The age of nihilistic selfishness

When the planning minister, Greg Clark, accused the National Trust of nihilistic selfishness over its objections to the National Planning Policy Framework’s ‘presumption for development’ I thought he was being a tad dramatic. I mean, it’s the National Trust, twilight home for sensibly-shod venerable biddies who bestow home-made jam on stately home tea shops and old-fashioned common sense (so they’d have us believe) on Conservative party candidate selection panels.

I don’t really give a toss for the National Trust, but I’d always vaguely assumed they had solid moral standing and were generally ‘a good thing’. What’s played on my mind since this pointless spat is the phrase ‘nihilistic selfishness’.

Nihilism being the absence of values or a moral code, those forces that stop us doing unto others what we would not be best chuffed with done to ourselves, nihilistic selfishness would be the absence of a recognition of the suffering caused to others by our actions in the pursuit of our own desires. Getting caught would be the only consequence one would acknowledge.

What acts might you commit if not getting caught was all that mattered? If you were an MP you might set up a system that allows you to steal from taxpayers and then spend years denying it and covering it up until the truth is presented to the world in black and white.

If you were a banker your insatiable greed and incompetency might lead you to be so reckless with other people’s money that you destroy the global economy, causing homelessness, unemployment, suicides, bankrupt governments, devalued currencies and civil unrest. And after you’ve done all that, you might expect governments to pay for the damage you’ve done and, if you’re really nihilistic, you might even ask for a bonus.

If you were a priest you might use your position of trust and authority to exploit children for the satisfaction of your sexual deviancy. If you were a church authority tasked with dealing with that priest you might move him to another parish rather than call the police, because the reputation of your cherished institution is more important than a child’s suffering. If you were the head of that church you might think a photocopied apology doled out to victims would be enough to shut them up, and also that you’ll ignore the law and invent your own laws because you don’t want to expose your child rapists to the wrath of the world.

If you were a newspaper editor you might sanction the hacking of a murdered teenager’s mobile phone and delete messages to allow more juicy stories to emerge. You might even run a story in your newspaper about how these deleted messages baffled the police but gave hope to her parents that she might still be alive. You might also give a mobile phone as a present to the mother of another murdered child just so you could be in on anything interesting she might get up to. If you were a policeman you might take cash from that editor in return for information, sometimes so quickly that a photographer turns up before an ambulance at the scene of an accident.

We all know these nihilistically selfish acts are being done by those who would set the values and ethics by which the rest of us are told to live – the state, the church, the police, and the fourth estate. When an individual realises that the rules we’re instructed to live by don’t actually exist they become anomic and society is no longer able to regulate their behaviour. And it’s because I believe that we are in an age of nihilistic selfishness that I cannot bear to read or listen to another single word on the cause of the riots.


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12 years ago

Some good points there Keren. Your post really caught my eye, despite the fact that words like nihilism and anarchy are chucked about by media pundits because they sound scary.

I think modern hyper-capitalism is the real problem, because it’s the root cause of the social conditions you’ve mentioned. When I was growing up I didn’t think I would face a world characterised by the kind of bare-faced rubbish which most people waste their time with: Big Brother, Crackberries and fruitcake individualists who never read books.

I believe that people should regulate their own behaviour, and ideally the state should not interfere with this. I also believe that the modern state helps to generate most of the problems which it purports to fix.

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