Often, especially in armchair philosophy, someone usually mentions, "But morality is subjective" (as though it's arbitrarily subjective).

I mean arbitrary in the sense of moral nihilism. However, it's often the case that these same people really have no idea what they're talking about, and just want to reject whatever moral claim is on the table. It's like they're just using "Oh, but morality is subjective" as though moral reasoning is completely useless (even though, again, they believe in certain "right" and "wrong" actions).

Let's just assume everyone in the conversation is secular and fundamentally anti-realist. What is a quick statement that unhinges the notion of essentially moral nihilism? How to succinctly get the message across that ethics is not up in the air and just opinion?

I realize this question is rough, and may be prone to an opinion based answer. If need be, I will delete and radically reword it. Feel free to suggest edits; I'm not content with how the question currently stands.

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    In the whole world there is not a single "objective thing", nor morals, neither of any kind. All what you have is a construct of your mind, an interpretation. So, you are asking for new ways to deceive "novices". This statement doesn't mean that morals have no value. On the contrary, it is a very useful tool for the mighty, to exert his power. Question about morals is not how to reason it, but how to impose it. The mighty... they know how...
    – framontb
    May 31, 2020 at 11:00
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    If we all pause and take a deep breath, we might consider that morality and ethical behavior existed long before writers began trying to establish some sort of 'coda'. The recognition that being fair in our behavior and actions towards others is a natural outgrowth of establishing tribes, villages and organized society in general. To ignore this organic and natural human tendency is to do a great disservice to our ancestors.
    – user37981
    May 31, 2020 at 13:40
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    @Logikal, We are so used to it that we usually forget that our mental models and ultimately the language itself is a rough approximation to reality. Each word we say is an abstraction, and in no way represents the "object itself". This abstraction is a common factor, a residue that comes from lot of people's experiences, similar experiences yes, but in last term radically different. There is a great abyss between object and subject. Summarizing: language is in its essence arbitrary and inaccurate. Out of this we pretend to construct great logic buildings: statues with feet made of clay.
    – framontb
    Jun 1, 2020 at 10:55
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    In existential comics there's a case where someone handles this very neatly: punch the person repeatedly... when they ask you to stop punching them ask why you should (continuing to punch intermittently), when they say it hurts say why should I care, etc. At some point they will say something implying that it is wrong to punch people; you go 'qed' and walk away. Jan 14, 2021 at 19:55
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    @Rollo Burgess: what if the person is stronger than you and just punches you back in a KO, replying "you shouldn't punch people because they might be stronger than you" ? (Somewhat, a la Nietzsche)
    – armand
    Jan 14, 2021 at 22:17

6 Answers 6


What is a quick statement that unhinges the notion of essentially moral nihilism?

What about,

Are you willing to let others have their subjectivity? Even if it would consider e.g. your right to life to be morally questionable to them? Are you willing to have others apply possibly arbitrary value to your life?

=> You want to have some standard of behavior in order to attack "arbitrarity". You want to have a "reference behavior". How else would you fight against "everything goes"?


Preface: I am an ethical anti-realist, so I'll be trying to represent an opponent here! I do accept though that it's a position that people dismiss more quickly than is warranted.

One approach that is sometimes taken to be close to realism was attributed to Kant by Christine Korsgaard. Korsgaard suggested (after Rawls) that we need to understand the nature of moral dispute in order to understand the practical function of moral realism. When two agents argue over the morality of a particular action or choice, this is a problem of Practical Reasoning, rather than of Pure Reason. However, Practical Reasoning can still be accountable to facts about the world, and there may be normative facts about what it means to practically reason correctly.

To see an example of this in practice, think about the ideas Rawls suggests in his political thinking on the Original Position: If we were to start a society from scratch, would there be such a thing as a best way to do this? One way that practical reason is importantly relevant here is that we have to recognise that we, as individuals, could very easily find ourselves in the societies we create at any given level; we could be the very bottom levels of the social hierarchy, and as such it makes sense for us to try to limit the risks and harm that might befall us. Reasoning about it tells us that certain choices about how that society might function and be organised would be very bad, and we can reason factively to the effect, considering from our experimentation and exploration of such societies through human history, that we should not repeat choices that have led to exploitation and violence in the past.

As such, there may be answers to moral questions because there are facts about what it means to reason correctly about them, rather than because there are specifically moral facts to latch on to. The Nietzschean point about the absence of a God or anything like it as a Metaphysical foundation for morality is well-taken, but this doesn't itself mean that there is absolutely no factivity in moral dispute. To do that assumes also that there is no grounds for human rational agency in coming to understand the world we live in and what works well in it, which is a much stronger point again.


There are, as I expect you are aware, moral anti-realists who hold that there are moral rules that are binding within a society, but they maintain that moral judgements are not the same kind of thing as statements of facts and hence are not capable of being true or false. Also, there are moral relativists who are pluralistic about morality and don't believe there is a single best morality or a neutral viewpoint from which the moral values of different societies can be assessed. But you specify in your question that you are concerned with an extreme form of moral anti-realism that amounts to a kind of nihilism about the entire content of morality and moral discourse. If you are looking for some arguments against that, here are some suggestions:

  1. Although different cultures and societies have different laws and moral codes, there are many core features of moral codes that do seem to be common. Most cultures have proscriptions against murder, theft and rape. Most cultures value honesty and trustworthiness. There seem to be more commonalities than differences.

  2. According to virtue theorists, some virtues are essential, or at least conducive, to a successful and thriving society. Some virtues, perhaps the Aristotelean virtues of courage, wisdom, justice and self-control, are essential to the proper functioning of any society, so it is fitting for a society to inculcate such behaviours into its members and to punish those who deviate from them. A society without these virtues, or with contrary ones, would not thrive.

  3. Moral virtues are not an arbitrary choice, even among those who are immoral. As the saying goes, there is honour among thieves. Even people who care nothing for moral codes or strictures may find it to be a practical necessity to behave in an honest or prudent fashion.

  4. Moral nihilism does not explain how people within a society are able to criticise and debate their own moral norms. If anything goes, what would be the point of moral debate? Also, there seem to be cases where we can recognise that a society makes moral progress: for example, it may become less indifferent to the suffering of animals. To a moral nihilist, there could be no such thing as moral progress or regress.


If you're looking for a quick answer, on a certain low level of discourse (not yours, but your interlocutor's), I would suppose that the statement, "Self-command is a virtue," would be basically what you're looking for. Almost every major ethical philosophy I am aware of, and almost every major religion of which I am aware, makes a place for self-command in their fundamental ethics. There is the closest thing to consensus on this (of course, extreme hedonists would digress, and a definition of self-command might not be absolute, but here we look upon such people as akin to Flat Earthers and such definitions as suspended, I suppose).

The argument would not be for, "Self-command is a virtue," deductively from something else, but from the near-consensus about the assertion itself.

To keep things going, you might compare ethical to mathematical judgment regarding subjectivity, and point out that things are nowhere near as "set in stone" with respect to mathematical objectivity as might be naively proposed. This would give you a, "Well, are you going to be a subjectivist about mathematics, too, just because there isn't a strong consensus about realism vs. logicism vs. formalism vs. intuitionism vs. structuralism vs. fictionalism vs. ...?" line of response.

On higher levels, you can bring up distinctions in ethical concepts that can seem real enough, or which presuppose some kind of relevant objectivity, e.g. you might advert to the supposed difference between "the right" and "the good" and the question of a priority for these concepts. So in this case, the question, "Are either the right or the good prior to the other or are they definable independently as such?" can be seen as possibly objective, i.e. it is not a matter of mere opinion whether these concepts are ordered in one way or another. It might be in part a matter of opinion, or of stipulative definitions of specific words, but if the question can be posed strongly enough over such definitions as given, then as posed, the answer ought to have a "realism"-theoretic answer to some extent.

OTOH, ethics is heavily concerned with things like emotions and willings, which are rather subjective. Granted, then, though, that everything has objective and subjective sides, and absolute and relative ones. Indeed, there are objectively relative facts (think: "The house is to my left": it really is to my left, whether I believe it or not; but there's still a lot of relativity involved, obviously, too!).


One realist approach is the evolutionary one. Begin with Darwinian evolution, Dawkins' selfish gene and Skinner's behaviourism as a "realist" background for argument. Morality is then just the brain's way of seeking the maximal chance to reproduce its species, when deciding what action to take in a situation where the consequences are not immediate. In a nutshell, Morality is the brain's code of conduct for species survival.

Each person initially learns what is customary from those around them. They may go on to reappraise the issue and form their own conclusions, especially when adapting to changing circumstance. Inappropriate codes of conduct lead to cultural and tribal annihilation. Different communities in different circumstances or niches inevitably evolve different codes. Thus, morality becomes a plastic thing. In this respect, morality appears subjective.

But the reality beneath is that the criteria for optimal action are wholly objective; the laws of Darwinian evolution.

Of course, this may not be the kind of realism you had in mind.


For me "to have a certain moral criterion" is both simple but at the same time a central critical but hard position in any useful philosophy. This world perceived and thus reflected in human mind is nothing but metaphors. And since they're just metaphors, no two persons will share EXACTLY same view about a common real world existence judged from their own experience, thus there'll always be dispute and disagreement about a universal moral criterion.

But lack of this universal criterion, by no means we should not pursue "morality" ethics for ourselves as an individual. On the contrary, it's the most precious key element to help oneself to attain a more closer metaphorical knowledge about this elusive unknowable ontological real world. Because metaphors reflected in our mind are full of confusions to different degrees, for math concept like "2", the confusion is much less, but for a social concept like "this app is good", its much much more confused and not clear-cut for various people. The final criterion for individual either as a academic researcher or a social engineer, is to be "completely honest" to yourself and also extend your same complete honest views to others (even though it's not the case, but chances are if you are honest enough, it will be the case most likely). Only through this "complete honesty" morality, one can have a criterion to improve his or her previous formed views and thus opinions, otherwise no progress will be made. Everyone just continues to live his or her original confused world forever.

Sounds simple, however unfortunately, in reality many people will not or cannot face and claim full honesty to themselves due to lots of other pressures or reasons...

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