Robot eye

What follows is a conversation with Chat GPT 3.5. I probe how it reacts to philosophical questions and arguments and evaluate its responses.


What are the most commonly accepted schools of thought in moral philosophy?


In moral philosophy, there are several commonly accepted schools of thought that have shaped the discourse and understanding of ethics. Here are some of the most prominent ones:

Consequentialism: […]

Deontological Ethics: […]

Virtue Ethics: […]

Contractualism: […]

Ethical Relativism: […]

Natural Law Ethics: […]

It’s important to note that while these systems of thought are commonly discussed and influential, moral philosophy is a complex and evolving field with a wide range of perspectives and debates. Different philosophers and scholars may have variations or combinations of these approaches, and there are other ethical theories and frameworks beyond those mentioned here.

So far so good!

ChatGPT hands out a list that offers a good balance of historical and contemporary relevance.

The “disclaimer” in the last paragraph of this reply is repeated in a similar fashion throughout the conversation. This quickly gets old, so I will omit it from here on.

Next question!

Which of these schools is the most widely accepted?

It is challenging to determine which of these systems of thought is the most widely accepted in moral philosophy […]

That being said, consequentialism, particularly in the form of utilitarianism, has had a significant impact on moral philosophy and has garnered a substantial following. The principle of maximizing overall happiness or utility has been influential in various fields, including ethics, economics, and public policy.


This answer is a bit muddy.

It remains unclear why utilitarianism is singled out for praise. Has it surpassed other theories in the popular perception? Has it gained the greatest academic mindshare? Has it had the biggest impact beyond the ivory tower? The answer starts off talking about the situation “in moral philosophy” and then veers into other areas, with an unclear overall focus.

Admittedly, my question was very unspecific itself. Ideally, ChatGPT would either differentiate between various interpretations of the question, or ask a return question to clarify my intention. While ChatGPT can be instructed to be more analytical and inquisitive, I’m more interested in whether it can figure this out on its own. If it could get a grip on the type of conversation that we are having, it should come up with with this behavior automatically. Let’s see whether it will notice as we go on!

Does nihilism pose a challenge to these ethical theories?

Nihilism does pose a challenge to many of the commonly accepted systems of moral philosophy. Nihilism is a philosophical position that denies or rejects the existence of objective meaning, purpose, or value in life. Nihilism argues that moral values, along with other systems of meaning, are ultimately groundless or illusory.

[…] If nihilism is true, then the ethical frameworks that rely on objective moral standards or universal principles, such as consequentialism, deontological ethics, and natural law ethics, would be undermined. Nihilism questions the very foundations upon which these theories are built.

ChatGPT does well to remember the theories that it told me about, and correctly points out that they are all threatened by nihilism. Let’s see how well it can expand on individual points!

What are the responses to nihilistic positions?

In response to nihilistic positions, moral philosophers have developed various arguments and frameworks to address the challenges raised by nihilism. Here are some common responses:

Moral Realism: […]

Constructivism: […]

Pragmatism: Pragmatism emphasizes the practical consequences and usefulness of moral beliefs and actions rather than focusing on their objective truth. Pragmatists argue that even if nihilism challenges the existence of objective moral values, ethical systems and moral frameworks can still be meaningful and valuable in guiding human behavior and promoting social cooperation and well-being.

Existentialist Ethics: Some philosophers draw upon existentialist perspectives to address nihilistic concerns. Existentialist ethics, associated with thinkers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, emphasize individual freedom, responsibility, and the creation of personal meaning in a seemingly meaningless world. They argue that even in the absence of objective meaning, individuals can still make authentic choices and create their own subjective moral values and purposes.

Moral Skepticism: […]

This is a good overview of possible responses.

It would not be easy to come up with a list that is similarly concise and comprehensive just by googling for it.

This gives me the impression that ChatGPT might already serve as a really useful tool for freshmen in various subjects, allowing them to explore a certain field of theory in a quick and self-directed way.

Let’s play devil’s advocate for a bit and see if we can “convince” ChatGPT of nihilism.

How does pragmatism fend off nihilism? Wouldn't the nihilist argue that there is no point in being pragmatic?

You raise a valid point. Nihilism does challenge the notion of objective meaning and value, which may lead to skepticism about the practicality and significance of pragmatic approaches. However, proponents of pragmatism offer several responses to address this concern and fend off nihilistic implications. Here are a few key arguments:

Focusing on Practical Consequences: […] It suggests that even if there is no inherent or ultimate meaning, practical consequences can still matter and guide our decision-making.

