Moral nihilism denies the existence of moral facts and properties, thus denying that there are such properties as morally right/wrong/good/bad. One form of moral nihilism is moral noncognitivism and says that ethical statements like “torturing puppies just for fun is morally wrong” or “kindness is morally good” are neither true nor false but are instead e.g. expressions of imperatives (commands) or of approval/disapproval.
Two varieties of noncognitivism are prescriptivism and emotivism. Prescriptivism (also called imperativism) is the view that moral statements express commands, e.g. “torturing puppies just for fun is morally wrong” expresses “don’t torture puppies just for fun.” Emotivism disagrees with prescriptivism and says that moral statements are expressions of approval/disapproval, e.g. “kindness is morally good” expresses something like “Hurrah for kindness!” and “cruelty is morally bad” expresses something like “Cruelty, Boo!” Emotivism is sometimes called the boo-hurrah theory of ethics.
Depending on the noncognitivist, this could lead to some interesting conversations.
“Torturing puppies for fun is morally wrong.”The result is some pretty stubborn misrepresentation of an opponent’s position. Fortunately, the noncognitivist need not stoop to this level. The noncognitivist can say “torturing puppies just for fun” expresses disapproval even though that’s not what the utterance means. As an analogy, the utterance “Ouch!” expresses pain but that’s not what the utterance means (as an interjection, the word “ouch” means, well, nothing really).
“When you say torturing puppies for fun is morally wrong, what you really mean by that is that you don’t approve of such torture.”
“Um, no, that’s not what I mean when I say that torturing puppies just for fun is morally wrong.”
“Yes it is!”
“I’m pretty sure I know the meaning I intended to convey better than you do.”
“No you don’t! I know because I read some philosophy on the internet!”
By my lights, noncognitivism is still a ridiculous theory of ethics, even for the moral nihilist. We can conceive of a greedy thief who approves of his own thievery even though he believes it to be morally wrong (with the unscrupulous thief not caring about whether his action is morally wrong), but this seems to suggest that moral statements aren’t necessarily expressions of approval/disapproval. Moreover, we can conceive of people making moral judgments without making commands, e.g. a person forming the judgment “pre-marital sex is wrong” without commanding anything (e.g. a libertine person who believes pre-marital sex is wrong but not only approves of pre-marital sex, he also commands it). There are other problems with noncognitivism, but for the nonce this will suffice for this little blog post.
When you think about it, emotivism is an easy assumption for the moral nihilist to make. We almost always do approve of things we believe to be morally good, and we almost always do disapprove of things we believe to be morally bad. But it’s still a mistake to think that approval/disapproval is all that moral judgments express, particularly since it’s possible for people to approve of an action they think is morally wrong (e.g. the case of the selfish and unscrupulous thief). Prescriptivism is also an easy assumption to make, since moral statements of what is right and wrong are strongly related to imperative statements, e.g. a society believes stealing is wrong and thus commands its citizens not to do it. Still, not all moral statements express commands.
Defining Morality (sort of)
But if neither emotivism nor prescriptivism quite capture what it means for something to be morally wrong, what does it mean for something to be morally wrong? One thing to recognize is that the property of moral wrongness has an “ought” component, and to unpack that we should distinguish between two types of “ought.”
A conditional ought takes the form of something sufficiently like “If you want to do X, you ought to do Y” and says what conditions help accomplish a particular goal without saying whether one should aim for the goal in the first place, e.g. “If you want to poison your teacher to death, you should use a sufficiently strong toxin.” An unconditional ought says what ought to be simpliciter and is the sort of ought found in “You should not poison teachers to death” and “the worst possible misery and suffering for everyone for all eternity is a state of affairs that ought not to be,” and is thus goal-independent in a way that a conditional ought is not. When applied to a person’s actions, an unconditional ought refers to a genuine obligation for that person (e.g. “you should not torture infants just for fun”) rather than merely stating what actions help bring about some descriptive state of affairs (like a dead teacher or having more money). An unconditional ought is not to be confused with an “ought” that doesn’t rely on any circumstances whatsoever; e.g. one could believe the unconditional ought with respect to not killing applies in some circumstances but that this obligation does not exist in certain other situations (some self-defense cases perhaps).
Moral wrongness is a type of unconditional ought. An action is morally wrong for subject S only if S ought not to do it. The property of moral wrongness is universalizable in that applies equally to all relevantly similar situations, and the property is supremely authoritative, overriding any other “ought” (e.g. legal rules). If we think of “moral rightness” as the property of following some moral obligation, we get the same thing as “moral wrongness” but in the opposite direction. An action is morally right for S only if S ought to do it etc.
A fully rigorous definition of morality is beyond the scope of this blog entry and possibly beyond the ability of even the best philosophers, but this partial sketch at least helps us to understand e.g. how a selfish thief can approve of his thievery while also believing it to be morally wrong (he realizes he ought not to steal but doesn’t care). It also allows us to get a better idea of what morality really is and perhaps be in a better position to give the moral nihilist an alternative to noncognitivism.
A Better Solution for the Moral Nihilist
Cognitivism is the more sensible claim that moral statements do indeed have truth-values. A moral nihilist could grant that the statement “Dr. Evil’s action of torturing puppies just for fun has the property of moral wrongness” has a truth-value, and conclude that because the property of moral wrongness doesn’t exist, the statement is false. Moral properties do not exist, ergo it is false that Dr. Evil’s action has the property of moral wrongness. The idea that moral nihilism is true and that moral judgments have truth-values but that they’re all false (hence no moral facts) is a form of error theory. If I were a moral nihilist, I would be an error theorist.
And yet error theory is a form of moral nihilism, which implies that it suffers all the intellectual weaknesses that moral nihilism is heir to. For example, an error theorist would still believe that there is nothing morally wrong with raping and abusing small children, which surely seems implausible. Most of us intuitively recognize that there is something in reality, transcending human opinion, that says people shouldn’t behave that way. We have no more reason to doubt the reality of moral properties than to doubt our intuition of the external world being real. I think then we are justified in saying “Boo!” to moral nihilism.