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Moral Nihilism

Introduction | Error Theory
Introduction Back to Top

Moral Nihilism is the meta-ethical view (see the section on Ethics) that ethical claims are generally false. It holds that there are no objective moral facts or true propositions - that nothing is morally good, bad, wrong, right, etc - because there are no moral truths (e.g. a moral nihilist would say that murder is not wrong, but neither is it right).

It differs from Ethical Subjectivism, and Moral Relativism, which do allow for moral statements to be true or false in a non-objective sense, but do not assign any static truth-values to moral statements. Criticisms of Moral Nihilism come primarily from Moral Realist doctrines like Ethical Naturalism and Ethical Non-Naturalism, which argue that there are positive moral truths. It is related in some ways to the metaphysical doctrine of Nihilism.

The philosophy of Niccolò Machiavelli is sometimes presented as a model of Moral Nihilism, but that is highly questionable as he was largely silent on moral matters and, if anything, he presented an alternative to the ethical theories of his day, rather than an all-out rejection of all morality.

Error Theory Back to Top

Error Theory is a form of Moral Nihilism which combines Cognitivism (the belief that moral language consists of truth-apt statements) with Moral Nihilism (the belief that there are no moral facts). It is the view that ordinary moral thought and discourse is committed to deep and pervasive error, and that all moral statements make false ontological claims.

Error Theory holds that we do not know that any moral claim is true because (i) all moral claims are false, (ii) we have reason to believe that all moral claims are false, and (iii) because we are not justified in believing any claim we have reason to deny, we are therefore not justified in believing any moral claims at all.

The Global Falsity form of Error Theory claims that moral beliefs and assertions are false in that they claim that certain moral facts exist that do not in fact exist. The Presupposition Failure form claims that moral beliefs and assertions are not true because they are neither true nor false (i.e. moral beliefs and assertions presuppose the existence of moral facts that do not exist).

The most famous moral Error Theorist is J. L. Mackie (1917 - 1981), who defended the metaethical view in his 1977 "Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong". Mackie argues that moral claims imply motivation internalism (the idea that an individual has a motivation to perform an action which they see as morally obligatory), which is false, and therefore so too are all moral claims. He also argues that moral claims necessarily entail a correspondent "reasons claim" (e.g. if "killing babies is wrong" is true, then everybody has a reason to not kill babies), but this is refuted by a psychopath who sees every reason to kill babies, and no reason not to do so, therefore all moral claims are thus false.

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