Sep 6, 2012

Emotivism in Contemporary Culture

My Ethics classes -- a staple course for me since grad school days -- generally start out with exploring some features the culture we inhabit and a few common obstacles or impediments to doing any serious work in Ethics.  So, we very quickly get into reading and discussing a few selections from the work of a contemporary proponent of (and convert to) Virtue Ethics, Alasdair MacIntyre -- not a lot, certainly not as much as I'd like to, or as much as my students could use -- but if my aim is to cover enough material and moral theories over the course of an-always-too-short semester, we can't afford too much time to anyone (just for comparison, Bentham and Mill get 2 class sessions each, Plato, Kant, and Aquinas 3 sessions, and Aristotle lucks out with a total of 5). 

This time around, in addition to his essay "Plain Persons and Moral Theory," my students are studying chapters 2 and 3 of MacIntyre's landmark work, After Virtue. I've used the first piece because in it, he shows how moral theory connects up with our ordinary lives, decisions, and concerns.  He also provides an introduction to three moral standpoints commonly adopted in our culture and contrasts them to the sort of standpoint articulated by Virtue Ethics.  Many people in our culture do effectively operate more or less along the lines of Utilitarianism -- determining whether something is good or bad, right or wrong, depending on its consequences for those concerned -- or Deontology -- determining the morality by the conformity of actions or motives to rules and duties.  A third possibility is to hold that moral matters -- and our judgements about them -- really boil down to our subjective preferences, to our non-rational emotions, to "criterionless choice" -- that is, to Emotivism.

Emotivism, Culture, and History

What is it that we're talking about?  MacIntyre provides a workable enough rough-and-ready definition:
Emotivism is the doctrine that all evaluative judgements and more specifically all moral judgements are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling, insofar as they are moral or evaluative in character.
If this moral theory is correct, there are some important implications. One set of these is that:
[M]oral judgements, being expressions of attitude or feeling, are neither true nor false, and agreement in moral judgement is not to be secured by any rational method, for there are none.  It is to be secured, if at all, by producing certain non-rational effects on the emotions or attitudes those who disagree with one. We use moral judgements not only to express our own feelings and attitudes, but also precisely to produce such effects in others.
 Another set are:
[W]hat  emotivism asserts is in central part that there are and can be no valid justification for any claims that objective and impersonal moral standards exist and hence that there are no standards.

Emotivism thus rests upon a claim that every attempt, whether past or present, to provide a rational justification for objective morality has in fact failed.
As a full-blown, self-conscious, academically respectable moral theory (though its proponents prefer to call it a "meta-ethical theory"), Emotivism long ago saw its heyday and decline.  You'd be hard-pressed to find many thinkers working in Ethics or Moral philosophy who explicitly and deliberately identify themselves as Emotivists.  The really strong points of MacIntyre's analysis, however, lie in pointing out -- and making a solid case for -- the fact that many people and many discourses in our current society act as if they are committed to Emotivism as a theory.  It provides a kind of final horizon, articulates a set of go-to defaults, embodies an ultimately irrationalist attitude -- even for those who, at the beginning of moral discussions, deliberations, disagreements start off by espousing some other moral theory.  As MacIntyre sums it up:
[E]motivism did not die and it is important to note how often in widely different modern philosophical contexts something very like emotivism's attempted reduction of morality to personal preference continually recur in the writings of those who do not think of themselves as emotivists.  The unrecognized philosophical power of emotivism is one clue to its cultural power.
All these mentions of "Emotivism" of course call for some definition, or at least some consistent characterization, of what that term denotes -- and we'll get to that eventually, because first, I'm drawn into a minor digression or detour into the recent history of ideas.

MacIntyre is not just interested in making sense out off what Emotivism as a moral theory would mean or entail in the abstract, nor in critiquing it solely on bases like its logical or performative consistency.  He carries out a different sort of critique, attempting to reconstruct the historical situation and conditions for Emotivism's explicit articulation and less visible but just as real penetration of late modern culture, not only intellectually but more generally, more universally.   There's three parts of the narrative he provides that are particularly interesting.

