Morality and Why I Abandoned Moral Nihilism

by Witty Ludwig

I have been working on a piece concerning the philosophy of mathematics, but it’s not ready yet.  In the meantime, I thought I would choose a topic that started to interest me a couple of years ago that had formerly held no interest:  ethics.

For many years I felt comfortable with the premise that morality doesn’t really exist;  at least, not in an absolute or objective sense.  I suppose I subscribed to moral relativism to the extent that I didn’t think one culture’s code of ethics could be right or wrong for what could constitute the criterion of correctness?  All very well if you have a god to subscribe to but, for this atheist/naturalist/non-stamp-collector etc., that could never be an option.

Since studying philosophical grammar, ever from the Wittgensteinian perspective, I have had to abandon this, though; or at least to the extent of how I express my disposition towards morality.

I had a discussion with someone not so long ago who offered that atheism, for example, is a man-made concept and so does not really exist, whereas something like a leaf does–  it would exist whether mankind existed or not. 

All this really amounts to, though, is this:  A leaf is a physical object. Atheism is not.  One plays a different role, has a different relevance, in our lives to the other.

As I touched upon in my essay in my first post here, the fundamental mistake gripping the aforementioned person is the belief that a word corresponds to something.  This is not how language functions.

Take, for example, a proposition such as:  Does red really exist?

The problems arise when you try to say something philosophical;  try to express a deep meaning. By this, I mean, in doing this we are trying to examine our words in a context that causes confusion. E.g. when you were a child, or even now as an adult, if someone were to say to you ‘[your name], please could you pass me the red pen on your desk?’– you aren’t suddenly paralysed with confusion and doubt as to what exactly is being asked of you; of the philosophical/existential implications of the words used. You reach over and grab the red pen.

The mistake of thinking red corresponds to something: we didn’t learn of red through discovering ‘red’, as though it were a concept separate and distinct from any other object; it forms part of the grammar of how we distinguish between objects. Should you think you can simply summon the colour ‘red’ in your mind, isolated from any substance, is this red you’re seeing before your mind’s eye or is it amaranth? Or cerise? Or crimson? What could possibly count for a criterion of correctness here? A patch of paper or strip of paint? The use of this word is an intrinsic part of the grammar of our language and we use it meaningfully and effectively everyday in our lives until we force a scientific approach upon it and try to look for it, dissect it, find its essence etc.; apply a word such as ‘exist’ in a context that is completely unnecessary and illogical. It could make sense in a non-philosophical context: e.g.,

“Hey, we should use the colour Carmine– it would work really well in this room.”
–“There’s no such colour as Carmine!”
“Of course there is. Haven’t you heard of it?”
–“Absolute rubbish.”
“Carmine exists!”

It’s when you try to use the word ‘exist’ in some form of existentialist pseudo-philosophy that you fall into traps. Yes, yes, you can talk about the light spectrum and the effect on our eyes etc.; however, it doesn’t solve the philosophical issue because, suppose everyone in the course of time had always been born colour-blind, we would still have distinct rules for how to use colour-words and, let’s pretend ‘red’ as we know it wouldn’t exist to this version of humanity, does that necessarily mean it wouldn’t exist or that it just hasn’t been ‘discovered’!? But then, that would be madness because how would we have any form of reference to know whether our own current faculties are adequate or in fact impaired? And the entire spectrum is actually very different from how we see it?
— Irrelevant. Our words gain their meanings from their use, which is determined by our cultures, our way of life, our history of being, or what-have-you.

Bringing this back to ethics:  Our sense of right and wrong, of ethics, is purely psychological. But that doesn’t make the sensations you feel less real or, better phrasing yet, less relevant to your life within your culture than a pair of shoes you bought recently; hence why the word has meaning. Saying ‘ethics’ doesn’t really exist is nonsensical– we don’t say this in our everyday lives unless we are trying to exclaim something profound or philosophical. Ethical dilemmas present a different psychological state for everyone but ethics plays its role and demonstrates its presence through people’s horror to murder, abortion, theft, etc. within its culture.  Different cultures exhibit different reactions and so we comment on their different code of ethics;  or their lack of ethics, as some judge.

And that’s why I had to abandon my claim that ‘ethics don’t exist’, when expressed normatively.


Wittgenstein on ‘red’ (bold my emphasis):


“I want to restrict the term ‘name’ to what cannot occur in the combination ‘X exists’.– And so one cannot say ‘Red exists’, because if there were no red, it could not be spoken of at all.” [Wittgenstein’s response to himself:]
— More correctly: If ‘X exists’ amounts to no more than ‘X’ has a meaning, then it is not a sentence which treats of X, but a sentence about our use of language, that is, about the use of the word ‘X’.

It looks to us as if we were saying something about the nature of red in saying that the words ‘Red exists’ do not make sense. Namely, that red exists ‘in and of itself’. The same idea– that this is a metaphysical statement about red– finds expression again when we say such a thing as that red is timeless, and perhaps more strongly in the word ‘indestructable’.

But what we really want is simply to take ‘Red exists’ as the statement: the word ‘red’ has a meaning. Or, perhaps more correctly, ‘Red does not exist’ as “‘Red’ has no meaning”. Only we do not want to say that that expression says this, but that this is what it would to be saying if it made sense– that the expression actually contradicts itself in the attempt to say that just because red exists ‘in and of itself’. Whereas the only contradiction lies in something like this: the sentence looks as if it were about the colour, while it is supposed to be saying something about the use of the word ‘red’.– In reality, however, we quite readily say that a particular colour exists, and that is as much to say that something exists that has that colour. And the first expression is no less accurate that the second; particularly where ‘what has the colour’ is not a physical object.