Up@dawn 2.0

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Dialogues Concerning Moral Nihilism

A Play by Dean Hall and Jon Gill

LIGHTS UP on a SMOKY PUB.  Location: southern U.S., time period: doesn't matter.  The pub is not quite what you might call "run down" but it's not the cool place on the block anymore.  It's a little noisy.  Songwriter DEAN HALL is on a small stage playing Hank Williams's "YOUR CHEATIN' HEART."  Focus shifts to two men waiting at a high-top table for their third.  One is a man (20s) who thinks it's edgy and cool to call himself NIHIL ZARATHUSTRA.  He's wearing a black button-down work shirt with rolled up sleeves and jeans.  He's got a black wool Kangol cap that he wears backwards—like a cross between a beret and Che Guevara.  He's smoking a Cuban cigar and drinking Johnnie Walker Black, neat.  He’s performing a card trick for HUGH DAVIDSON that he fumbles.  Hugh, being polite, compliments him.  Hugh is a middle-aged guy who’s gotten his education as much from experience as from books—a much more rugged, cooler character than Nihil.  He’s drinking a margarita and wearing a nondescript black t-shirt, well-worn Levis, and a semi-ironic salmon pink turban. They’re waiting for WILLIE J to arrive.
HUGH. Are you sure he’s coming?
NIHIL. I’m not sure of anything.  (He flashes a cheesy grin.  They are silent for a moment.  They both take drinks.)
HUGH. (Gesturing to the stage) Man, this guy’s pretty good.
NIHIL. I guess.  But if he plays another country song…
HUGH. (Interrupting Nihil)…yeah right, like you’d actually do anything.
NIHIL. Well… (he is silent for a moment.)  Isn’t small talk the worst thing ever?  Do we really, like, is there really a need to discuss the weather or the traffic at any length?  Why can’t we just be in the same space without talking?  I mean really, why do we feel the need to kill the silence?  What are we so afraid of?  Surely we’d survive just fine by acknowledging and embracing it…
HUGH. Are you sure you’re still talking about small talk?
NIHIL. (A Cheshire-cat-like grin pulls across his face) I’m not sure of anything.
The song finishes, and they both applaud, NIHIL applauding obnoxiously loudly while half-jokingly calling out FREE BIRD!  DEAN HALL begins playing his own song entitled JESUS WAS A BLUES MAN.  WILLIE J enters from a door on stage right.  Willie is a tall, skinny man closer to Hugh’s age than Nihil’s.  At the risk of invoking stereotype, he wears a tweed suit and a dress shirt with a novelty tie.  He’ll be drinking beer, in which Hugh will inevitably share, but Nihil is far too pretentious for beer.  WILLIE scans the room for NIHIL and HUGH.
HUGH. (shouting to get Willie’s attention) WILLIE!  Wil...Goddamnit WILLIE, OVER HERE!
WILLIE. Hey guys!  What are you talking about?
NIHIL. Nothing, of course…
WILLIE. Been saving that one up, I see.  I could smell it coming from across the room.
HUGH. Eh, you know, the usual bar talk.  Meta-ethics.  Nihil’s over here trying to argue that the ideas of good and evil are bullshit.
NIHIL. Well, not exac…
WILLIE. (Interrupting) That’s terrible!  How could you even believe something so vile?
NIHIL. (Standing at the table and pacing, reciting an essay of his own writing from memory) Well it’s not exactly that simple. You see, Good and evil are simple, false constructs.  Now you may find that a repulsive thing to say—and certainly I, myself, was resistant very strongly to ethical nihilism when I first came across it.  
WILLIE. (To himself) Oh God, here we go.  (HUGH and WILLIE look at each other and shake their heads).
NIHIL. There is a natural feeling of repugnance when one is confronted with the idea that there is no such thing as inherent rightness or wrongness.  With that simple statement, the field of ethics is dead in the water, in case David Hume and Friedrich Nietzsche hadn't already pronounced its death quite loudly many centuries ago.  Good and evil, right and wrong, beautiful and ugly—these are properties that do not exist in nature.  Good and evil are not inherent, but rather claims of adherence to arbitrarily-stipulated forms.  Instead of ethics, we have merely æsthetics, by which I mean that we do not have proper ethics—the consideration of what is right and what is wrong, but instead we have æsthetics and axiology—the consideration of those things that we either do value or ought value.  
WILLIE downs his beer with bemusement and contempt.  He begins to make his counterpoint before being cut off by HUGH.
HUGH. (Imitating Willie) Yes, Nihil, that’s lovely, but how does that work in practice?
NIHIL.  Well…(pausing for a moment as though he doesn’t know what he’s going to say next) an action is only good dependent upon the definition used to quantify goodness.  Right?
WILLIE. (hesitantly) Well…I don’t know, what do you mean?
NIHIL. Like, “the good” is a form, and something is judged as good or bad by how well it adheres to that form, but that form is merely stipulated, not based on any real thing, get it?  (Silence).  Okay, here's a fairly extreme example: it is fairly universally accepted that murder is morally wrong.  But why?  What is it about murder that makes it inherently wrong?  
WILLIE. Well, I mean think about it.  As sentient beings we’re vehemently opposed to murder!  It’s the ultimate violation of the happiness of others—and more to the point, it’s absolutely against the very idea of morality!  The idea of morality is to work towards a more inclusive whole!  Morality is all about people coexisting in a society..,
NIHIL. (Interrupting) AND I AGREE WITH YOU!  All I’m saying is that any answer given to my question must essentially boil down to some form of either a naturalistic explanation—for example, it's bad to kill because it is detrimental to the survival of the species; or a retributivistic argument—e.g., one must treat others how one wishes to be treated; or a further moral argument—e.g., that to murder someone is to commit a violation against their sense of agency and consent.  But again the question must be asked: why is that inherently wrong?  (Nihil is quite proud of all the fancy words he used.)
WILLIE. (letting out an exasperated sigh, knowing there’s no use trying to stop Nihil) keep going…
