Thus far I have only hinted at my normative ethical views and implicitly admitted that they are neither objective (that is, existing independent of desires, feelings, perceptions, and opinions) nor universally binding. I further admit that I would find the world more convenient if (a) there were objective, universal principles and (b) those objective, universal moral principles conformed to the moral principles I believe in and attempt to live by. And, of course, I would find a world where (a) was the case but (b) was not the case very inconvenient.
However, the best available evidence and the best explanation for that evidence suggest that neither (a) nor (b) is the case. The reason for this is rather simple: it really is impossible to reason from an is to an ought, as Hume recognized three centuries ago.* This fundamental principle can be stated in a variety of ways. For example:
“Even if a particular action is or would be useful, helpful, or desirable to some person or group of people in some way, it is not possible to establish that a person must, ought to, or has a duty to value that action merely because it is useful, helpful, or desirable.”
“Even if all people do desire a particular thing or have a particular goal, this is not proof that any given person must, ought to, or has a duty to value that thing or have that goal.”
To use a particular goal as an example: “There is no obligation to value one’s own happiness, and even if one values one’s own happiness, there is no duty to at the same time value the happiness of others. Even though many people do value their own happiness, it does not follow that they must or are obligated to do so.”
Furthermore, even if the consequences of having a particular set of values would be undesirable or inconvenient, it does not follow that one must not hold or attempt to live by to that set of values. The empirical fact that people generally won’t doesn’t mean they mustn’t.
Some may criticize these points for having no practical significance, but the truth is that they have immense practical significance: they show that people are not required to embrace, adhere to, or live by any particular set of values, and that they can change their values any time. This means that nobody who is persuaded by these arguments will hesitate to alter their moral views if they find grounds for doing so. All such grounds are treated as subjective and non-universal, but all moral beliefs and principles are in fact grounded in subjective, non-universal factors regardless of whether the people who advocate and seek to live according to any particular moral beliefs and principles recognize it or not, so this is not valid grounds for criticizing meta-ethical nihilism.
Whether meta-ethical nihilism and moral skepticism open up the floodgates for all forms of behavior regarded as immoral by the majority of people to be normalized or treated as moral is a moot point: those floodgates have been open since time immemorial. If human history shows us anything, it is that people are capable of justifying literally any course of action to themselves and convincing others to go along with it, at least for a time.
Thus, recognizing that there are no objective or universal moral principles will probably not make people more immoral by the standards of, say, Enlightenment Humanism and Utilitarianism. It is true that people who embrace meta-ethical nihilism believe the moral standards and principles of these philosophies lack any kind of ultimate justification, but they also have the same attitude towards all other moral philosophies too, including those which, say, consider mass murder a good thing. And people who embrace meta-ethical nihilism are probably less likely to participate in in a moral panic that will be condemned and/or regretted by later generations, and are probably less likely to take part in a movement that causes mass suffering in the name of the good or some proxy for the good.
I would further point out that it is not those who don’t believe in objective or universal moral principles who have perpetrated the worst atrocities in human history by the moral standards of modern philosophies like Enlightenment Humanism and Utilitarianism. Rather, the most far-reaching atrocities in history have been committed those who do believe in objective, universal moral principles, particularly by those who believe the achievement of what they deem a “moral” society or world is guided by universal, immutable historical laws (such as Marxists and fascists, but also “true believer” Muslims and Christians), but also by those who don’t believe in some degree of value pluralism (which is, frankly, most people in most societies throughout history, the modern period not excepted).
To clarify, the immense value philosophies like Enlightenment Humanism and Utilitarianism place on human life, liberty, and equality before the law are the exception and not the rule in human history, including many present-day societies. Thus, my using them as exemplary of the standard moral worldview of the day shows my biases, but to repeat, these biases are subjective. In other words, I do not value these philosophies more than Marxism, Christianity, Islam, et al., because I am required to do so; rather, I choose, or at any rate perceive myself to choose to do so.
* Except, as discussed in an earlier post, in the context of a social institution such as contracting, in which, even though an is entails an ought in that context, there are still no objective or universal grounds for positing an inherent moral duty to keep one’s promises even if one purports to opt into the institution of contracting.