“Nihilism” (from the Latin “nihil” meaning nothing) is not a well-defined term. One can be a nihilist about just about anything: A philosopher who does not believe in the existence of knowledge, for example, might be called an “epistemological nihilist”; an atheist might be called a “religious nihilist.” In the vicinity of ethics, one should take care to distinguish moral nihilism from political nihilism and from existential nihilism. These last two will be briefly discussed below, only with the aim of clarifying our topic: moral nihilism. Even restricting attention to “moral nihilism,” matters remain indeterminate. Its most prominent usage in the field of metaethics treats it as a synonym for “error theory,” therefore an entry that said only “Nihilism: see ERROR THEORY” would not be badly misleading. This would identify moral nihilism as the metaethical view that moral discourse consists of assertions that systematically fail to secure the truth. (See Mackie 1977; Joyce 2001.) A broader definition of “nihilism” would be “the view that there are no moral facts.” This is broader because it covers not only the error theory but also noncognitivism (see NONCOGNITIVISM). Both these theories deny that there are moral facts—the difference being that the error theorist thinks that in making moral judgments we try to state facts (but fail to do so, because there are no facts of the type in question), whereas the noncognitivist thinks that in making moral judgments we do not even try to state facts (because, for example, these judgments are really veiled commands or expressions of desire). (In characterizing noncognitivism in this way, I am sidelining various linguistic permissions that may be earned via the quasi-realist program (see QUASI-REALISM).) While it is not uncommon to see “nihilism” defined in this broader way, few contemporary noncognitivists think of themselves as “nihilists,” so it is reasonable to suspect that the extra breadth of the definition is often unintentional. Both these characterizations see moral nihilism as a purely metaethical thesis...n
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