What is moral nihilism?

by Matt Slick

Moral nihilism, which is also known as ethical nihilism, is the view that within ethics nothing is inherently moral or immoral. "Nihilism" means "nothing," so with such nihilists there is no right and wrong other than what is assigned by people. This would also mean there are no universal "oughts." That is to say, there is nothing that anyone ought to do--whether it be honest, save a life, protect someone else, not steal, etc. Moral nihilists often affirm "oughts" when they are instrumental. In other words, a person ought to continue breathing if he wants to live. A person ought to treat people honestly if he wants to be treated honestly, etc. So, their morality is subjective, self-determined, and utilitarian.

Moral nihilism would be consistent with an atheistic, materialistic worldview with no transcendent being who informs us about what is right and wrong as a revelation of his character (which is the Christian position). Atheism will necessarily require that moral statements have no intrinsic value. The morals would have to be agreed upon, debated, and formulated where they are assigned by an individual or individuals, hence, moral nihilism.

Moral nihilists do not deny that people can "claim" to have moral absolutes, but they would deny that moral absolutes exist. Rather, they have descriptive morals that reflect cause-and-effect. So, where someone would be burned by putting his hand into a flame, he ought to avoid doing that so not to be burned. Rape would be "morally wrong" because it is damaging to the victim and to society as a whole, so they agree it is to be avoided.

Refuting Moral Nihilism

The philosophical problem with moral nihilism is that it cannot justify its arbitrary moral assessments, and when it does make moral assessments, it does so based on what "ought" to be done, thereby refuting itself. Let me explain. Moral nihilists would say that murder is to be avoided because the end result is negative since it injures a person and/or society. In saying this, they are assigning a value to the result and in this case a negative value based on the effect of the action: murder. But, why assign that negative value? If they say that it is because it hurts people, then they are saying that there is an intrinsic value to not hurting people--and that is inconsistent with their position. If they say that they just choose to assign a negative value to murder and yet they also deny intrinsic value of that action, then they are not able to justify their assignment as being anything other than arbitrary without inadvertently appealing to intrinsic value. If they admit that punishing a murderer is nothing more than an arbitrary decision, then they admit it is just as defensible to murder another because there is no intrinsic value to it.

If the moral nihilist wants to say that the so-called ethical values are derived from that which increases harmony in society, then they are citing the goal and assigning value to it because there is an "ought" there, otherwise, they would not assign such a value to it in the first place. They are recognizing an inherent value without admitting they are doing so. For immoral nihilists to be consistent, they should not assign any value to any action even if it increases or decreases harmony within society or one's personal life. But, if that is the case, then robbing them is neither right nor wrong. It is just inconvenient for the victim. And, can we jail someone for inconveniencing someone else?

About The Author

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