Philosophy Ph.D. Dissertations


Nihilism and Argumentation: A Weakly Pragmatic Defense of Itatively Normative Reasons

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Philosophy, Applied

First Advisor

Michael E. Weber (Advisor)

Second Advisor

Verner Bingman (Other)

Third Advisor

Christian Coons (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Molly Gardner (Committee Member)

Fifth Advisor

Sara Worley (Committee Member)


Global normative error theorists argue that there are no authoritative normative reasons of any kind. Thus, according to the error theory, the normative demands of law, prudence, morality, etc. are of no greater normative significance than the most absurd standards we can conceive of. Because the error theory is a radically revisionary view, theorists who accept it only do so because they maintain the view is supported by the best available arguments. In this dissertation, I argue that error theory entails that it is impossible that there are successful arguments for anything, thus defenses of error theory are in tension with the view, itself. My argument begins with the observation that it is natural to think a successful argument is one that gives us an authoritative normative reason to believe its conclusion. Error theory entails that there are no authoritative reasons to believe anything. What are arguments for error theory even supposed to accomplish? Error theorists may respond that their arguments are solely intended to get at the truth. I argue that this reply fails. One problem is that it cannot make sense of why in practice even error theorists still want evidence for the premises of sound arguments. Error theorists may try to capture the importance of evidence by appeal to our social norms or goals. I argue that this answer is indistinguishable from the view that our social practices or goals generate authoritative normative requirements. Thus, attempts to defend the coherence of arguing for error theory are either unacceptably revisionary or they are inconsistent with error theory. While this result is a problem for error theory, it seems consistent with highly relativistic accounts of normative authority. In the future, I plan to explore whether my core arguments can be extended to defend authoritative, universal scope normative requirements (e.g. of prudence and morality).