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Nihilism is a philosophical paradigm that is often depicted as being wanton and hollow. A philosophy that conjures images of the deepest caverns of self-destruction and consumption by an infinite expanse of meaninglessness. Such an image perpetuated the misconception that the nihilistic philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had died due to syphilis, it appears it may have been cancer [1]. Do harrowing incorrigibility and moral neutrality the true nature of Nihilism? It is certainly easy to make such a rash judgment when you assess the valueless quiddity of this philosophical viewpoint. Would it be possible to find solace, comfort in adopting Nihilism as a worldview? Elimination of a fixed set of moral obligations could potentially alleviate the distress engendered by moral quandaries.

Relinquishing standards make take some of the pressure off your conscience. In contrast, there is also the consideration of how accepting such a view may adversely impact individual deportment. Unfortunately, it is insurmountably difficult to make any definite statements pertaining to the societal impact of adopting a Nihilistic view. There are too many variables to evaluate to determine how it would hypothetically harm society.

Nihilism is formally defined as:

“ the belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated. It is often associated with extreme pessimism and a radical skepticism that condemns existence.  A true nihilist would believe in nothing, have not loyalties, and no purpose other than, perhaps an impulse to destroy.  While few philosophers would claim to be nihilists, nihilism is most often associated with Fredrich Nietzsche who argued that its corrosive effects would eventually destroy all moral, religious, and metaphysical convictions and precipitate the greatest crisis in human history. [2]”

Purely based upon this definition Nihilism is a cumbersome position to defend on a superficial level. This description explicitly entails vail of neutrality that descends into rigid incredulity and negativity. From the standpoint of Nietzsche will invariably lead to conflict. The connotation of the word “conflict” has the implication of violence based on assumption but could be a nonviolent conflict. The crisis that Nietzsche spoke of could be applied to an existential crisis. It could have been a moral crisis. Nietzsche died in 1900 right on the precipice of the 20th Century. The 20th century exhibited a profound deterioration of the norms and values of the Victorian era.

The threshold between the 20th Century and the 21st illustrated not only the same pattern of liberalization of vulgarity by a pronounced decline in religiosity.  The number of reported atheists in North America between 1900 and 2000 increased from went from 2,000 to 1,435,000 [3]. The trend towards secularism has continued beyond the year 2000. Such changes in perceptions present an epistemological threat to those who find atheism and vulgarity objectionable.
Despite our intuitive inclinations to denounce Nihilism and its asserted proclivity for destruction, someone still needs to play devil’s advocate. Are there any substantial benefits of nihilistic thought?  Could Nihilism even potentially have a neutral impact on people and society? While the tendency to view this philosophical school’s abolition of norms as yielding pernicious consequences is reasonable; it is likely we are inferring too much based on too little.

If an ideology or moral framework is value-neutral I would expect it to be relatively inert. Nihilism in its purest form would be relatively passive when compared to the inherently aggressive essence imposed upon it. In theory, if you believe in nothing, stand for nothing, would the strenuous physical exertion required for violence be your first form of recourse? Generally, aggressive behavior is spurred by conviction not an amorphous malaise of amoral skepticism.  To a certain extent, we are so preoccupied with the worst-case behavioral outcomes of Nihilism the incentives for violence haven’t been examined. To have incentives in utilizing violence against another person you must be invested in something to a certain degree. If nothing matters, then it wouldn’t be worth the trouble to use force against another person. Even if you are attempting to rob someone you still value their money and material goods. If the money and material goods didn’t have any value, you wouldn’t bother to steal your neighbor’s Rolex. While the absence of moral pillars is always concerning, it may not seem as concerning after some careful reflection. Depending upon how the definition of Nihilism in interpreted a nihilist wouldn’t even necessarily value material goods.

 

What really fuels my inquiry regarding the conventional view of Nihilism was an article from Psychology Today, There is No Point. The article provided more of a heterodox perspective regarding Nihilism. Professor William Berry expounds on his own personal belief in Nihilism and some of the advantages of this viewpoint. Berry draws upon the running motif of Nihilism in the animated series Rick and Morty. I have personally never seen the show therefore I cannot comment on to what extent it accurately represents nihilistic philosophy.  However, the article quoted the character Morty proclaiming; Season 1, Episode 8:

“ Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere, and everybody is going to die. Come watch T.V.” [4].

Berry elucidates upon Morty’s observation by including an explanation from the Dan Harmon one of the creators of Rick and Morty :

“Knowing the truth, which is that nothing matters, can actually save you … Once you get through that terrifying threshold of accepting that, every place is the center of the universe, every moment is the most important moment, and everything is the meaning of life.” [4]

I wouldn’t recommend watching Rick and Morty in lieu of reading Fredrich Nietzsche. It’s probably best to not be looking solely at cartoons for deep philosophical insights. However, Dan Harmon without a doubt provides a novel approach to Nihilism. Maybe breaking the ridged constraints of concrete meaning we can find a greater sense of transcendence. Odds are we are being too parochial in our approach to having meaning in life. To the extent, we are imposing attitudes that are mutually exclusive from the ethos of Nihilism.  A lack of belief does not guarantee an individual will be more apt to engage in antisocial behavior. That would be analogous to asking an atheist how they abstain from raping and killing people without belief in a higher power. There are some unreasonable assumptions that are implied in such a question.  Being fixated on the potential ills of Nihilism we are completely missing potential benefits. There are norms in society that are somewhat frivolous we are told there is a moral imperative to uphold.  For example, upholding the institution of the family (not necessarily my opinion, but it operates as a good example).

 

If I as an individual opt to never get married and never have any kids, would that be a real travesty?  The pressure in American society to vote, when you only have an infinitesimal influence over the outcome of the election. Violating previously listed norms there is little harm in doing so. In either instance subscribing to Nihilism may relieve some of the social pressures pertaining to those norms. It is fair to state that if it does little in the way of inflicting harm to society, odds are it is a frivolous convention in the first place.

The real trouble becomes is when morals are abandoned, and the actions of the individual are detrimental to society or individuals. That is the prevailing fear of people adopting Nihilism. However, it is unjust to assume that every nihilist would go engage in antisocial behavior. There may be some variation in the applications of Nihilism due to the extent of orthodoxy and interpretation by practitioners. Similar to what we observe in religion.

Regardless of the theological belief system, there is always a spectrum of varying levels of conservatism in belief. Hence the differentiation between more liberal and conservative denominations of Christianity. Applying the worst possible intentions to Nihilism may not be the best approach to grow to understand this philosophical paradigm. Much like any other framework for understanding the world, there are proficiencies and deficits and Nihilism isn’t any different.  Not saying that I am necessarily a convert. However, I assert that it has been sullied by a manufactured image and faulty assumptions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 thoughts on “The Sunny Side of Nihilism

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  2. “However, it is unjust to assume that every nihilist would go engage in antisocial behavior.”

    Perhaps, but how does a nihilist define/identify their own antisocial behavior? You could argue than any social action by a nihilist is, by definition, antisocial.

    IAC, and potentially circular logic aside, it would not seem to be unjust to suppose that nihilists will significantly tend to engage in, or at least be comfortable with their own, antisocial behavior much more often than ‘hilists.’ The burden of interacting with nihilists (the ‘social’ bit) is unchanged, since you could never be sure.

    Liked by 1 person

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