Where does nihilism come from?

Nihilism is not a choice or intellectual commitment, but a feeling that simply arrives.

Photo by Boglárka Mázsi on Unsplash
Friedrich Nietzsche was most famously concerned with the problem of nihilism.
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Why moral people tolerate immoral behavior

As morally sturdy as we may feel, it turns out that humans are natural hypocrites when it comes to passing moral judgment.

  • The problem with having a compass as the symbolic representation of morality is that due north is not a fixed point. Liane Young, Boston College associate professor and director of the Morality Lab, explains how context, bias, and tribal affiliation influence us enormously when we pass moral judgments.
  • Moral instinct is tainted by cognitive bias. Humans evolved to be more lenient to their in-groups—for example excusing a beloved politician who lines their pockets while lambasting a colleague for the exact same transgression—and to care more about harm done close to them than harm done farther away, for example, to people in another country.
  • The challenge for humans in a globalized and polarized world is to become aware of our moral biases and learn to apply morality more objectively. How can we be more rational and less hypocritical about our morals? "I think that clarifying the value that you are consulting for a particular problem is really critical," says Young.
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Are humans cruel by nature?

Historian Rutger Bregman argues that the persistent theory that most people are monsters is just wrong.

  • How have humans managed to accomplish significantly more than any other species on the planet? Historian Rutger Bregman believes the quality that makes us special is that we "evolved to work together and to cooperate on a scale that no other species in the whole animal kingdom has been able to do."
  • Pushing back against the millennia-old idea that humans are inherently evil beneath their civilized surface, which is known as 'veneer theory', Bregman says that it's humanity's cooperative spirit and sense of brotherhood that leads us to do cruel deeds. "Most atrocities are committed in the name of loyalty, and in the name of friendship, and in the name of helping your people," he tells Big Think. "That is what's so disturbing."
  • The false assumption that people are evil or inherently selfish has an effect on the way we design various elements of our societies and structures. If we designed on the assumption that we are collaborative instead, we could avoid the "self-fulfilling prophecy" of selfishness.
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'Muscular bonding': The strange psychological effects of moving together

Synchronous movement seems to help us form cohesive groups by shifting our thinking from "me" to "we."

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  • Muscular bonding, a term coined by the veteran and historian William McNeill, describes how individuals engaged in synchronous movement often experience feelings of euphoria and connection to the group.
  • Psychologists have proposed that muscular bonding, or interpersonal entrainment, is a group-level adaptation that helped early human groups outcompete other groups.
  • Muscular bonding can help people form cohesive groups, but it could come at cost.
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Should we pay ex-drug users to help them get clean?

What is more important, that a treatment helps keep people healthy or that it meshes with our morals?

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  • A novel treatment aims to help former drug users by paying them to stay clean.
  • Some moral objections to the idea of paying people to not use drugs help keep the program underused.
  • Many other treatment methods face similar issues.
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