First:  Emotivist Moral Theory's Rise

While noting that you can find attitudes akin to the later moral theory of Emotivism occuring earlier in the history of ideas -- singling out Hume in particular as "embody[ing] emotivist elements in the large and complex fabric of his total moral theory," he points out that as a moral theory -- like every other moral theory -- it gets articulated in some particular time and place, some specific culture and intellectual milieu, as a response to determinate situations and theories taken by those within them to be general in scope.  He suggests:
We ought therefore to ask whether emotivism as a moral theory may not have been both a response to, and in the very first instance, an account of not, as its protagonists indeed supposed, moral language as such but moral language in England . . . 
It is a particular portion of England, of course, which MacIntyre has in mind, centering around the great universities of the South, and the intersecting circles, intellectual, literary, even economic, where was you might call opinion-leaders were to be found interacting with each other. Emotivism, in that case, arises as in response to "the great sillinessof highly intelligent and perceptive people" in a time and place where cultural resources had for some time been lived off and were beginning to fail.  In that sort of milieu, a theory like Emotivism, cutting straight to the chase, possessing the air of something everyone knows but nobody wants to admit, embodying a certain kind of hard-headedness and realism, exerts an imperious attractiveness.  One might see this as the culmination or a symptom of a "specific stage in moral development or decline," which Macintyre charts out in three stages:
  • a first at which evaluative and more especially moral theory and practice embody genuine objective and impersonal standards which provide rational justification for particular policies, actions and judgements and which themselves in turn are susceptible of rational justification
  • a second stage at which there are unsuccessful attempts to maintain the objectivity and impersonality of moral judgements, but during which the project of providing rational justifications. . .  continuously breaks down
  • a third stage at which theories of an emotivist kind secure wide implicit acceptance because of a general implicit recognition is practice, though not in explicit theory, that claims to objectivity and impersonality cannot be made good.
To digress still even further --  think of what goes on in so many Ethics classes (or portions of other courses where moral matters come up for discussion, however tentatively or briefly!) semester after semester.  Doesn't much of it -- if we don't just take many instructors' view of what's going on as unquestionably the case -- really resemble an oscillation between that third and second stage?

Second: Main Traditions of Moral Philosophy in the 20th Century

MacIntyre charts out the development of Emotivism as a consistent (anti-)tradition of moral inquiry, running through its articulation as a response to an ever-widening situation composed equally of moral earnestness and hypocrisy among cultured classes.  He focuses in particular on Charles Leslie Stevenson's place in that tradition -- cemented by his 1937 article "The Emotive Meaning of Ethical Terms," and his 1944 book Ethics and Language -- but also notes in passing F.P. Ramsey, Austin Duncan-Jones, Rudolph Carnap (Ayer's Language, Truth and Logic fits in there as well).

The particularly interesting twist in the tale comes in the fact that Analytic philosophy -- the dominant tradition of philosophy in Anglophone countries during the 20th century and up to the present (enough so that some of its proponents like to speak of "post-Analytic" philosophy) -- rejects Emotivism over and over, but in effect, by failing to arrive at any broadly acceptable alternative view of morality and rational justification, remains harnessed to its problematic.  Emotivism haunts the Analytic philosophical classroom, textbook, theory and practice, an inexpungable shadow indiscernable from the darkness that emerges as soon as the enterprise is done for the day and the lights are turned back off.

MacIntyre notices this is not the only tradition of moral philosophy inextricably connected with Emotivism:

It also holds of certain at first sight very different moral philosophies in Germany and France.  Nietzsche and Sartre deploy philosophical vocabularies which are in large part alien to the English-speaking world; and in style and rhetoric as well as vocabulary each differs from the other as much as from Analytic philosophy.  Nonetheless when Nietzsche sought to indict the making of would-be objective moral judgements as the mask worn by the will-to-power of those to week and slavish to assert themselves with archaic and aristocratic grandeur, and when Sartre tried to exhibit the bourgeois rationalist morality of the Third Republic as an exercise in bad faith by those who cannot tolerate the recognition of their own choices as the sole source of moral judgement, both conceded the substance of that for which emotivism contended.
Nietzsche and Sartre both figure into what seems to many the main family of philosophical traditions providing an alternative to Analytic philosophy -- Continental currents, within which Nietzsche (along with Marx and Freud) is elevated to the status of one "master of suspicion."  It's questionable -- and not a question I intend to tackle here --whether other illustrious members of that tradition, say Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merlau-Ponty, or Jacques Lacan, fit this Emotivist profile quite so well or to the same degree as Sartre and Nietzsche.  And, it must be admitted that, while Nietzsche's star shines perhaps even more brilliantly these days, Sartre and his humanist Existentialism came to be viewed as in eclipse decades ago -- although. . . if one was to measure contemporary influence by the interest shown not so much by specialists but say by average undergraduates, Sartre remains as perennially interesting as does Nietzsche.

These were not the only philosophical traditions active ongoing concerns during the 20th century.  Just to mention two others, the Thomistic-Aristotlean tradition -- with which MacIntyre would later himself self-identify -- possessed great vitality and variety, and other European philosophers often neglected within the "Continental" side, like Maurice Blondel, Max Scheler, Edith Stein, and Gabriel Marcel, developed various robust phenomenological perspectives.  Both these traditions escape -- and provide sophisticated critique of -- the Emotivist problematic MacIntyre is indicating.  What's particularly interesting -- aside from how unfortunately neglected these two richly-resourced traditions were by so many in Anglo-American philosophical circles -- is that those who were influenced by them nevertheless recognized that the mainstreams of Analytic and Continental traditions more or less dictated the discourses not only of late modern philosophy but also moral theory.  Emotivism is not inevitable, but one typically has to make some effort to enlist oneself within a tradition of moral inquiry which does not succumb to, embody, or even endorse it.

Third: The End of the Story, or The Mess We're In

The story of course ends -- or rather, does not end, since it is an ongoing one -- in the present condition of moral discourse and disagreement in our society, where Emotivism has become a kind of undercurrent, and implicit theme -- or for many, just the knee-jerk default in lieu of any better alternative moral perspective.  How often now do moral discussions assume that interminable, and that shrill, defensive, character MacIntyre points out?  How many sooner or later lose their tempers or their cools, drop their facades, and resort to mere reassertion of their claims?  How many supplement that by a stubborn, or even plaintive, appeal:  "that's just my opinion" or "that's just how I feel about it"?  How many claim to "agree to disagree," or pretend that "it's all just opinions, and nobody's really wrong or right" -- not a stance they come out of the blocks expressing, of course, but one to which they make recourse when finding themselves without resource -- a way of saving face, or defusing a tense situation, or deflating seemingly superior claims and arguments of an opponent?

There is a dialectical, back-and-forth relation between individual actions or speech-acts on the one side, and the broader culture they inhabit on the other.  All of these sorts of Emotivist-leaning expressions are both representative products of Emotivist culture -- but they are equally how that culture extends, replicates, and even enforces itself in individual persons, groups, and organizations.  What MacIntyre calls the Emotivist self and Emotivist culture -- two poles, one individual and particular, the other encompasing and universal -- find one important set of juncture points, one sort of interface, in the manifold of social roles and relations.  MacIntyre sketches three social roles, which he calls "characters," of particular centrality in our contemporary society: the Aesthete, the Manager, and the Therapist.

