I went through a nihilistic phase in my youth.
In my early twenties, I was trying to make sense of the world and come up with a coherent worldview. I was in the process of reacting against the culture around me. It was around this time that I started to explore philosophy in search of answers. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I felt like there was something intuitively wrong with our politically correct culture.
While I don’t recall the exact order of experimentation in my youth, I went through an Objectivist phase. I read Plato and Aristotle. I also went through a long Nietzschean phase. I was a huge fan of Nietzsche in college who had a lasting impact on my moral views. Specifically, it was mainly due to Nietzsche’s influence that I became acutely aware of how morality had evolved over time.
I developed the habit of looking at everything through the lens of history. I began to understand how what passes for morality today – a laundry list of -isms and -phobias – was invented in the 20th century and was propagated through the modern mass media. We take for granted today that “racism” is immoral but the term didn’t exist in the 19th century. The term was just catching on in the 1940s and 1950s and really wasn’t considered the supreme moral failing in America until the 1960s.
I discerned that there was something deeply wrong with America. It seemed like everything around me was in some stage of collapse. The churches were collapsing. Marriages were collapsing. The family was collapsing. Morals were collapsing. As a people, we had lost our sense of identity. We had lost the will to reproduce and perpetuate our own kind. We were happy to let aliens take over our lands. I felt like something had gone horribly wrong and everyone knew that we were hurtling toward the abyss. While science and technology had advanced, the West was in long term cultural decline.
Reading Nietzsche was like a detox. He helped clear my mind of illusions. From that point forward, I couldn’t stand to listen to what passes for modern moral arguments. The claims about human rights are typically flatly asserted. New social pathologies are constantly being invented. I began to see how what was the accepted “mainstream” morality of yesterday had been transformed into the moral failures of the present. We’re seeing this again now in real time with the normalization of transgenderism.
Still though, I didn’t feel like Nietzsche had many answers. Inwardly, I still intuitively knew that some things were moral and other things were immoral and still other things were just made up, even though I couldn’t precisely explain why. I lacked the vocabulary to explain why I felt this way.
That was until I stumbled across this book:
This is how it begins:
“Imagine that the natural sciences were to suffer the effects of a catastrophe. A series of environmental disasters are blamed by the general public on the scientists. Widespread riots occur, laboratories are burnt down, physicists are lynched, books and instruments are destroyed. Finally a Know-Nothing political movement takes power and successfully abolishes science teaching in schools and universities, imprisoning and executing the remaining scientists. Later still there is a reaction against this destructive movement and enlightened people seek to revive science, although they have largely forgotten what it was. But all that they possess are fragments: a knowledge of experiments detached from any knowledge of the theoretical context which gave them significance; parts of theories unrelated either to the other bits and pieces of theory which they possess or to experiment; instruments whose use has been forgotten; half-chapters from books, single pages from articles, not always fully legible because torn and charred. Nonetheless all these fragments are reembodied in a set of practices which go under the revived names of physics, chemistry and biology. Adults argue with each other about the respective merits of relativity theory, evolutionary theory and phlogiston theory, although they possess only a very partial knowledge of each. Children learn by heart the surviving portions of the periodic table and recite as incantations some of the theorems of Euclid. Nobody, or almost nobody, realizes that what they are doing is not natural science in any proper sense at all. For everything that they do and say conforms to certain canons of consistency and coherence and those contexts which would be needed to make sense of what they are doing have been lost, perhaps irretrievably. …
What is the point of constructing this imaginary world inhabited by fictitious pseudo-scientists and real, genuine philosophy? The hypothesis which I wish to advance is that in the actual world which we inhabit the language of morality is in the same state of grave disorder as the language of natural science in the imaginary world which I described. What we possess, if this view is true, are the fragments of a conceptual scheme, parts which now lack those contexts from which their significance derived. We possess indeed simulacra of morality, we continue to use many of the key expressions. But we have — very largely, if not entirely — lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality. …”
I was fascinated.
This sounded to me exactly like the world we live in. Morality has become incoherent and is now commonly dismissed as a matter of opinion or lifestyle preference. The typical moral argument is a SJW asserting and berating you about “human rights” or “racism” and when they can’t explain why these things are supposed to be moral or immoral they summon vicious digital lynch mobs to shame you as a wicked, evil person. A common overreaction to this behavior is to just throw your hands up and cynically dismiss morality as one group trying to impose its will on another group.
In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre offers a powerful historical account of how we ended up in this tragic situation. The Aristotlean tradition was the most powerful school of ethics in Antiquity and was revived during the High Middle Ages. This moral tradition which focused on virtue ethics and formed the background of Western culture was destroyed during the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. The individual was invented by European philosophers in the Early Modern Era and new theories of morality were built around liberal individualism that jettisoned teleology. As the Enlightenment project failed in Nietzsche’s time, morality came to be seen as an individual choice, our common culture began to unravel and individuals were emancipated from authority and tradition only to be cast adrift without moral guidance about how they ought to live their lives.
The modern world is a nihilistic wasteland where moral consensus has become impossible to reach. In this vacuum, unintelligible pseudo-moralities have proliferated and have become embroiled in political conflict which has discredited morality itself. Aristotlean morality used to be teleological. It was directed toward an end or purpose. Virtues were qualities that enabled a person to achieve a moral end. Vices were qualities that prevented a person from doing so. The character of a person was his dispositions and his virtues and vices which are played out in the narrative of his own life.
According to MacIntyre, “A virtue is an acquired human quality the possession and the exercise of which tends to enable us to achieve those goods which are internal to practices and the lack of which effectively prevents us from achieving any such goods….we have to accept as necessary components of any practice with internal goods and standards of excellence the virtues of justice, courage, and honesty” (After Virtue 191).”
He defines a practice as “any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended.” (After Virtue, 187.)
The practices are in turn embedded in social traditions which are passed down through time. “The traditions through which particular practices are transmitted and reshaped never exist in isolation for larger social traditions. What constitutes such traditions?
We are apt to be misled here by the ideological uses to which the concept of a tradition has been put by conservative political theorists. Characteristically such theorists have followed Burke in contrasting tradition with reason and the stability of tradition with conflict. Both contrasts obfuscate. For all reasoning takes place within the context of some traditional mode of thought, transcending through criticism and invention the limitations of what had hitherto been reasoned in that tradition; this is as true of modern physics as of medieval logic. Moreover when a tradition is in good order it is always partially constituted by an argument about the goods the pursuit of which gives to that tradition its particular point and purpose.
So when an institution–a university, say, or a farm, or a hospital–is the bearer of a tradition of practice or practices, its common life will be partly, but in a centrally important way, constituted by a continuous argument as to what a university is and ought to be or what good farming is or what good medicine is. Traditions, when vital, embody continuities of conflict. Indeed when a tradition becomes Burkean, it is always dying or dead. (After Virtue, 221).”
The upshot of all this is that we have been disconnected from our moral tradition and the practices which used to sustain it. As a result, we are unable to make sense of morality, but we know moral and immoral acts when we see them. Morality consists of virtues like prudence, justice, temperance, and courage. It consists of Christian virtues such as faith, hope, and charity. There are many other virtues which make up the moral life: honor, loyalty, fortitude, generosity, kindness, etc.
To be a moral person is to cultivate and practice the virtues that make you a good person. It isn’t bullying someone and behaving viciously to force them to conform to made up taboos.
Note: Before anyone dishonestly accuses of “changing my views” because I am in the midst of some feud, this has long been my views on the subject.