Looking at moral nihilism here:


It's defined as the view that nothing is right or wrong. So it seems to me like a moral nihilist agrees that the words "right" and "wrong" have meaning... but that these categories do not apply to anything in the real world.

So it seems like even the moral nihilist is able to engage in moral discourse.

But suppose someone says all these ethics-related words like "right", "wrong", "good", "evil" are all meaningless... ie: it isn't that nothing is right or wrong. It's that to this person right and wrong don't mean anything. Is this person also a moral nihilist?

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    Yes. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… "J. L. Mackie argues that moral assertions are only true if there are moral properties, but because there are none, all such claims are false."
    – causative
    Commented Mar 3, 2021 at 9:19
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    Can you be persuaded to do something different from what you're already doing? Yes you can. Can you even be persuaded to help other people? Perhaps. This is moral truth: what you can be persuaded to do, after enough time to think it over and consider all perspectives.
    – causative
    Commented Mar 3, 2021 at 9:31
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    It is unclear what saying that moral vocabulary is "meaningless" amounts to, those words are used in sentences and people can tell when they are used "properly". I think, the most one can defensibly claim is error theory a la Mackie - this vocabulary is fictional, a "load of bunk", as SEP puts it more colorfully. What Mackie means by "moral" is objective prescriptivity, there do not exist properties that (categorically) prescribe this or that action.
    – Conifold
    Commented Mar 3, 2021 at 10:17
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    From the POV of a simple (incomplete) deontic logic, it might make more sense to say: the default is that an action is gratuitous, this is the second-order zero point of deontic evaluation, so the moral nihilist claims that everything is gratuitous. (Technically, forbidden acts are gratuitous but this description also ranges over permitted-but-not-obligated actions: an act is gratuitous if it is not positively obligated; the forbidden is negatively obligated, the obligated is also permitted but it is not merely permitted.) Commented Mar 3, 2021 at 15:20
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    Prescriptivity as such is describable in non-moral terms, so it isn't problematic. Mackie can be seen as elaborating on Hume's is-ought guillotine, and Hume also had no problem with the concept of "oughtness" as such. "Ought" can be paraphrased out of conditional imperatives like "one ought to do X to get Y", for example, into "X is a means of getting Y".
    – Conifold
    Commented Mar 3, 2021 at 18:47

3 Answers 3


Depends what you mean by "meaningless".

Obviously, moral discourse means a variety of things to a variety of people, though I suppose Wittgenstein would say it is meaningless, without advocating nihilism. So I suppose you mean normatively meaningless, rather than descriptively so.

If you mean 'false' then "error theory", which seems to have a rich live tradition.

If you mean 'illogical' then at least some forms of non-cognitivism, such as Ayer's subjectivism, would class.


If you believe that right and wrong, or perhaps value in general, merely has no bearing on practical affairs of the world, then you are a practical moral sceptic.


I don't know which philosophers define their contemporary approach with the word "moral nihilism", but there are many historical nihilists


Camus seems to think almost everyone is a "nihilist"

By an “inevitable logic of nihilism” Communism climaxes the modern trend to deify man and to transform and unify the world. Today’s revolutions yield to the blind impulse, originally described in The Myth of Sisyphus, “to demand order in the midst of chaos, and unity in the very heart of the ephemeral” (MS, 10). As does the rebel who becomes a revolutionary who kills and then justifies murder as legitimate.

According to Camus, the execution of King Louis XVI during the French Revolution was the decisive step demonstrating the pursuit of justice without regard to limits. It contradicted the original life-affirming, self-affirming, and unifying purpose of revolt. This discussion belongs to Camus’s “history of European pride,” which is prefaced by certain ideas from the Greeks and certain aspects of early Christianity, but begins in earnest with the advent of modernity. Camus focuses on a variety of major figures, movements, and literary works: the Marquis de Sade, romanticism, dandyism, The Brothers Karamazov, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, surrealism, the Nazis, and above all the Bolsheviks. Camus describes revolt as increasing its force over time and turning into an ever more desperate nihilism, overthrowing God and putting man in his place, wielding power more and more brutally. Historical revolt, rooted in metaphysical revolt, leads to revolutions seeking to eliminate absurdity by using murder as their central tool to take total control over the world. Communism is the contemporary expression of this Western sickness.


I mean you can see the tension there: if God is dead and we cannot put humanity in its place then how can we know our practical obligation etc..


I give a rundown on the twists in the history of the meaning & use of the term nihilism here Who were the famous moral nihilists (philosophers) of 20th and 19th century? Around morality nihilism is especially prone to this framing by those who use it as a pejorative, which is the earlier use of the term, before it became a stance, and still widespread by people who have never genuinely understood any philosophy of nihilism.

Framed by nihilists themselves, it is a generalisation of political nihilism, the rejection of existing political authorities, or of any possible political authority over you. And for moral nihilism, this issue is again about authority.

I argue nihilism is not truly a stance or choice, but a condition like Dukheim's 'anomie'. And that Nietzsche, Kiergegaard and Heidegger, should not be seen as defending nihilism, but rather as responders to it, having accepted it is a hazard - because of the breakdown of coercive universalising metanarratives, ie. 'god is dead'. What's the best way to deal with nihilism?

You cannot coerce someone out of anomie, or demand by your authority they leave it. The same with nihilism. In that dark it takes things like art, and poetry, to build a way out of the meaninglessness. And in morality, it takes existential encounter, and the radical demand for action that is authentic, consonant with someone it is worth being as the way out, not the calculation of rewards or risks, or the authority of someone else's experiences, or a universal metanarrative that has been recognised as obviously impossible any more.

For a moral nihilist, moral claims and laws are not what they appear to be. See Nietzsche on 'slave morality'. Morality through history, has been decided by an elite, then enforced by coercion, and pursuasion. We should be sceptical of that pursuasion, because it has typically preferenced the elite. And Nietzsche talks about a new problem, of kind of lowering moral thinking to the 'lowest common denominator', and ending up with the mindset of 'the last man', rather than recognising our moral autonomy, and taking responsibility for our moral choices and the world they make, rather than sleepwalking into a default morality, imagining no other world had been possible.

I recommend reading a more nuanced reference source on a topic like this. Try:

for an overview, and context on the issues.


If we assume, "If a term has no meaning, then that term applies to nothing," and, "Deontic terms apply to nothing = moral nihilism," then there is a direction of implication:

Moral asemanticism ➪ moral nihilism

But not strictly:

Moral nihilism ➪ moral asemanticism

One could imagine, for example, that something being right depended on God's occurrent commands, which would be the meaning of the term "is right," but that God had disappeared somehow and did not occurrently command anything, so moral nihilism was true for the time being; or there are multiple universes, some of which include applicable deontic terms, but we don't live in one of those; etc.

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