Oct 14, 2012

Does MacIntyre get Emotivism Right?

Last month, I discussed a criticism of contemporary culture made by a thinker with whom I like to begin my Ethics courses -- Alasdair MacIntyre, who in After Virtue (as well as certain of his other works), maintains that we now inhabit a culture in which, like it or not, true as a moral theory or not, Emotivism has become the predominant framework within which moral discussion, and particularly disagreement, occur -- and this is bad, overall, for a number of reasons.

But it's worth asking -- particularly given the importance he accords to a moral theory attempting to get rival theories correct -- is MacIntyre himself right about Emotivism as a moral theory?  Is he representing it -- particularly in its self-conscious, explicitly philosophical form -- accurately, for instance when he claims that while "Emotivism has been presented by its most sophisticated proponents . . . as a theory about the meaning of sentences which are used to make moral judgements," if we look at it more closely, what its proponents failed to see is that it is "a cogent theory of use" of moral language, "rather than a false theory of meaning"?  In order to answer this, we have to compare MacIntyre's views on Emotivism in After Virtue against a few of Emotivism's "sophisticated proponents."

Self-Conscious Emotivism as a Moral Theory

Who ought to be included as a self-conscious, philosophically sophisticated Emotivist?  I think in addressing that question we ought to look to several different directions.  First off, given just how long MacIntyre himself spent wandering the sometimes-sterile plains of Analytic philosophy prior to making his dramatic shift to Aristotelian virtue ethics in After Virtue, handing out in its watering holes, speaking its language with his interlocutors, inclusion among the figures he explicitly names provides one solid criterion.  By the publication of After Virtue, over a generation ago, MacIntyre had more than earned his status as an expert in moral philosophy -- and in its history -- so Charles Leslie Stevenson certainly ought to be accorded pride of place as a main proponent of the theory, arguably more so than Austin Duncan Jones and Frank P. Ramsey, who he merely mentions in passing.

MacIntyre rather surprisingly does not refer to A.J. Ayer at all in his central analysis of Emotivism as a moral theory in After Virtue -- at least, not until much later, when he mentions Ayer along with Rudolph Carnap as emotivist philosophers who "extended the emotive theory beyond the realm of moral judgement" in order to argue "that metaphysical assertions more generally and religious assertions more particularly . . . do no more than express the feelings and attitudes of those who utter them." 

Still, Ayer was one of Emotivism's early important spokesmen -- his Language, Truth and Logic articulated the theory in ways and words that influenced other Anglo-American philosophers.  Admittedly, as Ayer later admitted, his own conceptions turned out to be unconsciously derivative, but still he supplies a classic formulation of Emotivist moral theory -- a second criterion for inclusion and consideration here.

A third useful criterion, I think, would be to look precisely for authors who both identified with Emotivism as a moral theory and felt the need to grapple with and defend it against criticisms made against it from the perspectives of other moral theories.  That would suggest bringing into the fold, along with Ayer and Stevenson, another somewhat later Analytic philosopher, Asher Moore, who, at least at the time he published "Emotivism:  Theory and Practice," (1958), regarded Emotivism as a robust and viable theory (he later appears to end up a self-declared existentialist phenomenologist).  In that article, and in his earlier "The Emotive Theory and Rational Methods in Moral Controversy" (1951), Moore explicitly sets up his project as addressing criticisms made against  Emotivism, which makes him an ideal person to set into dialogue with MacIntyre.

The most salient points upon which to focus are Macintyre's contentions that:

  • Emotivism is presented as a theory of the meaning of moral or evaluative language
  • Emotivism claims that all moral claims are in the end expressions of subjective preferences, feelings, or attitudes, so they cannot be objectively true (or false, for that matter)
  • If Emotivism is true, every claim to provide rational justification for any objective morality is misleading, merely an expression of emotion, attitude, or preference.
  • As a theory of the meaning of moral language, Emotivism is, however, inadequate and false
  • Emotivism is better understood as a theory about the use of moral or evaluative language, than as a theory about the meaning
  • As a theory about the use of moral language, Emotivism does describe how many people do in fact use moral language -- and misunderstand their own uses of moral language.
  • If Emotivism is actually true on the whole, as a moral theory, "moral language is serious misleading and . . . presumably the use of traditional and inherited moral language ought to be abandoned."
Is MacIntyre's depiction of Emotivism and its consequences accurate?  Does it fit Ayer, or Stevenson?  What about Moore?

A.J. Ayer's Version of Emotivism

In chapter six of Language, Truth and Logic, Ayer sketches his project as determining "the possibility of reducing the whole sphere of ethical terms to non-ethical terms," which includes "whether statements of ethical value can be translated into statements of empirical fact."  As it turns out, Ayer doesn't think that the latter is the case, but the conclusions that he derives from that represent a radical move.  He asserts:
[F]undamental ethical concepts are unanalysable. . . . the reason why they are unanalysable is that they are mere pseudo-concepts.  The presences of an ethical symbol in a proposition adds nothing to its factual content.  Thus if I say to someone, "You acted wrongly in stealing that money,"  I am not saying anything more than if I had simply said, "You stole that money."  In adding that this action is wrong, I am not making any further statement about it.  I am simply evincing my moral disapproval of it.  It is as if I had said, "You stole that money," in a peculiar tone of horror, or written it with special exclamation marks.  The tone, or the exclamation marks, adds nothing to the literal meaning of the sentence.  It merely serves to show that the expression of it is attended by certain feelings in the speaker.
Ayer varies his terminology somewhat -- "expressing moral sentiments," "expressions of feeling," "evincing feelings," "express[ing] moral judgements" -- but all of these are contrasted consistently against asserting, or making claims about, feelings or sentiments.  As he says:
[I]n every case in which one would commonly be said to be making an ethical judgement, the function of the relevant ethical word is purely "emotive."  It is used to express feeling about certain objects, but not to make any assertion about them.
Now here, in teasing out this "function," it appears that Ayer is in fact framing Emotivism not only as a theory of the meaning of moral language, but as a theory about the use of moral language. That seems to be even more the case when looking at the other characteristic functions of moral language:
[E]thical terms do not serve only to express feeling.  They are calculated also to arouse feeling, and so to stimulate action.  Indeed some of them are used in such a way as to give the sentences in which they occur the effect of commands.  Thus the sentence "it is your duty to tell the truth" may be regarded both as the expression of a certain sort of ethical feeling about truthfulness and as the expression of the command "Tell the truth." 
Is seems at this point that perhaps MacIntyre has strangely -- for he knows the literature and the positions of Emotivists -- accused their rival moral theory of bringing forth a false theory of meaning, when they are actually writing specifically about uses of moral language. Is that really the case, though?  If you read on in Ayer, you find:
In fact we may define the meaning of the various ethical words in terms both of the different feelings they are ordinarily taken to express, and also the different responses which they are calculated to provoke.
If there is a confusion of meaning and use, it's not -- at least in Ayer's case -- occurring on the part of MacIntyre.  Ayer's theory makes meaning of moral language precisely into several distinct types of use.

What about moral disagreements, and the possibility of any rational resolution to them?  Ayer argues the paradoxical position that we never actually disagree about matters of value, only about matters of fact:
When someone disagrees with us about the moral value of a certain kind or type of action, we do admittedly resort to argument to win him over to our way of thinking.  But we do not attempt to show by our arguments that he has the "wrong" ethical feeling towards a situation whose nature he has correctly apprehended.
Instead, we try to show the other person that he or she has mistaken particular empirical facts -- motives, likely consequences, circumstances -- or more general effects of actions, more general qualities revealed by them.  This proceeds, Ayer concedes, on the supposition that the other person has:
generally received the same moral education as ourselves. . . liv[es] in the same social order. . .  But if our opponent happens to have undergone a different process of moral "conditioning" from ourselves so that, even when he acknowledges all the facts, he still disagrees with us about the moral value of the actions under discussion, then we abandon the attempt to convince him by argument.  We say that it is impossible to argue with him because he has a distorted or undeveloped moral sense; which signifies merely that he employs a different set of values from out own. We feel that our own system of values is superior, and therefore speak in such derogatory terms of his.  but we cannot bring forth any arguments to show that our system is superior.  For our judgement that it is so is itself a judgement of value, and according outside the scope of argument. 
Emotivism, at least as Ayer articulates it, precludes the possibility of any genuine moral or ethical argument -- let alone resolutions or rational changing position --  between those who do not already share all the relevant values in common.  Yet, it surreptitiously advances a certain way of behavior as what one ought to do -- it is rational not to expect, demand, or work towards agreement, or even understanding or appreciation of the other person's position as in some manner rational, if one does not already possess a secured ground of near-complete agreement in values, condition, feeling, sentiment.

Stevenson's Version of Emotivism

I won't attempt to summarize Stevenson's larger work, Ethics and Language, but instead cull a few passages from his earlier, but highly influential article "The Emotive Meaning of Ethical Terms," whose very name suggests that MacIntyre was right to focus his critique on the conception of meaning, and to argue that Emotivists have instead described use without realizing they were doing so.  Stevenson seems from the start, though, to conceptualize matters of moral language precisely in terms of use, to accomplish or produce some desired effect:
Doubtless there is always some element of description in ethical judgments, but this is by no means all. Their major use is not to indicate facts, but to create an injuence. Instead of merely describing people's interests, they change or intensify them.  . . .  When you tell a man that he oughtn't to steal, your object isn't merely to let him know that people disapprove of stealing. You are attempting, rather, to get him to disapprove of it. Your ethical judgment has a quasi-imperative force which, operating through suggestion, and intensified by your tone of voice, readily permits you to begin to influence, to modify, his interests. . . .  When you point out to him the consequences of his actions -- consequences which you suspect he already disapproves of -- these reasons which support your ethical judgment are simply a means of facilitating your influence. If you think you can change his interests by making vivid to him how others will disapprove of him, you will do so; otherwise not. . . .  Your ethical judgment doesn't merely describe interests to him, it directs his very interests.
In fact, Stevenson much more explicitly than Ayer works out the implications of Emotivism -- doing so in ways that echo MacIntyre's own characterization of Emotivism as eroding and effacing any distinction between manipulative and non-manipulative relations between people.  Stevenson comes straight out and tells us:  "ethical terms are instruments used in the complicated interplay and readjustment of human interests."  Look at how he depicts moral life and education:
People praise one another, to encourage certain inclinations, and blame one another, to discourage others. Those of forceful personalities issue commands which weaker people, for complicated instinctive reasons, find it difficult to disobey, quite apart from fears of consequences. Further influence is brought to bear by writers and orators. Thus social influence is exerted, to an enormous extent, by means that have nothing to do with physical force or material reward. The ethical terms facilitate such influence. Being suited for use in suggestion, they are a means by which men's attitudes may be led this way or that. The reason, then, that we find a greater similarity in the moral attitudes of one community than in those of different communities is largely this: ethical judgments propagate themselves. One man says " This is good "; this may influence the approval of another person, who then makes the same ethical judgment, which in turn influences another person, and so on. In the end, by a process of mutual influence, people take up more or less the same attitudes. Between people of widely separated communities, of course, the influence is less strong ; hence different communities have different attitudes. 
Stevenson thus depicts us as essentially dupes of -- and propagandists for -- our own cultures, and their idiosyncratic moral histories, the values that the more forceful within them have managed to get into the mix, that gained traction, and now are imparted in a variety of manners.

Turning back now to the question of meaning, Stevenson frames the meaning of moral statements or language in terms of use and purpose, distinguishing between descriptive use and dynamic use.  In the latter, "we use words to give vent to our feelings (interjections), or to create moods (poetry), or to incite people to actions or attitudes (oratory)."

He asks the question:  "What has the dynamic use of words to do with their meaning?"  And, he stresses at first in answering it that we must avoid defining "meaning" in any way that would make a meaning vary according to dynamic use.  This has an important consequence: "we must certainly distinguish between the dynamic use of words and their meaning."

It would appear then then, at least in Stevenson, we see a clear and conscious distinction maintained between use and meaning -- precisely what MacIntyre claimed was lacking or least overlooked in Emotivism, singling out Stevenson in particular.  In fact, if meaning of a term involves a stable, persistent tendency of that term to be connected with certain psychological causes and effects -- giving it an independence from context and from the desires or "dynamic" purposes of those speaking or hearing -- then for Stevenson this excludes dynamic use from the realm of meaning -- again, a clear distinction between meaning and use, at least for moral terminology.  However:
There will be a kind of meaning, however, in the sense above defined, which has an intimate relation to dynamic usage. I refer to " emotive"meaning . . . The emotive meaning of a word is a tendency of a word, arising through the history of its usage, to produce (result from) affective responses in people. It is the immediate aura of feeling which hovers about a word. Such tendencies to produce affective responses cling to words very tenaciously. It would be difficult, for instance, to express merriment by using the interjection "alas". Because of the persistence of such affective tendencies (among other reasons) it becomes feasible to classify them as "meanings".
This emotive meaning, as Stevenson understands it, is not the same thing as the use, but it is quite closely connected with it:
[C]ertain words, because of their emotive meaning, are suited to a certain kind of dynamic use -- so well suited, in fact, that the hearer is likely to be misled when we use them in any other way. The more pronounced a word's emotive meaning is, the less likely people are to use it purely descriptively. Some words are suited to encourage people, some to discourage them, some to quiet them, and so on. Even in these cases, of course, the dynamic purposes are not to be identified with any sort of meaning; for the emotive meaning accompanies a word much more persistently than do the dynamic purposes. But there is an important contingent relation between emotive meaning and dynamic purpose: the former assists the latter.
The "emotive meaning" that Stevenson accords to a term such as "good," or to other moral terms, remains vulnerable to MacIntyre's critique of Emotivism as a theory of meaning.  Stevenson almost exemplifies the rather cynical Emotivist approach to use of moral language -- we "adjust" others, employ "suggestion," attempt to provoke the desired affectivity and action on their parts (and perhaps even on our own).

One good point about Stevenson's analyses -- even though they are in many respects off-base -- is that he does recognize the need to draw some distinctions between modalities of feeling, of affect, of sentiment.  This enables him to avoid the sort of flattening, the banalization, that occurs so quickly with many other analogously Emotivist accounts.  He's right in noticing, for instance:
When a person likes something, he is pleased when it prospers, and disappointed when it doesn't. When a person morally approves of something, he experiences a rich feeling of security when it prospers, and is indignant, or "shocked" when it doesn't.
And yet, what would allow such a judgement, such a distinction, to be maintained, when speaking with an interlocutor -- or to a culture or even group -- for whom "this is good" really has become equivalent to "I (or we) like this"?  Simply the force of the more sophisticated emotivist's will?  It's hard to see what other resources he or she might draw upon, let alone offer to another.

Asher Moore's attempt to Defend Emotivism

Moore's main concern, in his articles from the 1950s, was addressing criticisms getting made by then against Emotivism as a moral theory.  It can certainly be said that he grabs any menacing metaphorical bulls straight by the horns:
[T]he emotive theory holds that attitudes and feelings, as well as beliefs about matters of fact, are essential ingredients of any serious moral controversy. And it is assumed to follow from this that there can be no "rational" way -- purely by the citing of evidence -- to resolve moral controversies one way or the other; and that hence moral arguments are not so much attempts to arrive at true beliefs as they are attempts to influence feelings.
He continues:
[T]he emotive theory makes feelings and attitudes an intrinsic and inseparable part of the meaning of ethical sentences. . . . [T]he meaning of an ethical sentence is not exhausted by the beliefs which it expresses. Included in its meaning also are the attitudes which it expresses. Since the very meaning of an ethical sentence thus includes non-cognitive elements -- attitudes -- the sentence cannot, except in a Pickwickian sense, be either true or false. . . . [I]n the sense in which Stevenson uses the term 'meaning ' he is clearly and obviously right in holding that a part of the meaning of an ethical sentence admits of neither truth nor falsity.
Here, any distinction between Emotivism understood as a theory about meaning or understood instead as a theory about use of moral language seems to have slipped away.  Accordingly, what "meaning" is possessed by moral claims, let alone moral arguments, even more so, general theories,  turns out to rest -- at least as far as any moral concepts or terms are involved -- upon the feelings, emotions, desires, or preferences of those making or considering the claims.  Moore does not envision any real problems arising from this.  For him, it is a matter of rigorously distinguishing two levels:  ethics and meta-ethics:
Emotivism is of course a meta-ethics. The cardinal tenet of this meta-ethics is that every man's ethical philosophy, including, naturally, that of the emotivist himself, is basically but an expression of his feelings. But that does not mean that the emotivist does not have whatever feelings, and hence whatever moral philosophy, he does in fact have. 
On the meta-level, assuming Emotivism correct, it becomes impossible to ask whether the Emotivist has gotten matters right or wrong, and more cogently, whether their theory is a good one or a bad one, whether they are doing right or wrong in holding or advocating it.

On the lower level, presumably inhabited by other moral theories as well as by less well-thought-out or consistent moral stances, there likewise can be no rational, objective discussion, deliberation, or disagreement about the stances that are held, expressed, and acted upon, rooted in the person's (or group's) emotions -- but for a different reason: any and all such disagreements, every expression of an "ethical" or "moral" position is merely, from the Emotivist perspective, an expression of feeling or preference.

The fact that for Moore some of the argumentation involved might be entirely coherent within its own framework (provided one possesses the requisite emotions, desires, or attitudes) -- just like the fact that in Moore's view, not necessarily all of the meanings contained in moral expressions are just emotive meanings -- should not mislead one into thinking that in the last analysis all moral language, theory, and action doesn't, for the Emotivist, reduce to commitments which cannot be rationally advanced, worked out, or defended.  What Moore deems necessary to point out actually seems to exemplify MacIntyre's analysis of moral disagreement in Emotivist culture:
In moral dispute, he will continue to express his feelings fervidly and insistently, if they are fervid and insistent feelings. Nor does it imply that these feelings are, for him, no more important than the feelings of others. When the emotivist confronts ideals opposed to his own, he will be outraged to whatever extent he in fact is. He will call other ideals wrong because, to him, they are wrong, and he will prescribe what is right to others because, to him, and not just for him, it is right.
Conflict between different moral perspectives becomes inevitable -- Moore and MacIntyre both agree on that -- but at this point we can see the emotivist and the virtue ethicist diverge.  Moore continues:
If asked why others should follow his ideals, he will reply, as would anyone else, "Because they are right." For on the ethical plane, the only meaning he has for the word right is in terms of his own feelings; and on the meta-ethical level the word does not, of course, occur. . .  One's urgent feelings, if one ever had them, need not become pallid and spineless because one recognizes that others too have urgent feelings. I do not cease to be myself when I admit there are other people. Nor does my recognition that other people's ethical language reflects their feelings, not mine, imply that my language should cease to reflect mine. My ethical language, like anyone else's, reflects my ethical feelings, not my meta-ethical opinions. 
His concern is showing that, if we accept Emotivism, we need not become skeptics or relativists paralyzed or innervated, unable to defend and advance our own values, once we realize that their only basis is the subjective -- and rather arbitrary -- ground of our own emotions or preferences.  He is rejecting any interpretation that:
.  . . foresees our feelings attenuated to the point of equality with the feelings of others, so that in cases of conflict we can find no reason to choose our own ideals over the contrary ideals of others. It sees us incapable of expressing our own feelings because we are immediately inhibited by our sympathy for the equal legitimacy of a contrary feeling. It sees our complete relativism in theory reducing us to complete relativism in feeling, no longer able to distinguish good from evil. The criticism pictures us watching the proceedings at Dachau and able to say only, "Well, of course, I feel it is all dreadfully wrong; but then I know Hitler feels it is right; and so I must just try to understand."
The real problem, however -- one MacIntyre is much more cognizant of -- is not having trouble feeling that Dachau and other associated Nazi attrocities were wrong.  It's being able to say, at least to some extent, and in manners not dependent solely upon our own feelings or upon influencing the feelings others, that it -- and more importantly, that such matters generally -- are wrong.  And, it's not only the actuality of (at least to some extent) rational, objective, appeals or explanations provided in the midst of moral disagreements or deliberations that's ruled out by Emotivism -- it's the very intelligibility and possibility of such important practices of moral life. 

So, has MacIntyre mistaken the meaning of Emotivism as a moral theory -- even, say, in treating it as a moral theory rather than merely a meta-ethical theory?  Or has he perhaps understood it -- in its full implications, in what it has right and what it has gotten wrong -- better than its own proponents?  After looking at some of the best proponents of the theory, the second seems to be the case.

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