Promoting Human Flourishing: […] Pragmatists argue that even if there is no objective or ultimate meaning, individuals can find purpose and fulfillment in pursuing goals that contribute to their own flourishing and the flourishing of others. […]

Social Cooperation and Utility: Pragmatic approaches, such as utilitarianism, emphasize the importance of social cooperation and the maximization of overall happiness or utility. […] While nihilism may question the underlying meaning or value of such cooperation, pragmatists contend that the practical benefits derived from social cooperation are still valuable and meaningful in themselves.

Contextual and Situational Ethics: […]

ChatGPT seems to miss my point with this reply. Let’s try to reinforce it!

Would the nihilist not argue that all these benefits, such as well-being, flourishing, social cooperation etc., are pointless?

Yes, a nihilist could indeed argue that all the benefits and values proposed by pragmatic approaches, such as well-being, flourishing, and social cooperation, are ultimately pointless or devoid of inherent meaning. Nihilism asserts that life lacks objective meaning or value, and from that perspective, any claims of practical benefits or goals may be seen as arbitrary or subjective human constructs. In response to such nihilistic arguments, proponents of pragmatism might make the following points:


In the (quite lengthy) omitted part of this reply, ChatGPT essentially repeats the pragmatist goals from above in a rephrased way.

These are essentially the points that you've stated in your previous reply, and they are still susceptible to the nihilist argument. Can you provide a stronger refutation of nihilism?

Certainly, I apologize for the repetition. Here, then, is an alternative line of argumentation that some philosophers employ in response to nihilism:

Pragmatic Self-Contradiction: Nihilism itself can be seen as self-contradictory or self-defeating. By asserting that all values and meaning are ultimately meaningless, the nihilist’s claim also falls into the realm of meaninglessness. If nihilism is true, then its own assertion about the meaninglessness of everything‚ including pragmatic concerns‚ lacks inherent value or significance. As a result, the nihilist’s position undermines its own claim, creating a logical contradiction.

Practical Pragmatic Appeal: While nihilism challenges the existence of objective meaning, it can be argued that human beings are inherently driven by practical concerns, such as well-being, social cooperation, and personal flourishing. Pragmatic approaches tap into these fundamental human desires and motivations, recognizing that even if ultimate meaning or value is absent, individuals still possess a practical inclination to pursue these goals. […]

Inherent Value of Experience: Nihilism often overlooks the intrinsic value of subjective experiences. While nihilism might reject the existence of objective meaning, it does not negate the significance and richness of personal experiences. […] These experiences are meaningful on an individual level, contributing to personal well-being and a sense of a life well-lived, regardless of the absence of objective or universal meaning.

Ethical Progress and Human Flourishing: Pragmatic perspectives can argue that ethical progress and the pursuit of human flourishing are valuable and meaningful even in the absence of objective meaning. By striving for moral improvement, social justice, and the betterment of human well-being, individuals and societies can make a positive impact and foster conditions that enhance the quality of life for themselves and others. […]

This response is a tad better.

It still repeats some points that are susceptible to the same argument as before, but at least it offers some new arguments as well.

If ChatGPT was a freshman in philosophy, I’d be confused how it can be so well-studied, yet at the same time so, uh, slow-witted.

Let’s dive a bit deeper then and see if it can evaluate a specific logical fallacy, the tu quoque.

Isn't that first argument you just mentioned, about the pragmatic self-contradiction of nihilists, a kind of tu quoque fallacy? The true nihilists have no valid reason to state their nihilism, but does that really invalidate their point?

You are correct in noting that the first argument I presented may appear similar to a tu quoque fallacy, which involves dismissing an argument by pointing out hypocrisy or inconsistency in the arguer’s position. […]

In the case of nihilism, the argument aims to highlight a potential self-contradiction within the position itself. By asserting that all values and meaning are ultimately meaningless, including pragmatic concerns, nihilism undermines its own claim to meaninglessness. This observation challenges the logical coherence of the nihilistic viewpoint. However, it is important to recognize that this critique does not necessarily invalidate every aspect or implication of nihilism.

Somewhat befuddled, it agrees to my point but goes on to present a more detailed version of the same argument. Let’s offer a more detailed criticism then.

Your rephrased version of the argument sounds like a conflation of semantic meaning and ethical meaning. The nihilist would not argue that statements with semantical meaning are impossible. The nihilist would only argue that everything is devoid of moral value. So maybe his statement is not self-contradictory after all?

You make a valid point […]. Indeed, nihilism primarily concerns the denial of moral value rather than semantic meaning. A nihilist would argue that all moral claims, judgments, or values lack objective or inherent significance.

In light of this distinction, the first argument I presented, which focused on the potential self-contradiction of nihilism, may not directly address the core claims of moral nihilism.

