Beyond Nihilism

Nihilism is a negative process. It destroys claims, and asserts nothing in its place. It removes the fairytales, and proposes emptiness in their place. Nihilism deconstructs.

But then what?

We do not live without values. We are subjects of our own conscious experience. We do not live without evaluating. We live through perceptions. We rely only on our senses: phenomena to infer noumena. We adjust our models of reality based on failed attempts to act on previous models.

So, now what?

We necessarily have models of reality, we necessarily have perceptions, we necessarily have evaluations of our environment. As conscious beings we cannot avoid having desires, goals, and motivations.

As we change, our perceptions change, our desires change, goals change.

As our environment changes, our perceptions change, our tactics change.

And then what?

We assert ourselves based on our desires. We want food, sex, social status, and so we take action. We carefully judge our environment and work towards our goals. What we want become our imperatives. We create “Thou shalt” for each goal, and for each goal there is an inner dictator obliging us to fulfill these commands. We learn which dictators are legitimate authorities by whether their dicta inspire compliance. The reward for success is the creation of a new perception, new desires, new goals. New dictators arise and our obligations multiply. The stakes are higher.

So why dwell on lies? Why dwell on falsehoods? Why spend a moment longer speaking of false gods and fairytales?

Let’s speak of being triumphant. Let’s speak of creation. Let’s speak of new horizons and ambitions. Let us speak of obligations –obligations that scare us, obligations that come from a dictator within that bears an authority we cannot deny.

Let us move forward, leave others behind who a concerned with phantoms and ghosts. Where are these moral facts, where are these rights, where are these obligations? Don’t play word games. Are they from outside the human order? If so, point to them. Otherwise you are merely confusing the matter and yourself.

Let us only consider legitimate authority, ever moving ourselves to greater heights. The more powerful we become, the fewer external dictators there are. Only our inner command will lead us.

Let us move forward.

Stefan Molyneux's failed debate with a moral nihilist

“Universal preferable behaviour is behaviour that can be preferred by all people at all times in all places,” so states Stefan Molyneux, in his recent debate with J. F Gariepy titled, “[…] Universal Ethics vs Moral Nihilism!”

The debate ran a total of almost two hours, but I believe the crux of the video can be gleaned by being told that Gariepy failed to adequately defend the (default) moral nihilist position in response to Molyneux’s core argument, which I surmise here:

If [they] tell me there’s no such thing as universally preferable behaviour, then what they are telling me to do is to, “stop saying that there is such a thing as universally preferable behaviour,” and … they’re saying “stop it because it is objectively false to claim that there is such a thing as universally preferable behaviour.”

Now, if you say to someone that it is universally preference behavior that you stop arguing for universally preferable behaviour, well that of course is a self-detonating statement. It is a statement that falsifies itself in the very utterance. So if someone comes to me and says, “there is no such thing as universally preferable behaviour and therefore you should stop arguing for it” or they come to me and say “universally preferable behaviour is invalid,” or “your theory is invalid and you should stop saying it,” what are they saying?

Well they are saying that there is a universal standard by which ideas are judged, and [Stefan] you ideas fall short of that universal standard.

They’re also saying that truth is infinitely preferable to falsehood. …

[Now if you accept the universally preferable behaviour theory] … you find out that rape, theft, assault and murder can never be universally preferable behaviours. In other words, we have a theory of ethics that validates the four major bands that exist in every reasonable moral system.

Stefan Molyneux at timestamp 15:20 – 18:00 in https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1aVe2vGhznk

And so, with this argument, Molyneux won over the audience. I would have responded this this argument differently, and I’ll let you be the judge as to whether I would have done any better an Gariepy..

Allow me to take the place of Molyneux’s hypothetical debater:

  • Me: Universally preferable behaviour theory is wrong/false/in error
  • Stefan: So you’re saying that I shouldn’t say universally preferable behaviour theory is correct? Well, that’s a contradiction — that is itself a universally preferable behaviour!
  • Me: No, I’m not saying you shouldn’t say UPB theory is correct, I am merely making a declarative statement –making a truth claim that UPB theory is false
  • Stefan: But you are saying that people shouldn’t say that UPB theory is correct, hence you are unable to deny UPB theory, because you are universally preferring the truth be told
  • Me: Again, no. A declarative is not an imperative statement. I’m not necessarily claiming that you ought not promote UPB theory, when I say UPB theory is wrong. Once you concede that an imperative statement does not necessarily derive from a declarative one, your argument that “any rejection of UPB theory is self-detonating,” itself being necessary self-deflates. You cannot justify UPB theory from the existence of truth claims about it. To put this in the clearest way: Uttering that UPB theory is false, does not establish a contradiction, thereby making UPB theory necessarily true.

That ol’ guillotine

The debate started with each giving their best steelman, of the other’s position. This was interesting because it gave each the opportunity to show they understood each other’s position, that they were acting in good faith, and highlight to the audience any misunderstandings each had.

Despite characterising Gariepy’s argument primarily as one that relies on Hume’s guillotine (we cannot derive obligations from facts), Molyneux himself crosses the is-ought gap when he states his hypothetical debater is making an “ought-claim” when they are merely making an “is-claim.” Specifically, he conflates a declarative statement with an imperative one.

There is a part of me that suspects that Molyneux knows this. He is too logical and Libertarian, not to feel the muddiness between these premises in his argument. (But then again libertarians do have trouble with the fundamental crux of ethics).

Universal?

Stefan’s concept of universality being ‘across all people at all times in all places,’ doesn’t make clear whether it means across empirical human history, or independent of human existence itself. What does he precisely mean by the “objective moral standards” when he refers to them throughout the debate? Does he mean standards that exist independent of any human opinion, across all the space and time in the universe, or rather does he mean “empirically objective” moral standards (i.e. demonstrably common moral opinions across different cultures in this history on this Earth).

In what way are “rape, theft, assault and murder” universal? Molyneux would point out that these acts cannot be universalised according to some arbitrary preference for Kantian rational ethical systems, and hence are examples of immoral behaviour. But, to spell it out, why does Molyneux get to prefer universalisation over, say, random preferences, and thereby claim that universalisability is the nature and charactistic of ethics proper? His implicit assumption that universalisability is “good” is itself begging the question, and circular. “X is moral because it is universalisable; universalisability is moral because it excludes rape, theft, assault, and murder.”

Of course, if you suspect that morality is charactised by universal, egalitarian preferences, all your intellectual abilities will be geared towards rationalising such assumptions. Suffice to say, a tyrant, who did not think of himself as an equal with others, but above others, would be dumbfounded with the presumption that morality is characterised by playing along with rules that make sense and are fair for everyone.

Cherry picking norms as he likes, Molyneux also benefits because when cultures, or individuals agree with his set of moral rules, as he can point and say: “See how morality is expressed in nature!” Well, Hume disagrees. Molyneux can also dismiss any culture or individual that breaks his preferred norms as “bad” people thereby presenting his unfalsifiable theory all the while wasting our time proving nothing at all.

Let’s get imperative

Let’s go further, though. So far, I’ve said that I am not necessarily making an imperative statement about UPB theory by merely claiming it to be false. In such a case, Molyneux contends that someone could exist in which they believe UPB theory to be false, but by not verbalising it, much like Shroedinger’s cat, Molyneux would not know they held that belief, and hence the UPB theory is never verbally negated. Well, despite the fact that a theory is True (or false) regardless of whether anyone verbalises their beliefs about facts, I am willing to maintain the position of a moral nihilist while telling Molyneux: stop saying UPB theory is true.

How is it that I can make an imperative statement, telling some others what to do, when I myself hold there to be no universally preferable behaviour (or in terms I find more rigorous: mind-independent objective “goods”). Am I now not preferring my imperative universally? No. This is something that Gariepy attempted (but failed) to articulate well: I need not be restricted to making universalisable imperatives –I may command as I please. (Whether I am obeyed and my imperatives fulfilled is another matter completely).