NIHIL. What is inherently wrong about hindering the survival of the species?  And further, why is it just our species that it's inherently wrong to kill?  Is it because of moral agency?  Okay, why do we think a violation of agency is wrong?  Ultimately, the point you reach is the admission that wrongness is merely contradiction to the values of the moral judge, essentially a fallacious appeal to emotion.  There is no inherent wrongness, merely offense to the sensibilities.  An agreed-upon moral position, therefore, is entirely reliant upon a concordance of the values of those establishing such a position.  In other words, moral goodness is merely a stipulated definition that is agreed upon by the moral judges.  This, therefore, necessarily means that any action judged as right or wrong is merely being judged in a formalistic sense—i.e., the measure of a particular action's goodness is the degree to which it conforms to the definition of goodness upheld by the moral judge.  To say that something is morally good is to say that it possesses the quality of moral goodness, naturally; therefore judges must agree on what qualifies as moral goodness itself, which necessarily means the construction of a stipulative definition.  Sure, if we stipulate a definition, we can judge something by the extent to which it holds to that definition.  But that does not make a thing inherently good at all.  It just means that it fits the definition chosen, and yes, different moral judges do all have different, nuanced ways of defining what is right or beautiful or good.  At the risk of invoking cliché, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  If it's true that there is no such thing as inherent metaphysical goodness, then clearly the idea of inherent morality could only be viewed as pure, simple construct.
WILLIE. So you spent all that time to say you’re a moral skeptic?
NIHIL. YES, hell, I’m a nihilist!  And so are you!!
WILLIE. Okay, come on, now that’s where I draw the line.  I’m not about to just say that everything is permitted and that you should do whatever you want!  Hell no, I won’t allow it!
NIHIL. But Willie, that’s not what nihilism means!  You’re attaching all this baggage to a word that just means that nothing is intrinsically morally good!  Hell, you even agree with that, I know you do!
HUGH. (rising) You idiots, do you even realize you’re basically on the same goddamned page and you’re over here arguing minutia?  You both know you wouldn’t allow it!  None of us would!  But Willie, that’s not the point here—look, you admit that there’s no common essence to morality, which is what Nihil’s saying—you’re over here trying to go one step further though and ground it in some divine nonsense!  Where’s the rub?  (3 beats of silence).  Anybody? 
WILLIE. Look, I’m just trying to get some moral facts here, and…
NIHIL. (exploding) Facts, Willie?  Really?!  You want facts?  Here’s some things that are just outright facts.  I am a tiny, loosely-put-together bundle of carbon, hurdling through the vastness of space on a comparatively-average-sized pale blue rock held in place by the force of a giant nuclear reactor 93 million miles away.  I will live for nothing—NOTHING—but a mere blink of cosmic time, and my impact on the universe will be virtually non-existent.  I probably don’t have what might be classically called “free will” and there definitely is no inherent meaning or reason to my life or the lives of anyone else.  
And yet, every moment I think upon these things, I feel like a god, standing tall upon Olympus, for despite my insignificances, I have been granted the most incredible fortune possible, and it feels like the whole of reality, the vast expanses of space and time, have conspired, allowing me the beautiful opportunity to experience this cosmic blink filled with love, laughter, music, joy, wisdom, LIFE!  Yes, I am a nihilist.  I don’t believe in any inherent value in the world.  But that doesn’t stop me from being happy, or from behaving in what you might call a “moral” way.  Look, just because life might be “easier” in a universe where inherently grounded morality exists, doesn’t mean that we should accept that as being the case.  We’re philosophers, goddamnit.  We care about the truth.  The way things actually are.  Not the PR implications of the words we use.
HUGH. That’s the real rub, Willie.  You guys are just arguing semantics over the definition of fact, but it’s completely irrelevant.  You say that “faith in a fact can fix a fact,” but that’s just not what we mean by fact.  You see, a fact is a fact is a fact.  It’s not dependent on human minds.  But Nihil, you’ve got to also understand that, while physics does fix the facts, and is the best way we have of knowing the world, truth is emergent, subjective.  A product of human minds.  Willie, what you really want moral truths, and if Nihil was honest he would happily grant those to you.  He might not want to admit it, but he’s every bit as worried about morality as you are.  Hell, I bet it keeps him up at night that there aren’t any moral facts in the world.  But Willie, that’s not an excuse to try to ground the subjective with the objective.  We can’t derive an ought from an is, any more than we can derive an is from an ought.  Writing about David Hume’s philosophy, Simon Blackburn said that “the foundation stones of moral knowledge lie in front of everyone.”  These stones can be analyzed, cherished, collected, or thrown, but they are stones nonetheless—and really, ultimately it’s up to us.  We’ve got to figure it out.  We have to find our own grounding.
WILLIE. And what’s that grounding?
HUGH and NIHIL. Love.
NIHIL. Love is the answer.  We all have love within us.  All morality comes from love—caring about those around us.  Love is so powerful that it can usurp reason.  Hume said that Reason is the slave of the passions.  It's not something that has to be argued for—IT'S ALREADY THERE!  The grounding is within us!  And love is greater than all of us.  It’s greater than all our ideals.  It’s greater than happiness.  Happiness is all about the self.  But love is the most inclusive thing there is.  Happiness reflects upon the self, but love reflects upon humanity.  Love connects all sentient beings.  We don’t need or want to appeal to happiness.  All that matters is love!  Now argue out of that one, goddamnit! 
Nihil slams his hand too hard on the table, accidentally sending his whiskey glass tumbling to the ground and shattering.  All three laugh hysterically, then slowly go silent.  They sit for a moment.
NIHIL. So, how about this weather we’re having?
WILLIE. Crazy, indeed!  And the traffic getting here…
They trail off in small talk.  We see all three joking and laughing.