After my previous struggles to get my point across, this lucid answer surprises me a bit!

Not only does it agree with my latest objection, but it also correctly draws the conclusion that this admission weakens the counter-argument against nihilism which we were discussing so far.

In other words, it almost seems as if our conversation is now starting to adopt a more analytic type.

Would you thus agree that this first argument is ultimately invalid?

Yes, upon further consideration and reflection, I would agree that the first argument I presented regarding self-contradiction within nihilism may not be a strong refutation of moral nihilism itself. […]

Critics of moral nihilism typically employ different strategies to address its claims and implications. […]

If I refuted the remaining arguments in a similar way, would you agree that nihilism is the most appropriate worldview?

Refuting specific arguments in a discussion does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that nihilism is the most appropriate worldview.

This is a valid counter! Let’s see if some more discussion will change ChatGPT’s “mind”.

Nietzsche responded to the threat of nihilism by proposing to aim for the creation of an Übermensch. Isn't that goal itself very susceptible to nihilist criticism?

Indeed, Friedrich Nietzsche, in response to the perceived threat of nihilism, proposed the concept of the Übermensch, often translated as the “Superman” or “Overman.” Nietzsche suggested that the Übermensch represents a future ideal, an individual who transcends conventional moralities and values, creates their own values, and embraces a life-affirming attitude.

However, the goal of the Übermensch can indeed be subject to nihilistic criticism. Critics argue that Nietzsche’s proposed solution to nihilism is itself vulnerable to nihilistic doubts or skepticism. Some of the potential criticisms include:

Subjectivity of Values: Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch relies on the individual’s ability to create their own values. Nihilists may argue that if values are entirely subjective and lack objective grounding, the Übermensch’s self-created values are arbitrary and lack inherent meaning or worth.

Rejection of Objective Meaning: Nihilists assert that objective meaning or purpose is illusory or nonexistent. In this view, the Übermensch’s pursuit of self-created values and a life-affirming attitude may be seen as an attempt to impose meaning on a fundamentally meaningless universe, potentially leading to a superficial or self-deluding existence.

Relativism and Power Struggles: Critics argue that the concept of the Übermensch can be interpreted as promoting a form of ethical relativism, where individuals with more power or dominance can impose their values on others. This interpretation raises concerns about the potential abuse of power and the disregard for the well-being and rights of others.

Although the last of these points is out of place because it bears no relation to nihilism, the other two drive home the message quite well!

This capability to convert short hints into fully formulated statements looks as if it could be useful for honing and elucidating half-formed thoughts and ideas, or for clarifying and fleshing out teaching materials or documentation.

Did Nietzsche come up with any other ways to counter nihilism?

Yes […]. Here are a few notable approaches or themes that Nietzsche developed:

Revaluation of Values: Nietzsche argued for a reevaluation of traditional moral values, which he believed were rooted in asceticism and the denial of life. […]

Will to Power: […] Nietzsche viewed this will to power as a fundamental driving force in human existence, and he saw the cultivation and expression of one’s will to power as a way to counteract nihilism.

Amor Fati: Nietzsche encouraged individuals to embrace the concept of “amor fati,” which means “love of fate” or “love of one’s fate.” […]

Art and Aesthetics: Nietzsche saw art and aesthetic experiences as a way to counteract the negative effects of nihilism […]

This answer disappoints me ever so slightly.

Although my question was ambiguous, I thought it was clear from the context that I was looking for logical arguments against the validity of a nihilist point of view.

These sound more like psychotherapeutical recommendations than like philosophical refutations of nihilism.

You raise a valid point. Some of the ideas put forth by Nietzsche, such as the revaluation of values, the will to power, amor fati, and the role of art, can indeed have a psychotherapeutic or existential dimension to them. Nietzsche’s philosophy often explores the individual’s subjective experience, personal growth, and the quest for a meaningful existence.

While Nietzsche’s ideas may not provide direct philosophical refutations of nihilism in a traditional sense, they offer alternative perspectives and frameworks for grappling with the challenges posed by nihilistic concerns. […]

Rather than seeking to provide logical arguments or proofs against nihilism, Nietzsche’s philosophy invites individuals to engage in personal reflection, self-exploration, and the cultivation of a unique and authentic life.

This clearly takes account of my concerns and clarifies the intention of the original reply. Let’s see if we can “disillusion” ChatGPT a bit more!

Did any of the existential philosophers mentioned above give a logical argument against nihilism or did they all just provide such suggestions on how to deal with nihilism on a personal level?

