Nihilism

By Michael Miller
web posted July 1997

The 20th century is one of wars and dictatorships. It opened with the First World War, during which Communist dictatorship appeared on the European fringe in Russia, and following which Fascist and Nazi dictatorships arose in the heart of Europe. Then came the Second World War and the Cold War. Communist dictatorship spread to Asia, Africa and the Americas (Cuba).

Even areas which hadn't arrived at dictatorship were well along the road. They suffered continuous erosion of citizens' rights.

We must learn why! We must know the cause to find a cure.

History is a record of human actions, and human actions are guided by ideas, so we must seek the cause in the realm of ideas.

The catastrophe is global so we must look for ideas with a global reach.

Dictators were installed, and launched their wars, to the approval of millions. Fascism was applauded for making "the trains run on time." Hitler was "just what Germany needed." A Canadian Prime Minister cozied up to the world record-holder for mass murder, Chairman Mao. The Soviet dictatorship had the warm approval of the free world's cultural establishment, up to the moment of its collapse. So we must search among ideas which govern approval and disapproval, moral ideas.

Germany is prominent in the calamities of the 20th century. It was aggressor in two major wars, and was the home of Nazism. The founder of Communism was German, and his ideas were variations on a German theme. Germany is the center of the infection. We must seek a German connection.

It takes about a century for ideas to seep down from ivory towers to infect everyone. So we look for ideas which were new about a century before the First World War, in the late 18th or early 19th centuries.

Following all these clues, we look for a German who introduced a moral innovation about the end of the 18th century, and whose influence was global. Is there such a man?

Yes. He was born, lived and died in East Prussia, 1724-1804. His name is Immanuel Kant. You may not have heard of him, but Kant's influence rules your life in myriad ways. Every major philosophy of the 19th century is based on Kant's. Kant set the terms for every major philosophy of the 20th century. These Kantian offspring saturate the world's cultural establishments. Kant is one of the "Big Three" philosophers, along with Plato and Aristotle. This much is uncontroversial.

The following is highly controversial.

Kant's key moral innovation was to strip self-interest of all honor. No matter whose interest, no matter by what standard it is judged, no matter what consequences follow from it, the fact that it is someone's self-interest damns it!

So what? So Kant's ethics is a morality of evil, as is easily shown.

To act from self-interest is to pursue some value, some good. To reject all self-interest is to reject all good, absolutely and in principle. When good is ruled out, what's left is evil. This is nihilism.

Don't confuse Kantian nihilism with traditional religious morality, which advises men to shun "worldly goods" for the sake of "heavenly goods." Nihilism rejects the good as such, heavenly or otherwise. The saint who pursues heavenly bliss through pious observances and good works wins zero credit from a nihilist. Nihilism credits no-one who seeks, upholds or defends any good whatever.

Nor can nihilism merely be indifferent to good, as is recommended by some codes. Proof of righteousness for a nihilist is pursuit of ruin; it's the only way to be sure his motives are untainted by self-interest.

Nihilism is active evil with delusions of righteousness. And that exactly describes the major horrors of the 20th century! Nazis were regarded by millions as moral idealists! So were Fascists. So were Communists. They all regarded themselves as moral idealists. This is a mystery to those who don't understand nihilism.

Crusading evil is the curse of the 20th century, not only in politics, but in field after field. We have music without tone, sculpture without form, painting without objects, stories without plots, measurement without standards, the list is long and ugly. All are aggressively and righteously promoted. Only a morality without good can explain that! Nihilism could almost be defined as crusading evil.

Nihilism is far from spent; it keeps mutating into new forms. The cure is to obliterate it at the root, but that requires upholding the good as the purpose of morality. And that requires the honesty to recognize self-interest as the motive of morality, and the courage to crusade for it.

But it doesn't require heroic amounts of honesty. How tough can it be to admit that it is selfish to practice what everyone recognizes as morality? That honesty is the best policy? That it is selfish to earn one's living by fair and honorable means? That it is selfish to recognize courage as a practical necessity of life? That it is selfish to define your interests in terms of your real, actual, long range good?

At the most basic level, taught by mothers around the world, how tough is it to admit that it is selfish to be nice to people, to remember your wife's birthday, to be a good friend to your friends, and to greet customers with a cheery smile?

Nor does it require heroic amounts of courage to crusade for self-interest. You can appeal to the example of great philosophers like Aristotle and Saint Thomas Aquinas. They upheld one's own happiness as the goal of a moral life, and one's own virtue as the practical means of achieving it. How scary can it be to uphold a moral tradition of millenia?

Have you the honesty, and the courage, to crusade for selfishness?


You needn't despair at the state of the world, you can become a Quackgrass activist! Copy this article! Keep the original for future copies. Paper meetings with it! Paper your office! Leave a stack on your business counter! If you expect hostility, use stealth and cunning, it'll drive your opponents wild! Be ingenious! Have fun!




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