Woody Allen, Nihilist
Matthew Boudway February 5, 2014 - 7:45pm
Over at the Week, Damon Linker argues that Woody Allen's bleak vision of the world would have given him no reason not to commit the terrible crime he's been accused of. Linker claims that Allen's films, as well as certain things Allen has said over the years, indicate that he is a nihilist, which leaves him without a warrant for morality. Nihilists, Linker writes, believe that "there is no justice."
From Plato's sociopathic sophists to Friedrich Nietzsche's ambition to "sail right over our morality," this has been the conviction and the insight of the nihilist. These are Woody Allen's philosophical compatriots.
I should note...that this doesn't mean he's a sexual predator. Nothing in the outlook of a nihilist necessarily implies that he will engage in immoral actions.
All that nihilism implies is the absence of a compelling reason not to do so.
Rod Dreher of the American Conservative agrees:
What is useful about Allen’s nihilism is that he really does see the implications of that worldview more clearly than many, many others who profess a softer form of nihilism. That is, many people would believe that there’s no ultimate truth, that whatever you think is true is true for you. That the universe is meaningless; whatever meaning exists is meaning we give it. If that’s your view, says Woody Allen, then you must agree that the murderer has understood the reality of things better than the moralist. Of course most people would recoil from that conclusion, but I don’t see how any other conclusion is sensible, given the nihilist’s basic premise (that moral truth does not exist).
Both Linker and Dreher quote an interview with Allen that appeared in Commonweal a few years ago. There Allen curtly declined our interviewer's invitation to acknowledge a religious dimension in his films. He made it clear that he regards religion as a form of self-deception. In fact, he regards most things as forms of self-deception. As he put it:
Everybody knows how awful the world is and what a terrible situation it is and each person distorts it in a certain way that enables him to get through. Some people distort it with religious things. Some people distort it with sports, with money, with love, with art, and they all have their own nonsense about what makes it meaningful, and all but nothing makes it meaningful. These things definitely serve a certain function, but in the end they all fail to give life meaning and everyone goes to his grave in a meaningless way.
In the end, nothing matters. Until then, all that matters is finding something that will help you "get through." To this, Allen's "philosophical compatriots" would add: There is no right or wrong, no Last Judgment, no karma. There's only power, desire, and luck. Rational deliberation involves just two questions: What do I really want? And can I get away with it?
I agree with Linker and Dreher that "nihilistic" is not too strong a word for Allen's views and for much of his art. Crimes and Misdemeanors, which Linker and Dreher both consider Allen's best film, shrugs off Dostoevsky's existential anxiety. The film's moral—or rather its lesson—is: Yes, without God, everything is permitted, and what of it? Grownups will not pretend that the moral chaos visible to anyone willing to look is a good reason to believe in God.
Linker makes it clear that he isn't offering a theoretical argument against nihilism, which he describes as a "viable, albeit false and ultimately chilling, philosophical and existential position." And he points out, more than once, that Allen's nihilism doesn't give us any reason to assume he's guilty of child abuse. Nihilists, too, should enjoy the presumption of innocence.
Still, I think both Linker and Dreher do end up suggesting that we should at least be suspicious of self-aware nihilists like Woody Allen, the kind of nihilists who understand the chilling implications of their worldview. If such nihilism really has no practical importance, then why even mention it in connection to Dylan Farrow's accusations against Allen? Doesn't Crimes and Misdemeanors itself suggest that nihilism does have a practical importance? Nihilism may not "necessarily" imply a willingness to engage in immoral action, as Linker puts it, but he and Dreher seem to agree that, in general, those who believe there's no reason to act morally are more likely to act immorally. At the very least, the nihilist who consistently avoids evil is being inconsistent. Either he doesn't really believe what he says he does, or he lacks the courage of his convictions.
In a recent column titled "Ideas from a Manger," Ross Douthat of the New York Times pursued a similar line of argument.
The secular picture...seems to have the rigor of the scientific method behind it. But it actually suffers from a deeper intellectual incoherence than...its rivals, because its cosmology does not harmonize at all with its moral picture.
In essence, it proposes a purely physical and purposeless universe, inhabited by evolutionary accidents whose sense of self is probably illusory. And yet it then continues to insist on moral and political absolutes with all the vigor of a 17th-century New England preacher. And the rope bridges flung across this chasm — the scientific-sounding logic of utilitarianism, the Darwinian justifications for altruism—tend to waft, gently, into a logical abyss.
Again, it isn't that those who believe in "a purely physical and purposeless universe" are all nihilists. Most of them aren't. It's just that their fundamental view of reality leaves them without a good way to get past nihilism; their "rope bridges" are too short. Hard materialism may turn out to imply nihilism in just the same way that nihilism implies amoralism.
There are important differences between Douthat's argument and Linker's. The most obvious difference is that Douthat is talking about the tension between two sets of beliefs commonly held by the same people, while Linker is talking about the tension between a certain set of beliefs (nihilism) and a certain kind of action (the dependably good kind). What Douthat and Linker seem to have in common is the conviction, shared by Nietzsche, that one's metaphysics, or lack thereof, ought to make a difference to one's ethics.
I'm sympathetic to this kind of critique, but I don't think it's likely to get much traction in a culture as pragmatic as ours. For pragmatists—including default pragmatists who would never use the word—the only important rule is "whatever works" (the title of another Woody Allen film). If you can be good without a a coherent theory of goodness, what's the problem? What matters isn't your theory's coherence but its effect. And if you can be good without even believing in goodness, more power to you.
The kind of secularists Douthat describes in his column—who, unlike pragmatists, do believe in objective truth, as long as it's properly scientific—would point out that nihilism's alarming moral implications do not by themselves provide us with a reason to believe either in God or in objective moral values. That is, they provide no evidence for such belief; at most, they provide a motivation for it. Whether the absence of such belief will actually make people more likely to do things that nearly everyone (now) considers evil is an empirical question: only time will tell, as fewer and fewer people believe in the old metaphysical myths. But so far, at least, Douthat's scientistic secularists aren't too worried.
Non-pragmatists, including Christians, won't be satified with the pragmatist's reduction of truth to "whatever works." And moral realists of all kinds, including most Christians, will find it strange that Douthat's secularists don't expect a radical change in our metaphysics to have an important effect on our behavior. Too easy to say time will tell; it may be too late for us once it has.
But, while many Americans are essentially pragmatists and an increasing number of them believe in a purely physical universe, few Americans can be described as nihilists. Nihilism involves a kind of pessimism, and Americans are supposed to be optimists. As Dreher writes, the nihilist believes that human experience has no meaning except the meanings we impose on it. These are, at most, temporary stays against the lucid recognition of our mortality. They cannot fully compensate for the universe's indifference to us. Mostly, they just mask it. And these makeshift meanings are all dwarfed, finally, by suffering and death.
A clever Christian may win an argument with a nihilist about the "chilling" moral implications of his worldview, but the nihilist is unlikely to change his mind until he can see, or imagine, his own experience in an entirely new light—see it backlit by something like Providence, imagine it casting a shadow beyond what is visible to him now. For nihilists, life is just one damn thing after another, from birth to death, and then nothing. Death gets the last word and speaks it in a language none of us understands. Christians (among others) believe that each life tells a story, one whose full significance only becomes clear beyond death, where all that is hidden will be revealed. It isn't just that without God everything is permitted; it's also that, with God, we have a reason for the hope that everything will finally be made clear. To the nihilist's "There is no justice," believers answer, "There will be." They shouldn't be surprised if many people find that too good to be true.
About the Author
Matthew Boudway is an associate editor of Commonweal.