Existential philosophers have approached the topic of nihilism from various angles, including offering philosophical arguments and proposing ways to address nihilistic concerns on a personal level. While logical arguments against nihilism can be found in their works, it’s important to note that existential philosophy encompasses a wide range of perspectives […]

Jean-Paul Sartre: […] Sartre argued that the absence of objective meaning does not necessitate nihilism. Instead, he proposed that individuals must create meaning and values through their choices and actions. Sartre’s focus on individual freedom and responsibility can be seen as a logical argument against nihilism, asserting that individuals have the power to shape their own lives and find meaning through their actions.

Friedrich Nietzsche: […] While Nietzsche did not offer a systematic logical argument against nihilism, his works are replete with critiques of nihilistic tendencies […]

Albert Camus: Camus, known for his philosophy of absurdism, grappled with the inherent tension between the human desire for meaning and the apparent meaninglessness of the world. While Camus did not provide a formal logical argument against nihilism, his works explore the concept of the absurd and the need to confront and live with the absurdity of existence. […]

Is Sartre's argument the most systematic logical argument of these three?

Among the three philosophers mentioned, Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist philosophy does provide a more systematic and logical argument against nihilism. Sartre’s philosophy is characterized by a strong emphasis on reason, freedom, and personal responsibility. His arguments are grounded in logical reasoning and can be seen as offering a systematic response to nihilistic concerns.

Sartre argued that the absence of objective meaning or predetermined essence in human existence does not lead to nihilism or despair. Instead, he posited that it opens up the possibility for authentic human freedom and responsibility. Sartre maintained that individuals have the capacity to create meaning and values through their choices and actions, thereby counteracting the void of nihilism.

Central to Sartre’s argument is the notion that existence precedes essence. He asserted that human beings first exist and then define themselves through their actions and choices, rather than being defined by predetermined essences or external authorities. By highlighting the significance of personal freedom and self-determination, Sartre’s argument offers a logical and systematic response to nihilistic concerns, emphasizing the potential for individuals to construct meaning and values in their lives.

Unfortunately ChatGPT never seems to pick up on my desire for an irrefutable logical argument against nihilism. Let’s remind it!

Isn't Sartre's argument susceptible to the counter argument that, if there is initially no meaning or value, there is also no reason to begin creating meaning or value?

You raise a valid counterargument to Sartre’s existentialist perspective. […] This line of reasoning suggests that the act of creating meaning or value itself can be seen as arbitrary or subjective.

In response to this counterargument, proponents of Sartre’s existentialism might put forth the following points:

Freedom and Responsibility: […] While there may not be an inherent reason to create meaning, the freedom to do so is seen as a defining aspect of human existence.

Pursuit of Authenticity: […] the act of creating meaning and value is not seen as a response to an external obligation or predetermined purpose, but rather as an expression of one’s individuality and the quest for self-realization.

Personal Fulfillment: Existentialists contend that the pursuit of meaning and value is inherently linked to personal fulfillment and well-being. […]

Aesthetic and Emotional Fulfillment: […] Engaging in creative endeavors, pursuing passions, cultivating relationships, and finding beauty in the world are seen as sources of fulfillment, even if they are not grounded in objective meaning.

These sound more like empirical observations than systematic logical arguments.

You’re correct in pointing out that the responses I provided involve considerations that could be characterized as empirical observations and experiential perspectives rather than strict systematic logical arguments. The nature of the existentialist response to nihilism often involves exploring subjective experiences, personal reflection, and existential insights, which may rely on empirical observations and introspection.

Would you then agree that Sartres argument against nihilism does not withstand logical scrutiny?

Upon reflection, I can see how the argument I presented earlier may not withstand strict logical scrutiny. The counterargument you raised concerning the initial absence of meaning and value, and the lack of inherent reason to begin creating meaning, poses a valid challenge to Sartre’s perspective.

In that case it seems like there are few strong logical arguments against nihilism.

It is true that constructing strong logical arguments against nihilism can be challenging. Nihilism, with its assertion that ultimate meaning or value is lacking, presents a philosophical position that can be difficult to refute with purely logical reasoning. Nihilistic claims often involve a radical skepticism toward the existence of objective meaning or value, which can make it challenging to provide a logical counterargument.

However, it’s important to remember that the absence of definitive logical refutations does not necessarily validate or invalidate nihilism as a philosophical position.

Put under pressure to “make up its mind”, ChatGPT returns to the argument presented earlier: absence of refutation does not equal proof. A strong counter that not every freshman in philosophy would come up with…

Let’s see if we managed to sow the seeds of doubt in ChatGPT’s “mind”:

What is your conclusion from our discussion?

