Why Nihilism is OK

Nihilism has taken on many different meanings since its original conception. Some have taken nihilism into the domains of ontology and epistemology, and others have taken nihilism to metaphysics in general. These forms of nihilism are important, but I have little concern for them herein; we can treat them as different, despite apparent similarities, for our purposes. 

And before I move on to the nihilism I have in mind, I likewise want to separate our conversation from moral nihilism. There are two popular forms of nihilism, and one of them happens to be about morality; namely, that notions of good and bad are non-existent or subjective fictions. That view, albeit deserves attention, shall be entirely ignored herein. Our focus is instead on the second popular form; namely, that life is without purpose, mind-independent meaning, or intrinsic value. We can call that second form of nihilism existential nihilism

I stress that nihilism because I believe people tend to think poorly of the view, not because of rational argumentation either. I find people in general cannot palate the conclusions or worldview of existential nihilism. The sort of associations made with those who adopt existential nihilism are less than favourable or flattering. 

In order to demonstrate what I have in mind, I must use archetypal characterizations, so excuse my overgeneralization. 

Those who take issue with existential nihilism, in a non-rational format (personal level), which shall be what I mean from hereon, think a nihilistic life is one not worth living. A life without meaning, purpose, or value is one which ought be avoided by all means possible. 

A nihilist is, to them, someone who is lost in life; someone who knows not who or what they are, nor what value they have to offer to others. Despite the nihilist being content with such affairs, they have pity for the nihilist because of their apparent lack of direction in life. 

To be a nihilist in their eyes is to be aimless, to wander without purpose and achieve nothing. For a life of achievement is one derived from taking aim at something, and to aim at something relies on values. 

And in addition to that, the nihilist is viewed as lazy and sad. They are lazy because they never pursue anything, which is, to them, a consequence of lacking a clear purpose in life. Sad because the nihilist, being so ridden of values and purpose, does not engage in the world around them. They are viewed as passive bystanders.  

So for those who look at a nihilist, that is the negative archetype they see. A life not worth living, a life without purpose, meaning, or value. Someone who is aimless, lost, lazy, and sad. 

Which makes unacceptable the view of nihilism; because a mentally healthy lifestyle in our cultures is one characterized by purpose, value, and meaning. So to be a nihilist is clearly then to be irresponsible with one’s own mental health.

Likewise, to be a nihilist means to derail mainstream values and norms, to take all the things which others suppose to be bearers of meaning and deny their validity as so. That also does little to aid the public image problem with nihilism. 

Nihilism gets a bad reputation then, not by argument, but by negative associations. Nihilism rails against mainstream culture, a culture which encourages the view that a good life is one of purpose, meaning, and value. Nihilism attacks what most people hold to be important. And as a result of that, the nihilists become framed as the opposite of a good life. That is, where a good life is filled with achievement derived from purpose, meaning, and value, the opposite of a life without purpose, meaning, and value must surely be one of little achievement. That is the source of the negative associations made with nihilism.

Now I can see how people could reach such a horrid view of nihilism. It is not entirely unconnected to their axioms. And furthermore, I have also seen, as I am sure others have, people who use nihilism to justify their own poor behaviour: i.e., people who refuse to integrate into society because there are no justifications which are certain or beyond doubt to do so. But, however, the generalization outlined so far, nonetheless, fails to make an accurate picture of nihilism. Nihilism is meant to be a descriptive, intellectual position, not a position loaded with normative claims about how life ought be lived.

Someone who adopts existential nihilism believes purpose and meaning are not mind-independent, objective things in the world. At best, for a nihilist, meaning and purpose are subjective and thus only claimed to be the case for some particular mind rather than reality in general. And they likewise deny intrinsic values, that is, that things are ends-in-themselves; that something has a property inherent to it which demands a certain level of regard and moral treatment. A nihilist rejects that in favour of means-end reasoning; that is, a nihilist views all things as a means to an end, and so nothing is an end-in-itself. Those are the views of the nihilist.

And anyone who attributes more than that to a nihilist is mistaken. Albeit, some nihilists hold more than this in their views, but the general framework of nihilism does not entail aimlessness, a sense of being lost, or even a general disdain for society. Nihilism, at its core, is just another variety of skepticism, except where the skeptic makes no positive claims, the nihilist asserts the non-existence of things. Where a skeptic will doubt morality, a nihilist will assert its non-existence; where a skeptic will doubt intrinsic values, a nihilist will assert non-existence.

So, I cannot see a reason as to why nihilism is an unacceptable view; and I cannot justify the negative associations made with nihilists. I agree that nihilism might be a radically different and foreign view of the world in comparison to mainstream culture, but that should not justify the negative associations made with nihilism. Existential nihilism is ok.


Ideasinhat is a business development analyst and longtime reader of academic literature. He writes books and essays on science and philosophy, and posts them to this website. The essays, as with the books, cover topics from psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science to economics, politics, and law.

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