Molyneux, may stop me there and say, that such imperatives are not moral, being merely the ravings of a would-be dictator, but then again — why does his imperative (“Morality must be universalisable”) trump my imperatives?

Ethics is characterised by obeying authority, where a legitimate commander is a subjective mind making imperatives by threat and ability to enact force. Now, before you close that tab and write me off as a crass Nietzschean or worse — a Redbeardian— hear me out one moment longer. This authority may be a loving God, or merciless thug, but the mechanics are the same.

Instead of only criticising Molyneux’s argument, I present a concise case for moral nihilism:

Moral nihilism

Moral statements such as “is is wrong to kill” can be framed as obligations, e.g. “Do not kill.” As such, morality is constituted by imperatives, i.e. commandments. Therefore, in response to any given imperative, the natural question is, “or else what?” Whether an imperative will be obeyed (or not) is determined by the empirical nature of the authority making the commandment.

For example, if there is a ruling Monarch, an absolute sovereign, God, or even just a bully at school that can physically coerce you to obey them (whether under duress or gleeful compliance), then the likelihood is that the imperative will be acting as a legitimate authority for and hence obeyed. …This is the nature of morality.

We get confused about this simple imperative nature of ethics because, through language, we take imperatives like “Don’t kill” and abstract them through forms like: “killing is bad”, “it is good not to kill”, finally into declarative forms that reference the abstract concept of “Good” itself and perennially philosophise over vestigial questions like ,”What is the Good?” — all while forgetting that morality is rendered meaningless without a tangible connection to physical ultimatums.

In the absence of morality, there is only ethics in its purest form: “what should we do?” If we are asking this question, we already concede rationality, and must answer this however best the facts align to our desires and particular situation. In short, whenever anyone uses moral words, ask: what does that mean? I just do what I must.

Defense of Amorality pt.2

In the previous post, I covered the first two sections of Joel Marks’ book, Ethics without Morals: In Defense of Amorality. In that post, metaphysical morality was defined, which leads us now to ask…

Does Morality Exist?

Since many people do believe metaphysical morality exists, Marks embraces the burden of disproof, adopting the method of “inference to the best explanation”:

It is rational to believe in x if and only if x is an element of our best explanation of the world as we know it. The argument for amorality is then simply that morality is not an element of our best explanation of the world as we know it. … All of the familiar phenomena that we associate with morality … can be accounted for without, more plausibly than by, postulating the existence of morality.

pg. 16-17

Marks offers three potential explanations for why different people believe morality exists:

  1. we know God’s commands
  2. we know moral facts that reside directly in nature/reality itself
  3. we know “Darwinian morality”

Elaboration of explanation one

We know God’s commands.

Explanation 1

Explanation one assumes the existence of a God or gods, and proposes that our feelings or intuitions about “right” and “wrong” correspond to God’s commandments. In this conception, God creates “good” and “evil” in the act of approving and disapproving respectively. Such commandments become moral obligations. Simply put, “good” is whatever God commands.

Refutations of explanation one

Marks’ refutes explanation one by showing that it relies on explanation two, which in turn can be rejected. So, assuming we know God’s commands we can ask: how do we know God’s commands are to be obeyed (i.e. how do we know that they are valid imperatives)? Marks claims most people answer this with another intuition, that “God is good.” But how do people know God is good?

Marks refers to Socrates’ arguments in Plato’s Euthryphro to point out that most people believe that “good” is external to God. Whether most believers believe this is contentious, as many believe that “good” is internal to God as the highest, supreme law-giver. Regardless, “good” Marks tackles the idea that good is external to God. I’ll address the other possibility after.

External good

This position is that God is good by virtue of acknowledging external “goodness” as “good”. That is that God could condone and command “evil”, but sides with “good” and this is what merits God as “good” himself. To be clear, this means that:

  • God’s commands are good and
  • these commands are valid imperatives because
  • God is good because
  • God recognised the good as such which
  • Exists outside of God (this point is explanation two)

Before stating Marks’ main reason for rejecting explanation one, I’ll just raise one question about this believer’s logic. If whatever God commands is intuitively good from our perspective, how do we know that God is not commanding “evil”? We may intuit God’s commands as good, but what if our intuitions are backward? To assume God wouldn’t command evil is to assume that “good” is internal to God (which relies on the other possible belief about God’s character; see below).

Marks argues: if good is external to God, why does it matter what he commands — could we not just have feelings/intuitions about the external goodness itself? In such a case, we might be safer to skip the “middle man” and believe in external/natural goodness directly (a la explanation two).**

Internal good

Marks does not contend with the intuition that “goodness” is internal to divinity (possibly because it is rejected by his atheism outright). So, I’ll do that here. If by definition, God is literally “goodness” itself (whatever this actually means), and therefore “goodness” is not external to divinity, God’s commands are “good” because they are an expression of “goodness”. Such a conception of God would sidestep the need for explanation two, but begs the question: does God exist? More on this shortly.

Another approach would be to concede that God’s commandments are good, but ask: why choose God’s subjective opinions as good and not some other being’s subjective opinions? (Surely it’s not the act of commanding that creates “good”, or could I personally make commandments and thereby establish the “good”? Or if this seems too absurd of a question, going back to Socrates, which god’s commandments are “good”?) One response might be that, God’s commands alone are good because God is the supreme authority in the very real sense that God has ultimate power, down to physical forces, and thus the ultimate ability to enforce imperatives. Such a God would indeed be irresistible, and his might would make right, but again it begs the question: does God exist?***

Having assumed atheism in this argument for amorality, Marks need say no more before moving on to explanation two. But before we do, let’s assess Marks’ “hard atheism”.

Hard atheism?

While Marks never argues for atheism in this book, it is a premise of his argument for moral nihilism. While, I would argue that atheism is not a view that strictly requires justification, the lack of an argument does potentially limit Marks’ argument for moral nihilism to his atheist readers. This depends though on whether his readers believe that the existence of God is required for the existence of morality.

There are a few combinations of views regarding God’s existence and the implications that this has for morality:

  1. Many believers in God claim that without God, there could be no morality.
  2. A relatively recent community known as the New Atheists, disagree, and hold that morality can exist without God or gods. (What they disagree on is the nature of morality).
  3. Marks agrees with the believers in God that “without God, there is no morality” (Marks, 2010). The crucial difference being that he accepts moral nihilism as a logical result of atheism, unlike the New Atheists who hold on to imperatives without a commander. He calls this view Hard Atheism, which is the idea that atheism implies moral nihilism.

But consider that the existence of a God does not necessary imply that morality exists: God may be an entity that created the universe but not anything that is “good” or “evil” (regardless of whether “good” and “evil” are conceived of as his commandments or some mysterious aspect of metaphysical reality). No doubt, it would seem more plausible for a deist rather than a theist to accept this, but in such a case, moral nihilism might still be compelling to some believers in (an impersonal) God.

Elaborating explanation two

We know moral facts that reside directly in nature/reality itself.

Explanation 2

Returning now to the reasons why people feel that morality exists, the second explanation holds that “good” exists, external to God, in the properties of nature. In this conception of morality, “good” is objective, and independent of any subjective opinion (even God’s). Hence “good” is an actual property of things in the universe, and natural forces somehow create categorical imperatives.

To be clear, here I’m not talking about certain empirical facts implying certain behaviours IF we have certain goals (a la hypothetical oughts), I am talking about a morality characterised by commands without a commander. That is, some queer property of reality leaps across the boundary of objective reality, and has implications for human behaviour.

If “good” properties were merely physical forces that could cause natural “consequences”, e.g. gravity causing a fall, then this characterisation of morality amounts to Natural Law, and fails to be morality as has been defined in the book.

Natural Law, e.g. the laws of nature are not categorical imperatives because they cannot be disobeyed and are always obeyed, and it is pointless to speak of ethics (the study of what we ought to do) when immorality is impossible. Furthermore, imperatives cannot be derived from natural facts (a la Hume's Is-Ought Gap). For example, "gravity attracts mass therefore it is good that gravity attracts mass" does not follow.

Explanation two’s conception of “good” is more metaphysically mysterious than that of explanation one because, once the existence of God as a supreme authority is granted (as per explanation one), morality is simply the doctrine of his subjective opinion. In a sense, this subjective opinion is objective because it is outside human minds, and it is absolutely true in so far as God’s subjective opinion is settled. And if God were to change his commandments over time, they would be “good” so long as he commands them. In such a conception of good, morality’s imperatives become meaningful twofold: 1) because there is a commander that commands, and consequences that can follow immorality, and 2) moral statements can be true or false (i.e. moral cognitivism is true).

Refuting explanation two

Explanation two claims that “good” is known to exist in the natural world. Marks states that the ‘problem with … is… [the] lacking [of] an adequate conceptualisation of… metaphysical morality.’ That is, how exactly does morality manifest in the world? If moral facts are in the fabric of the universe, how do they work upon or impact upon human action, intention, and manifest as consequences? This natural morality would have truly mysterious mechanisms. It could create moral obligations from natural properties itself.

Moral nihilism holds that the words good and evil “do not describe any actual properties of anything,” [italics mine] (Marks, 2010). Recall that morality is characterised by categorical imperatives*, so nothing about metaphysical morality could be observed: empirical methods could not measure that which has no consequences. Moral imperatives (which are obligations), cannot be observed directly, only indirectly by their consequences.

Second, Marks points out that morality without the existence of a God’s commandments, makes moral imperatives “commands without a commander”, making the concept itself unintelligible. Without an authority to provide consequences (which could be observable), guilt or motivation to be moral remains just a feeling without justification.

Thus the intuition that we infer good from the universe itself is without support. At best, moral facts do exist but are empirically unverifiable, leaving only an unjustifiable feeling -but not knowledge-, leaving us no better off than if morality did not exist. Our feelings might as well be that “killing people is good,” we wouldn’t know who’s feelings corresponded to external the “good” (or God’s commands -how do we know if God exists?).

In regards to morality (of any categorical kind) and divinity, I am agnostic (I don’t claim to know whether they exist or not), but I’m unable to deny their existence. That said: I do believe that the default/initial view is to not have any belief positively in either Gods or moral facts. But beyond this, I do not think that natural morality (commands without a commander/explanation 2) could be justified.

Explanation three

We know “Darwinian morality”.

Explanation 3

Darwinian morality is the belief in and/or adherence to behaviours and attitudes that puts us at some evolutionary advantage. In this conception “good” is what empirically supports survival of the species. This is pure empirical organic desire, measurable by actions of humans, just like other wills or subjects of a life. (For example, the belief that “killing people is wrong” is observable by its widespread condemnation, aversion, and punishment).

Explanation three explains why people feel that they are in possession of moral facts, even if this reduces morality to preferences derived through natural selection.

Thus using “inference to the best explanation”, Marks concludes that it is rational to believe that people feel they know morality due to Darwinian morality rather than explanation one or two.

Next time…

So far Marks has defined metaphysical morality, and argued that people’s belief in it is mistaken. He argued that Darwinian morality better explains why people feel metaphysical morality exists than intuitions of God’s commands, or natural sources of good. In the next of this series, Marks defends amorality in practice (moral abolitionism). Would amorality be viable?

*Morality has the quality of being obligatory without any prerequisites, i.e. there is no place for if-clauses to derive morality's imperative nature, i.e. the consequences of not obliging moral commandments apply without there being any requirement to accept morality's authority, i.e. the scope of moral commands is infinite and all encompassing, without your assent, and nothing is outside the reach of morality's authority. In short: morality is characterised by categorical imperatives.
** Or is this the function of God? I can imagine this would be an interesting theological argument for why God is good: He created the universe with "Goodness" in it, and commands it to us, because without his commands (which we can instinctively feel), we would not know what is "good" because we do not instinctively know external "good".
***This is the point I personally agree to fully with my Christian friends: if God exists, and has the ability and willingness to apply unstoppable force behind his commands, then God's commands are "good" in a real and actually very conceivable way. For categorical imperatives to exist, the most likely set of facts, in my opinion, would be that there exists an impersonal God which has "good" internal to itself. Such a conception of God could make categorical imperatives meaningful, specifically due to the supreme authority he holds over nature, and the ability to control his property.

In Defense of Amorality pt.1

Marks, J. (2013). Ethics without Morals: In defense of amorality. Routledge, NY: New York. 

Joel Marks’ Ethics without Morality: In Defense of Amorality is a book that is special to me. Not only did it improve my understanding of meta-ethics and specifically moral nihilism, but a particular part of the book spoke to me so directly, that I felt the need to email Joel*. I am grateful to have enjoyed his correspondence ever since.

The book argues for an amoralism of two prongs: moral nihilism and moral abolitionism. The first is the denial of metaphysical morality, the objective, mind-independent morality, which would make moral claims meaningful (true or false). That is the specific concept of “categorical imperatives governing human behaviour” (email, November 2019).

The second prong is Marks’ preference for moral abolitionism i.e. against empirical morality. That is morality as it can be measured by psychology, sociology, anthropology etc., for example beliefs about morality or behaviours that result from moral beliefs.

In this series of posts, I want to present Marks’ main arguments for these views fairly concisely. I do this because others may be interested in this topic and also because I suspect that few people outside academic or philosophical circles have read this book, which I feel is a shame.

All unattributed quotes in this series are from Marks’ book and from the relevant chapter being discussed. I will organise my posts according to the chapter titles from the book, of which this post will cover the first two. The sections are:

  • Introduction/Acknowledgments
  • What is morality?
  • Does morality exist?
  • Would Amorality be Viable?
  • Might Amorality be Preferable?
  • Is Amorality Just another way of being Moral?
  • A Case study in applied amorality: How Shall we treat other animals?
  • What is Ethics?
From Amazon: Joel Marks is professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of New Haven. He received the B.A. in psychology from Cornell University and the M.A. and Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Connecticut. Marks has written numerous articles for professional journals and hundreds of op-eds and columns for newspapers and magazines on ethics, astronomy, and other topics. Since 2000 Marks has been a regular columnist for Philosophy Now magazine. Marks is currently a Bioethics Center Scholar at Yale University. His Website is www.docsoc.com. 

Introduction/Acknowledgements

Marks was a firm believer in metaphysical morality for most of his life. “I had never been agnostic but always a true believer [in morality]. … Moreality is a universe in which moral right and wrong are as real as chairs and gravity. Even if everybody … did not believe in morality, in moreality it would exist, just as surely as the earth is spherical and even if everybody believed it was disc-shaped.” But after his professional retirement as a professor of philosophy, specialising in normative ethics no less, he has an “anti-epiphany” and committed a philosophical u-turn. The turn began when his friend Wendell Wallach commented that “… moral theories are first and foremost intuitions.”

Marks’ atheism is a key part of his argument and biography. His starting position, for our purposes here, was that of an atheistic secular Kantian ethicist, holding the ethic: “Never to treat anyone merely as a means, but rather as an end in themselves.” During a discussion about God with a minister, he realised morality is like God.”[Belief in God and morality are …] both simply an interaction between some non-supernatural reality external to the individual and the emotional response of the individual. God was the universe responded to with awe; right and wrong were human actions responded to with approval or disapproval.”

