It has been observed, in a discussion amongst my friends, that most moral nihilists appear to be very privileged, socially. They tend to be men, white, middle-class or higher, very well educated, and otherwise at – if not the zenith – a fairly substantial level of comfort and security.
This is an interesting observation, because it seems consistent with much of the social science scholarship I’ve read on sacred principles, morality, group identity, and political struggle.
There are two reasons why privilege might be, generally, a precondition for nihilism. One is the conditions of life and whether they allow for the time to be philosophical and abstract. If you’re working all day with your hands, and the availability of food, rest, and safety from violence is an ever-present concern, asking ‘what does it all mean?’ is just too self-indulgent. And the other is the pressing urgency of morality – understood as a community feature and process, rather than a sphere of enquiry – to political struggle. If your life is a struggle, you don’t have the ability to question your principles or closely-held beliefs. But we’ll also see this in non-liberal societies. In kinship-based societies or ones held by powerful nationalisms, people can’t question the principles that tie together the community and warrant in-group chauvinism. So we not only need economic privilege of a certain degree, but a liberal mode of subjectivity where the individual is the centre of personhood and moral activity.
What are the implications of this? Well, I can think of a few. First of all, nihilism is not sustainable. If we collectively hold that nothing matters, we will fall apart as a community. Yes, we might still pursue mechanisms of personal security and interest aggregation, but the sorts of cultural commonplaces that give us meaning in our lives will eventually dry up. Anomie will consume us. Luckily, I don’t think this is even possible simply because I think that people are, usually, unable to actually be true nihilists. But we should be willing to think utopian for a moment, to imagine certain ideal states of affairs that follow from our moral reasoning. In following that reasoning, we come to the conclusion that nihilism is not desirable except perhaps to provide a critical voice by a few tragic philosophers. Second, we can see that many of our liberal principles have the potential to lead to nihilism once they are generalised and once the aspirations they entail are achieved throughout society. We want liberal subjectivity, liberal personhood, enormous socio-economic freedom, and a political system that represents our will as people, while avoiding a tyranny of the majority. But how can we achieve this sustainably?
This inexorably returns me to the idea of deliberative democracy. Only with ongoing public discussion over meaning can we maintain our cultural commonplaces while still achieving our liberal values. We must accept the importance of Principles, of sacred values, in keeping our community safe and free. That doesn’t mean we should abandon critical discussion over them, but it does mean that we need to keep some ideas special: not immutable but nevertheless central and univeralisable.