Jan 31, 2013

What is the Emotivist Person Like?

I'm back in full swing once again teaching an Ethics course at Marist College (actually, just coming off of teaching a very intensive 4-week online Ethics course, before launching right back into Spring face-to-face courses), and we just finished discussing Alasdair MacIntyre's diagnosis of Emotivism (in After Virtue) as the moral theory that has become embedded and embodied in our late modern culture.  Last year, around this point in the semester, I wrote two blog posts focusing on that diagnosis (here and here). There's three particularly important features to MacIntyre's account -- precisely why I have my students read chapters 2 and 3 of After Virtue at the start of the semester.

First, MacIntyre does not think that many people in our contemporary culture explicitly endorse one of the academic forms of emotivism (derived from Ayer or Stevenson, Nietzsche or Sartre) -- rather their behavior, actions, expressions betray an implicit reliance on that moral theory as their default, the horizon within which they act and move and work out their being. Second, MacIntyre also does not think emotivism is remotely close to being correct or adequate as a moral theory.  But, if there are many people who on some gut-level do seem to think it the right theory, and act, judge, and communicate as if it was, that has some real implications for our moral environment.  Third, MacIntyre does not see these developments as particularly good ones -- even for the emotivist.  And, that is what I'm going to discuss here -- starting from the question: what kind of person does a lived-out commitment to Emotivism make one into?

The Emotivist Adrift

One of the near-constant concerns I hear expressed not only by students when I teach Ethics, but in conversations with other people when moral issues arise, has to do with the bases for the moral judgements and decisions we make, the claims we stake out and occasionally attempt to support with some sort of explanation or argument.

There's an almost-predictable propensity in many, fairly early on to any interesting moral conversation which appears to be articulating some substantive stance, to either back away from asserting moral evaluations with any sort of definitiveness, or to base one's own claims, arguments, principles and starting points on something subjective -- one's emotions and desires, one's "background," one's preferences and sentiments.

Alternately, one dismisses the possible merit of opposed positions -- along with their apparatus of arguments, justifications, appeals, as mere functions of the feeling, the desires, the interests of the other person (or their side, or those who are obviously feeding them bad information. . . ) 

Along with this goes a particular and perceptible affect -- a kind of intermingled hopelessness and hopefulness, a yearning for there to actually be something that one could take as real, as reliable, as true for more than just some person or group or context -- something genuinely good to be worked out, to be attained, in the process of moral discussion, debate, inquiry -- something that could actually be worked out, some progress that might be generated, consolidated, perceived, even retained.  It is particularly interesting to sense this -- that's a matter of emotion, desire, affect, but it points us both towards what transcends emotivism, and what transcendence emotivism rules out and blocks.

To be an emotivist, MacIntyre points out, is not a good thing, precisely because such a person is resourceless -- precisely because the moral theory they follow denies, and purports to demystify and dismiss, the kinds of sorely-needed resources that other, more adequate moral theories provide to their proponents.  I'd like to cite two discussions in which MacIntyre sketches this stark situation, the first from his essay, "Plain Persons and Moral Theory"
Consider the image of the plain person. . . . [as] someone who initially is a stranger to all moral philosophies and therefore wholly unequipped with the resources provided by any particular philosophical standpoint. . . . The counterpart of the neutrality of the plain person thus conceived is therefore a rationally unguided arbitrariness. . .  [T]here are and have been real human beings in the condition represented by this image, human beings, that is, lacking the resources to make fundamental choices in anything but a criteronless way.  But the question is whether this type of human being is not his or herself a social artifact, someone who has undergone a process of social and moral deprivation, not a plain person as such, but someone who somehow or other has been stripped of the ability to understand her or himself aright.
The second is from After Virtue:
Of the self as presented by emotivism we must immediately note that it cannot be simply or unconditionally identified with any particular moral attitude or point if view. . . because of the fact that its judgements are in the end criterionless.  The specifically modern self, the self that I have called emotivist, finds no limits set to that one which it may pass judgement for such limits could derive only from rational criteria for evaluation. .. . Everything may be critcized from whatever standpoint the self has adopted, including the self's choice of standpoint to adopt.
This freedom seems on first glance quite attractive. But, there is a cost -- as there always is:
What moral modes are open to the self thus conceived? . . . [W]hatever criteria or principles or evaluative allegiances the emotivist self may profess, they are all to be construed as expressions of attitudes, preferences and choices which are themselves not governed by criterion, principle or value.  But from this it follows that the emotivist self can have no rational history in its transitions from one state of moral commitment to another.  Inner conflicts are for it necessarily au fond the confrontation of one contingent arbitrariness by another.

The Emotivist as Manipulator and Consumer

Perhaps this isn't so bad.  After all, if any sort of stance, any type of moral project or perspective can be adopted by the emotivist, what is there to prevent such a person from picking some good, decent, well-regarded way to live, act, and interact with others?  Could the emotivist not even commit him or herself to an entire program of moral development?  What does it matter if the basis for their commitments and choices is ultimately irrational, rooted only in their desires, preferences, feelings, sentiment?  Saint or sinner, savior or sadist, if these stances can be selected at will or at whim, why assume the worst of the random vector along which the emotivist will travel?

One could of course retort that if it is all a matter of chance or happenstance, if people and their moral perspectives are determined by the play of irrational forces, it would seem equally likely that a person might choose some less decent, more unsavory role to play, steered just as much thereby by their subjective emotions and desires as, say, the philanthropist who, when asked why he or she exercises benificence, chalks it up to "just feeling that way," or to feeling that they ought to do what other people speak well of.  But, in a certain way, that response misses the point -- even if you add to it the concern that a person who generally does good things, who helps rather than hinders or hurts, might just as well change their mind at any moment.

In his analysis, MacIntyre himself focuses on a feature of emotivist culture, selves, discourse, and moral theory that ought to be particularly troubling:
[E]motivism entails the obliteration of any genuine distinction between manipulative and non-manipulative social relations.
Why does it entail this?  For the emotivist:
evaluative utterance can in the end have no point or use but the expression of my own feelings or attitudes and the transformation of the feelings and attitudes of others. I cannot genuinely appeal to impersonal criteria, for there are no impersonal criteria.  I may think that I so appeal and others may think they so appeal, but these thoughts will always be mistakes.  The sole reality of distinctively moral discourse is the attempt of one will to align the attitudes, feeling, preference and choices of another with its own.
This consequence of emotivism is, in fact, nothing an emotivist moral theorist would not openly admit, or at least grudgingly agree to.  All there can be ultimately are wills, whether individual or writ large in the social order, bringing various sorts of pressure to bear upon each other, aiming at evoking desired emotions responses and behaviors.  An emotivist could, of course, choose to present reasons to another person for why they should behave in this way rather than that, why they ought to consider this good and that bad -- but those reasons would be merely tools for persuasion or dissuasion, merely signs expressing approval or disapproval.  In effect, all moral discourse -- and all social relations -- for the emotivist become either actually manipulative, or potentially manipulative (if ever -- and as soon as -- they need to be).

Interestingly, every time I teach this material, and I ask my students to write about emotivism as a moral theory, some of the students enthusiastically and momentarily endorse it, seeing in the emotivist stance a respect for other people's perspectives, a species of tolerance, a willingness to allow everyone and anyone to act upon, express, and work out their own feelings. The emotivist gets made -- or rather misread -- into a kind of moral hero, or at least the decent person, by contrast to the dogmatists who actually believe there is objective right and wrong, and who attempt to push -- unfairly, unreasonably -- their own set of values, their singular and unshared agenda onto everyone else.  This is particularly interesting -- really a sign and symptom of the state of the average -- and low -- level of moral understanding and development in our culture, which renders many of its inhabitants unequipped to perceive any robust, principled judgement in anything but an emotivist manner.

There's a double irony here.  The head side of that coin is that in the very endorsing the emotivist perspective as the "good" one against other "bad" moral perspectives, the student engages in an emotivist critique or analysis of the non-emotivist perspectives.  People who articulate moral perspectives that are roughly utilitarian (one ought to do what is best overall for the most people in the community), deontological (one ought to obey the rules, or fulfill duties, regardless of the consequences), or aligned with, even informed by virtue ethics -- these people are viewed by the emotivist student, understandably enough, as endorsing and arguing for their moral perspectives only because those perspectives correspond with, and are ultimately based on, subjective preferences, desires, emotions.  And, that's precisely why one shouldn't "push one's own perspective onto others who don't necessarily share it," as this line generally goes -- one should be more like the virtuous emotivist, who refrains from such proselytizing.

The flip side of the coin -- the tail of the "heads I win, tails you lose" shortly coming up -- is that actually, it is the emotivist who is most likely to push their own moral conceptions, ideologies and idiosyncracies, orderings and agendas, onto other people.  For, that's precisely what the theory says everyone who is making a moral claim, who expresses a moral judgement, is attempting to do.  If an emotivist does preach tolerance, non-judgementalism, letting everyone express and do their own thing, allowing the proverbial thousand flowers to bloom -- that's nothing intrinsically connected with endorsing or living as an emotivist.  Such a commitment would really only rest upon, and only last a long as remains effective, a sentimental basis.  As soon as such an enlightened, "nice" stance no longer meshed well with one's feelings, one's desires, one's inclinations, it would be discarded in favor of some other moralizing posture.

In fact, from the perspective of emotivism, it's just as legitimate for a person to be like the torturer and party official O'Brien in Orwell's 1984, baldly spelling to Winston out how all his efforts are oriented towards exercise of power upon others -- unveiling a devastated moral landscape within and without -- that's just as likely a form for emotivism to assume. One need hardly go that far, however, towards a totalitarian and totalizing kind of monster that once was human.  We needn't be quite so dramatic, if I can be permitted a pun.

One is much more likely to meet the emotivist in ordinary life, in discourse and discussions, in the workplace, in bars and cafes, even in the relatively lesser or greater intimacy afforded by  relationships.  Imagine what it means to work, live, love, interact socially with a person who really is convinced of the truth of the emotivist perspective -- even if they've never heard that term, and no moment ever occurred when they decisively selected a moral theory.  What will be characteristic of the emotivist in their interactions with other people, and their own reflections upon those interactions?

For one thing, such a person cannot really take seriously the moral views, commitments, choices, reasonings and reflections of other people -- not if they differ from one's own.  These are, after all, merely what happen to suit those people, basically just subjective preferences.  One might have to pay them lip service if the other person is in a strong enough position to make it worth one's while -- but if not, why respect another person's moral stance, let alone the emotions and desires it expresses.  Why not rather -- in whatever mode will work best, force, fraud, or moral expression -- attempt to get the other person to see it one's one way, to conform to one's own will and conveniences?  What argues against this?  One's own feelings, perhaps?  Or perhaps not.

Even for people who have, honor, and attempt to live according to principles, it's very easy to become convinced of the rightness of one's own feelings and desires when they clash with those of others.  Take getting angry for an example -- even very rational, highly principled, morally well-developed people occasionally lose their tempers when they are themselves actually in the wrong.  And, one of the interesting features of anger is that once one starts feeling it, it tends to seduce the rationality of the angered person into its own service, convincing them that they are in fact in the right, at last in some sense, and are appropriate in continuing their anger response.  Anger represents, in its workings, a momentary, local lapse into something like being an emotivist.

Emotivism as Expressive of Vice or Akrasia

When we're teaching about these matters -- and even when we're writing about them -- there is a tendency to attempt to first address emotivism as a moral theory, display and demonstrate its insufficiencies, and then leave it behind and go on with our study, eventually to and into virtue ethics.  We consider persons from that vantage point in terms of morally relevant states of character or personality -- among them virtue, vice, perhaps also self-control (enkratia) and its lack (akrasia).  Generally by that time, we've long since forgotten about the emotivist and emotivism.

I'd like to suggest that the emotivist person is in fact likely to be or become a vicious person -- or at best, an akratic person, the inconstant and inconsistent, lacking self-control and the follow-through which embodies real commitments transcending -- and transforming -- the self.  And, I think this has to do with the two key and connected features of the emotivist person just discussed -- resourceslessness and manipulativeness. 

Consider what it is like to be vicious, or to be akratic.  These states differ considerably, according to Aristotle, in that within the vicious person, something has become corrupted, not only at a cognitive level pertaining to the complex of beliefs, judgements, reasonings -- but also at the same time on the affective level.  Their desires, their emotional responses, the sense or perspective that our affectivity ought to afford to us, have become more or less disordered, distorted.  And, at the same time, the vicious person thinks and feels that they way they are behaving is the right way.  It is other people -- particularly the virtuous, and those who talk about or praise virtue -- who are wrong.  Put in more contemporary language, the vicious person is the one who (wrongly) says:  I don't have a problem.  It's YOU who has the problem!

If we follow out that current-day parlance, the akratic (at least the one in whom it is a character trait) would be the person who admits that they have a problem -- in general -- but then dismisses or distracts themselves from that realization in particular cases, making exceptions:  just this time; in this case, and so on.  Or, they're the person who tells others that they have a problem -- they even believe that to be the case, and perhaps even sometimes feel bad about it -- but they choose not to do anything that would actually get them, or at least assist them in eventually getting out of and past that problem (a variant of this makes plans or first steps, but then fails to follow through).  Something remains undeveloped within the akratic person, what you might call moral muscle, will-power.  But, it's also a kind of fuzzier, more indistinct, less operative understanding or knowledge about right and wrong -- both cognitively and affectively -- than one would find in the self-controlled person, or in the (most likely, imperfectly) virtuous person.  There is an inability, even an unwillingness, to confront oneself, to stand up to one's worse parts, tendencies, temptations, which do nevertheless make their demands felt.

 Both the vicious person and the akratic may in fact be -- to a lesser extent in the latter, of course -- in the condition of moral resourcelessness, lacking any kind of rational criteria, and thereby inevitably following the call of irrational criteria, conditions, determinants, when it comes not only to making moral decisions in the moment, but even more importantly, in developing a honest self-assessment, an understanding of how and who one is, has been, and is headed towards being -- over time, in the narrative comprising one's own life.  There is a reciprocal relation here -- being vicious and being akratic tends to render one rationally resourceless, and in return, moral resourcelessness tends to steer one into these corrupted conditions.  In fact, it would not be surprising to discover in vicious people and even in some akratic people -- not only in our own late modern culture, but in earlier cultures as well -- something at work, established, bearing  a strong functional resemblance to the moral theory of emotivism -- an attitude characteristically reducing and rejecting other people's moral language and judgements as mere expression of their preferences, reducing one's own moral evalutions to mere expressions of one's own feelings or attempts to cajole others into feeling similarly.

 The vicious person will also almost inevitably end up manipulating others.  The akratic will be tempted  -- and will often succumb to that temptation -- to manipulate others. They will sell others out to satisfy their own desires, perceived needs, emotional responses, even wishes and whims.  They will bring pressure to bear on others to attain what it is that they want from them, and employ moral language to express that this ought to be the case -- both to themselves and to the others.  And, why shouldn't they?  After all, any moral theory that would tell them to do otherwise is just an epiphenomenal product of someone else's ultimately self-centered desires and preferences?

Here we see the most corrosive effect of emotivism -- it lets people be what they would tend to be, but not in some imaginary or emancipated "natural state".  Rather, it shows us what we're likely to end up as when we gut, exhaust, and eventually misunderstand the moral resources -- imperfect, admittedly, in need of rethinking and reworking with every new generation -- afforded us by previous generations.

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