Saturday, 18 March 2017

Guy Kahane on why and when it matters to believe that nothing matters

Guy Kahane recently (2016) published a paper called “If Nothing Matters”,[1] which attempts to settle the question whether it matters whether or not anything matters. Kahane’s answer: it doesn’t matter if there is anything that matters, but what does matter is whether or not we believe that something matters.

The paper starts with a brief description of Richard Hare’s argument in “’Nothing Matters’”, which I have discussed in a previous post. To recall, Hare argued that things only matter if they matter to someone, so that as long as something matters to you, you cannot truthfully say that nothing matters. To do so would be a contradiction. Since for most of us most of the time something matters, it is generally not true that nothing matters. Though I’m not usually a fan of Hare’s, I find this argument rather elegant and quite persuasive in its simplicity. Kahane, however, rejects it offhand - curiously without making any serious attempt to actually refute it. Apparently he thinks that Hare’s argument is so obviously misguided that it doesn’t really need a rebuttal. Hare got it wrong, he simply declares, because “there really are things, like suffering, that objectively matter”. (p. 2) This is, then, what people mean when they say that nothing matters: that nothing matters objectively. Things may still matter subjectively (i.e., we find something worth doing) but if they don’t matter objectively (i.e., it really is worth doing), then they don’t really matter at all. That nothing matters objectively Kahane takes to mean that the universe is “devoid of value” and that, accordingly, even the grandest achievements are actually worthless (p. 1). The view that nothing matters can therefore be understood as a form of evaluative nihilism (i.e., the view that nothing is worth anything).

Kahane contends that this nihilist view is quite common among today’s metaethicists (which supposedly was not the case in the 1950s when Hare wrote his paper). Unlike Hare’s Swiss student who clearly believed that whether or not things matter is a matter of great consequence, today’s nihilist metaethicists do not seem to care very much one way or another. They conclude that nothing matters, but are quite happy to carry on as before and to expect everyone else to do the same. They appear to think that it doesn’t matter whether or not things matter. The lack of objective value in the universe does not seem to bother them, let alone plunge them into despair (as it seems to have happened with Hare’s student). That is because they do not see any reason for it. Now, given their commitment to evaluative nihilism, this actually seems quite consistent. After all, if nothing matters, then this – the fact that nothing matters - doesn’t matter either. Or in other words: it cannot possibly be bad that nothing is really good or bad. Kahane agrees with this: if we “take evaluative nihilism seriously enough, then anxiety about it makes little sense.” (p. 5). Generally speaking, then, nothing follows from evaluative nihilism. What matters to us will continue to matter to us, whether or not it objectively matters. Perhaps, if nihilism is true, we have no good reason to pursue whatever it is that we are pursuing in life, but the point is that we have no good reason not to pursue it either. Things are just the same as ever. Nihilism has, as Kahane says, “no normative implications. It cannot make the world bad or worse, or give anyone reasons to do or feel anything – or, for that matter, not to do or feel something. (…) The truth of nihilism, the total absence of all value, makes no normative difference.” (8)

However, what might make a difference, according to Kahane, is whether or not we believe in nihilism. This is not because believing in nihilism would logically commit us to stop valuing things. As we have seen, it does no such thing. It may, however, still have some causal impact on our attitudes. “What matters is how a person’s psychology would respond to a belief in nihilism.” (p. 9-10) So how would it respond? Kahane thinks it is very likely that belief in the truth of nihilism will result in the loss of our substantive evaluative beliefs. In other words, if I truly believe that nothing really matters, then I will also believe that this (whatever ‘this’ is) does not really matter. To hold that even though nothing matters such and such does in fact matter is as inconsistent as not believing in witches and at the same time insisting that so-and-so is a witch. Consequently, if we believe that nothing matters, we will most likely also believe that, for instance, suffering does not matter, i.e. that it is not really bad (even though it may continue to appear bad to me). But usually our subjective concerns are not independent of our evaluative beliefs. If I think that such and such is really bad, then I am likely to be concerned about it. Conversely, if I don’t think that such and such is really bad, then I am much less likely to be concerned about it. Accordingly, if I don’t think that suffering is really bad (that it matters whether or not people suffer), then I am less likely to be concerned about people’s suffering. We will stop caring, or not care that much anymore. (Note that this effect would ensue even if nihilism was false. This is very important for Kahane’s argument: it is the belief in nihilism that causes our subjective concerns to change and diminish.) Admittedly, some basic animal drives and motivations (like our aversion to pain, hunger, or cold) might survive the nihilist onslaught, but everything else including our “moral principles and ideals, and even (…) our long-term prudential goals” (17) would most likely not.