Before discussing them in particular, or even in their generality as characters, it's necessary to note one key facet of Emotivist culture which MacIntyre stresses:
[E]motivism entails the obliteration of any genuine distinction between manipulative and non-manipulative social relations. . . . To treat someone as an ends is to offer them what I take to be good reasons for acting in one way rather than another, but to leave it to them to evaluate those reasons.  It is to be unwilling to influence another except by reasons which that other he or she judges to be good. . . . By contrast, to treat someone else as a means is to seek to make him or her an instrument of my purposes by adducing whatever influences will in fact be effective on this or that occasion.
He then asks:
What would the social world look like if seen with emotivist eyes?  And what would the social world be like, if the truth of emotivism was widely presupposed?  . . . It will make a difference in what milieu and in the service of what particular and specific interests the distinction between manipulative and non-manipulative social relationships has been obliterated.
Three distinctive areas of social relations in which that distinction is effaced or neutralized correspond to what MacIntyre calls "characters," meaning by this certain social roles that within a given society and culture, function as "moral representatives," "masks for moral philosophies,"  furnishing "moral ideals."  Characters also demand of their bearers greater coincidence between the role and the personality than is the case for other roles.  Now, because MacIntyre focuses specifically on the bearers of these roles, the agencies within and expressed by them, one might easily overlook their importance in shaping -- even establishing the boundaries or parameters of -- moral life, conditions, interactions, and ideals for others.  These include those who will in their own turn take on these characters, internalize them in mindset, externalize them in actions, choices, explanations.  But, they also include those who find themselves confronted with these characters, and with the distinctive modes of moral discourse and reasoning to which those characters constrict and confine possibilities. 

I will write much more about these characters in a upcoming post, so let me just briefly enumerate them here:
  • The (Rich) Aesthete:  arising in the area of personal consumption, enjoyment, and relations, concerned with how best to satisfy desires, stave off boredom
  • The Bureaucratic Manager: arising within the life of groups and organizations in which resources have to be allocated and organized
  • The Therapist: arising within the sphere of personal life, bodily and mental health, and adjusting the individual person to their social environment, including the wills of other people.
In all three of these spheres, moral matters are reduced to personal preferences, "values" in a restricted, subjective sense of the term. People are free of course, not to be Emotivists -- to hold whatever moral theory they want, to pursue the values or goods it orders highest -- so long, of course, that they recognize  (or can be brought or forced to do so) that any such commitment is dependent ultimately on their own "opinion," "background," preferences, feelings -- that is, that they admit an Emotivist basis to whatever other moral theory they endorse.  So, moral matters, disagreements, orientations and orderings are not up for rational discussion or debate -- with the exception of the overarching values of the Manager or the Therapist, those which trump any and all others:
The Manager treats ends as given, as outside his scope; his concern is with technique. . . The Therapist also treats ends as given, as outside his scope; his concern also is with technique. . . Neither manager nor therapist, in their roles as manager or therapist, do or are able to engage in moral debate.  They are seen by themselves, and by those who see them with the same eyes as their own, as unconstested figures, who purport to confine themselves to the realms in which moral disagreement is possible.

Some Further Blog Entries in the Pipe

There's much more to be said about this topic -- I'm just scratching the surface here in this post.  Four further post ideas suggest themselves to me straight off.
  • First, student classroom discussions and engagements with the texts and the ideas are always quite illuminating and what they made of -- and understood from -- Emotivism and MacIntyre's critique is something well worth exploring.  
  • Second, these "characters" of Emotivist culture deserve more scrutiny -- just how exactly do the Aesthete, the Manager, and the Therapist represent, enact, and contribute culturally to an effacement of the distinction between manipulative and non-manipulative social relations?  MacIntyre is much more elliptical on that point than one would like, and in my view, this calls for some additional explanation.  
  • Third, if you look at the actual literature best embodying the Emotivist moral theory, it would seem that some of MacIntyre's criticisms of it were already anticipated and answered by at least some of its proponents -- like C.L Stevenson and Asher Moore, for instance.  So, its worth exploring whether MacIntyre isn't really setting up a straw man of sorts. 
  • Fourth, I'm becoming more and more interested in thinking about Emotivism -- and the typical emotivist self -- through the lenses afforded by other moral theories, considering especially what the concrete effects of espousing and following that theory would be.  In short, what kind of person a lived-out commitment to Emotivism makes one into.
I'm open to reflecting on -- and writing about other topics bearing on Emotivist moral theory, our contemporary culture, and MacIntyre's critique of both, here in Virtue Ethics Digest or in Orexis Dianoētikē. So, if you've got any suggestions, feel free to send them my way -- comment here, or if you're shy about public forums, email them to me.

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