Posts Tagged ‘emotivism’

Natural Law in an Age of Nihilism (pt. 5)

June 16, 2019

Interestingly (to me at least) the very nihilism at the heart of the Republican administration which is putting together this panel actually suggests an argument that something like this is actually necessary.[i] According to Alasdair MacIntyre, it was inevitable that Western culture would collapse into Nietzschean nihilism once it ceased to base morality in the values of a particular culture. The Enlightenment dream of a universal ethics valid for all persons qua persons was a fantasy from the start. All morality has to be rooted in and derived from some vision of human flourishing. The virtues recommended by that ethics are the character traits that aid in living the sort of “good life” embraced by that particular culture. Outside of any social context, those virtues are arbitrary and unsustainable. Unless you embrace the sort of eudaimonia prized by Athenian gentlemen, the Aristotelian virtues such as bravery, self-control and pride won’t make any sense. An Augustinian Christian’s virtues such as humility and universal love would seem absurd to Aristotle, just as some of his virtues would seem to be nothing more than “glittering vices.” In MacIntyre’s understanding of the history of Western thought, the Enlightenment project of basing ethics on universal reason alone apart from all religious, national or other communal standards was doomed from the start, and in fact cut the foundation out from under human moral thought. The result was emotivism, where moral language simply collapsed into a contest of wills, each individual attempting to get everyone else to feel the way he or she felt about whatever point was being debated. From this point of view (sometimes called “communitarian ethics”), the moral nihilism of Donald Trump and the Republican Party is simply an open acknowledgment of the fact that God is dead and has been for a long time, and all the lofty claims by liberalism to seek universal ethical standards has simply been a fraudulent attempt to impose the standards of their group on everyone else through trickery and persuasion. The notion of “human rights,” from MacIntyre’s perspective, would be rights as defined by a certain group using a certain understanding of human nature, but using language that asserts their view to be the only legitimate one. Conservatives, in this view, are simply more honest in relying on political and physical force rather than sophistical argument.

If MacIntyre offers a reason to doubt the common notion of “human rights” as a culturally and religiously neutral, universal ethical standard, then MacIntyre also offers a solution that would cast more doubt on the legitimacy of the State Departmet’s human rights panel as presented in the press. In his essay, “Is Patriotism a Virtue?” MacIntyre argues that loyalty to one’s own group is the cardinal virtue, the one essential quality for any further moral life.[ii] The virtues stem from one’s vision of the good, fulfilled, “happy” human life; and that vision of human flourishing is conveyed to one by one’s particular culture. Without a particular culture, one has no human ideal to seek to live out, hence no virtues as habits enabling that good life (or vices to lead away from it), no moral roots, and one’s moral life simply withers away. Each of us are products of our culture, and our vision of the good life comes from that culture. However, MacIntyre says, that does not mean that everyone in the culture agrees on everything. For example, he points to Adam von Trott, who was involved in a plot to kill Hitler.[iii] Trott did not act out of commitment to some abstract universal morality; he acted because he felt the Nazi leadership of Germany had betrayed German values and German culture and had to be stopped. On this view of patriotism, “dissent is patriotic,” if it is rooted in core values of the community itself and aims to perfect the community as a project. To discover those core values in any community, one would have to look not only at its explicit claims but at its overall history and trajectory, what that society valued as shown in its deeds and its aspirations and what it seemed to be striving towards.

By this standard, conservatives today seem to be going astray; they do not discover and live out their country’s values, but try to recreate it in terms of some other, smaller community’s project. For example, conservatives in America today do not study history; they rewrite it. Even in the communitarian view, facts are facts; what value one puts on those facts may be another matter. And the facts are that the leaders of the American Revolution, the “Founding Fathers,” studied and quoted Enlightenment philosophy, particularly social contract thinking inspired by Rousseau and Locke. They distrusted religious extremism, what we would call “fanaticism” and which they called “enthusiasm.” They embraced the scientific, empirical investigation of truth. Many (roughly half) were Freemasons, embracing a religious liberalism that rejected sectarian or what we would call “fundamentalist” spirituality; a good many were not even Christian, but rather Deists. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, the three men selected by the Continental Congress to write the nation’s Declaration of Independence, were religious liberals. Jefferson, who is credited with describing the “separation of Church and State” as a “wall” between the two, was the third president of the United States; yet in conservative circles he is treated as an outlier and unimportant fringe thinker compared to Aquinas despite the fact that only two Catholics signed the Declaration of Independence.[iv] In an attempt to undermine “liberal” and “Democratic” importance in American history, the Christian Reconstructionism or Christian Dominionism promoted by such religious conservatives as Rousas Rushdooney and Jerry Falwell has sought to present the American revolution as a conservative revolution against a liberal monarchy. In fact, it is no coincidence that both the British Conservative party and the Americans who supported King George III were called “Tories.” So when Pompeo says the State Department’s new panel on human rights will seek to express “our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights,” this seems disingenuous. The overall thrust of conservative efforts, including those by some people on the panel, has been not to return to the principles of the Founding Fathers, but to rewrite them. A better way for such a committee to establish “our nation’s founding principles” would be to include historians who could review the personal views and public writings of our Founding Fathers, as well as seminal texts such as the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, MLK’s “I Have A Dream” speech and other documents that have contributed to the wider civil religion of the USA.

To be continued….

[i] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue second edition (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984) pp. 1-78

[ii] Alasdair MacIntyre, “Is Patriotism a Virtue?” in Morality and Moral Controversies, ninth edition, ed. by John Arthur and Steven Scalet (Pearson Education Inc., NY 2014) pp. 405-410; originally presented in The Lindley Lecture, Department of Philosophy, University of Kansas (1984).

[iii] “Patriotism,” p. 408

[iv] For example, Brian Thevenot, “TribBlog: SBOE vs. the Media,” The Texas Tribune March 22, 2010 ( The actions described here are by no means unique to Texas, but are representative of conservative rhetoric for at least the last several decades.

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, second edition (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984) pt.2

March 24, 2015

Up to the present in everyday discourse the habit of speaking of moral judgments as true or false persists; but the question of what it is in virtue of which a particular moral judgment is true or false has come to lack any clear answer.

—-Alasdair MacIntyre


One of MacIntyre’s more important contentions is that philosophy is a central activity in human culture. True, today’s academic curricula isolate it as an esoteric occupation for professors and wannabes only; it is generally an “elective” course offered in isolation from history, political science or any other field that would give it meaningful context. In turn, the other social and physical “sciences” can carry out their activities without consulting the long history and broad context of human thought which once was encompassed by the term “philosophy.” Political philosophy may deal with what a “just” society would be, what the true function of a political commonwealth is, and so on; but political science primarily discusses only how power is gotten and used, regardless of goals or values. I noticed this myself when, as a young philosopher, I made some brief forays into the world of the political science majors. Their concerns and mine simply had no intersection. They were solely interested in how they could implement their agenda when they graduated; what that agenda should be was no concern of them, or of their professors and textbooks. The assumption was that whatever the leader wants is what is to be achieved, and political science is the study of how to achieve that. Whether it should be achieved is the province of philosophers or prophets, they might say; but they would then say that philosophers and prophets are mere dreamers who can and are ignored by the doers. Thus, the goals of politics are the topic for discussion by people who politicians are not to listen to; the political scientist is supposed to study and advise politicians, and the political scientist’s field is not goals but only means. This is exactly the sort of society MacIntyre says we should expect when emotivism becomes the dominant theory of moral language; when moral language is treated as merely a tool to manipulate others, questions about goals largely drop out and only questions about means to ends remain, regardless of how arbitrary those ends might be.

The hollowness of late 20th Century society can be illustrated, MacIntyre thinks, by considering the “characters” in the drama of our social life. He uses the term “character” as it might apply to a medieval morality play: as soon as The Fool steps on stage, we all know what that person will be like, what he will say, and so on. Values, behavior, and social role are all one in “the character.” Another term might be “social archetype.” And the character that MacIntyre believes is most central and illustrative of today’s society is The Manager.[1] The Manager is supposed to be an expert in achieving any sort of end, the essential leader in any bureaucracy; and since we live in a bureaucratic society, The Manager is the most important character. And the expertise of The Manager, as Weber has shown, is the manipulation of others to achieve whatever the goals of the organization are. It is not The Manager’s part to choose those goals, but only to achieve them. It is not The Manager’s job to bring people together to discuss a problem and find the best solution; it is his (or her) job to so shape the initial assumptions and boundaries of the discussion that the group comes to the conclusion The Manager has already chosen, while believing they actually played a real role in setting the goal so they will fully buy into the plan. This is the very sort of leader that an emotivist society would have, and the only sort it could really recognize: one that claimed authority not on the basis of wisdom or justice, but only on effectiveness. The supposedly esoteric debate over the meaning of moral language, which was thought to be locked away in ivory towers where emotivist philosophers wrote and taught, actually is both the expression and cause of the moral vacuum underlying our society as a whole. The Enlightenment sought to found a fairly traditional morality (don’t lie, don’t kill etc.) on notions of human nature as such, rather than the teleological or theological foundations that had supported morality since the days of Socrates and Moses. That project failed, and MacIntyre argues that it was impossible from the start. We live now in the society born of that failure: a society with no foundation for moral thinking and no consensus what moral language even means, but continuing to use the terms of morality as rhetorical devices to manipulate others to follow the agendas set by the preferences of those with the strongest wills.

To be continued…

[1] Alasdair MacIntyer, After Virtue, second edition (Notre Dame, IN; University of Notre Dame Press, 1984) pp. 27-32

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, second edition (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984) pt.1

March 23, 2015

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


….(T)he problem about real life is that moving one’s knight to QB3 may always be replied to with a lob across the net. (p. 98)

Alasdair MacIntyre begins his signature work with a rather audacious proposition: that all of today’s culture has forgotten what morality is, and what moral language really means, and therefore no moral philosophy and no moral agreement is really possible. Once moral philosophy sought to describe the “good life” and those “virtues” (character traits) that are part of the good life. Over time, particularly since the Enlightenment’s rejection of tradition and culture as essential elements of human life, we have lost the shared sense of what a “good life” would be or how to obtain it. However, we have kept the moral language of good and evil, virtue and vice, duty and justice and so on. We all use the same words, but rarely do we speak the same language. Much as an English speaker, seeing “sin” in a Latin sentence might think the Latin refers to wrongdoing (when in fact it is a conjunction meaning “if however”), two postmodern English speakers can use words like “good” or “rights” without realizing that they have different definitions for those terms. By the Twentieth Century, this sorry state of moral language had led to the rise of emotivism: the philosophical claim that all moral language is nothing more than an emotional declaration by the speaker, roughly translatable as “Hurrah for (x)!” or “I approve of (x), you should too!”


It is possible to argue with MacIntyre’s historical argument as applied to Western philosophy as a whole. However, it makes even more sense when applied to the United States of America, and the moral culture that arose here. This land was first settled by humans thousands of years ago, and many varied cultures arose. Most of these were destroyed with the arrival of Europeans, through a combination of disease and deliberate cultural genocide. Settlement of North America was not done in a cultural vacuum, but most of the new immigrants from England and elsewhere did not pay much attention to the spiritual or philosophical values of those they displaced. England itself, however, was not culturally homogenous. During the early settlement of the “New World,” England underwent a series of religious upheavals, and the American colonies were settled by disparate and at times hostile groups of Catholics, Anglicans, Congregationalists, Baptists, Quakers and others. In addition, the New York area was originally settled by the Dutch, with their own values and moral traditions. During the various conflicts between English, French, Spanish and original nations, people from many different cultures came to be “Americans.” Thousands of Germans too came to be in the Thirteen Colonies, first as settlers and then as mercenaries fighting for the British Crown who simply never returned to their native lands. By the time the Constitution of the United States of America was written and ratified, there were many conflicting philosophies and theologies in the various states, as well as regional differences between the states. European nations generally had organic origins. They grew out of prehistoric tribes over thousands of years. The United States had a definite beginning and a definite social contract, in writing. It is, to put it simplistically, an artificial nation. We didn’t wake up one day and discover we had become one culture. We resolved to be a free people and to create a new culture together. As our original national motto put it, we are one made from many: E pluribus unum. And because of this, our Constitution is written largely as a way for those conflicting groups and conflicting values to compete peacefully and politically, rather than on the battlefield. Democracy is basically a way to have conflict while avoiding civil war.

MacIntyre argues that the Enlightenment project of trying to find a universal basis for morality apart from either Aristotelian notions of telos or religious notions of divine covenant and command led more or less inexorably to the rise of emotivism in the 20th Century. We still have the words for ethical thinking, but we have no settled definitions for those words. It is therefore impossible to really seek for “the good” even when we say we are doing so, and even when we think we are doing so. Instead, those words function merely as expressions of approval and as tools to manipulate others into approving of our values. Moral discussions don’t involve rational debate over how to achieve the best human life, but only a contest of wills as the contestants strive to maneuver one another to accepting his or her own preferences. It is for this reason, MacIntyre claims, that public discourse has become “shrill” and “interminable.” It is literally interminable, he says, because it is rationally impossible that any of our crucial debates should find a terminus. There is no agreed-upon standard of what an “end” should be. MacIntyre does not discuss the supposed decision-maker in our Lockean social contract: the will of the people. However, anyone can see that even “majority rule” settles nothing. Sometimes the majority is simply morally wrong, as it was when the majority of the nation approved of slavery. Sometimes the majority is right, or at least not demonstrably wrong. At times contending sides can agree on a framework and engage in something resembling rational debate. More often, however, this does not happen and is not even attempted. For every reasoned debate between two contestants of good will seeking to find a truth both could recognize, we have a dozen televised “panel discussions” of “pundits” and “spokespersons” trying to shout over each other, twisting one another’s words, claiming “facts” that seem to have no root in empirical reality while simultaneously ignoring “facts” that seem to contradict their settled views.

It is the interminability of public disagreement that leads to its shrillness. We know those “others” will never listen to “our” reasons and arguments, so we don’t even try. And often, on some level we know ourselves that our preferred values have no basis beyond our own chosen moral framework. How can I rationally argue that homosexuals should not have the same rights as heterosexuals, if I know that my only reasons are my emotional revulsion and my religion, neither of which you share? And if I cannot even appeal to the will of the majority, how can I continue to argue? Only by sheer volume, or rhetoric, or by political maneuvering.[1] While a rational argument is ostensibly an appeal to or search for truth, what we have instead is manipulation of others and a contest of wills.


To be continued…

[1] See “Kentucky Students Get Hard Lesson in Politics from Lawmakers,” ABC News, accessed March 19, 2015