Are there such things as moral absolutes (moral nihilism) or is nothing by nature good or bad?

by Matt Slick

Moral Nihilists say, "There are no inherent moral values in anything whether it is action, thought, or intention."  This position is also called Ethical Nihilism.  Such an assertion is problematic for several reasons.

  1. How can a moral nihilist rationally defend the proposition that there are no intrinsic moral values to any action?  How does he "know" his assertion is true?  If no rational basis can be offered, then his statement is nothing more than a subjective opinion, and subjective opinions do not establish truth.
  2. To say that "There are no intrinsic moral values to anything whether it is action, thought, or intention" is to assert a universally true statement about the moral value of everything.  Therefore, the statement itself contains an intrinsically moral value and is self-refuting.
  3. If there are no such things as universally moral truths, then all morals decided upon by people are necessarily subjective.  But, if moral values are subjective, then everyone is "right" from his own perspective.  The problem is that it cannot be true that all people are right morally when they contradict each other.  Therefore, this is also self-refuting.
  4. If there are no such things as moral absolutes, then no one can claim anything is right or wrong including murder, rape, theft, child abuse, etc.  The Moral Nihilist can say they are inconvenient, unpleasant, not preferred by various people, etc., but they cannot be asserted as being inherently "wrong."  Therefore, if one person were to use a gun to rob a moral nihilist, there is nothing morally wrong with that action.  Should the nihilist say that the robber is wrong, the robber needs only to pull the trigger to silence him and his inconsistency.

There are moral absolutes

God himself is absolute and unchanging (Malachi 3:6; Hebrews 13:8).  Because he is absolute, the morals which he reveals to us are also absolute since they are based on his character.  Therefore, it is always a sin to lie and to steal because these actions are against his holy nature.  Such absolutes provide natural prohibitions upon a society that would otherwise be morally subjective and morally chaotic, which would be implied by moral nihilism.

Yet there are those who deny God's existence and thereby also deny moral absolutes.  Though rejecting God is not a wise course of action, let me offer a statement to which you can agree or disagree should you be someone who also rejects God. "It is always wrong for anyone to torture babies to death, merely for their personal pleasure." Is that a moral absolute? If you want an analysis of that statement, go here.

Nevertheless, some assert that no absolute morals are necessary because society has a self-balancing method of determining proper behavior by reducing harm and increasing harmony.  After all, people just want to get along, so they don't hurt anyone lest they get hurt in return.  But this philosophical assumption asserts an absolute moral value by stating that reducing harm and increasing harmony are morally "good" since they are the goals which we "ought" to seek if society is to live harmoniously.  This is pragmatism and is dangerous because if a society were to decide that killing Jews and/or atheists was good for the whole of society so as to increase harmony, then the moral nihilist would have no right to complain if he complained at all.

So, moral nihilism cannot be defended intellectually.  It has to be assumed, and it does not seem likely that an adherent of that philosophy can justify its truth.  It is, ultimately, self-refuting.


About The Author

Matt Slick is the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.