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A Theory of Moral Objectivity (Section 4a - Nihilism)

By Robert M. Ellis, originally written as a Ph.D. thesis 'A Buddhist theory of moral objectivity' in 2001. This html version copyright 2008.

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4.     The failure of the dualistic model of ethics: (2) Nihilism


A man of clear ideas errs grievously if he imagines that whatever is seen confusedly does not exist; it belongs to him, when he meets with such a thing, to dispel the mist, and fix the outlines of the vague form which is looming through it.

                                                            John Stuart Mill: Essay on Bentham


a)      Features of nihilism


The philosophical features of nihilism consist almost entirely in the denial of the philosophical assumptions made by eternalism. Whilst eternalism makes positive metaphysical assumptions, nihilism makes negative ones which are no more justified, given our state of metaphysical ignorance, than the positive ones. As I shall be arguing, nihilism is also often characterised philosophically by the confusion of metaphysical agnosticism with negative metaphysics, as though one implied the other.


Psychologically, I shall argue that the mere denial of a positive metaphysical belief (without any attempt to follow the Middle Way) does not result in the actual abandonment of metaphysical belief, but in its continued existence, often in a form which remains implicit and is not consciously acknowledged. In this nihilism usually reflects not a pure scepticism, consisting merely in an emphasis on observation which is consistently applied, but a scepticism which is supported by the selective recourse to Dogmatism.


i)                    Ethical coherentism


The denial of ethical foundationalism might at first sight appear to involve simply the cessation of universal value claims. From a dualist perspective this appears to be the case because of the representationalist (or expressivist) assumption that verbal formulae can come closer to truth than psychological states: if a verbal formula for the ground of universal value thus proves to be false, its negation is thus instantly assumed to be true. If one entirely separates philosophy from psychology, continuing with the assumption that to speak of value is to speak of fixed rational obligations, either internal or external, distinct from the constantly changing flow of human purposes, then this assumption will seem to be coherent. The key feature of nihilism, which is the belief that there are no universal values, will be sustained.


Any consideration of the psychological complexity underlying rational belief formation, however, will reveal quite a different story. No nihilist who has denied universal values has ever acted consistently as though they did not exist, because to do so would be to attack the very defences of his own ego, the rationality according to which he makes value distinctions. The need to make a denial is itself sufficient evidence of a continued alienated rationality whereby a narrow focus on verbal formulae to represent what is valued is maintained, even if  the representation of what is valued now takes a predominantly negative form. Purely at the level of rational discussion, this results in a version of the well-known sceptical contradiction whereby the denial of all universal values is itself a universal value. However, this rational contradiction points to a deeper contradiction between verbal claims about values on the one hand and implicit values on the other: a contradiction which results from the separation of concepts of value from desire. This contradiction is already found in eternalism and is merely perpetuated when a perception of the weaknesses of eternalism leads to a shift into nihilism. The denial of an explicit universal value thus does not necessarily remove the alienated rationality associated with the universal claim, unless dualist assumptions are also denied: but in that case the denial of universal value must be able to melt into agnosticism.


It may be objected that I am here equivocating between universal and relative values. Can a nihilist not consistently deny that there are universal values whilst maintaining her own values in the recognition that these are relative? This is the position that I shall describe as ethical coherentism, whereby ethics are recognised to be based purely on a coherence of values within a particular limited context, such as a culture, society, group, or individual. This is a position characteristic of all nihilists who offer any rational explanation of the epistemology supporting their ethical position. Against this view I am setting my own central contention that relative claims, understood in their full psychological context, require universal ones. This contention can be understood logically in terms of the complement which is required for every relative claim: it can only be understood as relative because it is not universal, and thus continues to depend on the possibility of universal claims. Psychologically, it can be seen in terms of the identical functionality of both positive and negative metaphysical claims in supporting egoistic positions. This contention will be supported bit by bit during the course of this chapter through the examination of particular nihilistic doctrines for which both this logical complementarity and psychological functionality prove to operate, and for now I am asking only for its provisional acceptance so that the implications of adopting this non-dualist perspective on nihilism can be seen. Some prima facie grounds for this contention, though, will emerge if it can be shown that there can be no relative account of value without the making of metaphysical assumptions just as unwarranted as those found in eternalism. My argument in this chapter will thus be that ethical coherentism fails according to its own standard – the standard of coherence which excludes epistemological foundations.


This argument follows the converse path to my argument against the ethical foundationalism of eternalistic philosophies. Whilst ethical foundationalism pretends to grounds of universal ethics, the existence of which we have no grounds to assert, ethical coherentism likewise pretends to an ethical coherence which it does not have. Just as an examination of eternalism reveals that a narrow focus on rationalised grounds for universal ethics actually tends to forestall the psychological conditions required for the actual practice of ethics, likewise I shall be arguing that a narrow focus on the level of coherence at which relative values may be claimed to exist (whether this level of coherence is at an individual or group level) actually prevents such values from being practically coherent.


The primary reason for this failure in coherence is created by the exclusion of considerations lying beyond the supposed field of coherence. Thus a focus on the coherence of individual values must exclude both group and universal considerations, whilst a focus on group coherence will certainly exclude universal considerations and may well exclude individual ones too. None of these exclusions, however, can be justified by a causal or ontological independence: the respective boundaries between individual and group, and between group and universal are constantly shifting in relation to their changing material and/or psychological composition. It is only the psychological fact of our egoistic identification with particular levels of fleetingly and apparently coherent interest that enables us to assert their value: and the “coherence” that we may appeal to in doing so is only itself the construction of that egoistic identification, a construction which freezes our experience into concepts so that these can support our values.


Thus the methodological individualism of the nihilist approach to value can be questioned just as much as the holism of the eternalist. In both cases a particular sort of metaphysical assumption is made as to the substantiality of one particular level of interest, and this assumption obscures the gap between the conceptualised interest represented by the favoured level and the fluctuations of actual interest determined by the ego. It is often assumed by nihilistic thinkers that interest, and therefore value, can be understood most coherently as focussed either at a social level (particularly for those who, like Marx, believe in the priority of sociology[1]), at an individual level, or even in some cases at a sub-individual level[2]. However, none of these formulations of interest does justice to the actual play of interest as we experience it, as our actual desires shift in identification between levels. All such analyses make the mistake of focussing on the subject of desires (which are fundamentally unstable entities) rather than the desires themselves.


In my historical survey of nihilism, beginning in the next section, I shall be trying to substantiate these claims in more detail by examining particular ethical coherentist arguments. This will involve discussion both of the reduction of ethics to descriptivism[3], where an account of the conventions of a particular group is judged sufficient as an account of ethics (as in empiricist ethics), of the attempt to construct an individual rationality distinct from ethics, and of the existentialist attempt to base values purely on the immediate experiences of the individual. All of these involve some sort of ethical coherentism, although the types of argument they offer diverge considerably. By this means, although I will not yet have shown that there is a positive non-dualist alternative to the mere denial of universal value, I hope to lay the groundwork for doing so by ruling out the remaining dualist alternatives.


ii)                  The denial of freewill or cosmic justice


The nihilist’s simple denial of ethical foundationalism and substitution of ethical coherentism is not straightforwardly mirrored in the nihilist attitude to the other prime philosophical assumptions of eternalism - freewill and cosmic justice. For whilst the eternalist labours to reconcile the philosophical assumptions required to maintain both a universal framework of values and an individual role within that framework by which the worth of human lives can be measured, the nihilist needs to deny only one of these assumptions, not both, in order to apparently make the labour unnecessary. If there is no freewill, reasons one sort of nihilist, then materialism and determinism provide a complete explanation of human life – one in which moral choice is at best a convenient fiction. The purpose of human life thus becomes no longer a matter of choice, but a matter of knowledge, for the best we can do is to understand the universal explanation of our purpose within a larger natural whole which is already said to exist. If, on the other hand, reasons another sort of nihilist, there is no cosmic justice, then we can regard all kinds of universal explanation with scepticism: values are entirely a matter of individual choice, but this choice constructs its own framework of value.


In either case, the rejected belief in either freewill or cosmic justice is denied at a rational level, raising similar issues to those I mentioned in the previous subsection in relation to the denial of universal values. Firstly, as in the case of the denial of ethical foundationalism, the denial of either freewill or cosmic justice logically supports their possibility by using it as a complement. Secondly, the denial of either freewill or cosmic justice does not remove the need to provide explanation of the common experiences which are usually attributed to the metaphysical entity being denied. However,  the attempt to relativise either choice or predictability involves an appeal to coherence of experience which takes insufficient account of what lies beyond that sphere of experience, and hence gives a metaphysical status to one particular level of experience, just as occurs in ethical coherentism. Thirdly, the continued support of belief in the remaining metaphysical entity of the two raises all the same difficulties that I raised in 3.b.ii & iii with regard to belief in them in an eternalist context. Fourthly, the explicit and rational denial of either freewill or cosmic justice does not eradicate continued implicit belief in them. The denial of freewill does not lead the nihilist out of implicit belief in the fact of his own choice, nor does the denial of cosmic justice lead the nihilist out of implicit belief in the predictability of a relationship between actions and desired outcomes, any more than the denial of universal values leads to the suspension of valuing.