Being an atheist, Marks sees belief in god as mistaken. Therefore once thinking that morality is like God, the belief in moreality (objective morality) is likewise mistaken. At this point, Marks’ conclusion was that morality is essentially relative, but “it did not take long … to draw the further conclusion that a relative morality is tantamount to no morality at all … Thus, [he] began to speak of ‘amorality.’ “

In Marks’ own words: “… the position[s] … I defend herein has been variously called moral skepticism, moral anti-realism, moral error-theory, moral nihilism, moral eliminativism, and moral abolitionism…” This set of terms combines various distinct concepts, including he two already clarified above (moral nihilism and moral abolitionism). Amoralism is then a position of various independent concepts that Marks defends regarding metaphysical and empirical morality.

Note that unlike others who deny moral realism, Marks favours removing moral ideas and language from human discourse (moral abolitionism), and does not advocate moral fictionalism (the advocacy of morality as a social institution despite a disbelief in morality as a categorical imperative). As a moral abolitionist, Marks is joined by Richard Garner and others, unlike Richard Joyce who is known for advocating moral fictionalism.

What is Morality?

As a necessity, Marks begins by defining precisely what is being talked about. Though there are many definitions and contextual uses of the words and concepts relating to “morality,” Marks defines it how it seems intuitive to him and how he believes most people think of it.

Marks’ characterisation of morality is as a “set of absolute and universal imperatives and prohibitions. … universal, unchanging, [an] absolute authority in matters of human behaviour.” Morality, unlike criminal laws, does not vary from place, time, or culture, “it emanates from an unchanging and univocal font … of authority and power”. It is a moral law, like a scientific law, except acting on us indirectly through the will, as opposed to directly like gravity.

To illustrate morality’s “categorical” character, Marks compares moral commands to grammatical commands. Paraphrasing Marks’ example, the command “Grammatically speaking, it is right to capitalise proper nouns’, needs its preface (“Grammatically speaking”) or risks overstepping its usefulness and accuracy. Moral commands on the other hand, function as intended without similar prefaces: “[Morally speaking,] it is wrong to kill babies.” This highlights how morality, unlike other practices (like grammar) does not have a limited scope.

This can be expressed as: there are no contingencies for moral commands to be authoritative. That is, while we can always rephrase non-moral commands in the form of hypotheticals (“If you want X, then do Y”, e.g. “If you want to be grammatical, capitalise proper nouns”), moral commands are categorical, and by their very character exist without if-clauses.

[Morality’s] chief characteristic is that it is required of us, regardless of our desires. … My conception of morality is as the highest telos, by which I mean that the morally right thing to do is supposed to be what we should do … “all things considered”. Thus, the moral should trumps all others, and at all times and everywhere.

Mark’s characterisation is that morality is that “Morality is the set of imperatives (and/or truths about what we should do) that apply to all human beings of all climes and times, and trump all others, and that manifest in our feelings, either as commands to be obeyed, as if from an external Power or Authority, or simply as spontaneous promptings of the ‘heart’ or ‘guts’.”

Further to the clear definition of morality that has been provided, the connection between rationality and morality is severed in this opening chapter. “Morality does not imply rationality, no matter which sense of ‘moral’ one has in mind. … rationality does not imply ‘morality’, no matter which sense of ‘moral’ has in mind.” Marks concludes this after having exhausted leach combination of moral and rational acts being either obligatory or permissible.** In the end, the conclusion is reached that morality and rationality are independent: able to agree or conflict.

Next time…

So far, Marks has given some background about his thinking, and how he eventually came to reject his lifelong belief in objective morality. He defined morality as being characterised as obligation without having opted into such a binding contract, a definition for which the next chapter will specifically reject: Does morality exist?

*"I am indeed a man without an ethical country, for even though there are a few fellow citizens of the Land of Amorality, there may not be any besides myself who live in the district of Animal Abolitionism." Being a vegan animal abolitionist and an amoralist at the time, I emailed Joel.
**Is every morally obligatory act rationally obligatory, Is every morally obligatory act rationally permissible, Is every morally permissible act rationally permissible, Is every morally permissible act rationally obligatory, Is every rationally obligatory act morally obligatory, is every rationally obligatory act morally permissible, Is every rationally permissible act morally obligatory?

Property, Ownership, and Discrimination

This post was prompted by Hans Herman Hoppe’s claim that “property implies discrimination” (YouTube).

In this post I’m attempting to tease apart the related concepts of property and ownership to uncover implications for free thought, speech, and association/relationships.

Section One – a simple model of reality and some definitions

Parts of this universe are physically material. Tables, chairs, people, and atoms are some examples of material objects. All material objects can interact with each other physically (e.g. leaves falling to the ground) but only some material objects can intend their physical interactions. These material objects possess consciousness. Much of the animal kingdom, including humans, are examples of objects which possess consciousness.

As a quick aside, note that consciousness itself is not an object. While the mechanisms by which material objects are in possession of consciousness are unknown, there is indeed consciousness in the universe. Material objects exist in objective reality, that is, they exist independent of any consciousness awareness of them. Material objects that experience consciousness are objects that possess subjectivity. All this means is that consciousness allows perception which is independent of objectivity. To end this aside, the intricacies of how immaterial consciousness connects to material objects, and the problem of justified belief (epistemology) is not central to this model of reality.

Conscious objects can intend their actions. Non-conscious objects cannot. To clarify my terminology at this point: a conscious object is a material object that has consciousness (through some unknown mechanism –this is the “hard problem of consciousness”). A mind is the subjective agent associated with a conscious object that has a set of intentions.

Conscious objects have a set of desires/drives/motivations that constitute their intentions (a will). Hunger, procreation, survival, love, anger are examples of such desires/drives/motivations. Whether these conscious objects are fully aware of their desires or just act out of impulse, is equivalent for our purposes here: they “aim” their material bodies toward specific interactions with other material objects, e.g. a deer is motivated to eat grass when subjectively experiencing hunger. So, just as the deer can will the act of eating grass, by my own thinking, I can cause physical action (I can will my arm to move). As experiencers of subjectivity (minds), we have motivations (e.g. hunger) to act in certain ways (e.g. eat) to satisfy some subjective goal (e.g. fullness/satiation).

Unlike conscious objects, non-conscious objects do not “intend” their physical interactions. For example, a paperweight which has no consciousness, no set of motivations, cannot intend to affect paper, even if it can physically affect paper. It doesn’t matter whether these non-conscious objects are inanimate (e.g. atoms, rocks, mountains, planets, stars, tables and chairs) or not (e.g. plants, bacteria, and fungi), they do not have the ability to intend. It is a side issue, whether we grant plants, or other “lower” forms of life to have consciousness. If we grant them consciousness, then my definition of control applies to their “intended” physical interactions.

Consider a toddler with a ball. When the toddler throws the ball against a wall (presumably for fun), it controls the ball. Contrast this with a toddler that bumps a cup off a table. The toddler did not intent the physical interaction with the cup. So, as a definition, when a material object is interacted upon by intentional force, the conscious object responsible for the intention is controlling said object. Control is therefore different to pure physical interaction (even though both involve interaction of physical force between objects) because control involves intention. In an act of control, a mind controls, while an object is controlled. (Therefore, a paperweight which does not have a mind does not control paper, it merely affects paper).

This definition of control does not change even if it involves two conscious objects, say two people playing football. If the red team’s player intends to tackle the blue team’s player, the resulting clash involves, by my definition, the control of the blue team’s player by the red team’s player.

Note that while physical bodies are controllable, minds themselves are not material objects and therefore cannot be physically interacted with and therefore cannot be controlled. Consciousness can intend physical force upon material objects but cannot itself be physically affected. It is responsible for all controlling but is not itself controllable. The is not to say that minds cannot be changed through debate or different experiences, but a mind cannot be coerced to have a different set of desires/drives/motivations all else being equal. Kahlil Gibran makes this point succinctly in the following quote from The Prophet.

“You may chain my hands, you may shackle my feet; you may even throw me into a dark prison; but you shall not enslave my thinking, because it is free!”

Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

The body is necessarily the first object that a body’s mind controls. While the “hard problem of consciousness” itself is not current solved by science or philosophy, so we cannot say what exactly consciousness is, or how it works, we can say that conscious beings have direct control over their physical body with their minds. This is to say, animals’ minds physically interact with their bodies through a direct mind-body connection. This mind-body interaction is prior to all other (physical) interactions. It is the root cause of all physical interactions that a mind makes. Hence, a mind controls its associated body and, with it, can then control other objects.

No mind can directly control another mind’s associated body. For example, my mind cannot directly make a dog walk, I can only try to have the dog’s mind walk its body. This is indirect control. Indirect control is ultimately done through physical interaction. For example, a dog can control a ball with its mouth; a human can control a dog with a leash. In each case, the control is indirect: the human does not control the dog’s mind, instead he uses physical force via a leash, whereas the dog does not (and cannot) control a ball’s non-existent mind but uses physical force to control a ball.

Property Redefined

Property has three qualities: control, exclusivity, and restriction. Property is any object that is exclusively controlled without restriction.

  1. Property is a controlled object. For example, a mind’s body is its property; a dog is its master’s mind’s property.
  2. Property is exclusively controlled. An object can only be controlled by one mind at a time.
  3. Exclusively controlled property is unrestricted by other minds. For example, a mind (A) cannot restrict another mind’s (B) use of its property (or else it would be A’s property).*

It follows from my definitions that just as non-conscious objects cannot control (due to the fact that they do not have intentional physical interactions), non-conscious objects cannot have property of their own. Even though non-conscious objects can physically interact with other objects, they cannot choose to, and hence cannot control objects and therefore cannot have property. This also implies that any mind’s property that is physically interacted with by non-conscious objects remains the mind’s property.

Regarding point two: At any one moment, only one mind (the dog’s or the human’s) is in exclusive control of an object (e.g. the dog’s body). This does not contradict the earlier definition I provided that only the dog can have direct control over his body. While the dog’s mind is the only consciousness that can directly interact with his body, at any one time his body is under physical forces as the result of one mind. At any one moment, the dog’s body is property to only one mind, hence property control is exclusive.**

Regarding point three: A dog being walked by a human does not have unrestricted control over its body. The body is restricted by the human’s control of a leash. The dog is allowed only restricted physical interaction with his own body by leave of the human. The owner allows the dog to walk (within the confines of the leash) because it suits the human to allow such restricted freedom to the dog.

This definition of property allows for hierarchies of property. First, let’s understand that an object may itself be comprised of children-objects, for example, a car may be comprised of many parts such as wheels, chairs, an engine, among other things. There is no objective hierarchy between these objects, just a subjective one. In other words, for the purposes of defining property, a “child-object” (e.g. a wheel) is as much an object as a parent-object (e.g. a car) is. It does not matter whether the wheel forms part of a car and that a car does not form a part of a wheel — what matters is that each object is a physically material object which can be physically interacted with. The same logic applies to objects with consciousness, e.g. a hand in relation to a person (non-conscious to a conscious object). As such, any object or child-object can be property, independent of other conceptually related objects.

Second, in relation to hierarchies of property, let’s understand that the naming/labeling/identification of an object does not map directly and perfectly/discretely to the objective world. By this I mean, when looked at with enough precision, any object being referred to has poorly defined and ambiguous edges/bounds. The Ship of Theseus**** is a thought-experiment which serves as an example how the usefulness of labels breaks down when the physical objects are altered. Or consider this question: “which position on your arm objectively marks the boundary of your hand and forearm?” Labels (or signs) are just convenient and arbitrary conceptual abstractions of the objective world. Conscious minds break the objective world into useful concepts. This allows communication and shared understanding between subjective agents within a community of shared signs. Since a named object refers to an intrinsically a fuzzy child-object of the universe, there can be errors in defining property. These errors result from misidentifying an object, but by definition, property is that which is under exclusive control without restriction. Therefore, the constant in this definition is the object that has intentionally applied physical force –whatever the subset of the universe the object is conceptually.

Having clarified hierarchies of property, I can give a simple example. Consider a man walking a dog. The human may have the dog as property, while the dog has its tail as property. The human is controlling the dog, while the dog controls its tail. Unless the human is grabbing the dog’s tail, it is wagging due to the dog’s (probably subconscious) intention, hence it is the dog’s property not the human’s. The human only controls the dog’s overall location, via the force of the leash. While some of the leash’s force contributes to the tail’s overall physical action, the tail wags independent of the leash. The problem of “whose property is the tail” is just one of ambiguous labels. When we say “dog”, we tend to think that includes a tail, but so the degree that a human controls a dog but not a tail, then “dog” is not how we usually consider the label to mean. At all times, property is exclusively controlled property, without restriction.

While a dog can be a human’s property, this does not necessarily mean that the human owns the dog: property control is not and does not imply ownership. Property is a controlled object, but property is not necessarily owned. Ownership is rightful control.

Section Two – ethical claims and perspectives

We now enter the man-made world of ethics and norms. I am not stating positively which ownership claims are true or correct, nor that rights exist independent of minds. In this section I am describing ownership as a subject ethical assertion, a communication of one mind to other minds about its subjective relation to its controlled property.

By telling you, “I own my car,” it is communicated that I perceive my right to exclusively control my car. It may be that I control my car, or it might be that my car has been stolen and someone else currently controls it. Either way, communicating ownership, communicates the perception of rightful control.

Claiming ownership is an ethical assertion. It is an act that contains claims of what ought to be. To say that we own an object is to claim that it is our property and that certain rights accompany this fact. For example, if I claim ownership of my house, I must be in control of it and I am claiming that no one else should take control of it even if they wanted to and could physically succeed in taking it. Furthermore, if others did take my house under their control against my intentions, that act would violate my rightful control of my house — at least from my perspective.

To recap: Objects are physical entities which can interact. They become property (by definition) when they are controlled by minds (which is “intentional physical interaction”). Minds can communicate (via their associated bodies, e.g. vocal cords) their perspective of possessing ownership, which is an ethical claim to rightful control of property. And as Hans Hermann Hoppe points out in his “Argumentation Ethics“, without the ability to communicate this there would only physical interactions could solve ownership disputes.

The truth of such claims to rights is only ever subjectively determined, there can be competing claims to ownership over a given object. And so, while rights are subjective, and hence ownership can be in dispute due to many claims of ownership over a given object, there cannot be any objective ambiguity about the physical control of an object. (The mind that is the root cause in the causal chain of indirect control over property is the controller). That is, by the above definitions, property is metaphysically unambiguous, even if ownership is not. Ownership is subjective, property is objective.

Hypothetically, if it were possible for a mind to physically control all the objects it desired, and there was no competition or threat of other minds appropriating such property, there would be no need for claims to rights and legitimate ownership. But, of course, this is not a reality in this world of scarce resources.

In reality where minds control objects, and desire to maintain their control against threat of loss of control, a variety of methods are used to maintain control. In addition to physical control (which is at the root of all other methods of control) is argumentation. From a biological-energy conservation perspective, words and argumentation are less expensive than blood, sweat, and social influence.

The control of property can be sustained or ended. If control ends, it was either released by a mind (intentionally abandoned) or taken by another mind (intentionally appropriated). Such property transfer is merely objective fact, there is no need or possibility for subjective approval or disapproval. Disputes which arise from property transfer however, involve man-made assertions of ethical norms or individual grievances.

Sure, owners assert rights over their property, but specifically which rights do owners have? Naturally, when ownership is claimed, the minimum assertion is to the rightful sustained control of the property in question. This is of course in addition to the necessary definition of property, which involves its unrestricted, exclusive control. Ownership necessarily asserts the right to control some property until released or transferred willingly, whether with terms and conditions or not.

From the perspective of a given mind, if ownership is released, there is no ethical consequence, but if ownership is violated (i.e. “rightful” control of property is violated), an ethical wrong is committed.

The system of ethics I am describing here is a subjective one. No doubt the appropriation of property by a mind will be seen as wrong by an existing owner. The appropriator, however, might not accept the previous “owner’s” claim to rightful control. This conflict does not invalidate my definition of ownership because I am not prescribing which claims to ownership are rightful, I am merely describing the nature of ownership claims.***

One meta-question that goes beyond an analytical definition of terms asks: Who has the right to claim which objects as property? This question however is meaningless as it grasps at an objective authority which is not there. Without an outside standard, there cannot be a satisfactory answer to this question. Unless there is a super-owner, e.g. a monarch, there is no authority above to receive permission to claim rights beneath. Even in such a case, the meta question goes one step further back: which objects does the monarch have the right to claim as property? All we can do is defer to descriptive ethics: whoever has the ability and the desire to assert control over property in continuity, does so. Such people may also claim ownership, which is a communication to others about their subjective claims to rightful control.

If a mind disputes a claim of property ownership, the conflict can only be resolved, ultimately by physical force (recall: objects physically interact with each other). There is no higher authority by which a rights-claiming-license is awarded. “Rights” are subjective and exist in minds. They can be delegated but are always first attained by the physical control and subsequent assertion of ownership of property. Beyond physical control, there are no justifications for ethical claims because ethical claims are subjective and subjective standards are independent of objective reality.

Simply put: owners have exclusive, unrestricted control of their property until they have it taken from them. At no time do they, or any other mind, have objective rights over property, objects, or to anything at all. Owners call themselves so, which is an ethical claim “I have the right to perpetual exclusive control over this property”. Other minds may not share this subjective ethical claim. To them, this claim is false. If they are of the disposition, they may be able to successfully take control of another mind’s property. Subjective rights disputes will ensue, but our case is settled: we have described what is, and described the intentional physical force as the mechanism.

Owners assert their perpetual unrestricted control over objects (until released) and maintain this control with physical force. They can choose who can and who cannot have use of their property. If owners cannot discriminate, and if they must give control of their property to others, even temporarily, then they are not fully in control of their property.

So what is ownership?

While there are no objective owners (there are only subjective claims to ownership), owners have the unrestricted control of their property, and hence can discriminate who can use, borrow, or otherwise control their property. They descriptively “can” (not prescriptively “can”) because they have physical control over their property. The right to discrimination is never forfeited for as long as there is ownership. Discrimination is the correlate of unrestricted exclusive control. Even if control of property is granted temporarily to another, if ownership is maintained throughout, rightful control can be resumed at the owner’s discretion.

Being non-controllable, minds cannot be owned and cannot own other minds. Minds have an unrestricted ability to will. Their will is only limited by their inability to control other minds. Thoughts, opinions, and beliefs are therefore always free from restriction. The closest that a mind can get to controlling another mind is to coerce secondary obedience to its will. For example, a captor may convince his victim to speak certain words, but he cannot coerce him to alter his beliefs.

Relationships are ongoing agreements between minds to allow some form of physical interaction, whether directly (e.g. a football team), or indirectly (e.g. a debate club, a trust fund, or otherwise). In the final analysis, all relationships have physical effects: a toddler throwing a ball, a tackle on a field, walking a dog, an idea that indirectly inspires a physical act, or bankruptcy which causes homelessness or hunger etc.

Relationships are between one or more mutually consensual parties, to the exclusion to others. A wife, for example, excludes all men except her husband in their marriage; an employer excludes all candidates except the successful applicant from his business, etc. Any member of a relationship can end it as it was constituted. If not, then it is not consensual and it is not a relationship, it is control and they are the property.

Section Three – Implications for liberty

Having laid the groundwork: as owners of bodies, minds can claim the right to the sustained exclusive and unrestricted control over them. This includes all of their derived behaviours, speech, and associations (relationships). This means the ability to discriminate with respect to how they are used and by whom. This would not free the mind from the consequences of its choices. In terms of responsibility, only the mind directly associated to an act is responsible for it. If a mind indirectly controls another body or objects (its property), then it is responsible for its acts. And, since it cannot control other minds, it is not immune to discrimination for its behaviours and speech, nor can it compel others to acknowledge them. Minds have the right to enter into relationships with consenting partners and to leave relationships at will. Furthermore, as owners of material possessions (including land), minds claim the right to the sustained exclusive and unrestricted control over them. Likewise, this means the ability to discriminate with respect to how they are used and by whom.

Any argument against your free movement, speech, or thought is an intellectual attempt to indirectly control your body. Such arguments are no more justified than assertions of self-ownership themselves. All that grants ownership over a body (an object), is the ability to physically control it. It is entirely up to a mind to perceive/will control, claim/communicate a right to control, then have/maintain such control over its body (or any other object). It speaks to the character of a mind that does not do any of these aspects:

  1. Perceive/will/desire/intend to physically control;
  2. Claim/assert/communicate this intention;
  3. Take/ensure this control — which is to attempt justify this claim to ownership.

Conclusion

Ownership implies unrestricted control and exclusive property rights.

Property, being controlled objects, may also be rightfully controlled (owned). The minimum claim to ownership is that one’s property shall remain rightfully controlled until released. Such a claim implies the right to discriminate with respect to the property that is in question. These definitions of property and ownership say nothing about what anyone ought to claim ownership to nor how to control their property. Such an answer is provided by each individual mind without recourse to any external standard, measure, or license. Hence, it is not my role to invent positive norms, all I can do is describe facts. You will either assert your rights to freedom of speech, freedom of movement, and freedom of association or you will not. This reflects your character.

There can be no owners. Not objectively. So, the outcome for the mind intent on controlling objects of desire is take control and maintain control in the most effective, and ideally efficient, method possible. Claim rights if it suits (especially if it dissuades usurpers), use sophistry, wit, guile, charm, favours, trade, work, money, or even brute force if you must, but don’t fool yourself, definitions of ownership do not create owners in a reality where there are no objective rights. Take what you want if you can, whether that be a life of giving and sacrifice for others, or a life of manipulation, domination, and Hell for others. This is a warning to sheep and a license to wolves.

* The objection that "objects seem controllable by two minds at once," (e.g. 1: a dog controlling its legs walking, while a human controls its head by yanking on a leash; e.g. 2: two people controlling one tandem bike) can be explained as an inaccurate understanding of objects. An object can be comprised of component-objects, i.e. an object like a dog, has component objects like legs and a tail etc. While two minds can simultaneously control the component-objects (legs and tail), only one mind can control a given object at a time. The objection fails by only seeing a whole object (a dog), and not its parts (legs and tail). The extent to which a whole object is controlled, is determined by the extent to which the control over the whole object's components are controlled. Until a mind controls a whole object, it only control component objects. 

** A dog's body can be controlled directly by a dog's mind or indirectly by a human's body. Consider a person controlling a dog with a leash. The question becomes, who's property is the dog's body? Is it the dog --who has direct control-- or the human --who has indirect control? This is a simple question of defining the specific object being controlled because one object cannot be controlled by two minds at the same time. For example, when a human controls a dog's body, the dog is the human's property; while a dog barks, the dog's throat is the dog's property, but when intentionally muzzled, the dog's throat becomes property of the human. Strictly speaking, the dog's body is the human's mind's property or the dog's mind's property, depending on which mind is in control -- or how accurate the analysis intends to be. While different minds can have similar desires, each mind is metaphysically unique, meaning that no two minds have the exact same desires. If two minds did will exactly as each other, they would be the same mind. So, an object controlled by many minds would by definition have many different wills in conflict over it. The controller of the object would be in perpetual flux. In other words, the property's control will constantly be transferred from one mind to another. Hence, at any one moment, 
only one mind can control property.  

*** It does not follow that owners cannot violate others' rights or take control of their property, rather, in the purest sense, the concept of ownership only allows for meaningful communication regarding perceived rightful control. The assertion that owners must also respect other's ownership claims if they are to assert their own is a further, separate (egalitarian) claim, going beyond the minimum definition of ownership. In this essay, I am describing what ownership means, not prescribing norms.

**** https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ship_of_Theseus

Finding meaning with Nihilism: rejecting Fatalism

Nihilism is the belief that nothing has … any final meaning. … “What the hell difference is it going to make, in a thousand years what we do today, or a hundred years for that matter?” It’s a rational reduction of all the experiences of life to rational insignificance: nothing has any final meaning. So the question is … “why do anything?” … “why bear suffering?”

Jordan Peterson – Youtube clip

For Jordan Peterson, nihilism is an inexcusable rejection of meaning. It is the rejection of personal responsibility exchanged for disposable moments of no consequence. What he calls nihilism, the depressive, flippant, and destructive psychology that can follow the rejection of inherent meaning, I call fatalism. Despite our difference terms, it is understandable why Peterson, a clinical psychologist, rails against the growing presence of fatalism in modernity.

In “Nihilism: A philosophy based in nothingness and eternity”, author Brett Stevens characterises fatalism as ” … selfishness…” and the “[belief] that we have no control over the outcome of our actions.” He goes further, pointing out that fatalism is inherently destructive and materialistic because, according to the worldview, all meaning is derived from “physical comforts, wealth and convenience” and the immediate moment.

As a psychologist, Peterson is met with people afflicted by fatalism — people struggling to find purpose, struggling to just get by. What Peterson misses, though, is that the rejection of meaning does not imply fatalism philosophically speaking. So even when he correctly characterises nihilism as rejecting objective meaning, he then connects it to fatalism as if this implication is necessary. This misstep occurs because he accepts the flawed logic that a meaningless universe implies apathy and self-destruction. It does not.

Meaning, values, memory and symbols are artifacts of judging, perceiving minds. Without humanity, the world just is… However, lack of inherent meaning does not preclude humans from choosing meaning, or noticing that they as humans will find some things more meaningful than others…

Brett Stevens – Nihilism: A philosophy based in nothingness and eternity

At its core, nihilism is a worldview that rejects inherent meaning: nothing means anything else. For example, democracy is not “good” or “bad”, it is just democracy. The consequences of democracy are the consequences of democracy — and not anything else. The nihilistic worldview flows from a subjective value for truth. “Nihilism is the removal of all values to things except reality itself” (Stevens, 2004). Put another way, nihilism attempts to evaluate reality as it is, free from human bias and representation. It merely begins by rejecting objective meaning and universal narratives.

Nihilism as a philosophical doctrine is simple: the denial of inherent meaning. Nothing inherently, automatically and irrefutably “means” anything. Meaning is a projection of the human mind and does not exist outside of it.

Brett Stevens – Nihilism: A philosophy based in nothingness and eternity

By deconstructing nihilism, we can identify passive-nihilism, which is the negative component of nihilism: the act of stripping away assumptions, narratives, and belief in inherent value/meaning. By itself, passive-nihilism is nothing more than pure skepticism. This is contrasted by active-nihilism, the positive component of nihilism, which we will explain shortly.

Passive nihilism is the rejection of all inherent meaning. It tends to reduce life to what can be measured and observed, and to file everything else as unproven.

Brett Stevens – Nihilism: A philosophy based in nothingness and eternity

It is worth noting, logically speaking, that passive-nihilism does not imply fatalism. Just as one could admit meaninglessness and retreat into recklessness, one could just as unreasonably acknowledge the lack of meaning present in the world and conclude that there is no reason not to start a charity. Neither apathy nor affinity for life follow logically from the meaningless universe we find ourselves in. More generally, facts do not imply values. Fatalism values materialism and selfishness –but values cannot be derived from nature.

Unlike active nihilism, passive nihilism does not then reconstruct meaning by assembling what is known into patterns and deriving a sense of cosmic and natural order from those. It merely rejects all; what separates it from fatalism is that passive nihilism also rejects individualism and the group conformist idea that humans can define reality. It thus sets the stage for active nihilism. [bold added]

Brett Stevens – Nihilism: A philosophy based in nothingness and eternity

Despite this, many people (for reasons Peterson could probably explain), do jump to fatalism from passive-nihilism. In this sense, you could say that fatalism is one response to passive-nihilism. Another response might be depression, which could accompany the newly acknowledged the meaningless universe. But sadness, like that felt from losing Santa from a childhood fantasy, is eventually lost and our mood returns to normal as we accept reality.

A positive response to passive-nihilism is active nihilism. Active-nihilism is the process of asserting subjective meaning as enough. Active-nihilist, of the Nietzschean variety strive for something greater, something not necessarily in the immediate moment, they pursue greatness, accept challenge, and responsibility. Since subjective meaning is all there is, and that there are no necessary implications to be derived from this, an active nihilist could assert any values –Nietzschean or otherwise. Fundamentally, an active-nihilist is one that admits personal preferences are all there are and does not seek to deny them.

Steven’s points out, that nihilists can value the transcendental. Transcendental nihilism is the appreciation of the world’s design and significance, the forgiveness of the world for our suffering, and being grateful for our small place in it. It is seeing life and death as neither “good” and “bad” respectively, but meta-good, for being at all. In this sense, nature/reality is meta-good. It is something that transcends the individual and can be valued subjectively.

Praising what is right in a holistic sense over what is advantageous to the individual is the primary trait of all heroic, idealistic and nihilist philosophies.

Brett Stevens – Nihilism : A philosophy based in nothingness and eternity

My journey to nihilism was prompted through existential questions as cliché as they come: “What does life mean? What should I do? How do I justify my beliefs? What is important?” It truly began with an awareness that God is dead, and that this changes everything. No longer could I assume my values are right (or wrong), or that there was correct answer to ethical questions (outside the context of a given preference and situational factors).

A lack of meaning does not mean that one cannot have preferences, even logical ones.

Brett Stevens – Nihilism: A philosophy based in nothingness and eternity

Nihilism is just the beginning of one’s personal journey in philosophy. You see, the nihilist has more ethical decisions to make than any moralist does. For people that believe there are moral facts (moralists), the world is full of rules. Once these moral rules are discovered and codified, they guide us through life’s various dilemmas. It’s pretty simple, all considered: the moralist either acts well or not (and is “good” or “bad” accordingly), but in either case, they (think) they know what it is that they should do. The nihilist doesn’t have it so cut-and-dry. There are no pre-ordained rules for nihilists to follow.

Just because a nihilist rejects the assumption that moral facts exist, does not say anything with respect to the fundamental question of ethics which is: “What should shall I do?” To address this question, a nihilist assesses their desires, and is motivated towards their fulfillment. There is no obligation to act, nor any external standard to ethically judge/measuring their desires. This analysis is a purely descriptive model of human action.

Nihilists, use and update their mappings of reality (derived through their faulty lens of human perception, empirical experience) to effectively achieve their desired aim. Their mappings of reality may be in the form of conscious rules, Gestalts, traditions, rules-of-thumb, or instinctive/pre-conscious muscle memory, and so on. These rules relate to the mechanisms of how the universe objectively behaves, whether physically, socially, economically, or however. There really is no limit to the topics that might give a nihilist potential to form an understanding of reality, that is useful in serving their ends. Successfully attained desires are obtained through the good, and the bad thwarts their efforts.*

Nihilism means denial of inherent values. It does not mean denial of functionality, or loss of a desire for our actions to be constructive and produce aesthetic beautify in life.

