Philosophy Colloquium: "Nihilism and the Abundance of Values"

Fri, Feb 21, 2020, 4:00 pm to 6:00 pm

Abstract:  Nihilism occupies a puzzling position in moral philosophy.  A few insightful writers, including Nietzsche and several existentialists, treat nihilism as an object of tremendous concern: they take it to be among the deepest and most pressing of ethical problems.  But nihilism as it is typically defined seems inconsequential and easily dismissed; recent treatments of nihilism emphasize the way in which it is rests on dubious assumptions, or is confused, or is unlivable, or lacks practical consequences, or all four.  One possible conclusion to draw is that Nietzsche and others were simply mistaken in thinking that nihilism poses any deep or intractable philosophical problems.  Another possible conclusion is that we have misunderstood the philosophical problem that these thinkers were trying to articulate.  In this essay I will suggest that the latter possibility is actual.  I argue that there is a type of nihilism that poses grave problems for ethical theory.  Nihilism is a view not about the absence of values but about the abundance of values; the nihilist worries not that there are no values, but that there are all too many.  Faced with a variety of competing and potentially incompatible normative claims, the nihilist finds herself unable to articulate an acceptable justification for prioritizing one claim over the others; she thereby finds herself unable to reach determinate verdicts within practical deliberation; and, as a result, she suffers from a motivational problem that I’ll call Normative Dissipation.  Although I think this form of nihilism is suggested by Nietzsche and perhaps Camus, my goals are not at all exegetical: I articulate and defend the relevant form of nihilism without reliance on specific texts.  My focus will be on the philosophical argument rather than its historical provenance.