Dismissal of Emotivism

In my post, The Truth of Truth, I linked to a BBC page outlining Emotivism. I did this even though the leading paragraph reads, as follows:

Emotivism is no longer a view of ethics that has many supporters. Like subjectivism it teaches that there are no objective moral facts, and that therefore ‘murder is wrong’ can’t be objectively true.

BBC Ethics Guide

As I subscribe to Emotivism and its Prescriptivist progeny, I’ll respond from my perspective. Let’s parse the paragraph stepwise:

Emotivism is no longer a view of ethics that has many supporters.

Notice immediately the appeal to popularity. People have been convinced rhetorically that this cannot be true, primarily because they are uncomfortable with the notion. People tend to resort to escalating commitment, digging in their heels and doubling down on their position.

Just because something is popular doesn’t make it incorrect, but neither are unpopular opinions untrue.

Like subjectivism it teaches that there are no objective moral facts

Indeed, as I’ve discussed at length, there are no moral facts. Morals are human constructs of language and subject to contextual framing. The prevailing meta-narrative is that a moral code is necessary in a society, which is further predicated on the notion that society is necessary. Any moral code is, then, by definition, subject to this underlying meta-narrative.

I can say that I think society and cooperation are necessary for the continuation of our human species, but this is also admittedly and unabashedly self-centred hubris—another unquestioned meta-narrative.

We also have a domain boundary problem. At times, we have altered the boundaries to exclude people from the definition, hyper-focus on people in the definition, or exclude entire other species and kingdoms.

All of these are subjective. So when the inevitable response is, ‘I mean for humans’, we now know the subject.

‘murder is wrong’ can’t be objectively true.

On the topic of emotion, murder is a heavy hitter. After all, who is going to argue that murder is not wrong, let alone subjective?

Even on the surface it’s obvious that this is a tightly scoped claim, and there a few things going on here:

  1. Murder is a legal subset of killing.
  2. As for the victim—murderee anyone?—, s/he is defined to be human. We cannot murder dogs or roses.
  3. As for the actor—I’m going with murderer here—, this subset is limited to (A) humans, (B) killing not authorised by the State, and (C) unintentional killing.
    • A human can be declared a non-person or a partial person in order to exempt it from the moral charge. We’ve seen this time and again throughout history, entire classes of people who could be killed with no moral outrage.
    • A human can be exempted (given a free pass) by maintaining that their killing isn’t murder whilst others are vilified for killing not yet regarded as murder. The rules are subject to change without recourse.
      • The State declares that killing in some justified circumstance puts a person in some protected realm outside of the scope of murder. These might be military personnel, police officers, executioners, and so on.
      • Abortion antagonists claim that doctors performing these procedures should be considered to be murders.
      • Euthanasia opponents claim that doctors performing these procedures are murders.

If one—the subject—does not accept this frame, s/he also doesn’t accept the, let’s say, verdict. Vegan philosopher, Peter Singer claims that all animal life should be protected, that any killing is immoral. Some have claimed that nature itself should have a voice.

And so a statement like ‘murder is wrong’ is nothing more than a prescriptive emotional statement:

I feel that murder is bad (emotions with justification defended by protective layers of reason), and you should too.

Just Saying

Not an ounce of objectivity to be found, excepting, of course, for the objection I have to the counter-claim.


I’ll save you a click to the BBC page. These paragraphs are as silly as the first.

Emotivism has become unpopular with philosophers because the theory that led the Emotivists to think that moral statements were meaningless has fallen from favour.

Less technically, if expressing moral judgements is really no more than expressing one’s personal opinion there doesn’t seem any useful basis for arguing about moral judgements.

In practical terms, Emotivism falls down because it isn’t very satisfying. Even (most) philosophers think moral statements are more than just expressions of feeling.

And it’s perfectly possible to imagine an ethical debate in which neither party has an emotion to express.

Non-philosophers also think there is more to ethics than just the expression of an attitude or an attempt to influence behaviour. They want a better explanation and foundation for shared standards of morality than Emotivism can provide.

Spheres of Justice

I’ve recently happened upon Michael Walzer, and it turns out I agree with much of what he has written about in the realm of political philosophy. Although he published, Spheres of Justice in 1983, he may be more famous for Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument With Historical Illustrations. I am more interested in the former, and this work integrates well with Benedict Anderson‘s Imagined Communities.

In the realm of philosophy, it’s no mystery to those who know me that I am a Subjectivist, but I still need to operate in this physical socio-political domain, which is what attracts me to political philosophy.

I like to make an analogy relative to religious belief. Philosophically, I consider myself to be an igtheist, which is to say that I don’t really care about god or gods or ‘the universe’ or some metaphysical superpower in the abstract, but practically speaking, I am an atheist. The reason being that the non-existence of gods is irrelevant in a world where people behave as if there is one and create moral positions and form legal systems based on this premise, thus infecting these systems, so one needs to be an active atheist in order to disinfect the systems and extricate religion from it. Without getting too far off track, I am not saying that religious belief has had no benefit to ‘human progress’, but the price we pay is too high. The cost-benefit calculus is not favourable.

Walzer and Anderson both understand the constructed nature of political identity, whether self, family, community, state, nation, all of humanity, or beyond. It’s all relative. Some modern political philosophers like Rawls and Nozick try to rise above the inherent relativity in this constructionist view, but after all the trying, their attempts are weak tea, as their solutions are also constructed.

