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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Friday, December 17, 2010

Kenan Malik on the Stockholm bombing

Great essay by Kenan Malik, and I can get behind most of it.

I only object to the term "moral nihilist" being applied to al-Abdaly. I realise that it's not meant in the technical sense, but it's still misleading. More likely, the guy was the very opposite of a moral nihilist; he was a fanatical moral absolutist, and this is something well worth emphasising. Fanatical moral absolutism is a far greater danger to us than any sort of nihilism that really deserves the name.

Genuine moral nihilists tend to pretty nice people, and morally good ones by any standard of morality that is likely to attract approval here at the Hellfire Club. In fact, the world might well be a kinder, gentler place if most of us were moral nihilists. Someone needs to write a book on the virtues of moral nihilism.


Camus Dude said...

I'd write a book on the virtues of nihilism, except that it would probably just come off as self-serving tripe!

I'm sure you're familiar with Richard Garner's Beyond Morality, and perhaps even Josh Greene's dissertation. Both are error theorists, essentially, who propose discarding moral realist talk, discussing the benefits of such in depth.

Kenan Malik said...

Russell, many thanks for flagging up the essay. You’re right, I was not using the term ‘moral nihilism’ in a technical sense, but rather as a way of challenging the idea that actions such as al-Abdaly’s have a moral or political content, rooted in opposition to Western foreign policy or Islamophobia. However, I’m not sure that in doing so, I’m stretching the term beyond comprehension. Al-Abdaly was a nihilist in the sense that in his eyes even the mass slaughter of a group of randomly selected people on a Stockholm street was not morally wrong. This may not be the way that a moral nihilist like Mackie conceived of the concept of nothing being morally wrong (one presumes that al-Abdaly must have thought that certain actions – Western intervention in Afghanistan, for instance – were morally wrong), nor the way that you yourself would want to conceive of al-Abdaly (I accept that ‘moral absolutist’ is a useful description given that he would most likely have though of such mass slaughter as morally right). But there is, it seems to me, a sense in which al-Abdaly is a moral nihilist, in that what most people would recognize as a moral wrong, he does not. Of course, that might simply suggest that I, too, am being a moral absolutist ☺.

Russell Blackford said...

Camus Dude - yeah I had Garner, Greene, and Mackie in mind, among others.

Kenan - 1. I'd just say he subscribes to a destructive moral system. Or if I want to get objectivist about it, and ignore my official metaethical position (roughly, Mackie's), I'd say a destructive and false moral system. Certainly not a moral system that's justified by the values recognized by most people.

2. I'm honoured to see you turn up here.

Shatterface said...

Is it possible to be moral absolutist towards other people - to the point one can judge them unworthy of life - while morally nihilistic towards yourself - to the point you no longer feel bound by public restraints?

Alex SL said...

Maybe I misunderstand the word, but can anybody actually be a moral nihilist in practice? It is all nice to try to come across as incredibly philosophically sophisticated and cynical as a mannerism, but how would you take any action or make any decision in your life if you truly believed that morality does not exist?

Does the fact that a self-proclaimed nihilist is a nice chap show that he really isn't a nihilist?

Russell Blackford said...

Certainly you can. Read Garner's book, or Mackie's.

Alex SL said...

Hm. Yes, I do not have the time now to read those books, but I am not sure that this is an answer. To rephrase: the fact that you do not sit around, drool and decompose proves (to me) that you have actually decided to go with some set of morals, no matter what you say. If you decide on any course of action relative to your fellow humans (and, some might argue, any other life form) whatsoever, you must have made value decisions that must have been based on what we call morals.

Pretending to be a nihilist seems about as self-defeating as pretending to be a solipsist. You cannot, in practice, live in that way, except by crawling under a blanket and ignoring the rest of the universe.