In the comment section of a previous post on moral nihilism and existentialistic fictionalism, Gene Callahan came to the defense of moral realism with a list of important moral theorists who have argued for his position:
See Pythagoras, Lao-Tse, Confucius, Buddha, Zoroaster, Isaiah, Anixamander, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Jesus, Plotinus, Augustine, Avicenna, Aquinas, Leibniz, Kant, Hegel, Bradley, Voegelin, et al. (2500 BCE - 1950 CE) "Why Moral Nihilism Is Booshit," The Journal of the Perennial Philosophy, Vol. α No. ω.
I pointed out in response that a) many those thinkers held mutually incompatible positions, b) many of those thinkers defended morality on religious grounds which I don’t find reasonable to believe, c) those philosophers’ moral views are not necessarily consistent with Gene’s own libertarian views, and d) the argument as offered is technically fallacious. Gene responded:
An argument from authority is bad form only when the person you cite is not an authority in the area you cite him! But in any case, this wasn't an argument, it was a citation.
And, no, I really don't see that much disagreement between them. We even have a straight line of descent running Pythagoras-Socrates-Plato-Plotinus-Augustine that then rejoins the Aristotle-Avicenna branch with Aquinas.
It seems to me that continuing this debate in the form of short comments is not likely to lead anywhere. So let me try to sketch more clearly the problem I have in mind, cherry picking from the beginning of Gene’s list. I'll then offer some thoughts about my own view, and attempt to show why Gene's line of argumentation does not succeed in what it appears to set out to achieve.
I haven't had the opportunity to fully explore Laozi's moral thinking, but it's not clear to me what happens to the concept of ziran if you divorce it from the religious sense in which the Daodejing was advanced. It's surely different to say, "That action is inconsistent with the aim of integrating yourself properly into the natural flow of reality," than it is to say, "It would be morally wrong to fail to integrate yourself properly into the natural flow of reality." And without the religious imperative, it's not clear how we would get from the first to the second. It would seem to me like the best arguments for acting based on the first would be prudential, which would be consistent with moral nihilism.
I've similarly had limited exposure to Confucius' thought, but if I've understood correctly, he places a heavy emphasis on tradition, wisdom, and moral intuition as the sources of ethical norms. To the extent that these things are prudential to adopt and adhere to, the moral nihilist will have no problem. And again, I haven't heard a Confucian metaethical argument that would create real problems for moral nihilism.
Siddhartha's moral thought was, according to the traditions I find most interesting, explicitly fictionalistic. The idea wasn't that morality was important for itself, but rather that leading a peaceful, harmonious life would be useful in the quest to achieve satisfactoriness. This would be perfectly compatible with moral nihilism.
It's been a while since I read Isaiah (or that is, the parts of the book that were supposedly attributable to him), but I don't remember any substantive arguments for moral realism in there -- just a lot of arguments about what people ought to do based on God's law. The significant ethical point in the book, if I remember it correctly, was that God would not accept the praise of those who acted badly (that is, contrary to The Law), and that the mere fact of the covenant would not guarantee protection from God's punishment. Without the religious element, though, it's hard to see how you would get to the same moral conclusions.
Socrates' morality was a hybrid of virtue ethics (which, depending on how one conceives of virtue, can be consistent with moral nihilism) and religion. So far as we ought to do what's "morally right" because it's best for us, the nihilist is going to agree, pointing out that to call that morally right is a bit misleading. So far as we ought to do what's right because of what the Gods will do to our souls, that's just not going to win any arguments.
Plato's account of morality was built on an idea of moral forms which I don't take anyone to seriously accept as true anymore. Accordingly, I don't see why the nihilist would need any response besides, "But Plato was wrong."
Like Socrates' virtue ethical ideas, Aristotle's moral theory was completely compatible with moral nihilism, being based on individuals' pursuing the good life for their own sake. The nihilist would again want to say that the use of the term "moral" here would be a bit misleading.
I could go on, but hopefully the point is clear by now. Moral nihilism is not built on ignorance of past philosophy; it's built on disagreements with certain elements of some philosophers' thought, and built to incorporate other elements of those ideas. Surely the nihilist is not going to say that we ought to simply act according to our unconsidered caprice, or that we should go around killing people. You can still talk about living a good life and living peacefully with others without talking about distinctly moral reasons for doing those things.
The point is just that it's not clear what a plausible moral reason can be based on besides the identification of the implications of one's actions for something that one values. And if one values that thing, then it makes sense to act accordingly -- that has nothing to do with morality. Distinctly moral problems (as opposed to prudential problems) arise only when one tries to make the claim that someone ought to value something that they don't value. Since value is subjective, and since ultimately the universe is just a bunch of stuff in different configurations, it's going to be difficult to ground such an "ought" claim in something “objective” or “objectively true.” As Vichy might put it, all value is ultimately just bias for one sort of thing over another. And the idea that there can be no literal truth to the matter of what one “ought to value” is basically moral nihilism.
But that doesn’t rule out moral argumentation or the adoption of moral attitudes. As I argued, we can have good reason for adopting moral attitudes. And if we acknowledge that our values transform when we recognize certain connections between things, then arguing about values can make sense -- if I lead a supporter of slavery to understand just how much like him are the slaves, he may be led to value them in a way that would make him not want to see them treated without regard for their interests. So as far as moral theories are fictionalistic road maps that show us how our values will change in light of certain features of a situation, they can be perfectly consistent with moral nihilism. It’s only when moral theories try to argue that there is something objective or objectively true about our values (as opposed to their being “impartial” or “natural for humans to accept”) that they run into trouble.
Ultimately, our moral sentiments are rooted in our psychology. Again, moral nihilism does not involve the denial of the fact that we have moral sentiments, that our moral sentiments affect our values, and that there are definite patterns in the way that these sentiments work. It similarly doesn’t exclude the possibility that we might want to choose to adopt certain attitudes that roughly capture those patterns so as to avoid having to fight them. But it does assert that aside from people attributing value to certain things, and aside from the inherent capacity of certain objects to produce valuing reactions in normally functioning human beings, there is no sense in which we can say that they are valuable in themselves. And I think that that’s true.
So I guess my point is that if you want to dispute what I’ve said, it won’t do to say, “Well there were a lot of really smart people who didn’t think that way.” I know that, and I disagree with them. Accordingly, if you’re going to change my mind, you’ll either need to offer a particular argument that I have not considered, or engage what I think. Basically saying, “Go learn about the history of philosophy” is, I think, pretty unfair given my background. That’s not to say that I fully appreciate what everyone has ever said, or that I am not totally ignorant of critically important figures or ideas. I undoubtedly am. But I’ve spent a fair bit of time developing my own views, and I think they’ve at least reached a point where they warrant a response on their own terms.