According to Wikipedia,

Moral nihilism (also known as ethical nihilism) is the meta-ethical view that nothing is intrinsically moral or immoral.


Moral realism (also ethical realism) is the position that ethical sentences express propositions that refer to objective features of the world.

So, as far as I understand, these are two opposite views in moral philosophy, the first of which argues that there are no moral facts/properties, whereas the second that there are such things.

But I think it is obvious that before asking "Does X exists?" one should provide an exact definition of "X", so I guess that those who engage in this nihilism/realism debate agree on the definition of "moral fact/property".

Therefore my question is, What is this definition?

  • Clicking through on "moral" gives "Morality (from the Latin moralitas "manner, character, proper behavior") is the differentiation of intentions, decisions, and actions between those that are distinguished as proper functions and those which involve the omission of proper functions: In other words, it is the disjunction between right and wrong." -- of course, some people use something different, but this is the gist. Is there something you don't understand about this definition? – user2953 Aug 28 '15 at 14:38
  • Well, I suppose that 'right' and 'wrong' should be defined also. – Nicol Aug 28 '15 at 14:40
  • Moreover, what is 'proper function'? – Nicol Aug 28 '15 at 14:40
  • is that the right definition of moral nihilism? i only ask because i thought that that something could be prohibited without being innately so; i.e. i thought moral nihilists denied all and any moral claims – user6917 Aug 28 '15 at 18:52

I think the question setup is somewhat flawed but there's still a partial answer that can be offered in response to it. I think this paragraph has several problems:

But I think it is obvious that before asking "Does X exists?" one should provide an exact definition of "X", so I guess that those who engage in this nihilism/realism debate agree on the definition of "moral fact/property".

No Perfect Definitions are Necessary

First, it's far from obvious that we must always have a "exact definition of 'X'" before we can debate X's existence. It's easy to show why with a reductio.

(1) Exact definition = knowing exactly what something is = knowing everything about it. (guessing what you mean by that).

(2) If we cannot talk about something until we know everything about, then we can never talk about anything. (seems to be what you're implying about morality).

(3) Ergo, we can never talk about anything.

Or we must reject the argument. I suggest we reject both (1) and (2). While I'm having some trouble finding the quote, I remember quite clearly Aristotle saying something to the effect of their must be an end to definition at some point if we are to accomplish anything.

Another practical example, we discovered that Neptune exists before we knew anything directly about it. The only thing we knew is some object is exerting gravitational pull on other objects and messing with their orbits.

The Nihilist does not need to know the definition

Second, yes, the nihilist denies there is any such object, but this does not mean the nihilist knows what such an object would be like. Presumably, the nihilist believes that any such object is incoherent at its core or incompatible with other metaphysically important things.

Incoherent at its core = (perfectly) round square. Incompatible with other features of metaphysics = an object that has no energy or mass (defies the definitions of energy and mass and how we understand them to work).

Presumably, the nihilist takes moral facts to be this sort of thing that cannot have a fundamental existence. Perhaps, they deny anything non-physical has existence (and assume that moral facts are not physical themselves). Perhaps, they deny anything cultural has real existence (and assume that moral facts are merely evolutionary feelings). But it's not greatly important to them precisely how moral facts are understood or defined, because clearly the cart comes before the horse here. Moral facts are denied for other logical reasons.

Moral realists do not need to specify the definition either

If wikipedia presents moral realism as a single view, then it does moral realists an injustice. Moral realism is a description of the metaphysics of several different views. Some might not greatly prefer having their claims articulated in terms of the reality of certain propositions, but what all views share is belief that moral statements inhere in the world.

They don't need to agree on the definition, because they don't have to share an account of how they inhere. So, it doesn't matter if someone is a natural law theorist or a traditional Kantian or a utilitarian (i.e., they don't have to agree about what is right/wrong or the good). What unites these views is that they each assert there is some real existing thing that is good or evil.

The skeptical possibility

You can choose to deny my first section. You can believe we should never take positions on anything we cannot define exactingly. This would make you a type of skeptic.

You could even pick to be a skeptic about morality alone. So you could accept scientific facts as real and provable but believe we cannot know whether moral assertions attach to the world in the same way. I don't think that's a very popular position, but there's nothing in logic alone that disproves it -- I just don't see how anyone can live that out.

  • I had a very interesting question about languages a while back. One of the key features which was noted in the answers was that words in natural languages can be used without a complete definition. In fact, if I fribblewobble enough, I can often get away with using a word, made up on the spot, without providing any definition for it at all! – Cort Ammon Aug 28 '15 at 15:34
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    I don't agree with your view that "exact definition=knowing exactly what something is=know everything about it". For example, I know the exact definition of a triangle, but this does not entail that I know every single possible theorem about triangles. Or I could define God as 'the entity that created the world we live in', but I still don't know whether God exists or not. I imagined the debate to be something like this: we all agree on a definition of "moral", then some philosophers argue that there is such thing as "moral", others argue that there isn't, or that the definition has problems. – Nicol Aug 28 '15 at 15:54
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    (e.g. it is inconsistent, like "round square", or does not make sense at all). Of course, there need not be one single definition of "moral"; but for every possible definition proposed by philosophers there should be a corresponding realism/nihilism. – Nicol Aug 28 '15 at 15:55
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    @Nicol I was about to write a comment pretty much like boldfaces in virmaior's answer. You are right that exact definition is less than knowing everything, but far less than even that is enough for rejection. One does not need an exact definition to tell that triangles aren't circles, it suffices to know that they have angles. Materialists need only hear "supernatural" about god to reject his existence, without any further defining. Nihilists need only claim with Hume that there is no path from is to ought to dismiss morality outright, regardless of specifics. That's why they are nihilists. – Conifold Aug 28 '15 at 20:00
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    @Nicol It is better to ask a nihilist, but the inference goes the other way, I think. Any notion of morality worthy of the name dictates some "moral good", oughts. Nihilists may reject the latter because they see no philosophical or empirical basis for oughts, and interpret them as ideological myths used to oppress and manipulate. One does not even have to be a nihilist to advance such arguments, "the scholars of suspicion" Nietzsche, Marx and Freud did as well. But they were happy to provide alternative oughts. – Conifold Aug 28 '15 at 22:04

I think your question contains an error in the definition of moral nihilism

Moral Nihilism = Nothing is morally wrong. Moral nihilism here is not about what is semantically or metaphysically possible. It is just a substantive, negative, existential claim that there does not exist anything that is morally wrong.

You have to do some work to show that anything morally wrong is intrinsically morally wrong. It may be true; but the nature of philosophy suggests that some philosophers will claim otherwise: and that the definition offered on wikipedia is wrong.

Not everything that exists has all its qualities intrinsically; so why would moral qualities be intrinsic to anything morally wrong?

  • plato.stanford.edu/entries/value-intrinsic-extrinsic may help you decide if moral claims need intrinsic value. tbh it strikes me as the poorest article i've seen on the SEP, as if the author dare not talk about morality without intrinsic value. i'm not sure i see why – user6917 Aug 28 '15 at 19:24

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