Brett Stevens – Nihilism: A philosophy based in nothingness and eternity

The nihilist, like all sentient beings, have undeniable desires. This provides fuel to answer the question of ethics: “What should I do?” Joel Marks answers this with his philosophy of Desirism: “Figure out what you really want, that is, the hierarchy of your desires all things considered, and then figure out how to achieve or acquire it by means that are themselves consonant with that prioritized set of your considered desires.” (Ethics without Morals: In Defense of Amorality, 2013).

“The principle of active nihilism is one of ultimate reality: we are real, in a physical world that is real, with real consequences for any given action. There are no inherent goals, so we must pick one. If we like life, that goal is survival…

Brett Stevens – Nihilism: A philosophy based in nothingness and eternity

As pragmatic realists, nihilist answer a related question “How do I get what I want?” by studying the constraints of a reality that works mechanically as per the laws of nature. Given their values they must operate within the laws of the universe to obtain their goals. This is the realism that nihilism embraces.

Active nihilism denies inherent values but does not deny the inherency of reality. It tells us there are no default or universal judgments, and all that we can expect is that reality is consistent such that specific actions achieve similar results every time they are tried.

Brett Stevens – Nihilism: A philosophy based in nothingness and eternity

Nihilism is not fatalism. Rightly so, Peterson critiques the psychology of purposelessness. Nihilists however are pragmatic and realistic, they study the world and its mechanics. They accept reality and responsibility. The nihilist is part of the world, a human part. There is no escaping human desire, which motivate us to achieve our goals. This purpose might only be subjective, but it can be in accordance with reality and transcendent rather than materialistic.

Nihilism: personal aims constrained and informed by reality. I think Peterson would approve.

Brett Stevens – Nihilism: A philosophy based in nothingness and eternity: available here

*A fair critique may be that we don't know how to judge our scientific or philosophical understandings of objective reality except without making certain assumptions that are themselves subjective. If this critique holds water, then the case being made in this post reduces to the negative critique that fatalism is not implied by the lack objective meanings, and the positive case (that nihilist can refer to anything external, even reality itself stripped of interpretation, for reference in subjective decision making) falls apart, leaving the nihilist to refer to subjective desires which may include a desire for objective, scientific/philosophical truth, but does not imply it. Thanks to Joel Marks for giving me the idea to clarify this point.

Fighting words: Argumentation ethics

Hans Herman Hoppe, a contemporary libertarian theorist, describes the fundamental problem of society and suggests a libertarian solution:

We live in a world of scarcity. Either resources are scarce, or the time in which to use them is scarce. We all have different ideas on how these resources are to be used. Therefore, if we wish to live in a world where conflict over resources is minimised, we must agree on rights of ownership and transfer. It must be taken for granted that we own ourselves. To claim the opposite leads to obvious inhumanity. It raises at least the potential for unlimited conflict over who owns whom. Where external resources are concerned, the ideal solution is that they belong to whoever first appropriates them from the State of Nature, and that they are then transferred by consent — that is, by sale or by gift or by inheritance.

Sean Gabb summarising Hoppe’s views, from the introduction to Getting Libertarianism Right by Hans Herman Hoppe

Hoppe claims the libertarian “rights” of self-ownership and non-aggression are argumentatively irrefutable. According to “argumentation ethics”, argumentation is the process of resolving conflicts through dialogue and the absence of physical conflict. Hoppe assumes that we should argue (i.e. discuss) rather than physically fight:

“Now let me emphasise that I consider these elementary insights argumentatively irrefutable and, because of that, also a priori true.” [bold added]

Hans Herman Hoppe, Democracy, Democracy, Civilization, and Counterculture (PFS 2015) YouTube

I agree, conflict without discussion means violence. But even if we can’t argue against libertarian principles, why must we agree to avoid physical conflict? Despite the fact that many people do want to rationally justify their beliefs, there is always the option of their physical enforcement instead. Argumentation itself is a matter of preference — as is violence. The pertinent question is, “Would you rather engage in rational discourse or fight?”

It would be wise to remember that all man-made concepts are built on premises (“if-clauses” and assumptions). It is foolish and can be dangerous to assume that others share your premises (including preferences for argumentation). While useful, all man-made concepts are constructed with the formula: “if we want X, then Y is a useful concept.” Hoppe can be seen doing this here:

“If you want to live in peace with people … you must have private (or exclusive) property in all things scarce and suitable as means or goods in the pursuit of human ends.”

Hans Herman Hoppe, Democracy De Civilisation, and Counterculture (PFS 2015) YouTube

This argument has two parts: an “if-clause” and a “then-clause”. Without the initial assumption (“If you want …”), Hoppe’s argument would become a decree: “You must have private … property…”, which would naturally raise the question: “Why ought we have private … property… ?” On the other hand, without the conclusion (“[then] you must have private … property …”), all that remains is a question: “[do you] want to live in peace with people[?]”, which naturally raises the questions: “what happens if someone doesn’t want to live in peace?” and “do I want to live in peace with people?”

There will always be people that reject the principle of non-aggression — at least at some times and in some situations. More generally, the preference for peace and equal treatment is itself a premise of egalitarianism (that all are equal or should be considered equal). But there will always be people that reject egalitarianism.

Why would Vladamir Putin, a highly powerful and influential Russian President and influencer in world politics, accept a libertarian premise “to live in peace with people”? Accepting this premise would amount to him disarming himself of his powerful position in order to equalise himself with others in society. He currently has the ability to not respect his citizen’s self-ownership, and why would he give that ability up? Why would a burglar with two guns give the homeowner one when robbing a house? Frankly, Putin and those with the ability to ignore libertarian principles, will ignore them if it is in their interest to — because they can.

“I don’t see how it is the case that just because I am engaged in an argument with you I must therefore respect your self-ownership. I could just be arguing with you as opposed to being in a state of conflict because it is cheaper, as violence is very expensive –far more so than arguing. If not through the explicit cost of weapons or the damage I might take from doing so, it is also expensive considering how others may treat me after I have acted violently. So naturally, I could argue that you don’t own yourself because I can’t afford the expenses of coercing you …”

Truediltom, “On the ‘non-aggression principle'” On ‘The Non-Aggression Principle’ retrieved Jan 20, 2019.

“Sticks and stones may break bones,” but words and decrees only compel if they are backed by force, i.e. only enforced words can break bones and coerce action. Even then, it is the force (and not the words) that does the coercion. (All man-made laws are secondary to the laws of nature, (which cannot be broken. Gravity cannot be refuted, ignored, or paused, whereas rules such as “thou shalt not kill” can be and are often broken.)

How could a libertarian rule of law be established? Ironically, if a libertarian society contained people that rejected libertarianism, there would be a performative contradiction: libertarianism’s non-aggression principle would be violated when libertarian rule of law was enforced upon individuals in society. For example, a pimp would be legally punished for violating his associate’s rights. To him, being put in a jail cell is an initiation of force — a violation of non-aggression.

One solution to this is Hoppe’s private law society. Private cities, operated like corporations would have their established rules. Built on libertarian principles, each private city could have differing sets of incidental laws and rules. Citizens could be free to associate (or disassociate) with any city that would let them in, but once inside, they would have to agree to the rules or be physically removed.

… So to speak…

Hans Herman Hoppe

In a libertarian society, there will always be conflict about its principles. Dissenters will always exist. People may argue with the premises of libertarianism, but according to argumentation ethics, by definition they will always lose. Their only avenue for winning is to disband with argumentation itself. But, while argumentation persists, there is peace and libertarianism is practised. However, as soon as libertarian’s detractors reject argumentation itself, the society must be ready to implement physical removal.

Here we have come full circle: preferences for libertarian principles such as self-ownership and non-aggression are asserted with the acknowledgment that physical force is the ultimate/final means of justification. This might be ironic, but it is in accordance with the laws of nature.