• Janus
    8.5k
    If the value of life is considered to consist in the overall balance of pleasure and pain, then in attempting to determine such a balance, and thus to ascertain a measure of value, the pains and pleasures that derive from what might be thought as 'illusory' sources must be taken into account as much as the pains and pleasures that derive from the 'real'.

    Nihilists that wish to emphasize the lack of value of life generally ignore this principle, which is nicely explained by Rudolph Steiner, here very roughly paraphrased:

    The idea that feelings of pleasure that come from so-called 'illusory' sources (fantasies, wishful thinking and so on) should not be counted in the ledger of life, is like an accountant who claimed that of all my businesses the profits that come from the manufacture of childrens' toys should not be counted as commensurate with the profits from my other businesses, since they come from the production of mere playthings for children

    One of the arguments nihilists use to support the claim that life is predominately painful is that most of our "so-called pleasures" are of just this kind that derive from mere fantasies (such as fantasies of love, success or religious fantasies of redemption and immortality, and so on), and are rightly negated by the "reality" of our situation. (Note that nihilism is also, by virtue of its rejection of any idea of inherent value whatsoever, logically committed to think of value only in terms of pleasure and pain as such).

    But if mere pleasure and pain, simpliciter, are the only rightful criteria from the considerations of which the value of life is to be judged then any claim as to the significance of the purported 'reality' of the sources of pain and pleasure, or the means used to derive pleasure from life and overcome suffering is utterly unjustifiable.
  • Cavacava
    2.4k
    Hi John:

    I understand that the "value of life is considered to consist in the overall balance of pleasure and pain" is a very old notion. But, I don't agree that pleasure or pain can be ends in themselves, they are always attached to something...such as the pleasure we take in the act of eating.

    It goes to the question of 'what value is'. A judgement, the value of labor, an abstract construction, the measure of exchange. It can be 'real' as it you have it framed, or abstract, objective or subjective. Value as desire perhaps a form of fetishism, where the 'real' becomes idealized...money is happiness.

    I am aware of two forms of nihilism active and passive.

    But if mere pleasure and pain, simpliciter, are the only rightful criteria from the considerations of which the value of life is to be judged then any claim as to the significance of the purported 'reality' of the sources of pain and pleasure, or the means used to derive pleasure from life and overcome suffering is utterly unjustifiable.

    Yes, I think passive nihilism is conceptual, it is not performative.
  • Janus
    8.5k
    I understand that the "value of life is considered to consist in the overall balance of pleasure and pain" is a very old notion. But, I don't agree that pleasure or pain can be ends in themselves, they are always attached to something...such as the pleasure we take in the act of eating.Cavacava

    Hi Cavacava, thanks for responding. I agree that pleasure and pain cannot be "ends in themselves", in fact to show the absurdity of that idea is partly the purpose of the OP. If pleasure and pain are taken as ends in themselves then it seems it can only be the quantity of pain and pleasure, and the balance between them that could be understood to determine the value of life.

    It goes to the question of 'what value is'. A judgement, the value of labor, an abstract construction, the measure of exchange. It can be 'real' as it you have it framed, or abstract, objective or subjective. Value as desire perhaps a form of fetishism, where the 'real' becomes idealized...money is happiness.

    Yes, but if value consisted only in the balance of pain and pleasure, could it matter whether we called it "abstract", "real", "objective" or "subjective"? That is precisely the point!

    Yes, I think passive nihilism is conceptual, it is not performative

    Can you explain what you mean by "passive nihilism" ( as distinct from active nihilism)?
  • Cavacava
    2.4k
    The distinction between passive & active nihilism is taken from Nietzsche. He talks about the meaninglessness of our situation as a transitional step, where we find our self in a desert, with a lack of any way past or out of situation. He thought nihilism as a necessary step to be able to transform our concepts of value to move beyond the inherent paradox of life devoid of any absolute meaning.

    The passive nihilist comes to point of this transformation and then denies any sense to going any further, it makes no sense for the passive nihilist to affirm any values, they see no truth as they step back from the the world by becoming addicted to a form of alienation, weakness, & radical hedonism.

    The active nihilist comes to the same point, but through force of will the active nihilist transforms its value system into one it creates and in doing so is able to embrace the real in a new, un-dogmatic manner, beyond the limits of logic. It is rebellious and destructive of all imposed conventions.
  • Wayfarer
    8.6k
    Pleasure and pain are sensations; so to consider the value of life in those terms is to consider it only in sensory terms. Nihilists generally argue that life is 'predominantly painful', because although they realise that pleasure and pain are two sides of a coin, but they don't see anything beyond the sensory domain. So, whereas for animals, it doesn't matter, as they can't contemplate their own demise, for humans, the knowledge of the transcience of all life gnaws away at them.

    That is why philosophy in the traditional sense was generally concerned with finding something beyond the vicissitudes of the sensory domain. However if you believe that to be a 'fantasy of immortality', then there aren't a lot of options.
  • Janus
    8.5k


    It's interesting: what you say highlights for me the difference between inherent meaning and received meaning. Nietzsche, as I understand him, was reacting against the nihilism inherent in the blind adherence of the "herd" to received values (the "slave morality" of institutional Christianity).

    So, looked at this way the question becomes whether I can see any meaning inherent in life; the other alternatives being that I blindly accept meanings created by others, that is by tradition, (generally fossilized institutions) or that I merely fabricate meaning for myself in a kind of gesture of posturing rebelliously against an unacceptable cosmos.

    In any case, the nihilism I am targeting is mostly the passive variety, as you have described it, but only insofar as it wants to justify itself philosophically by claiming that the only inherent values are pain and pleasure. I say this is self-deception if the nihilist also wants to claim that the life-sustaining pleasures that come from faith (or fantasy) are disqualified, because they cannot be disqualified in terms of mere pain and pleasure; some other extraneous value must be assumed in order to justify their disqualification. Of course, this also goes for the stance of the active nihilist, because to justify a claim that others should share his self-created value he must show that it is not merely arbitrary, and that there are good reasons to share his view. This cannot be done without appealing to something beyond mere pleasure and pain.

    So, the nihilist viewpoint above all nihilates itself, actually nihilates nothing but itself.
  • Janus
    8.5k


    First I would question whether pleasure and pain are merely sensations. Can they not also be emotions?

    Second I would question the nihilist's justification for claiming that life is predominately painful. Whose life? And how would we measure it?

    If nihilist's believe that immortality is a fantasy, then that would be merely an opinion, no? It seems that, from a purely discursive perspective, the truth about this cannot be known, and nor can any opinion about it be, by mere logic, proven, or by empirical (at least as currently understood) enquiry justified.

    My point, in attacking the consistency of the nihilist position, is that in the absence of any values (other than pleasure and pain) to decide on what to believe about immortality (a subject obviously dear to the human heart), they should be thrown back on choosing what is more pleasurable and less painful to believe; because, besides that consideration, it just doesn't matter, according to their own lights, what anyone believes anyway!
  • Wayfarer
    8.6k
    I think of pleasure and and pain as sensations, happiness and sorrow as emotions.

    It was Nietszche who foresaw nihilism as a consequence of the death of God, and therefore the disappearance of the traditional source of meaning; and that became a predominant theme in existentialism, especially Camus and Sartre. So I think they were at least aware of the problem which belief was supposed to remedy, whereas now even that been forgotten. Now it has turned into a kind of indifference, a shrug, a 'whatever'.

    I don't know of any actual nihilist philosophers, but if I did, I wouldn't bother arguing against them, it's like trying to shine a light into a black hole, it will just suck in whatever light you shine on it.
  • Thorongil
    3.2k
    If the value of life is considered to consist in the overall balance of pleasure and painJohn

    Would not the nihilist dispute this very assumption? Steiner's observation would only apply to the nihilist if he ceded this.

