Nihilism and David Hume

Grades are in, now I can circle back to reflect on one of the more interesting final report submissions I’ve received in a long time. The topic is nihilism and, at least implicitly, David Hume.

Our semester-long readings course on Hume concluded with an impassioned discussion in which one of us (not me!) defended what he and Alex Rosenberg call nihilism. Is that view consistent with Humean principles? To try and find out, and in the dialogical spirit of Le Bon David, I suggested that my students work up a dialogue. And they did.

Dialogues Concerning Moral Nihilism is fun and breezy, provocative, and well worth thinking about. Also, it entirely fails to persuade me of the rectitude of nihilism by any definition I’ve yet encountered. 

Rosenberg’s definition, from his Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions, is circumscribed. 

Nihilism tells us … [that] moral judgments are … all wrong. More exactly, it claims, they are all based on false, groundless presuppositions. Nihilism says that the whole idea of “morally permissible” is untenable nonsense. As such, it can hardly be accused of holding that “everything is morally permissible.” That, too, is untenable nonsense. Moreover, nihilism denies that there is really any such thing as intrinsic moral value. … Nihilism denies that there is anything at all that is good in itself or, for that matter, bad in itself. 

Nietzschean nihilism is whatever an aspirant Ubermensch would consider restrictive of his power to fashion new values and re-value the  old.

A more commonplace definition:

Nihilism is the belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated. It is often associated with extreme pessimism and a radical skepticism that condemns existence. A true nihilist would believe in nothing, have no loyalties, and no purpose other than, perhaps, an impulse to destroy. IEP

Also widely shared:

“…a belief in the pointlessness of existence. the absence of truth. the absence of reason… those who see it as a self-defeating argument are people who still have something to believe in.” (Urban Dictionary)

So, even granting that my students reject these popular definitions in favor of something more Rosenbergian, you automatically saddle yourself with a branding (or sales and marketing, or PR) problem if you insist on calling yourself a Nihilist. You will be widely misunderstood, and reviled; or understood and reviled; or just reviled; and you’ll be widely dismissed as irrelevant to the wider philosophical conversation.

That last consequence goes beyond branding, if you think there’s more to philosophizing than simply satisfying yourself that your own views are credible in your own estimation. If you think philosophy should also engage the hearts and minds of others, and occasionally change them or be changed by them, then you’ll want to stay out of that saddle.

But okay. Call a rose whatever you will, is it true that all values are baseless, etc?

The wider conversation cannot admit that all values are baseless. William James’s “Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life” attempts to explain why not:

Whether a God exist, or whether no God exist, in yon blue heaven above us bent, we form at any rate an ethical republic here below. And the first reflection which this leads to is that ethics have as genuine and real a foothold in a universe where the highest consciousness is human, as in a universe where there is a God as well. “The religion of humanity” affords a basis for ethics as well as theism does.

Where there are persons sharing space and resources there must be an ethical discrimination of values, all cannot be baseless, at least some value-based desires must be addressed and if possible – if com-possible – must be satisfied. “In the first place we will not be sceptics; we hold to it that there is a truth to be ascertained.” We may fail to ascertain it, but we owe it to one another to seek it.

James’s essay strikingly echoes Hume’s commitment to the “conservative” communal resolution of value disputes.

The presumption in cases of conflict must always be in favor of the conventionally recognized good. The philosopher must be a conservative, and in the construction of his casuistic scale must put the things most in accordance with the customs of the community on top.

(To be continued)

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