or purpose in life, therefore I’m going to harm myself or others.
There is no value or purpose in life, therefore I’m going to do nothing.
All of those are value statements. The nihilist determines that it is good to do whatever she wants, to hurt himself and others, to do nothing based on the fact that life is meaningless. THAT IS A JUDGMENT OF VALUE.
Nihilism is self-defeating. You cannot avoid making judgments of value. The only question is, are your judgments actually good. The nihilist may determine that it is good to do whatever they please, but is it actually good? Depends on what they please to do. The nihilist may determine that it is good to harm themselves or others, but is that actually good? Not according to the unavoidable standard of human flourishing. Is it actually good to do nothing? This is just a slower process of harming one’s self and therefore also violates the standard of human flourishing.
Nihilism is not the avoidance of value judgments; that is impossible. Nihilism is the acceptance of bad judgments that appear good, given the false premise that life is meaningless.
You cannot avoid meaning. You cannot avoid value. You cannot escape moral judgments.
You can make the right choice.
Given the fact that you cannot avoid assigning meaning and value to your life and your choices, I invite you to assign the right meaning to your life.
If God exists, He is the author of human nature. He knows exactly how to flourish as human beings. He created human beings!
His written revelation to humanity, the Bible, makes it clear that following Him and His will for our lives will lead to the ultimate satisfaction and flourishment. Every other purpose in life may be said to be good in some sense, but it will pale in comparison to the purpose God has in store for his creation.
I’ll leave you with the words of Jesus. “The thief comes to steal and to kill, but I have come so that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
8 thoughts on “Nihilism is Self-Defeating: Life is Valuable”
This is extremely well thought out and clearly presented.
I’m sorry your friend is struggling, but it seems you are doing all that you can for him.
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I agree with what you are saying in an ultimate sense. But I think there are a few things that a moral nihilist or error theorist would say about morality. They really think all moral talk is mistaken. Like all talk about phlogiston.
But they do not necessarily reject all normativity. They can think there is a right and wrong way to tie a fishing knot – for the purpose of catching a fish. There can be a right or wrong way to do math for the purpose of counting the correct change. But they do not think there is morally correct way to act. So just like we would say phlogiston theory is mistaken they would say theories that certain things are moral or not are mistaken. Its not that all such claims are false. So if someone were to say it is not immoral to choose french dressing instead of Italian they would agree. Its just that they think nothing is morally acceptable or morally prohibited.
I think this view is very hard to actually hold though. I think it will inevitably contradict our views. Richard Joyce is a error theorist. And at the end of one of his books he wrote that even though he does not believe in morality it is not as though you need to worry he is going to steal your silverware when he visits.
And, I don’t doubt that is the case. But then when you ask well why not? Then the answers might be – I don’t want to get caught. Or I don’t want your silverware, or who knows. But one reason that will supposedly not stop him from stealing is that he will not steal because it is morally wrong. And losing that reason seems disturbing in a very profound way. That’s because if he says it is based only on the former reasons then if he knew he would get away with it and he did want the silverware he would steal.
It seems to me that rejecting morality all together may just be impossible and will invariably lead to some cognitive dissonance. At least for me it would.
I would say we don’t need to argue that everything decision is moral one. It may not make a moral difference whether I choose a blue or white color for my car. But I think everyone ends up seeing some choices as involving immorality and that belief guides our actions.
So you might want to try this tact. Ask him if it would be ok for him to lie and say he believes morality does exist when it doesn’t exist. Or is it fine either way? If it is not fine then why not? I mean you can also ask him the silverware questions. I would be interested in his answers. You can also ask him about why he wouldn’t do some other horrible conduct – you can go through slavery based on race or genocide etc. And then if he gives any reason why he doesn’t do that other than – I won’t do it because it is immoral then you can follow up. Lets say he says I don’t promote race based slavery because I am disgusted by it. You can ask well if someone is not disgusted by it there is nothing morally wrong with them? Or if he said well I would not want to be enslaved based on my race, you can say well lets say you knew that couldn’t happen because you had the power. Chances are he would still not want to do it. The thing is people do in fact reject many sorts of conduct not because of some other end, but rather just because it is immoral. I don’t think we can escape it.
Sorry for the long comment. But I hope some of it is useful.
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Stealing the silverware performs an action oriented to some good he defined. Perhaps he doesn’t want to lose your companionship. Companionship could be considered good. Companionship could be considered a good.
I liked how you followed through your thought experiment, Joe. Moral judgments and (counter-)arguments need to presuppose what is good/bad or Haden and his friend can’t get anywhere very well. If you pick something besides the descriptor (is the acorn good or bad towards its nature), an alternative is an object. That’s another form of nihilism talking (and the scarier one, in my opinion), and closer to what is getting at below.
Biological beings do react and respond, modified/adapted. That’s in the sciences, in other kinds of knowledge, my drinking cranberry juice mixed with water, and within this comment area. Moral living/meaning/etc. can be expressed as a value judgment, also, it can be an orientation, a goal, something to strive for, something to attain. There may be others, but those are the two my sitting-up-at-nearly-2am thoughts pulled on. Haden could propose Christianity (broadly, let’s not get into tradition/denomination fights here, please?) as a robust and resilient framework for oriented living.
I agree, Christianity is an answer for nihilism in either way. And I’d say that Haden combined at least two interpretations of “good/bad” and “moral,” which you, Joe, expanded on by your thought experiment.
Haden, I see some of the Aristotle and the Aquinas in your post. 🙂
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“Some aristotle and aquinas”? You’re being modest! I think Aristotle nailed it, and Aquinas was possibly a better Aristotelian than Aristotle! Thanks for the insight!
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Haha, I should’ve put a winking emoticon instead. That would’ve made my ending tone clearer. Ah, begging your pardon for 2am rambling?
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This was very helpful, thank you! I often have this brought up when witnessing to agnostics or atheists.
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Excellent essay on the grounds of morality. It stems from our nature.
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This is, of course, a bullshit version of nihilism you are setting up to take Christian potshots at.
Nihilism can come in many forms, but one central tenet is that you cannot make specious assertions without evidence. There is no basis whatsoever for supernaturalism, particularly in its virulent Christian forms, so there is just about nothing you say that has any relationship to human life.
Nihilism is the rejection of nonsense, wherever and wherever it comes from, and it is the healthiest form of human cognition.
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