Tuesday 31 January 2012

The paradox of virtuous nihilism


Modern people are typically nihilist, yet do not behave as nihilists - rather they are intensely (albeit selectively and in an unbalanced fashion) concerned with moral issues.

They are relativists who do not believe in the reality of reality, believe that life is merely about pleasure - yet they are altruistic, kind, passionate about (some kinds of) injustice and so on.

How is it possible to live in such a state of obvious contradiction?


What makes this paradoxical state possible is, I think, pride.

Pride is highly valued and positively encouraged in modern society - under names such as self-esteem, and in processes such as self-development.

Much of modern education, 'therapy', self-help, lifestyle journalism etc is about making people 'feel better about themselves' - i.e. pride.

People therefore believe contradictory things because they feel themselves superior to the need for consistency, indeed inconsistency is evidence of their superiority.

For example, a person with nihilistic beliefs, one who thinks all behaviour is a contingent result of blind evolution, may behave altruistically - and doing this makes him feel good about himself:

'Look at me, I believe in nothing, I could be utterly selfish and short-termist - and yet I do these good things - how impressive is that?!'


Modern man is therefore his own Nietzschian hero of self-will; he sees himself as creating his own system of meanings, values and purposes by the sheer strength of his own mind.

'I did it my way' is the favourite song of the modern world.

Each individual consumed in self-worship, constantly amazed at his own remarkable ability to defy logic, to shape the world to his own desire; to hold himself suspended above the void of his own nihilism by the sheer strength of his own pride...



Thursday said...

People are not logical and have never been. People among the elite often have strong conviction that God and the transcendant do not exist. Yet they have strong moral sentiments. Not being terribly reflective, they simply assume that they are compatible.

Thursday said...

In other words, most people, even among the elite, are not Emersons, Nietzsches, or Sartres who try to think through these kind of paradoxes.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Thu - Indeed. Mind you, ET&S got nowhere with their efforts, except to push the problem back a step.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Thu - "People are not logical and have never been"

Naturally. But moderns believe they are uniquely, supremely logical - which people in the past did not.

I find it telling that the greatest modern logician - Godel (I suppose, by the consensus of those I trust) - was a theist.

Russell, on the other hand, was a bit of a fake - when pushed into a logical corner he just claimed, repeatedly, that he didn't understand the question.


Simon said...

Wow, reading that debate, I get it now. Philosophy is evil. Simple as that. Copleston bought into Russell's frame from the beginning, trying to use philosophy to justify God's existence. He was always going to lose the argument.

Scholasticism is bunk; on marches history, along with our destruction.

Anonymous said...

Peter S. said…

I think Dr. Charlton may have part of the answer here, but it seems to me there may be something more basic at play. There is that in our very nature that tends and conforms, however imperfectly, to virtue. In Christian, Jewish and Islamic terms, we are “made in the image of God”; in Aristotelian terms, we naturally tend to virtue or excellence (aretÄ“) in our desire for happiness or flourishing (eudaemonia), tantamount to seeking the Good. Articulations in terms of ‘natural law’, of course, address this understanding as well.

If we consider the soul in terms of a traditional tripartite division of functions, comprised of intellect, will and sentiment, one might understand the “virtuous nihilist” as possessed of a corrupted intellect, but with a relatively uncorrupted will and sentiment. It would be a mistake, however, to consider these functions as independent rather than mutually influencing, and that the corruption of one function will not eventually work toward the corruption of the other functions as well, which is why such recent articles as the following should be unsurprising. I excerpt briefly:

“Lying, adultery, drug taking, breaking the speed limit, drink-driving, and handling stolen goods are all seen as more acceptable than they were at the turn of the century, it suggests. Disapproval of so-called ‘low level dishonesty’ has [decreased] irrespective of social class, income level or education, according to research by Essex University. Integrity levels were slightly higher among women than men but the most significant variation was by age with noticeably higher tolerance of dishonesty among the young.”


Kristor said...

@ Simon: whoa, there, hoss, don't go too far. "Philosophy is evil"? But "philosophy is evil" is itself a philosophical proposition, so that if true it is evil. I'm not trying to be cute here; your statement is equivalent to the nominalist "there are no universals." Is it universally true? If so, it is self-refuting.

It isn't philosophy per se that is evil, but false philosophy.

Simon said...

Kristor, I confess my hyperbole. But the general point still stands, which I'm sure you agree with.

Brett Stevens said...

"They are relativists who do not believe in the reality of reality, believe that life is merely about pleasure - yet they are altruistic, kind, passionate about (some kinds of) injustice and so on."

To my mind, this is fatalism, not nihilism.

Nihilism is a belief in nothing. That includes rejection of the self, of altruism, and of decentralized objective standards a/k/a relativism. It also includes rejection of rejection of reality, because reality obviously trumps human desires for the world to be a different way. Nihilism affirms reality in its most basic state.

The modern disease is better construed as a belief in human desires over reality, which is liberalism, not nihilism.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Brett - I disagree. You are saying that this is not fully-consistent nihilism - I would agree, because fully consistent nihilism is impossible/ meaningless

(just as there is no such thing as absolute evil, and for the same reason - evil is anti-Good and not a thing in itself; nihilism is a partial denial of reality, a partial expression of pride and self-will - but can never be absolute because denial is always in terms of something else un-denied). .