When I was a grad student and a nihilist, I perceived that my closest professors also held nihilist assumptions, but they didn’t draw nihilist conclusions. Of course this is still going on.
They too believed that judgments of good and evil have no rational foundation, but went about their daily life as though this made no difference. They married, raised families, gossiped and argued as though these things actually made sense.
In a certain sense, so did I. I took care of my children; I didn’t take up with other men’s wives. But it bothered me that on my assumptions the central concerns of my life were mere preferences -- and it didn’t seem to bother them that on their assumptions the same thing was true of all of theirs.
My supervising professor found my attitude amusing. Existential anxiety is so old fashioned. Why all the anguish? We’re not nihilists, we’re liberals. Since judgments of good and evil have no rational foundation, why, then, we’ll all just get along.
This was expressed with many references to non-judgmentalism, moral neutrality, purely procedural democracy, John Rawls, and the virtue of doubting everything, which my supervisor called negative capacity.
But if judgments of good and evil have no rational foundation, I wondered, then why is getting along any better than cutting each other’s throats, and why is being doubtful about it better than being certain? I saw my professors as smart but weak-nerved thinkers who couldn’t face the implications of their nihilism. I resolved that my nerves would be stronger.
In aftertime (no longer a nihilist), I came to think I was mistaken. There are no nihilists; there are only pretended nihilists.
The soft sort of nihilist certainly draws some of the conclusions of his premises: Duties can’t be shirked, but preferences are infinitely fluid. So if there are no duties, but only preferences, nihilism gives him a pre-arranged excuse for – why, anything he might need one for. Of course the only reason one needs to prepare excuses is that one does know one’s duties. So he isn’t really a nihilist after all.
But I was pretending too. I thought I could accept my duties; what I couldn’t accept was that I had not made them myself. I would rather have had Nothing than submit. But then – even if not for the reason my supervisor gave – his mockery was right. For why all the anguish?
After all, I had got what I wanted.