To discuss these tendencies a bit more specifically and to clarify these general claims, it is necessary to introduce the distinction (which I have already alluded to in the previous chapter) between two types of nihilism, which I have called scientism and existentialism. These two types are united by their ethical coherentism, but distinguished from each other by their contrasting views of freewill and cosmic justice. The distinction between these two forms can thus be defined very simply in philosophical terms. Advocates of scientism reject the belief in freewill, whilst maintaining a version of cosmic justice which is expressed in what purport to be entirely cognitive terms. Existentialists, on the other hand, reject the belief in cosmic justice whilst maintaining a belief in freewill. Whilst the denial of both freewill and cosmic justice appears to be a third logical possibility, this option would not be compatible with ethical coherentism, as it does not offer any remaining subjective or objective entity as a starting-point from which to provide a coherent basis of relative value. To deny both (as opposed to remaining agnostic about both) is thus to offer no rational account of any basis of value at all, and thus to offer no philosophical position relevant to this discussion[4].


The distinction between scientism and existentialism, like that between eternalism and nihilism (or any other distinction between two types of dualism)[5], has only a general and not a complete correlation with psychological states. Whilst I may thus generally discuss the psychological tendencies associated with scientism and existentialism, the significance of this is limited to the claim that each are different philosophical expressions of dualistic psychological states.


Having made this distinction I can now be a little more specific about the implications of each type of denial. Scientism and existentialism do not necessarily differ in their explicit formulations about freewill and cosmic justice (for example, they may be theoretically opposed to both), but do differ in the logical implications of their doctrines, and inversely in the psychological implication of the actions of their advocates, which each tend to show some implicit recognition of what has been logically denied. Thus scientism denies freewill explicitly and by logical implication, but followers of scientism continue to acknowledge it by psychological implication. Existentialism denies cosmic justice both explicitly and by logical implication, but accepts it by psychological implication. Scientism also acknowledges cosmic justice, and existentialism freewill, by logical implication.


In scientism, then, freewill is explicitly denied though maintained by psychological implication, whilst philosophical arguments offer logical grounds for asserting that a belief in cosmic justice is maintained. Whilst the explicit denial of freewill entails determinism[6], the grounds for claiming that freewill is implicitly continued can be found in the need manifested in scientistic philosophy to explain the experience of choice, with its apparent irreducibility, as illusory. Philosophically, then, the experience is not denied, but its significance is denied by its reduction to (or elimination in favour of) the supposedly more objective framework offered by materialism. This involves two sorts of dogmatic judgement: that the experience of choice comprises a less relevant piece of evidence than the experiences of empirical observation which are appealed to in those sciences which rely on a material framework of explanation, and that a material framework of explanation of mental states can be extended beyond its current actual limitations to the assertion that it is capable of a fully deterministic explanation of the human mind. Whilst a scientistic philosopher will thus probably not deny the suggestion at a psychological level that he tends to assume the existence of choice in his own experience, he will nevertheless deny the philosophical significance of this assumption and of any attempt to challenge its truth on psychological grounds. It is thus not the fact of an implicit psychological assumption of freewill which is a matter of dispute, but the understanding of objectivity which is applied in assuming this point to be relevant or not. I shall be considering these dogmas of empiricism in more detail later as they arise as part of my historical survey of nihilism.


The claim that scientism logically entails belief in cosmic justice may occasion more surprise. However, the sense in which it does so is not very far removed from the senses in which I have already suggested Marx and utilitarianism do so. In all of these cases, the claim that determinism is true is enough to entail a belief in cosmic justice, since the assumption of a theoretical predictability in all events, which constitutes determinism, implies the existence of a theoretical standpoint beyond subjective experience from which the truth of the claim can be determined. The distinction between Marxism and utilitarianism on the one hand, and scientism on the other, is that scientism, denying ethical foundationalism and freewill, offers this theoretical standpoint in the belief that it can be used for cognitive purposes alone and that it is not a legitimate basis from which to make value judgements. However, no cognitive judgement can be made without pre-supposing the value of that cognitive judgement in at least that particular instance. Determinism thus pre-supposes the value of making at least some deterministic judgements. Furthermore, since determinism is universal, at least some deterministic judgements must be universally valuable, regardless of the fact that these judgements must themselves be determined. The purpose of human life, focussed on the points where it becomes universally valuable through the activity of science, thus becomes that of gathering knowledge about its inevitable fate.


It may well be asked what is “just” about a cosmic justice which operates without freewill and hence has no concept of requital for the actions of individuals or groups. However, I have already offered examples of deterministic requital (or at least requital which was not requital of freely willed acts) in the previous chapter, such as in the case of Marx. For Marx, as for the utilitarians, requital is not specific to individuals or even to groups: the consequences of the right human actions (which in Marx are not distinguishable from wrong ones) are universally beneficial. Likewise, in scientism, the assumption of an objective scientific viewpoint provides a theoretical position beyond the desire for less than universal requital. The benefits (or in some cases, the drawbacks) of scientific progress are thus seen as the universal requital for the human capacity to adopt the scientific viewpoint.


This belief in the (usually positive but sometimes negative) value of the inevitable progress of science can be illustrated by one of the commonplaces of ethical discussion about scientific discoveries or technological developments which appear to have drawbacks, such as nuclear weapons. This commonplace is the view that we cannot unlearn scientific knowledge or “turn the clock back”, and that we are caught in an inevitable march of progress, even if it is simultaneously believed that we can influence its direction or future development. There seems to be no reason to accept this assertion, for scientific discoveries which are only understood by a few specialised scientists could feasibly be unlearned within a generation if a decision was made not to teach them or publish information about them[7], and the increasing dependence of science on sophisticated and expensive equipment means that the same discoveries are not likely to be reproduced unless resources are allocated to that area. Yet to actually suppress scientific knowledge in this way seems unthinkable, because, I would suggest, it would go against the influential scientistic assumption that knowledge is in some way deserved, even if it is not of positive value. Increasingly, the acquisition of knowledge itself becomes a standard of goodness against which other claims are judged.


Turning now to existentialism, the converse case can be asserted: namely that even if existentialists explicitly deny cosmic justice, this does not necessarily imply that they do not maintain a psychologically implicit belief in it, and that a belief in freewill will be logically implicit in their doctrines. It needs to be stated here that “existentialist” as stipulated here as a type of nihilism is only roughly coextensive with philosophies that have historically described themselves as “existentialist”, and may also include some types of pragmatism. In these philosophies one does not usually have to search very far for a conception of freewill, even if this is not understood in metaphysical terms but appealed to on phenomenological grounds. Not only does this phenomenological freewill often involve an appeal to Cartesian assumptions, as I shall argue later[8], but it often limits the subject of this freewill to one particular level of egoistic interest.


In existentialism the rejection of cosmic justice is explicit: for all kinds of metaphysical constructions of reality beyond the immediate experience of the subject are rejected. Examples of a continued implicit belief in cosmic justice can be glimpsed whenever problems of ethics are introduced into existentialism and some attempt is made to avoid the apparent solipsism of building an ethical coherentism entirely around the authenticity of the free self. For example, Nietzsche, after an apparently complete abandonment of cosmic justice beliefs, still sees the need for his doctrine of eternal recurrence[9]; and Sartre introduces a concept of “responsibility” into his existentialism whereby anyone who makes a choice is “thereby at the same time a legislator deciding for the whole of mankind”[10], a concept which appeals directly to a relationship between individual moral choice and universal justice[11].


iii)                Hedonism and alienation


I come now to the psychological features which can be generally associated with the nihilist philosophical approach. To clarify these I shall have to return briefly to the basic features of the psychological basis of dualism that I discussed earlier[12].


One of the basic features of  dualist psychology as I have presented it is the overemphasis either on theorisation or on observation, which I have referred to as dogmatism and scepticism. A pure scepticism, however, in the sense of a complete openness to sensual experience and refusal to theorise about that experience, is extremely rare and may well be impossible (at least for more than a very limited period of time), simply because practical necessity requires us to assume the truth of certain facts, such as the existence of the food we eat, so that we may continue to exist. An absolutely pure scepticism, if it could ever exist, would involve an awareness which allowed absolutely no judgements about our experience, and would thus be entirely non-verbal and deliberately passive[13]. Meditation, contemplation, and the creation or appreciation of art, although involving more openness to sensual experience than is normal in many other activities, do not qualify as practices involving such a pure scepticism as they are all still activities involving goals and judgements. They might give us a momentary idea of what it is like, but the fact that such a momentary scepticism takes place within the context of such goals and beliefs prevents it from being pure.


Such a pure sensual awareness should not be confused with hedonism, since hedonism consists in the valuing of pleasure, and this requires discrimination about our experience as pleasant rather than painful or neutral. This discrimination, of course, may be so deeply ingrained into our physical natures that there is no conscious judgement involved: the experience just seems to be pleasant or painful in itself and our response of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain an automatic one. Hedonism is similar to scepticism in valuing experience, but it goes further by resisting any theorisation about that experience which may threaten its continuation. It also differs from scepticism in valuing only certain experiences and devaluing others. It must thus use theorisations, firstly to distinguish pleasures and pains (and often the means of obtaining pleasures and avoiding pains), and secondly to conceptualise the grounds for valuing pleasure, even if it resists theorisations which question the value of pleasure or seek to introduce distinctions within the favoured zone of undiscriminating experience.


Hedonism can thus be associated with selective scepticism, which involves the use of dogmatic assumptions in order to limit sceptical enquiry to areas which do not threaten an ideology which values and defends the pursuit of the desired pleasures or the avoidance of particular pains. Selective scepticism can be a powerful weapon because it can use the whole armoury of sceptical arguments to expose the frailty of human assumptions, revealing that what has been taken to be foundational is not in fact so, whilst preserving the values of the selective sceptic, either because he chooses to leave those values unexamined, or because he is simply unaware of the possibility of turning his scepticism against his own assumptions. We have already seen such selective scepticism used throughout the eternalist tradition, and leading to its development (especially after the Reformation) into more and more sophisticated forms. Insofar as they were linked to political interests which expressed the desires of particular classes to experience pleasures and avoid pains, these eternalist philosophies could likewise be accused of hedonism. However, the hedonism here (if it exists) is almost entirely implicit, being explicitly recognised only by Epicurus and the utilitarians[14].


To admit that hedonism has had such widespread influence even in eternalism should not be taken to imply, though, that Marx or Bentham were correct in attempting a reductive analysis of all ideologies on hedonistic lines. To do this not only involves a dualist assumption that the ego and its distinctions (such as that between pleasure and pain) comprise the whole psyche, but ignores the degree of alienation to which the desire for pleasure may be subjected. Eternalist philosophies can sometimes fairly be accused of hedonism, and nihilist ones of alienation, because there is no clear point where one ends and the other begins. Hedonism, in being distinguished from pure scepticism, is already alienated to some degree, as the ego has fortified its perceived interests by narrowing its awareness to a sphere that can be dogmatically defended, even though this degree of alienation co-exists with an openness to experience within the restricted sphere that is being defended. As the fortification becomes tighter, however, the openness to experience may dwindle and disappear altogether, being replaced by a mere concept of that experience. In this way it is possible for hedonism to become entirely theoretical, being defended by a thinker who is so alienated that she never actually accesses any pleasure beyond the limited satisfactions available in the use of concepts themselves. Conversely, in those who seem narrowly attached to an eternalist philosophy which may seem highly conducive to alienation one may come upon unexpected areas of  preserved sensuality.


The relationship between hedonism and alienation is thus an incremental one, but, though they may interchange with each other, both remain dualist tendencies. The relationship between them may be understood in terms of an analogy which develops the image of “fortification” I have used throughout in explaining the role of the ego. Two fortresses, Fort Alienation and Fort Pleasure, are both strongly defended and it would be difficult for any attacker to breach their walls. They are strongly defended, however, in rather different ways. Fort Alienation has extremely thick walls in several concentric circles, with moats, trenches, barbed wire etc to keep the enemy out. However, the soldiers in Fort Alienation do not fight very well: they are rather thin and emaciated due to excessive hours of duty and little relaxation, and their morale is low. They rely very much on their walls to keep the enemy at bay. Fort Pleasure, however, does not have such thick walls and only has very limited fortifications, but it is just as difficult to attack as Fort Alienation, because the soldiers there are very fit, well-trained, highly motivated, and courageous under fire. They only have a few hours of duty each day, but they perform these duties with gusto and enjoyment. Whilst off duty they engage in all sorts of relaxing and pleasurable pursuits which make them well-rounded and happy human beings.


It may seem that Fort Pleasure is a much preferable sort of fort to have, and the life of Fort Alienation may seem rather unappealing. But the fact remains that both are forts which, through their fortification, are perpetuating conflict. If the soldiers (and especially their commanders) in either fort were sufficiently aware of the broader context, they would realise that their fortifications were quite unnecessary, that there is no need for a war at all, and that both they and their enemies could be much happier if they made peace and broke down the walls to allow peaceful interchange.


This analogy should make clear the way in which I believe hedonism and alienation not to be opposed at all (except within a dualist perspective) but to merely provide different ways of performing the same egoistic function. The dualistic aspect of hedonism, then, is not the appeal to the enjoyment of sensual experience itself, but the ways in which to support that enjoyment we are forced to use rationalistic methods of justification which require the denial of other aspects of our experience: in fact, to become more or less alienated in our pursuit of pleasure. Such methods of justification can be heard at all levels, from the rationalisations of a guilty smoker to the appeal to principle made by a government to justify a war motivated by self-interest.


It is for this reason that I suggested that utilitarianism (at least where it was genuinely attempting to be universalist) was rarely in fact hedonistic[15]: for whilst hedonism may still be part of the justification, the alienation which I argued is generally to be found in universalist utilitarianism means that this hedonism is rarely to be found as an actual enjoyment of experience in those who use utilitarianism as a mode of judgement (at least at the time of the judgement). The enjoyment of pleasure requires a mental focus on the present[16], whilst utilitarian calculation is focussed upon the future. At best, then, a utilitarian calculation can be hedonistic in the sense that it tries to maximise pleasures as they are conceptually constructed in the future, i.e. it can attempt to fulfil desires. But a utilitarian cannot simultaneously experience pleasure as valuable and calculate it[17]. A utilitarian can thus be Hedonistic (in a philosophical sense) but not hedonistic (in a psychological sense). Hedonism without hedonism is alienated, which means that, as with other eternalist doctrines, the goal (in this case of achieving pleasure) will generally be frustrated by the perpetuation of alienated psychological conditions. The better the utilitarian, the less he will actually enjoy pleasures or encourage others to do so, and the more he will invest in the concepts of pleasure in the future[18].


Nihilism, on the other hand, does involve hedonism in the psychological sense (although it may also involve Hedonism). This hedonism, as I have already suggested, manifests itself as selective scepticism which also involves the dogmatic assumption of other values. The philosophical form that this dogmatism takes need not necessarily be Hedonism, but may take the form of other sorts of value which can be attached to ethical coherentism and involve the metaphysical assumption of particular privileged levels at which human interest is supposed to focus. So whilst Hedonism assumes that the pleasure-experience of the individual is the measure of value, other forms of nihilistic philosophy might focus on other experiences of the individual, such as freedom, or on the collective acquisition of knowledge. Whatever kind of experience is taken to be the measure of value, however, the attribution of that experience to a metaphysical entity becomes inevitable whenever the nihilistic thinker moves out of that experience itself to its conceptual defence.


This conceptualisation occurs in three distinct ways, in space, in time and in terms of regularity of experience. Any attempt to measure value for a single (or composite but still finite) subject will require its limitation into units that are conceptually localised in space and time, so that comparison can be made between the value of different possible actions, events or objects for that localised unit. Given that value is being measured in terms of some type of experience (whether this be pleasure, desire, freedom, or knowledge), assumptions will also have to be made about the regularity of experience for that unit, so that the same kinds of actions, events or objects will continue to produce the same sorts of valued experience. The basis for value, then, becomes conceptually fixed in terms of space, time, and regularity of experience even when the experience of value, either in an individual or a group, is not so fixed. And even if we allow flexibility to conceptualisations, suggesting that they can change to fix experiences, it appears inevitable that there will always be a gap between them, just as there is between any other theory and the ontological constructions it attempts to pin down.


The outcome of this is that coherentist ethics habitually deals in the psychological snake-skins that experience has long since cast off. “I” am identified generally with my body, “we” with our bodies, their interests understood in terms of an object moving through space with certain regular and predictable needs. Yet this does not describe my field of identification at all. Within a few minutes my ego may identify itself with the struggles of my three-year old daughter to learn how to insert a cassette into a cassette player correctly, the suffering of people with homes and livelihoods destroyed by a typhoon in far-off Orissa, or a self-critical reflection about my capacity to be distracted from my work. My field of identification shows wide variations through time and ranges much more widely through space than do I as a body. At some points it appears that "I” am merely a small beleaguered section of my psyche, at others that I identify with all other beings in the universe, with every possible point in between.


In this way hedonism can be understood as a limitation of the valuation of immediate experience to a particular sphere, defended by a petrified view of who it is who is having that experience. Such petrified views can be provided by a wide range of philosophies, including Hedonism and sometimes even including eternalism. As I shall try to show in my historical survey, such a hedonism can be generally associated with nihilism, although alienation can also be found in nihilism.


iv)                Individualism


It should already be clear from the foregoing subsections that I consider nihilism to be methodologically individualistic, since its ethical coherentism involves the assumption of the validity of a reduction to a particular level of value-coherence. Even if it is believed that the subject can be further analysed or reduced (as in Hume’s theory of the self), it is characteristic of nihilism for this analysis not to be applied to the sphere of value-judgements (as I shall be arguing in the case of Hume). In this subsection I shall be considering the implications of this methodological individualism in the political sphere.


Firstly, it must be made clear that the broad heading “individualism” here refers not just to the valuing of individuals as separate persons, but to a similar valuing of groups which can occur when an appeal is made merely to the value of the separate identity of the group rather than to some universal value. In modern Western history this valuing of separate identity has often taken the form of “rightsism”, the assertion of rights in relation to the rest of a larger society either on the part of an individual or of a group, with the assumption that such rights form a primary value. I shall be arguing that this individualism has a close relationship to nihilist philosophy, both as it has appeared in the modern West from the eighteenth century onwards and as it appeared, in a rather limited form, in ancient Greece[19], and that it shows a development from mere conventionality to a stronger and more assertive individualism.


Secondly, individualism must be distinguished from liberalism, with which it nevertheless has a close relationship. Whilst liberalism, as we have seen[20], can be reached through an appeal to universal values as found in such modern versions of eternalism as those of Kant and Mill, individualism cannot be reached by such a route, as it involves not just the positing of the individual as a conduit to universal values reached through rational autonomy, but the positing of the individual or group as valuable in itself. Since nihilist individualism can also reach expression as liberalism, liberalism thus provides a meeting-point for the political expressions of eternalism and nihilism, united by an assumption of the practical value of maximising the private freedom of individuals in a sphere distinguished from the public. Government, in this philosophy, is no longer the seat of moral authority, but is provided with this authority by the individuals or groups, who permit it to operate because of its benefits to all.


