A Meta-Ethical View: NEO-NIHILISM (by Ontologistics)
Following the death of faith in God, non-believers have become confused over the issue of ethics/morality. I shall seek to end their confusion thereby offering the honest answer to the view on ethics to which a liberated atheist thinker would arrive. It is not humanism, but a qualified form of nihilism—neo-nihilism.
I shall look at confused atheist responses, that is: evolutionary psychology, humanism, utilitarianism, contractarianism, and cultural relativism; and find them lacking.
To begin with, it is essential to understand the difference between descriptive and prescriptive ethics. A dichotomy conflation of which has been the cause of most of the confusion regarding ethics. Descriptive ethics, then, describes the behavior of humans and other species amongst themselves. We can say: describe the compassion and altruism amongst mankind. But describing behavior does not logically entail that one prescribes or advocates that behavior. Prescriptive ethics, then, prescribes values that others “ought” to have. It prescribes behavior—one “ought” not to do this or that, for example. For Christians, Muslims, and alike, prescriptions are given by God. Now, as a great atheist philosopher, David Hume made clear that it is logically impossible to derive prescriptive ethics from descriptive ethics. It is logically impossible to derive an “ought” prescription from an “is” description—a value from a fact. For example, it may be a fact that we have evolved compassion to aid our survival. But from this fact it is impossible to derive the value that one “ought” to be compassionate. Such a transgression of logic is as invalid as deriving the value that one “ought” to be aggressive from the fact that we have evolved aggression. Morality, then, is not based on reason but on sentiment which is both biologically and culturally conditioned. As Hume famously stated: “It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.” It’s not contrary to reason, it’s just highly unusual.
Following this understanding, to those who claim that we have a moral sense within us which tells us what is good from what is evil, I shall reply with the following: It may be a fact that we have the characteristics of compassion, empathy, altruism, etc. But these are universal characteristics, not universal values. They are facts, not values. Different cultures value different characteristics. For example, the characteristic of pride was the highest value for Aristotle in Greece, 2500 years ago. But it was one of the lowest vices for medieval Christianity, being one of the seven deadly sins. So, the characteristic of pride is a fact; but it is merely culture, not logic, which decides whether it is a value. Likewise, Plato considered compassion to be a womenly vice. The Spartans considered aggression to be a virtue. The Vikings considered death in battle to be the only way of entering their heaven—Valhalla. Again: characteristics, facts, and values must be separated.
With this understanding, let us look at atheist some responses to the question of our values. To begin with evolutionary psychology: we can explain characteristics through evolution, but we cannot explain which characteristics we “ought” to value from evolution. Evolution describes facts, but it cannot prescribe values. It cannot bridge the is-ought gap. We have evolved both aggression and compassion, evolution cannot tell us which we should value for more.
Likewise, humanism claims there are certain human characteristics which aid our survival and thus are universal values, or human rights. However, this again derives values from facts. Moreover, other facts such as anger, aggression and manipulation have also aided and still aid our survival. Jeremy Bentham, a utilitarian, also criticizes the notion of human rights, or natural rights, saying: There is no way of proving them to be true, and rights can only exist within a legal framework. Outside of countries, such notions are absurd.
However, Bentham’s philosophy—utilitarianism—also suffers from logical inconsistency. Utilitarianism derives the value of the utility principle—increase everyones pleasure, decrease their pain—from the fact that we seek pleasure and avoid pain—hedonism. Even if this were a fact, it would not entail that we “ought” to follow it. One may seek pain and avoid pleasure without contradiction. Facts do not lead to values.
Contractarianism states that values are derived from certain characteristics, such as altruism, as they help society achieve peace and stability. However, this assumes what it seeks to prove, it begs the question: as it values peace and stability as a condition from which values are derived. Many cultures have valued war and battle. Both cultural evaluations are subjective, not objective.
What has hitherto been said, however, in no way leads to cultural relativism. Cultural relativists state that one “ought” not to criticize other cultures. This itself is a value—a prescription, an “ought”—that itself is relative to their culture and thus not an objective moral imperative either. Rather, if we want to be rational, we must criticize other cultures based on our subjective preferences and be conscious of the fact. This is Realpolitik. This is honesty.
What has been said neither leads to classical nihilism, as we understand that it is a fact that we value things whatever they maybe. Even perception itself is an evaluation. We perceive what is a value to us. Nihilism per se is impossible due to human nature. But different things are valuable to different people and different creatures. Therefore this account is known as neo-nihilism. Objective morality is an illusion and like religion is a means to control others.