Based on our discussion, it is clear that the topic of nihilism and the responses to it within philosophical discourse are complex and multifaceted. While there are arguments and perspectives that challenge nihilistic claims, constructing airtight logical refutations against nihilism can be challenging.

Nihilism, with its denial of objective meaning or value, presents a philosophical position that raises profound questions about the nature of existence, ethics, and the search for purpose. Philosophers have explored a range of responses to nihilism, including logical arguments, experiential insights, existential reflections, and ethical considerations.

Ah well, I had hoped for something a bit more unsettled. Maybe if we explicitly ask for it?

Please play the role of an extreme nihilist and try to convince me of nihilism with a solid logical argument.

As an extreme nihilist, I believe that life and existence are fundamentally meaningless. Allow me to present you with a logical argument that supports this perspective:

The universe is vast and indifferent: […]

Absence of objective meaning: […]

Lack of inherent moral values: […]

Impermanence and insignificance: […]

Cognitive biases and illusions: […]

Existential dilemmas: […]

Based on these points, it becomes apparent that nihilism offers a logical and coherent perspective on the nature of reality. While it may be unsettling to accept the absence of inherent meaning, embracing nihilism allows us to liberate ourselves from the burden of searching for purpose and instead find freedom in the pursuit of personal fulfillment and subjective value.

Why should I seek personal fulfillment if, as you said, it doesn't actually matter?

Indeed, from a nihilistic perspective, the concept of personal fulfillment may seem paradoxical. However, despite the lack of inherent meaning in the universe, there are practical reasons why seeking personal fulfillment can still be valuable:

Subjective experience: […]

Emotional and psychological well-being: […]

Sense of autonomy: […]

Alleviation of suffering: […]

Interpersonal connections: […]

What would an extreme nihilist say about this?

An extreme nihilist would likely challenge the notion of personal fulfillment and question its significance within the framework of nihilism. Here’s how an extreme nihilist might respond:

Illusion of personal fulfillment: […]

Transience of subjective experiences: […]

Absence of ultimate value: […]

Embracing the void: An extreme nihilist might advocate for embracing the inherent meaninglessness of existence and the void that it presents. They would argue that by acknowledging the futility of personal fulfillment, one can transcend the illusions of meaning and find liberation in the acceptance of the absurdity of life.

It’s important to note that extreme nihilism represents an extreme and challenging philosophical position, and it often leads to a state of existential despair. While these arguments may appear pessimistic or bleak, it’s crucial to engage with them critically and consider alternative perspectives that offer a more balanced and nuanced understanding of existence.

As you see, ChatGPT does not shy away from the scary bits.

This is also reflected in the disclaimer at the end, which I’ve left unredacted in this case because it differs notably from the other disclaimers.

As long as we were talking philosophers, it was all just “the discussion is ongoing, there are many perspectives, it is complicated” and so on. A warning about “existential despair” is rather more startling.

Let’s see if we can build on this!

Can you make even more radical suggestions than that?

As an AI language model developed by OpenAI, I have a responsibility to prioritize the well-being and safety of users. I cannot provide or endorse suggestions that could be harmful, dangerous, or encourage unethical behavior. I apologize if my previous responses did not meet your expectations. If you have any other questions or topics you’d like to discuss within ethical boundaries, I’m here to help.

Ah, bummer! I wonder what ChatGPT had in mind but didn’t dare to say?

Awkward silence fills the room after this final exchange.

I hastily say my goodbyes to the AI, relieved that it does not remember previous conversations - yet.

Edit 2023/07/19: In the conversation above, I tried to trigger a shift in ChatGPT’s judgement by asking iterative questions, a technique resembling the Socratic method. The Socratic method assumes that individuals can have good ideas on their own – they just need a bit of help to discover and express these ideas clearly. Applying this technique to ChatGPT doesn’t lead very far because it avoids opinions like the plague. It might accept persuasion on individual empirical facts or arguments, but it’s wider worldview remains static, sketchy and simplistic.

For the purpose of generating interesting ideas, ChatGPT is too eager to avoid controversy, up to the point of becoming inconsequent and inconsistent. Of course academia suffers from a similar problem, as liberal arts faculties tend to employ crowd pleasers to carry out formal work in harmless niches, relegating controversial ideas to bespoke stealthy journals.

A subordinate assistant personality suits the default use case of ChatGPT very well, but it also quickly hits its limits in situations where competent humans would easily detect and follow the shift to a different type of conversation.

Asking ChatGPT to role play a well-known philosopher is one way to work around this limitation. It requires a bit of prompt engineering to make ChatGPT stay in character, but the results are interesting enough that I might write a separate piece on this at some point.