The distinction between these two types of justification for liberalism can be seen in modern political theory on the subject. The eternalist tradition here continues, represented by utilitarianism and by neo-Kantians such as John Rawls: for them the argument centres around the universal rationality of a society which allows personal freedom, and the rational justification of constraints on that freedom. The nihilist tradition, in contrast, can be represented by Robert Nozick, whose argument begins with the assumption of the value of individualism[21]. For Nozick, the base-line is anarchism and the task of the political philosopher is to show how the libertarian values of anarchism would be best served in a situation of minimal government. He thus argues that a government is justifiable insofar as it is a “dominant protection association”, but it should not appeal to any further conception of justice than one which can be derived from the negative rights of citizens not to be interfered with in their free activity. Nozick argues that a certain amount of imposition on a disruptive minority is required to make a minimal government effective in its job as protection association. However, it is unclear how he can justify this imposition without appeal to some further epistemological ground than the rights of the individual.


Nozick’s difficulty reflects a more general one in individualism, whereby there appears to be no solution when individual values (at least as taken at one time) conflict. If there is no higher value than the individual, there appears to be no reason to regard the rights of individuals equally, and thus no reason to justify compromise above the domination of one individual over another. If we appeal to the long-term values of the individual over time as opposed to his immediate wishes at one time, we have already constructed a metaphysical self as a basis of value, which may be entirely alienated from the present one. Why should a present self submit to the imposition of the values of this supposed long-term self, any more than to the values of the universal? Exactly the same argument can be made against cultural relativism, for if a given group, taken as foundational to values, does not in fact accept the values according to which reconciliation with another group is seen as in its own long-term interest, why should it?


Although individualism thus turns out to be not an assertion of experience against dogmatic metaphysics but just a different kind of dogmatic metaphysics, it does differ from the universalism that preceded it in the important respect of its hedonism. It is this hedonism that probably accounts for its success. Whilst in the ages when eternalism was dominant, only a small minority had much time to devote directly to pleasure, and its alienation in the form of duty was much stronger, the advance of capitalism has gradually changed this process so that an increasing number of people have gained at least a certain amount of time, wealth and privacy to devote themselves to pleasure, even whilst the capitalist system itself required the continuance of a high level of alienation in another sphere to maintain itself. This development and broadening of the sphere of pleasure brings with it a simultaneous development of the power of the individual over her private sphere. The capitalist system has thus been able to draw, not just on the alienated beliefs which seem to have given it its initial impetus, but the new energy provided by concessions to immediate pleasure in the private sphere.


To revert to my analogy of the two fortresses in the previous subsection, it appears that Fort Pleasure, to maintain the hedonism of its soldiers, must also have a sphere of individual freedom in which they are able to pursue pleasure. This sphere of individual freedom allows the soldiers to perform their duties with more energy than they would otherwise. The soldiers in Fort Alienation, on the other hand, must be held under a strong sense of authority, whether external or internalised, to maintain their excessive hours of duty without revolt. Thus whilst Fort Pleasure allows the co-existence of a sphere of individualism with one of subservience to the group, Fort Alienation relies purely on subservience to the group. This illustrates the political tendencies of eternalism and nihilism through their psychologies.


But individualism also has an ideological implication in the form of pluralism, a belief that is implied by both the scientistic and existentialist forms of nihilism. In pluralism, not only are individuals the source of value, with these values being rationalised into individual views, but the resulting conflict between individual views and values becomes rationalised as the ideology that no reconciliation is desirable beyond the level of a modus vivendi. For if the values of the individual are to be expressed in the private sphere, and it is believed that no universal values are possible, any attempt to reach further reconciliation of private values  threatens what is believed to be the only available source of value. The defence of diversity thus becomes an end in itself, bringing together under the general heading of “rights” a wide range of interests from the observance of Jewish sabbath law to particular forms of sexual fetishism. Any attempt to assess the value of such interests from a more objective standpoint can be strongly resisted with the support of pluralism.


I want to argue that pluralism, in this sense, is a manifestation of dualism which depends not only on individualistic and hedonistic assumptions, but a contrasting sphere of alienation in the public realm of political and economic processes. The private freedom of the individual can, it seems, only be defended at the expense of impositions elsewhere. This imposition consists primarily in the ego’s imposition on the psyche, but also expresses itself in the relationships of exploitation created by capitalism whereby rich individuals, corporations and countries impose their will on their poor counterparts. Private freedom cannot exist without a contrast with public imposition, together with the selective Scepticism and localisation of concern that support it by creating a pluralism within a certain restrictive sphere.


The appeal of pluralism often seems to arise from its confusion with tolerance, where pluralism consists in an individualistic doctrine and tolerance in a doctrine motivated by universalism coupled with an appreciation of our ignorance of how more objective values should be applied in each case of conflict between individuals or groups. Such tolerance does not give exactly the same status to each private interest, but allows an incrementality of judgement in which the particularities of ignorance in each case are weighed against the requirements of action. Private interests are no longer seen as ends in themselves and can clearly be overridden in some circumstances, with rights thus becoming a legal rather than a metaphysical construction. Such a philosophy of tolerance, again in contrast to one of pluralism, provides an overall rationale both for reconciling diverse interests and for considering the broader context in which they occur. I shall be developing the positive argument on this later in the book[22], but for now must turn from this general stipulation of the features of nihilism to providing supporting evidence through a historical survey of nihilism in the West.


[1] See 3.i.i. At this point I argued that the priority of sociology alone had nihilistic implications, whilst Marx’s addition of methodological holism is required to produce a form of eternalism.

[2] An example of this would be the “selfish gene” theory, according to which individual and group interests are reducible to genetic ones which can apparently act with a coherence of interest quite independent of our conscious interests. See Dawkins (1976)

[3] The sense of “descriptivism” here differs from its use in some recent analytic philosophy (e.g. Philippa Foot’s “descriptivism” opposed to R.M. Hare’s “prescriptivism”): see 4.d.v.

[4] A fourth possibility is a combination of denial of one and agnosticism about the other. Whilst I have no plans to discuss this option specifically, my overall case should provide grounds for concluding that its inconsistency between dualist and non-dualist approaches means that it is unlikely to offer a satisfactory solution either in dualist or non-dualist terms.

[5] See 2.c.ii above

[6] The explicit denial of freewill (which requires determinism) is here distinguished from agnosticism about freewill. The dualism in this case is asymmetrical, since the denial of determinism does not necessarily imply the assertion of freewill.

[7] This argument should not be taken to recommend the opposite extreme of recourse to violence or intimidation to suppress scientific knowledge. The “feasibility” of doing so pre-supposes the full agreement of the scientists involved (an agreement which, of course, would probably only be reached through a shift in ethical attitudes towards science).

[8] E.g. in 4.h.ii & iv

[9] See 4.g.iii

[10] Sartre (1980) p.30

[11] See 4.h.iv for fuller argument on Sartre’s position.

[12] See 2.a.iv & 2.c.i

[13] Although it is of little importance to my argument, it may be worth clarifying, to avoid any possible confusion, that I regard this state (if it should ever exist) as an egoistic one, and not as either pre- or post-egoistic. It involves fortification of the ego, not with concepts, but with resistance to concepts. In this remote and unlikely scenario (in which the ego is able to use concepts, but refuses to) it appears that the dualistic distinctions offered by concepts have been suppressed in favour of a subtle refusal to conceptualise (which can hardly avoid the outcome of turning into concepts). The egoism here does not depend on the ability to use concepts per se, but on dualistic distinctions which (as in the cases of infants and animals) may be pre-conceptual without being pre-egoistic. This scenario must be distinguished from pre-egoistic one, in which there are no discriminations between alternative desires but rather a single type of response to stimuli, and a post-egoistic one, in which concepts are used to develop theorisations with greater and greater objectivity due to the absence of egoistic distortion. See 5.b.i for further clarification.

[14] This implicit hedonism seems to be the basis of Bentham’s argument (Bentham 1962 ch.1) that all other moral philosophies pre-suppose a utilitarian hedonism.

[15] See 3.k.iv

[16] Even Gilbert Ryle has remarked that to enjoy doing something is both to want to do it and not to want to do anything else (Ryle 1949 p.104).

[17] Of course, a utilitarian might enjoy utilitarian calculation, but presumably she would not want to maximise utilitarian calculation alone as a value, as this would not maximise actual pleasure.

[18] This argument is interdependent with those found in 3.k.iv., particularly those against purely justificatory utilitarianism from the abstract transcendental standpoint.

[19] The only other sphere where nihilism seems to have emerged historically is that of ancient India at the time of the Buddha (c.500 BCE), where some comparable social political conditions seem to have existed. However, this is beyond my scope here.

[20] see particularly 3.g.viii

[21] Nozick (1974)

[22] See esp. 6.b.viii, 6.d.iv & 8.c


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A Theory of Moral Objectivity: quick links to other sections


1. introduction

2a. Psychology of belief

2b. Heuristic process

2c. Psychology & philosophy

3ab. Eternalism

3cd. Plato

3e. Stoicism

3f. Christianity

3g. Kant

3h. Hegel

3i. Marx

3j. Schopenhauer

3kl. Utilitarianism

4a. Nihilism

4b. Scepticism & Aristotle

4c. Hume

4d. Analytic Philosophy

4e. Wittgenstein

4f. Pragmatism

4g. Nietzsche

4hi. Existentialists

5. Integration

6. Philosophical Problems

7. Normativity

8. Middle Way Ethics

9. Conclusion

10. Appendix



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