    Note that nihilism is also, by virtue of its rejection of any idea of inherent value whatsoever, logically committed to think of value only in terms of pleasure and pain as suchJohn

    Ah, and here is the parenthetical clarification. I don't know why this ought to be the case, so perhaps you can elaborate on this claim.
  • darthbarracuda
    2.9k
    Is it not be the case that a nihilist rejects the existence of impersonal values? It would be impossible to live as a nihilist and believe that one's pleasure and one's pain are value-less and meaningless. Our choices depend on our evaluations of a situation.

    From this it seems that nihilism inherently devolves into crude hedonism. It doesn't matter what the source is, since morality would not exist and aesthetic judgement would be unwarranted. It would be entirely in-the-moment, what are you experiencing right now.
  • Janus
    8.5k
    Ah, and here is the parenthetical clarification. I don't know why this ought to be the case, so perhaps you can elaborate on this claim.Thorongil

    If the nihilist claims there are no inherent values, then nothing can matter except to the individual, and then only insofar as it is conducive to pain or pleasure. It seems obvious that pain and pleasure do, in and of themselves, matter to the individual; and it seems to follow, in the absence of any other value that could make the bearing of necessary pain desirable or the absence of pleasure more easily lived with, that pain should be avoided at all cost, and pleasure should be sought always.

    Nihilism seems logically to lead inexorably to either suicide or hedonism.
  • Janus
    8.5k


    OK, but I was thinking of pain and pleasure in the broadest sense; happiness would be generally pleasurable, and sorrow painful (unless you're a masochist of course).

    I think you're right Nietzsche was acutely aware of the psychological effect of the "death of God"; Camus, on the other hand seems to sneak quasi-religion in with his "sublime indifference". (But then I suppose Nietzsche does too with his Zarathustra).

    I'm surprised you say that you don't know any nihilist philosophers; surely you cannot mean "know of"? There certainly seem to be many nihilistically minded 'would-be' philosophers on philosophy forums. I have toyed with the standpoint myself at times.
  • Janus
    8.5k


    I think a nihilist would be correct to reject "the existence of impersonal values" . It doesn't seem to make sense to say that values exist apart from being held.

    From this it follows that if I want to say there are inherent values then I must acknowledge that there can be no impersonal nature. Of course this does not mean that nature is a person!

    I agree with you that our pleasures and pains cannot be "valueless and meaningless". For a start pain is, just in and of itself, undesirable, which means it is, if there can be no mitigating factors, inherently of no value or even of negative value, to us. The obverse holds for pleasure.

    We cannot measure the balance of pain and pleasure unless there is some other criterion (value) by means of which to measure. So nihilism and the radical hedonism which follow from it fail as philosophical standpoints due to incoherency. That has been the precise point of my argument.
  • Wayfarer
    8.6k
    I'm surprised you say that you don't know any nihilist philosophers; surely you cannot mean "know of"? — John

    You're right, I put that a bit carelessly. I think nihilism is a strong tendency in today's thinking (as Nietszche correctly predicted). But I was referring to philosophers who systematically advocate nihilism - I suppose I am aware of some from the forums, but I don't see a lot of point in trying to debate about them, as I think that it really is an affective disorder rather than a philosophy as such.

    (Although I do recall, when attending lectures on Hindu philosophy, the Hindu saying that 'it's a greater misfortune to be born than to die'. That might be interpreted as 'anti-natalism'; but the rationale is different, because it is set against the idea of moksha, liberation, as an overall ethical and spiritual aim, rather than as an acknowledgement of the essential meaninglessness of life.)
  • darthbarracuda
    2.9k
    I think a nihilist would be correct to reject "the existence of impersonal values" . It doesn't seem to make sense to say that values exist apart from being held.John

    Collective personal values may make an impersonal value. Impersonal values tend to describe states of affairs: if you have to pick between scenario A that has 10 people experiencing great pleasure and scenario B which has 20 people experiencing great pleasure, it is clear that scenario B is impersonally better than scenario A. There seems to be a value to collective personal values.

    So the nihilist might say that there is no difference between the two states. The anti-realist would merely have to say there is no objective difference in value between the states. The nihilist, though, being an anti-realist, would have to not only presume that there is no objective difference but also argue that they feel no motivation to pick scenario B over scenario A.

    The trouble with value nihilism is that the nihilist still has to make a decision. And unless they're going to make decisions at random and without any deliberation, their nihilism starts to fall apart.
  • Janus
    8.5k


    The other day I was listening to an online reading of a lecture delivered by Steiner entitled: The Principle of Spiritual Economy In Connection With Questions of Reincarnation.

    Steiner says that the spiritual significance of the Golgotha event is that it brings the highest spiritual truth to humanity: the truth that the physical world and all its events no matter how trivial is a manifestation of the spiritual world, and that nothing that is gained in life is lost at death. That, he says, is the esoteric truth of the Incarnation, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. This is a spiritual truth, according to Steiner, which necessarily comes after and goes beyond the Four Noble Truths of 'life as suffering'.

    Steiner makes what would generally be considered to be very radical claims about the complex nature of reincarnation, dealing with multiples copies of the great sage's and avatar's etheric, astral and egoic bodies, claims which he says may be substantiated by reading from the Akashic Records. He supports the notion of intuitive spiritual knowledge, the idea that we all have access to these 'truths' if only we are open to them. I remain somewhat skeptically open, but I do find his ideas strangely fascinating. His Philosophy of Freedom is also an interesting read in the context of German Idealism.
  • Janus
    8.5k


    Sorry I don't have time to respond further right now; but I will just question the idea that "collective personal values" could rightly be considered 'impersonal'. I guess you mean they are impersonal in the sense that they are 'outside' or 'beyond' the individual; but, even if that were true, I don't think that warrants calling them 'impersonal'.
  • Wayfarer
    8.6k
    I read Gary Lachmann's bio of Steiner, in an attempt to understand him a little better. (I have an old friend whose whole family are Anthropophists and my younger brother attended a Steiner school.) I'm sympathetic to him, and his 'philosophy of freedom' is on my to-read list, but I can't help but being sceptical about his occultism. But I put him far ahead of any form of nihilism ;) .
  • Janus
    8.5k
    I think Steiner's "occultism", what he terms 'spiritual science', is really gnosticism taken to its logical conclusion. So, inevitably his philosophy will not be acceptable to either materialists or orthodox religious minds.
  • Thorongil
    3.2k
    If the nihilist claims there are no inherent values, then nothing can matter except to the individual, and then only insofar as it is conducive to pain or pleasureJohn

    But notice the binary you set up. I can understand the general claim that, under nihilism, nothing can matter except to the individual, but this need not entail that what matters to the individual is pain or pleasure. One can act out of self interest without acting in the interest of obtaining pleasure or avoiding pain, it seems to me. Then again, perhaps this is impossible. I'm not sure.

    Maybe a good question to ask is whether egoism is the same as hedonism.
  • darthbarracuda
    2.9k
    One can act out of self interest without acting in the interest of obtaining pleasure or avoiding pain, it seems to me. Then again, perhaps this is impossible. I'm not sure.Thorongil

    I'm not sure if harming oneself out of self-interest is even coherent. Surely, we can go through some tough times for the greater good, the overall goal, but that's still self-interest. Even a masochist who gives themselves pain is still doing something they want to be done (even if this is not the best thing for them, something a nihilist would reject since it's an impersonal value).
  • Thorongil
    3.2k
    Even a masochist who gives themselves pain is still doing something they want to be donedarthbarracuda

    But surely this underlines the binary I just pointed out, that there is a difference between acting out of self-interest and acting due to pleasure/pain calculi, as the hedonist would have it.

