John A. Marmysz – A Prolegomena To Any Future Nihilistic Philosophy
The Anarchist Library
Title: A Prolegomena To Any Future Nihilistic Philosophy
Source: Retrieved 06/18/2022 from nonserviam.com/magazine/issues/16.html
Years ago, I got into an argument with a woman over the merits of an ethics based upon rational principles versus the merits of an ethics based upon personal preference. She was a Kantian; I was a nihilist. There didn’t seem to be any common ground for us to share. Being younger and much less aggressive in my technique of debate than she, I came away from the interaction feeling like I was the loser. My suggestions were dismissed by this woman with a condescending laugh. She would then reassert her own points like they were established facts, gesturing in the air as if to illustrate the “common sense” she spoke.
Well, years have passed and woe be it to that woman if our paths ever cross again. You see, my philosophic self confidence has strengthened over time and now, in retrospect, I recognize the flaws, errors and sophistries utilized by rationalists in general, but which were especially prominent in the arguments of the Kantian in question. Allow me then to draw the battle lines and replay the incident the way it would occur today, showing the full force of the nihilistic viewpoint and the weakness of the opposition. Far from committing the “straw man” error, I will simply show that the rationalists “Kant” provide satisfactory rebuttals to the nihilistic critique.
Kant placed a great deal of emphasis on morality’s rational properties. According to his view, anyone, by an exercise of reason, can deduce the principles and rules that govern correct moral action. Using a kind of naturalistic argument, he concluded that reason, like an organ, must exist for a purpose, and that purpose is to deduce moral imperatives. To live morally is to live in accordance with that imperative deducible by “pure” reason alone—namely the “Categorical Imperative”; the “Golden Rule” by a different name. For Kant, morality possessed a distinct form that could be “summarized” into an overarching principle and the basis for moral action lay in adherence to this principle.
Now, the alert nihilist will pull in the reigns. “Whoah, Kantian! Can we slow down and talk about ‘reason’ for a minute?” Kant and his overzealous advocates cavalierly assert that humans are essentially “rational beings”, as if “reason” is some sort of tangible thing that can be identified by pointing at it. But it is difficult to see the similarity between an organ and “reason”. Furthermore, there are some organs, like the appendix or tonsils, which serve no real purpose and which we can do quite fine without. My first mistake when arguing with “Ms. Kantian” was to indulge her and not challenge her exercise in the reification of “reason”.
But even if I did allow her this step, can’t many things—including incompatible conclusions—be reasoned? Take for example arguments for the existence of God. Suppose someone had the audacity to propose that since God is a perfect being, and since perfection implies existence, God must exist. This argument is perfectly “reasonable”. It moves quite logically from its premises to its conclusion. An equally “reasonable” competitor, however, might argue that if an all powerful and wholly “good” God existed, he wouldn’t allow “evil” in the world. There is evil in the world. Therefore an all powerful and wholly “good” God does not exist. Case closed…at least until the next “reasonable” argument from the other side is voiced. If there is a God, he certainly works in mysterious (not reasonable) ways.
Everyone’s got reasons, and everyone reasons, but the existence of a faculty called “reason” does not follow from any of this. Rather than a thing or a faculty, it may be more accurate to talk about the process of “reasoning”. When we speak about reason, it seems that what we are really talking about is the process of offering reasons in support of a belief, point of view, or conclusion. Reasoning involves the process of argumentation, and arguments can be convincing in two major ways: (1) they can appeal to rationality or (2) they can appeal to intuition. The arguments of a logician illustrate the rational end of the scale. His exercises in the formulae of allowable inference are nearly devoid of content, representing rational, formal relationships between variables. At the opposite end of the scale—the intuitive end—are the “arguments” of the TV telethon host. His ability to convince is based almost totally on formless content. He cries and puts his arms around crippled children, counting on the persuasive power of emotion, accessed by intuition, to trigger an empathic response in others. Somewhere in between these extremes paces the trial lawyer who mixes appeals to rational legalism with emotional appeals to justice and fair play.
The skilled formulation of convincing, rational arguments is learned by devoting much time, effort and many resources to academic studies. It is through this scholarly process of legitimation that one earns the privilege to be taken seriously in the activity of convincing others rationally. Because of the time, effort and resources involved in “earning degrees”, a minority of the individuals in a population will pursue this course. The obstacles emplaced are sufficient to deter most people from completing (or even attempting) a program of academic study. The result is that the skill of rational argument, and the privilege that accompanies it, will be concentrated in the hands of a relatively small number of individuals.