In the end, politics and perhaps all of perceived reality are social constructs, whose major survival mechanism is rhetoric. The more convincing the argument, the better. In fact, the reason I have adopted this worldview is only that the rhetorical narrative resonates with me better than some other. Ditto if you concur, and ditto if another narrative resonates for you, whether Christianity, Pastafarian, a starchild, or a nihilist.

battleOfTheBean[1]

Given this, it makes me wonder how other people choose the rhetoric they have rather than my (obviously superior) version.

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EDIT: After I wrote this, I happened upon a short(ish) video promoting veganism and commenting on the construction of culture, so I am adding it. James Wildman

 

Rhetoric and nothing more

Morality is nothing more than rhetoric. Rhetorical devices are employed, and a person will either accept or reject the claim contingent to an emotional response based on prior experiences. This is Ayer’s Emotivist position—or even that of George Berkeley. There is no moral truth, and any moral truths are nothing more than an individual’s or group of individuals’ acceptance of a given claim. Rhetoric is used to sway the claim.

Logic is employed but only after having been filtered through the experience through the emotion and through the rhetoric. Accepting some particular truth claim does not make it true; neither does rejecting a truth claim make it false.

I’d like to expound upon this, but for now, I’ll create this placeholder.

Fast-forward, and I’ve returned. Still, I feel that morality is nothing more than rhetoric. Perhaps I’m even more convinced—and this extends into jurisprudence and politics. I’ve rather latched onto Foucault’s or Geuss’ sense of power or Adorno’s socially necessary illusion that is ideology by way of Marx.

Talking about power, Geuss says, “you may be more powerful than I am by virtue of being a charismatic figure who is able to attract enthusiastic, voluntary support from others, or by virtue of being able to see and exploit a strategic, rhetorical, or diplomatic weakness in my position”.

« One cannot treat “power” as if it referred to a single, uniform substance or relation wherever it was found. It makes sense to distinguish a variety of qualitatively distinct kinds of powers. There are strictly coercive powers you may have by virtue of being physically stronger than me, and persuasive powers by virtue of being convinced of the moral rightness of your case; or you may be more powerful than I am by virtue of being a charismatic figure who is able to attract enthusiastic, voluntary support from others, or by virtue of being able to see and exploit a strategic, rhetorical, or diplomatic weakness in my position. »

I tend to think of myself as a proponent of the Hegelian dialectic, but even this is in a rather small-t teleology manner instead of a capital-T flavour, so I feel that although history moves in somewhat of human-guided direction, there is no reason to believe it’s objectively better than any number of other possible directions, though one might be able to gain consensus regarding improvement along several dimensions. Even this will not be unanimous.

[To be continued…]

The Poison of Subjectivism [video]

This essay contains the essence of CS Lewis’ arguments in his fascinating short book The Abolition of Man/Humanity.

In the video, Lewis knocks down a weak strawman argument about subjectivism. He starts with a backstory about biological evolution. In his setup, he conflates empirical tautological truth with moral truth and paints them as equivalent.

Lewis introduces right and wrong and good and evil in order to provoke an emotional to realists and cognitivists, and attempts to underscore it with an appeal to tradition wrapped in an appeal to authority and positive ad hominem  that ‘until modern times, no thinker of the first rank ever doubted that our judgments of value were rational judgments‘ [in situ].

Lewis notes that if one believes that morals are socially conditioned, then we could as soon have been conditioned differently, but he’s just trying to set up his next strawman, which is to say that some subjectivist, say, an educator or reformer, may ask us to improve our morality, and leads into his punchline, that subjectivism will surely ‘be the disease that will certainly end our species‘ [in situ]. I’ll ignore his eternal damnation quip as quaint.

He points out that some indignation toward the Third Reich (Godwin’s Law) is groundless, but what he continues to ignore is that this claim cannot be made on moral grounds. In fact, from the vantage of a Nazi at the time, they were doing the moral thing. Furthermore, had the Nazis won the war, this would be the prevailing morality.

Here Lewis tries to conjure an is from an ought by claiming that without ‘objective standards of good‘, then any ideology is as good as the next, and so he is simply tilting at windmills and arguing with this gossamer strawman. From this condition, he complains that one cannot measure better without an objective measure, so, therefore, there needs to be an objective measure. This, of course, is wishful thinking, like my complaining that I cannot win the lottery without winning the lottery, therefore, I must have won the lottery. (I accept payment by cash, cheque, or Bitcoin.)

In essence, the argument attempts to make a claim that a subjectivist wanting to make a moral claim of ‘better’ or ‘progress’ cannot because there is no ‘better’ or ‘progress’, these terms being subjective. The strawman here is that a subjectivist would make this claim on the basis of moral argumentation. As even Lewis notes, subjectivists claim value judgments as sentiments or complexes, so preferences. This is true; so the claim would be based on a preference rather than on a moral one.

He proclaims that the question ‘why should we preserve the [human] species?’ is somehow profound. It’s a valid question, but, again, it can be answered outside of the realm of morality—constructed or otherwise. Then he goes down some instincts rabbit hole based on this faulty premise but tries to circle back to his standby old universal moral law.

From the rabbit hole down a slippery slope down a rat hole, he rambles anecdotally. Tailing the vid with some supposed objective prescriptions, it mercifully ends.