    What I feel John might do, which perhaps is what you are trying to do, is to say that acting out of self-interest is inherently hedonic in a broader sense than the physical, such that the masochist, for example, may feel physical pain, but he nonetheless feels some (abstract) pleasure in harming himself. I'm not sure about this.
  • TheWillowOfDarkness
    1.9k
    I'd say the opposite is true: the maschoist feels pleasure upon harming themselves. There's nothing abstract about. It's a physical response of their body.

    Our tendency to equate our ethics with pleasure and pain with ethics is really tied to the ethical/unethical world is joyful/hurts. Sometimes to the point where pain of the body hurts less than seeing a world destroyed by immorality. Self interest and desires are themselves a manifestation of pleasure/pain and impossible to avoid in holding an ethical consciousness. To suggest other is to pose someone can care about ethics without feeling a sense of justice/injustice.
  • darthbarracuda
    2.9k
    I made this a while ago, posted elsewhere, but here is a rough sketch of what I believe is the value of a life:

    CodeCogsEqn%2B%25285%2529.gif

    In other words, the value is equal to the personal pleasure minus the personal suffering (which is multiplied by a certain constant, since suffering is more pressing than pleasure), minus the net suffering caused by the individual on other persons (multiplied by the same constant), in which pleasure and suffering are measured by intensity, duration, and likelihood of happening. The amount of pleasure the individual causes other people is left out, since it can lead to instrumentalizing the individual.
  • Wayfarer
    8.6k
    But that's seeing 'value' purely in terms of sensory pleasure.
  • Thorongil
    3.2k
    I'm still not convinced. To feel pleasure in harming oneself means that the pleasure cannot be purely physical, or else, these words lose all meaning. If physical pain can be physically pleasurable, then we have a contradiction.
  • TheWillowOfDarkness
    1.9k
    Only if you are equating the (physical/mental) pain/joy of ethics with that of a an act which injures or puts force upon the body.

    In the case of the maschoist, this is not true. The pain of the forces on the body is something ethically joyful, not painful. Their body might hurt under force, but's that's actually good (ethically joyful) to them.
  • Thorongil
    3.2k
    What is mental pleasure and how is it the same as physical pleasure?
  • TheWillowOfDarkness
    1.9k
    I'm throwing out the distinction. Any "mental" pain involves a body that hurts, a body that responses to the environment. When the body hurts, "mental" anguish is frequently a result, sometimes even the majority of the pain (think of the distress and fear of seeing oneself injured).

    Trying to box them into one or the other doesn't work and drags us away from describing what is important: the particular instance of a person in pain and what that entails. Instead of viewing each instance of pain as it's own thing (e.g. the pain of being hit, the ethical pain of being hit, etc.,etc.), as we should, we end up trying to prescribe what people can feel and ignoring what they do.
  • Thorongil
    3.2k
    Any "mental" pain involves a body that hurts, a body that responses to the environment. When the body hurts, "mental" anguish is frequently a result, sometimes even the majority of the pain (think of the distress and fear of seeing oneself injured).TheWillowOfDarkness

    Yes, but the exception of the masochist seems to contradict this. Are you saying that he may feel bodily (what I would call physical) pain but nonetheless have a different than normal psychological reaction to it? What would that reaction be?
  • TheWillowOfDarkness
    1.9k
    I'm saying, in the case of the masochist, what you are calling "bodily pain" does not involve "ethical pain." Their body might hurt, but they do not expeirnce the ethical pain (which is just as much of the physical) that many other people would. Rather, they feel ethical joy at being subjected to this "bodily pain."

    In this context, there is no standard of "normal" reaction or otherwise. Each person just feels what they feel. Whether we call this a psychological reaction or physical reaction doesn't matter. There is a bodily pain and ethical joy, and both a response/presence of a mind and body.
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