Charles R. Pigden holds a particularly strong view of moral nihilism.
I think (as a first approximation) that moral judgments, specifically moral judgments concerning the thin moral concepts (“good”, “right”, “ought”, “wrong”, etc.) are propositions, that they are (in the current jargon) truth-apt. And I think they are all false. For there are no such properties as goodness, badness, wrongness or obligatoriness. You can’t do genuinely good deeds since there is no such property as goodness for your deeds to instantiate: at best they can be good in some watered down or ersatz sense. Pigden, Charles. “Nihilism, Nietzche, and the Doppleganger Problem,” in A World Without Values: Essays on John Mackie’s Moral Error Theory, Richard Joyce and Simon Kirchin (eds.)I agree that moral propositions are truth-apt.
I think that some moral claims are true.
That is to say, there are propterites properly called “goodness”, “badness”, “wrongness” or “obligatoriness” that are real. Consequently, a person can do genuinely good deeds since there is a property of goodness that those deeds can instantiate.
To be clear . . . what Pigden calls “goodness” – that does not exist.
Imagine a person claiming, “I am an oxygen nihilist. By “oxygen”, I mean atoms whose nuclei have 8.5 protons. Atoms whose nuclei have 8.5 protons do not exist. Therefore, there is no such thing as oxygen.”
The argument is valid. The premises, as written, are true. The conclusion, therefore, is true. However, it would be a mistake to claim that the oxygen nihilist is denying the existence of the same thing everybody else is talking about when they talk about oxygen.
My claim is that the “goodness” that everybody else is talking about (that exists) is not the same “goodness” that Pigden is talking about (that does not exist).
If Pigden took his nihilism too far, then one would wonder how he could ever make a decision. Why not stick his hand in a hot fire unless there is some reason for him not to do so? Pain – or, more precisely, the aversion to pain - provides an effective reason.
The propositions, “Sticking my hand in the fire will cause me to have an experience of pain,” and “I have an aversion to having the experience of pain” are both truth-apt statements. And, in fact, they are sometimes true. Pigden should have no trouble with this.
The propositions, “For Pigden, sticking his hand in a fire will cause him to experience pain,” and “Pigden has an aversion to having the experience of pain” are also truth-apt and, under at least some real-world circumstances, they would be true.
Which means Pigden has a reason not to stick his own hand in a fire.
Still, it is not necessarily the case that I have a reason to put Pigden’s hand in a fire. If I had an aversion to Pigden experiencing pain, then I would have a reason not to put Pigden’s hand in a fire (or, actually, a reason to refrain from anything that would bring about a state in which Pigden experiences pain. In the absence of such an aversion on my part, I have no such reason.
Still, it is the case that Pigden has a reason to cause me to have an aversion to him being in a state of pain. This is a truth-apt statement that happens to be true. It is also true that, through the use of rewards and punishments, Pigden has the power to cause others to have an aversion to things that could result to Pigden being in pain. Therefore, Pigden has a reason to use rewards and punishments to bring about those aversions.
I am going to add that praise serves as a type of reward and condemnation serves as a type of punishment when it comes to creating desires and aversions in others. Consequently, the reasons to reward and punish are also reasons to praise and condemn.
I would bet that there are a lot of people who have reason to use rewards such as praise and punishments such as condemnation to promote in others aversions to that which would result in them being in pain. This, too, is a truth-apt proposition that happens to be true.
So, let us take, “X is wrong” to mean, “People generally have many and strong reasons to use rewards such as praise and punishments such as condemnation to create an aversion to doing X”.
Or, “X is obligatory” to mean, “People generally have many and strong reasons to use rewards and punishment to promote an aversion to not doing X”.
Now, for the sake of efficiency, we are going to add the praise and condemnation into these statements as an extra bit of flavor. So, the person who says, “X is wrong” not only reports that people generally have many and strong reasons to use rewards and punishments to promote an aversion to doing X,” but also to deliver the condemnation that the statement calls for.
Now, we have a truth-apt statement that at least can be true.
The statement can also be false. People may believe that they have reasons to condemn an action when, in fact, they do not. They may believe that an angry god will punish them if they do not condemn an action when, in fact, no such god exists. They may think that they have reason to promote total obedience to the king in order to have a peaceful and well-ordered society when, in fact, it promotes a type of exploitation that people generally actually have reason to avoid.
When people say, “Lying is wrong” in this sense, they are not saying that everybody has a reason not to lie, or even that lying as an intrinsic “ought not to be doneness”. They are saying that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to lying while, at the same time, condemning those who lie as a way of promoting that aversion.
These statements are still truth-bearing. If there is an objection to be made, it cannot be made on the basis that these claims are false. The only objection that can be made is that these truths do not deserve to be called moral claims.
Why use this as an account of what people mean when they make moral claims rather than Pigden’s account?
The short argument is that it obeys the Principle of Charity. The Principle of Charity says that the presumption favors the interpretation that maximizes the truth value of that which is being interpreted. On this measure, an error theory (every moral claim that anybody has ever made is false) utterly fails when compared to this alternative.
The second argument is an extremely long argument. This argument says that the interpretation offered above can make sense of a huge amount of morality. It makes sense of having three moral categories for action (obligation, non-obligatory permission, and prohibition), the concept of “excuse”, the concept of supererogatory action, “ought” implies “can”, the dominant use of rewards/praise and condemnation/punishment in morality, the truth-bearing aspect of moral statements as well as the emotive aspect.
Of course, it would take a huge amount of space to prove this – which is why I won’t do it here. However, this would be how such an argument would go.