Assuming that we have followed Kahane so far and are willing to accept his claim that belief in the truth of nihilism is likely to undermine our subjective concerns, we might be inclined to think that such an outcome is not exactly desirable. People should care, and if believing in nihilism makes people care less about things (including justice and fairness, and our interests in general), then surely we have every reason to dissuade people from such a belief. It would be bad for them, and most likely bad for us, too. Kahane, however, disagrees, on the grounds that if nihilism is in fact true, then nothing matters, and if nothing matters, it doesn’t matter whether or not nihilism affects subjective concerns and what those concerns are. If evaluative nihilism is true, then whatever the actual effects of a belief in nihilism may be, it is all the same because none of it matters.

And now Kahane’s argument is getting really interesting. It takes the form of a variation of Pascal’s famous wager. After denying that the likely psychological effects of correctly believing in nihilism would give us any reason to avoid and discourage such a belief, Kahane goes on to argue that those effects would, however, matter if nihilism were false, i.e, if things actually did matter. Because then we would “no longer recognize the values and reasons out there” (p. 19), and this would be very bad indeed. Such an outcome would be “very harmful”, “disastrous” in fact, because it would lead to “many bad consequences, both prudential and moral, and might be bad in itself”. That is why, while we have no reason to fear nihilism, we have plenty of reason to fear “mistaken belief in nihilism” (p. 19).

To sum up: if nihilism is true, then we have nothing to worry about whether or not we believe that it is true, and if nihilism is not true, then we still have nothing to worry about as long as we don’t believe it’s true. But if we believe nihilism is true while in fact it is not true, then we are in big trouble. Since not believing in nihilism will not harm us either way, it follows that we have good “pragmatic reasons to believe (or to try to make ourselves believe) that nihilism is false” (p. 19) and indeed to avoid and suppress “anything that might lead us to believe in nihilism” (p. 21) Let us call this Kahane’s Wager.


Kahane’s argument is intriguing, but it seems to me that it suffers from a fatal flaw. Right from the start, it is simply assumed that it makes good sense to say that something matters objectively. But what exactly are we saying here? I find this far from clear. Kahane mentions suffering as an example of something that (quite obviously) matters objectively. Let us see whether we can figure out what that means. Clearly, my suffering matters to me. Whether or not I suffer and how much I suffer makes a huge difference to me. I cannot be (or at any rate, I am not) indifferent to my own suffering. Other people presumably feel the same about their suffering. In addition, most people are also concerned about other people’s suffering, though in varying degrees and generally not in the same degree that they are concerned about their own. But it often does matter to them. People, as a rule, are not entirely indifferent to the suffering of other people (or, for that matter, animals). So (my and possibly your) suffering matters to me, and (your and possibly my) suffering matters to you. But that would still only be subjective mattering, wouldn’t it? There is, after all, someone to whom it matters. If it matters to someone, it matters subjectively. Admittedly, it might also matter objectively, but in that case it cannot simply matter objectively because and insofar as it matters to someone, because then what matters objectively would be indistinguishable from what matters subjectively. If there is a difference between subjective and objective mattering, then there must be some way to distinguish the two. It must be, in other words, (at least theoretically) possible for there to be objective mattering without subjective mattering. So what we seem to be saying when we insist that suffering matters objectively is something like this: that my suffering would still matter even if it did not matter to me or to you, or to anyone at all. Suffering would still matter even if there were nobody to whom it mattered. But once again, what does that mean? Perhaps we are tempted to say that it means that even if it does not matter to anyone, it should matter to us. But that does not really get us anywhere. If someone asks us why suffering should matter to us if it does not already do so, all we could say is that it should matter to us because it does matter, namely objectively. We should attach importance to it because it is important (though for and to no one in particular). A prescriptive interpretation of supposedly objective values thus merely begs the question. We have just deflected from the problem instead of solving it. So, one more time, what does it mean that suffering matters objectively? Frankly, I don’t have the slightest idea, and what is more, I doubt that anyone really understands this claim, not even Kahane himself.

Let us now turn to the argument itself or that crucial portion of it that I have called Kahane’s Wager, which relies heavily on the notion of objective mattering (that is, things being objectively valuable). More precisely, the argument relies on a distinction between two levels of reality: the subjective and the objective. These two levels of reality are thought to be ontologically independent of each other. It is possible that things matter to me subjectively even though they do not matter objectively. It is also possible that things do not matter to me subjectively while they do matter objectively. It is even possible that they matter both subjectively and objectively, but that I am completely mistaken about how they matter. I may for instance think that suffering is bad, while in fact (objectively) suffering is good. (Kahane explicitly allows for this possibility, but thinks – for, as far as I can see, no compelling reason - that such a value reversal is rather unlikely.) This separation explains why, as Kahane puts it, “the truth of nihilism makes no normative difference.” Whatever matters or does not matter objectively, it has no effect whatsoever on what matters subjectively.

Now, Kahane’s Wager is modeled on Pascal’s wager. Pascal’s wager works because it is assumed that it may make a huge difference whether or not we believe in God. There is a lot at stake here, a lot to be gained and lost. Eternal rewards and eternal punishments are both possible. If I believe in God and there is no God, I don’t lose much, but if there is, then the rewards are immense. If I don’t believe in God and there is no God, then I don’t really gain anything, but if there is, I may have to face eternal damnation. So I’d better play it safe, do the rational thing, and believe. For Kahane’s Wager to work, we likewise need to assume that the consequences of believing in nihilism are potentially disastrous, while we don’t really stand to lose anything if we do not believe in it: if it is not true, then our subjective concerns are justified, and there is nothing bad about that, and if it is, then nothing matters anyway, so that wouldn’t be bad either. But if we do believe in nihilism even though it is not true (which would be the equivalent of not believing in God even though God exists), then this would result in great harm.

The problem with this argument is that it is hard to see in what way exactly mistaken belief in nihilism would be harmful. Remember that nihilism itself is supposed to be not only not harmful: it does not make the slightest difference for how we experience the world. If things did matter objectively and suddenly stopped mattering objectively, or did not matter and then suddenly started to matter, in neither case would we be able to tell the difference. The world as we know it would remain unchanged. (This alone should be sufficient to reject the notion of objective value: following William James’s excellent pragmatist principle that there can be no difference anywhere that doesn’t make a difference elsewhere,[2] the claim that certain things matter objectively is simply meaningless.)

Now, believing that nihilism is true may certainly have consequences: people may get depressed and commit suicide, they may start hurting other people, and do all kinds of other things that we may feel are bad. Obviously, however, if belief in nihilism really does have such consequences, it has them whether or not nihilism is true. Yet Kahane argues that those consequences would only matter (i.e., be bad) if nihilism were not true. Exactly the same consequences would not matter at all if nihilism were true. Therefore, belief in nihilism cannot be thought to be harmful because it has those consequences. It must be harmful for other reasons. But the only difference between correctly believing in nihilism and falsely believing in nihilism seems to be that in the first case our subjective concerns would correspond to objective values (“the value around us”), while in the second case they would not. Everything else would be exactly the same. But then again, a lack of correspondence between subjective concerns and objective value cannot be what makes things bad either, because if nihilism were true and we believed it wasn’t, there would also be a lack of correspondence between subjective concerns and objective value, but that, according to Kahane, would not be bad. So then the only possible reason for thinking that it would be bad if we falsely believed in nihilism, but not bad if we correctly believed in it, is that in the first case the consequences of believing in nihilism would be really (i.e., objectively) bad whereas in the second case they would not be really bad, but only appear to be so. That is, they would only be subjectively bad. But if I mistakenly believe in nihilism, then of course those consequences would not be subjectively bad at all. Since I now believe that nothing matters, whatever results from my belief does not matter to me either, and if we all believed in it, then it would matter to no one. It follows that the consequences of our mistakenly believing in nihilism would be only objectively bad, which leads us right back to our original problem: to understand what we can possibly mean when we say that something matters objectively or does not matter objectively.

[1] Published in Nous (2016), online first:
[2] William James, Pragmatism. A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, New York/ Bombay/ Calcutta: Longmans, Green, and Co 1907, p. 50.

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