Sunday, January 16, 2011

Is Moral Nihilism Correct?

Yes. Yes it is. While Wittgenstein never intended this to be the case, an investigation into language necessarily ends in nihilism. In fact, this direction seems so inexorable that it puzzles me why nihilism remains a dirty word.

I started thinking about this in regards to morals, and how a discussion of morals inevitably fails. It faces the same problem that David Hume tried to address when asking why metaphysical discussions always fail.

I always separate words into two classes: internal and external. All words are representative of something, but those somethings are sometimes non-empirical. They represent an internal state that is available to me only. For example, when I say "I'm angry" you don't know what that means. You only know what it means in relation to my empirically observable behavior.

You then associate that word with your own desire to act in a similar way. Thus, my world and your world acquire the same word to describe private internal states based on observation of the non-private external world.

In Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, he has a chapter on inborn moral drives. We seek out right and wrong and everyone, everywhere, seems to make similar determinations about the morality of situations. For example, I can save ten people on a trolley by diverting it to another track, but the trolley will hit a man who just happens to be on that track. That is not morally wrong. But if you present people with the situation where that same man is used to stop the trolley, like throwing him on the tracks, that is morally wrong. The end result is identical in both scenarios, but one garners a moral reaction.

But those questions relied on each person's interpretation of the word moral and how that meaning applied to the situation. I think the situation works better if we remove the word entirely and simply ask which scenario is repugnant? Which scenario gets under your skin and makes it crawl? Which scenario gives you the shivers. Morals have always had the concept of transcendence attached to them. That the determination that I am making somehow exceeds me and achieves some sort of universal rectitude.

But to describe something at all requires interaction with other people to allow a word to emerge based on shared empirical information. For example, if I suddenly start describing myself as Quizzilunked, you have no idea what that means. But if every time I used it, I shivered, smiled, farted, and then sneezed, you would only know what the word means if you also experience something that elicits the same behavior. So asking people to determine morality requires the use of internal sensations whose descriptors are determined by external data. The external data is a prerequisite to applying the word in similar ways.

This means that morals can only arise from a linguistic (social) environment, and insisting on continuing the use of the word introduces nebulousness into the discussion. The goal of any philosopher, regardless of their area of expertise, is to eliminate nebulousness and speak clearly. It is impossible to speak clearly in morals, thus turning ethics into an endeavor for fools and charlatans. The latter of which seem to all become politicians and religious leaders.

We CANNOT talk about morals. We have to talk about the other things that tie internal states with external information. If I say "I'm nauseous" and I puke every time I say that, you know that the next time you feel "off" just before barfing is likely the same feeling that I'm having. Thus, you can attach the word to your internal state while being somewhat confident that I'll attach that word to a similar internal state.

But when I say "That is morally wrong" what I'm actually describing are internal states but using an inaccurate word to do so. Most people would, today, say that burning a person at the stake, or beheading a child in public, are all morally wrong. But when we say that, we are just describing our feelings of discomfort and disgust with the image. That disgust and the corresponding word arose from our linguistic environment. There is NO TRANSCENDENT ASPECT TO THIS. If anything, pulling out the morality card has just been used as a manipulator. The word is so damned nebulous but held in such high regard that it can be used to actually cause a disgust response to something that hadn't originally caused it. For example, homosexual behavior. But remember what we're dealing with. Morality only represents an internal aversion to something (which I admit can also be internal). So when it's used in places where everyone isn't in agreement about the morality of an issue or event, it becomes a synonym for disgust.

For example, eating pie is not currently morally wrong. But let's say that a group of people move in who find pie to be a moral evil. I'm sitting with them and they begin to complain that a nearby person, who is eating pie, is morally bankrupt. Their usage of the word does not line up with my usage because our internal states when presented with this person do not match up. But if I really want these people to like me, I'll agree. Eventually, I'll fake the behavior that lines up with the statement of pie being morally wrong. Eventually, when surrounded by similarly behaving people, I will begin to feel the same internal state that triggers such behavior.

Now let's say that these people start describing really random things as morally wrong, like walking backwards, Corn-Pops, blinking both eyes at the same time, and whiskers on kittens. It is conceivable that all of this things could be habituated to trigger a disgust response ALL COMPLIMENTS OF MORALITY. There is no other word in the world that can be so flexible in manipulating people.

I frequently use the example of saying "I am horny." If someone says that to me, and always has sex afterwards, I associated "horny" with the drive for intercourse. But if they use the word wildly, saying that they're horny and eating a sandwich, sleeping, watching TV, the word association between the empirical data, the private internal state, and the word falls apart. The word becomes meaningless. But not so with morals. We can use that word to describe anything that strikes our fancy, fake it until we make it, and actually create a disgust response! The fact that a disgust response, something so primal, can be socialized I think reveals the incredible importance of society and especially language in the evolution of the human psyche.

There are no morals. None. They do. Not. Exist. All that exists are your private, internal states which you associate with words that represent the observed behavior of other people. Stop using the damned word. Stop studying ethics. If you want to do something useful, run some experiments studying the disgust response of humans to stimuli before and after reading certain phrases or hearing certain things. That is the root of morality. It's the only way to explain how, once, not all that long ago, it was entirely righteous to tie people to poles with their own intestines and watch them die.

No comments: