Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, second edition (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984) pt.3

In the elder days of art

Builders wrought with greatest care

Each minute and unseen part, 

For the Gods are everywhere.

—-quoted by Harry Frankfurt

I first read After Virtue in 1988, about four years after the second edition was published. It holds up remarkably well. If anything, the early 21st Century culture buttresses his argument that we live today in a Nietzschean/Weberian emotivist society. MacIntyre argued that in the late 20th Century moral language had degenerated into a contest of wills, and claims to moral truth were employed as disguised attempts at manipulation. In the 21st Century, claims to objective empirical truth are likewise emptied of real content, and instead employed as weapons to dominate the other. One example seems to be the climate debate. This is largely a factual debate, it would seem, though it is treated as a moral debate because one group claims its property rights and individual liberties are at stake, while the other claims it is harmed and threatened by the selfishness of the first. In this debate, the factual claim was made that scientists who argued that human activity is a leading cause of climate change for the worse were engaged in a vast conspiracy to gain grant money by purveying falsehoods.[1] But when a major denier of this claim is found to have been funded by the fossil fuel industry, this is not taken as refuting the claims of “climate deniers.”[2] The mere suspicion that “those guys” had mercenary motives was enough to discredit them; but the admission that “our guy” has financial motives does not trigger any self-doubt or retraction, because the factual claims themselves are irrelevant. They were only rhetorical stratagems, not true factual claims.

Whether or not one sides with the 97% of climate scientists who believe human activity is altering global climate for the worse, any objective observation must admit that when someone claims the 97% are all part of a vast conspiracy while rejecting stronger evidence that the 3% are themselves paid to support the opposite view, that is prima facie evidenced that something is going on besides a disagreement over fact claims regarding economic entanglements.   The claim of a vast conspiracy by scientists to fabricate climate evidence was really a rhetorical weapon disguised as a fact-claim, just as the emotivist argues that claims to moral truth are merely rhetorical weapons or tools. Emotivism has grown from a moral theory to an epistemological principle, at least in the popular culture. We have moved from being a culture that no longer believes in “good” to one that also no longer believes in “true.”

Harry Frankfurt has discussed this phenomenon in his seminal essay, On Bullshit.[3] In this essay turned book, Frankfurt attempts to describe “bullshit” as a concept distinct from lying or other forms of misstatement. “Lying” implies that the liar knows what the truth is, and for some reason just wants to avoid it in this case. The liar really depends on everyone else being honest, or at least on the liar himself or herself knowing the truth in order to avoid it. The bullshitter, by contrast, does not care about the truth one way or the other. Instead, he or she is simply engaged in some other linguistic exercise, attempting to achieve goals quite apart from any engagement with truth.[4] The bullshitter is concerned with how the audience perceives him or her. The bullshitter wants to seem intelligent, or patriotic, or serious, or whatever, and says whatever he or she feels will lead the audience to believe this. The bullshitter is primarily engaged in manipulating others, not in avoiding or discovering truth.

At this point the connection between the theory of moral language known as “emotivism” and the theory of general language known as “bullshit” converge. Frankfurt writes:

            One who is concerned to report or to conceal the facts assumes that there are indeed facts that are in some way both determinate and knowable. His interest in telling the truth or in lying presupposes that there is a difference between getting things wrong and getting them right, and that it is at least occasionally possible to tell the difference. Someone who ceases to believe in the possibility of identifying certain statements as true and others as false can have only two alternatives. The first is to desist both from efforts to tell the truth and from efforts to deceive. This would mean refraining from making any assertion whatever about the facts. The second alternative is to continue making assertions that purport to describe the way things are, but that cannot be anything except bullshit.[5]

Emotivism would seem to be a subspecies of bullshit. The one difference, and it is significant, is that the emotivist is not committed to an unconcern with the truth. MacIntyre’s description of the historical origins of emotivism make this clear.[6] The members of the Bloomsbury circle believed they were making statements of moral fact, when in reality their moral debates were simply contests of will. They did not mean to bullshit and therefore were not bullshitters. Emotivism began as a theory that said, in essence, that people may think they are describing facts when they are actually not. Thus, someone can be simply mistaken, and have a deep concern for “the truth,” but not find it because, the emotivist says, there is no truth to be found. But once someone does accept the claims of emotivism, he or she must either cease using moral language at all, or become a bullshitter.  The bullshitter is the self-aware emotivist.

Dr. Frankfurt argues that bullshit is more corrosive to society than lying. The liar is parasitic on the process of seeking and sharing truth; the bullshitter has said that truth does not matter. But society cannot long exist without truth. No organism can. If some cod decided that whether or not sharks were actually in the area did not matter so much as whether the others followed their direction, and the rest became so befuddled about sharks because the leaders were constantly making contradictory claims, and the whole species finally gave up on believing there was a way to know whether there were sharks around or not, then it would be a short time before they were all devoured. Fish, however, do not have the ability to ignore the plain evidence of their senses to their own destruction out of party loyalty or ambition or a desire for attention. Humans, however, can choose bullshit over reality. We can and in many cases have turned supposed debates over the truths of a case or the best possible resolution of a problem into mere contests of will with no actual concern for reality.[7] But when the decision-makers in a society cease being interested in whether they have the facts straight, or whether the policies they propose will work or are working now, then it is only a matter of time before that society collapses. And in a democratic society, we are all decision-makers, and must all care about truth if we are to survive.[8]

To summarize: MacIntyre’s historical argument of the state of moral language is that once “morality” and “ethics” meant something very different: a concern with the particular fulfillment of human nature, of what is “good” for a person to seek and attain, and how to do so. The Aristotelian understanding was that the goal of human life could be found within the nature of human life itself, and called this eudaimonia or “happiness.” The Augustinian development of the Hebraic-Christian tradition argued that this goal lies beyond the human life itself, in its relationship with God. But in the Enlightenment, philosophers threw out both tradition and religion, Aristotle and Augustine, and sought to preserve the basic moral values and language of these without any particular foundation. The ultimate result was emotivism. Moral language ceased to have any fixed meaning, and became available for another purpose: manipulating others to fulfill one’s own irrationally-chosen goals. And to continue this line of argument further with Frankfurt’s discussions as a prompt, the recognition of the hollowness of moral language spread beyond the philosophers to the society as a whole, and from the sphere of moral debate to all levels of discourse, until all truth-claims and not just moral truth-claims became mere tools of the bullshitter to manipulate others and attempt to bend society to his or her own whims. Ultimately, however, this is not sustainable; if we are to survive as a species, we need to “be true to the earth,” as Nietzsche might put it, and seek those truths that will enhance our survival.

But if we are to do that, we ultimately must attack the problem that started all the others: the difficulty moral language has fallen into since the Enlightenment. Until there is some sort of broad consensus regarding moral truth, we cannot expect much headway in the search for consensus on other sorts of truth, since moral nihilism will continually push us towards a general epistemic nihilism.

[1] “Weathering Fights” The Daily Show—science–what-s-it-up-to- last accessed March 19, 2015

[2] “Things Just Got Very Hot for Climate Deniers’ Favorite Scientist;” Washington Post last accessed March 19, 2015.

[3] Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullshit, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005). Also, see the interview on “The Daily Show,” (last accessed March 25, 2015). Note that in the interview, Frankfurt mentions that the essay was first written in 1985, but published as a book in 2005; so his initial insight is contemporaneous with After Virtue but it somehow was more market-relevant in the 21st Century.

[4] On Bullshit, pp. 55-56

[5] On Bullshit, pp. 61-62

[6] After Virtue, pp. 16-17

[7] Nietzsche said much the same thing, but he thought that the will-to-power was itself a survival instinct; thus he assumed an underlying pragmatism would drive our creation of facts. Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lie in a Premoral Sense,” last accessed April 3, 2015

[8] On this point, see Harry Frankfurt, On Truth (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006)

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: