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2012 Spring Issue 6 (May 11, 2012)

Constantino: Rethinking Nihilism

May 11, 2012
By Emil Dominick Constantino

Carleton is fond of touting itself as an exceptionally welcoming community, tolerant of all intellectual bents and persuasions. However, although I have attempted to have meaningful discussions, my philosophical convictions have been met with cool and scornful rejection. At first I was surprised. Didn’t The Huffington Post list Carleton as one of the friendliest campuses in the country? Isn’t a Carl a smart, well-meaning creature at heart? I always thought so, but now I’m less certain. In short, there is little room at Carleton for a nihilist.

Nihilism encounters a large degree of prejudice, not just here, but basically anywhere the term is used. Like most irrational prejudices, much of the negative feeling is based in assumption and ignorance. Doesn’t “nihilist” connote a sneering brat? A hapless cynic who gleefully craps on your deepest values? In fact, many conflate nihilism with a particular personality and then attack that personality as if it were nihilism itself: a tired fallacy. What I find blisteringly ironic is that another philosophical group faced the exact same kind of attack from the moral majority not all that long ago: atheists. In the US right now (let alone the 60’s and prior) there are plenty of communities who think of atheism as an inherent personality flaw, and have much the same image of an atheist that secular Carls have of a nihilist. The irony, of course, is that Carls are famously atheistic, and yet a far cry from the old stereotyped personality that the Bible encourages: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none that does good” (Psalms 14:1). Sound like a Carl to you? No? Yet those who a maintain a similar image of the malicious nihilist are guilty of the same irrationality.  

The primary misunderstanding I have encountered concerns the nature of nihilism. Nihilism, like atheism, is the absence of a belief, not an affirmation of one concrete worldview. For the purposes of this article, let’s focus on moral nihilism: the belief that nothing is inherently Right or Wrong. Many ask the naive question of nihilists that used to be asked of atheists: “If you don’t fear moral judgment, how can you be trusted? Won’t anarchy result if your view spreads?” The salient assumption is that nihilists would psychopathically debase society because we don’t subscribe to its supposed moral foundation. The frank stupidity of this sentiment is based in a second assumption: that morality is all that’s holding society together. As if, if it weren’t for morality and our belief in human rights, our nation and our world would automatically degenerate into a state of nature. Really? Is moral theory the only reason people don’t do “bad” things? Is that all that’s between me and my moralizing neighbors? They would rob me, shank me, and leave me for dead, but the only thing holding them back is the fear of being Wrong. Clearly. Perhaps there are other factors, beyond abstract principles, that make a mostly pleasant society possible.

People know the kind of community they want to live in and seek to justify their vision through objectivity—claiming their desires are inherently good and beyond our evaluation. Nihilism does not refute the vision per se, only the appeal to objectivity. I think most of us here want a community where people are respected, can learn effectively, and can feel generally happy and fulfilled. None of these tenets are inherently at odds with nihilism. However, when people claim that rules about respect, property, and integrity are inherently Right, in a universal or objective sense, then Carleton’s culture runs counter to nihilism. In broad appeals to Morality or The Good, even the most learned secular humanist essentially makes a philosophical leap as irrational as the theist’s. The Good is as baseless, unfounded, and mythical as the Christian god or any other. Good is a useful hypothesis, but ultimately only that. It does not have an objective existence; that is, Morality cannot exist outside of the human mind that created it. I’m willing to let the fantasy go and focus on building a society I like versus one that conforms to an arbitrary standard of Goodness.

At the end of the day, neither God nor Good is on anyone’s side; people simply rationalize their desires with an appeal to objectivity. Isn’t it curious that almost every side of every war claims God and Good as an ally? If there truly were an objective standard, it would be pretty easy to tell who was right and who was wrong. As it stands, people attempt to use the universe to “prove” that their desires are valid. The nihilistic society that I propose isn’t an anarchic hell-hole; it could look much like ours, or even be more desirable. If we construct a place we enjoy living, what harm have we actually done? We’ve only cut away moral assumptions that had no basis in the first place.


  • May 17 2012 at 4:17 pm
    Austin Lane

    I feel you man.

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