As an agnostic I end up as a nihilist on morality. Philosophers say we need a framework for morality but if that framework is religious, which itself is not empirical and sometimes is contradictory, how can we even claim that it leads us to morality, knowing that the religious framework is just a illusion because religion creates its framework through belief not evidence?

How can we get out of a nihilist viewpoint without a religious framework?

Please recommend some books for moral philosophy for an amateur like myself.

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    your parents gave you a moral code, and if not, relying on "do unto others..." is a safe enough.rule. It is unusual for an agnostic to ask this question. It is usually.theists who require external moral guidance.
    – Richard
    Commented Mar 19, 2019 at 15:51
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    I'm not sure the bible discusses utilitarian ethics at any great depth either. Does one need a golden rule for cases where the golden rule doesn't work, or can one reason it out? In some situations it seems the only person one can help is oneself. There's no shame in that. So save your brother. Unless of course there is an obvious reason not to. Perhaps he's an ass hat. Or perhaps one of the other people has a cure for cancer?
    – Richard
    Commented Mar 19, 2019 at 16:45
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    An agnostic must be agnostic about nihilism so this shouldn't be a problem. Morality is not grounded by religion but by the facts of our situation. Religion states what those facts are, but the facts come before the morality. For a grounded system of morals the only way forward would be to establish the facts of our situation. An agnostic does not know these facts so in most ways is in just the same position as the religious believer. You could equally have asked, How does an agnostic avoid theism? If you become a Nihilist, Realist, Theist or Atheist you have given up on agnosticism.
    – user20253
    Commented Mar 20, 2019 at 11:33
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    no offence, but i can't see how people derive moral nihilism from the absence of God, at least if not lapsed theists. there's then no-one or nothing to make you moral, i guess, you have to decide for yourself
    – user35983
    Commented Mar 21, 2019 at 10:15
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    Lovely comment @PeterJ! True agnosticism implies real confusion. And total confusion does not permit of depression. What the agnostic actually is complaining is «If the secular world is externally so nice why then internally a wasteland? » The answer is of course the counter question Have you checked all your assumptions? More classically rendered Who am I?
    – Rushi
    Commented Mar 22, 2019 at 4:49

9 Answers 9


G. E. M. Anscombe recommends Aristotle's ethics as a way to avoid moral obligation whether that obligation comes from a religious or non-religious framework. Focusing on avoiding moral obligation through Aristotle's ethics may be a way for a nihilist to make sense out of morality depending on what the nihilist claims one can do.

One approach to Aristotle's ethics is to couple reading the text with commentaries. Joe Sachs, a translator of the Nicomachean Ethics, also provides a potentially useful commentary.

Note, however, that Sachs' translation emphasizes the beautiful (to kalon) as the goal of right action:

Of magnificence, or large-scale philanthropy, he [Aristotle] says it is "for the sake of the beautiful, for this is common to the virtues." (1122 b, 78) What the person of good character loves with right desire and thinks of as an end with right reason must first be perceived as beautiful.

The beautiful does not obligate, but it is for the sake of the beautiful that one practices moral virtues. However, if the nihilist doesn't accept that one can perceive something as beautiful, then this approach through Aristotle, or perhaps only this translation, may not be an answer.

Anscombe, G. E. M. (1958). Modern moral philosophy. Philosophy, 33(124), 1-19.

Sachs, J. "Aristotle: Ethics" Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy https://www.iep.utm.edu/aris-eth/


@Sashank since I'm not supposed to dive into discussions in the comments, here is my answer to your second question:

What you're presenting is the juxtaposition of discipline and morality. I believe that the key difference of them is the unfolded present and the primitive present, which shape both.

Discipline, a rather rational seeming virtue, is the result of the unfolded present, which Hermann Schmitz described as the state of mind in which you are not bound by your present being, be it the location, state of your body, etc. You are able to think about the future, assume consequences of your actions and act accordingly. This can be trained, by experiencing the consequences of bad decisions for example, which make you feel bad and therefore teach your brain to not do it again (because your brain really like to "feel well", meaning it remembers situations that evoke the production of dopamine, endorphine and other hormones.)

On the other hand, you contrasted that virtue against morals, which - as you said - come out if more than one conscious beings interact. In this case, I assume you mean the way we treat other people, the way we make decisions, and - which is what seems to differentiate your definition of morals from your definition of discipline - the way we act spontaneously, out of instinct, doing something that seems to be "given by the gods", as you can't really think about it, it just happens. Well, in this case, we're talking about the primitive present which is also dealt which in Hermann Schmitz's papers. He describes said present as the way of thinking that collapses from the unfolded one into the primitive one. As an example, you're walking along a road, trying to cross it. At the moment, you are in the unfolded present, thinking about what food to make, who to call and what you have to do, etc. Then, suddenly, a car almost runs you over - you jump backwards, you are absolutely in the situation, the unfolded present collapses into the primitive present. The same happens when we act instinctively, following a moral that seems to be divine, because you don't really think about it. What happens however, is that your brain goes on something like an autopilot and says "alright, I have experienced many situations and will now, without consciously thinking much, evaluate the situation and act accordingly". You don't really notice it, since it's most the time an instinctive, subconscious decision that is being made. However, it doesn't mean that this evaluation, this moral code you're instinctively following, isn't without a source. Your experience in life as well as your definition of what's "good" and what's "bad" will shape your unconscious and thus your unconscious decisions, even when you feel like you have no control over them.

I hope I answered your question, here's a link to a paper of Hermann Schmitz where he elaborates on primitive and unfolded present :)



I often see people saying that the only true moral code, or objective moral if you want to call it that, can come from religion, which would therefore render every agnostic / atheistic ideology without morals. I don't really agree tho.

When you look at morals, they often describe codes and rules for social situations that ensure the well-being of the most living beings possible, kind of like a democracy. However, looking at the reason as of why one should be kind to one another and help without receiving or benefiting, you'll quickly discover that in fact, the helping person does benefit from their good deeds.

Let's take an example: You walk by a homeless man and decide to offer him some change. It seems obvious that he is the one benefiting, while you don't benefit at all. However, people who decide to do "good deed" such as that (putting good deeds in quotations because "good" is subjective in this case) are in fact profiting, because for themselves, they get the feeling of having done something good, which in return makes them feel better.

Even relationships, situations which don't seem egoistic at all, actually only work because both people are getting more out of the bond than they have to sacrifice. What I'm trying to say is that, every "unselfish" deed is in fact selfish, because even if you don't gain something materialistic in return, you will feel better, which is the only real reason you give homeless people money.

So, morals don't really have to come from religion. Sure, most of them have a very detailed moral, backed by a lot of literature, but morals are existent in us humans because we strive to resolve conflict, we strive to cooperate, to form bonds, to profit off of one another so that everyone is better off. This is why we have morals, everyone has. They are different in everyone, but it's important to remind ourselves that we have them and to reflect on them.

I hope this answered your question :)


If you suppose that morality foundationally requires objective values and that such values can only be provided by God, then I suppose that as an agnostic you are in a quandary about the foundations of morals. But in the first place, objective values conceptually do not presuppose the existence of God. Plato argues for such values in the Republic and elsewhere and they are embodied in the Forms eide, which are beyond the realm of sense but, except on a heterodox reading, in no way logically or metaphysically dependent on the existence of God or gods. May be and most likely the Forms are fantasies but conceptually they are not self-contradictory, so logically could exist, and could do so without the prop of divinity.

It is also conceptually possible for God or gods to exist who have no concern with morality. This is the case with the Epicurean gods who dwell in the inter-mundial spaces and have no commerce with or interest in the tediously imperfect world of humanity. There are, I assume, no Epicurean gods but again their existence is conceptually possible, so God or gods logically could exist without any concern to provide the foundations of morality. They have better, self-concerned things to do.

So : conceptually there can be objective moral values without God or gods; and God or gods without any divine basis for morality.

If morality is a matter of doing what one thinks one ought to do, and refraining from the opposite, of considering other interests besides one's own, I fail to see why it cannot be a pure product of our attitudes or emotions. I save your life because I have an attitude of sympathy; I save your life because thereby I obey a divine command or because my action corresponds to some eternal value of the Platonic kind. In each case I do what I think I ought to do. Why look deeper than that ?

Of course, the objection is raised that attitudes or emotions are blind, accidental, variable between individuals, a surd element in human life. But this is a caricature. I cannot have an emotion without having certain beliefs. I cannot - logically cannot - be angry with you unless I think you have done me unjustifiable harm. So moral emotions are tied to assumptions about facts, about what you have done in the case of anger. Am I not open to argument about the facts? You provide adequate evidence that you did not do what I think you did, and logically my anger must disappear. Emotion and reason interlock.

This view, once termed obviously enough 'emotivism', has acquired the new moniker of 'expressivism', probably because it is plausible to base ethics on both emotions and attitudes; and moral judgements can 'express' both. Attitudes next, then.

Suppose I have an attitude of moral disapproval towards persons with a certain sexual orientation. If facts can be produced that make it reasonable to believe that such persons do not choose their orientation voluntarily but have it for causal reasons beyond their control, then as a rational agent I must relax my disapproval because it relied on false assumptions. I may continue to dislike the orientation in question or become indifferent to it. Either way, I cannot rationally maintain my attitude of moral disapproval. Attitude and reason interlock.

A morality of emotions and attitudes can sustain ethical agreement and, when disagreement occurs, leave morality open to rational discourse.

Such a morality fits with agnosticism as with much else.


Try :

Irrealism in Ethics (Paperback). ISBN 10: 111883741X / ISBN 13: 9781118837412 Published by John Wiley & Sons Inc, United States, 2014.

Values and the Reflective Point of View: On Expressivism, Self-Knowledge and Agency. ISBN 10: 0754654125 / ISBN 13: 9780754654124 Published by Routledge, 2006

Or - quickest and probably best first option - look up 'emotivism' and 'expressivism' on the online 'SEP'- 'Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy'.

  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Great resource. 100% recommended. Helped understand the philosphical implications of time traveling to the past. Commented Nov 8, 2023 at 21:37

My main point is to emphasize that agnosticism does not imply nihilism.

Agnosticism is a position which considers as open or even as undecidable the question of the existence of god or gods. Nihilism is sceptical concerning any objective insights in the religious, ethical, social or political domain. Naturalism is a non-nihilistic world view. In general, naturalistic positions are agnostic, often even atheistic.

Ethics is a normative dicipline. It is not about cognition but about decision. There are several system of ethics without any religious foundation, starting with the golden rule and inclucing e.g., Aristotle, the categorical imperative of Kant or the English utilitarism. Any textbook or dictionary of ethics gives an overview. I recommend

  • Robert Audi: The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy (1995)

and the classics:

  • John Leslie Makie: Ethics. Inventing Right and Wrong (1977)
  • William K. Frankena: Ethics (1963)

I am agnostic bordering on atheist, but I have a strong personal sense of what is right and wrong which is based on feelings of empathy towards others. I understand that people are fallible, that how they think and behave is at least partly a result of their parentage and upbringing, that to some degree they are programmed to be as they are, and I try to make allowances for those things. I don't expect people to behave or think like me, and I think people should be allowed to do what they like, generally, as long as they don't impose on other people. Most of all, I think it is important to treat people in the same way as I would hope to be treated. If you are happy to adopt principles such as those, you will have no problem avoiding moral nihilism.


By Googling the definition, the following came on top:

a person who believes that life is meaningless and rejects all religious and moral principles. "it is impossible to argue against a nihilist"

By considering the last sentence, I think that's enough, not to ever become one.

  • Religion is the cover of theology.
  • Theology is the cover of pragmatic philosophy.
  • Pragmatic philosophy is the cover of being.
  • Being is the cover of God.

I believe that when you distinguish between Agnotology and Agnosticism, you will understand what ethical neutrality is. The agnostic justice cannot be criticized, but it can be denied/not preferred because it is not practiced linear/directly in synthetic and phenomenological, or chaotic cultures.


This is how I think of religions' marriage to ethics

Religions say morality is always in our individual interests (as a kind of principle, God's wrath aside), and that may not be the case for agnostics/atheists (God's wrath is more exceptional than being cheated), even-though they may have their own absolutes, authorities, meaning structures, and so on.

Do you need morality to always be in your interests, to be moral?

I doubt it, and anyway you may be able to think more clearly about ethics, without religion; some anti theist metaphysical or epistemological positions occur in meta-ethics and imply nihilism, and these are anti theist, but they may not be packaged up with atheism.

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