-Dean Hall and Jon Gill 
(This is the fruition of an independent readings course on David Hume that commenced last July. The nectar is in the journey! -jpo)


  1. Thank you for the corrected formatting, Jon. Thanks to you both for this clever collaboration, and kudos to whoever had the clever idea to suggest it!

  2. Tour de force, bravo! I'm going to spend quality time with it shortly. Meanwhile, a couple of questions for us all to chew on: Are you attempting to clarify Hume's position on the status of belief, or your own, or both? Does he agree with Nihil (which we're agreeing to pronounce as "NEAL," right?) in defining nihilism as the simple denial that anything is intrinsically good? Don't most people, including philosophers living and dead, define it more along these lines? -

    "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)

    "...a belief in the pointless 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)

    Whatever the "correct" stipulative definition, what would each of our characters (alter egos?) say about them, and about nihilists who subscribe to them?

    1. By "them" I mean these popular definitions of nihilism as the pessimistic rejection of all values, truth, meaning etc.

  3. For the record, one of Nihil's sacred texts from Alex Rosenberg's "Atheist's Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions"-

    "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. (pp. 95-97)
    - See more at: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularoutpost/2013/02/26/alex-rosenbergs-2012-argument-for-nihilism/#sthash.1fEFaV4p.dpuf

  4. Just a couple more thoughts for now, in addition to *these brief dawn posts -

    Blackburn, recall, sharply distinguishes Hume's position from Nietzschean amoralism and "the posture of suspicion of ethics" with a longish list of Humean virtues "and a thousand more of the same kind," and then helpfully summarizes: "The function of ethics is to adjust our passions, to make us feel our common humanity, to respond to the villainy of Iago or the nobility of Antigone by our 'fellow feeling' with the other people on whom they impinge, and then to have within ourselves, by a process of contagion, a like repulsion from behaving in the worse ways, and a desire to imitate the better."

    By that standard I'm happy to agree to continue disagreeing with my dialogic friends about nihilism. Their contagious humanity, "intrinsic" or "inherent" or not, deserves and invites imitation.



  5. A Nietzschean perspective in The Stone:

    Accepting the fatality of our situation isn’t nihilism, but rather the necessary first step in forging a new way of life. Between self-destruction and giving up, between willing nothingness and not willing, there is another choice: willing our fate. Conscious self-creation. We owe it to the generations whose futures we’ve burned and wasted to build a bridge, to be a bridge, to connect the diverse human traditions of meaning-making in our past to those survivors, children of the Anthropocene, who will build a new world among our ruins.


  6. The N'sm Dialogues remind me of The God Dialogues: