Last post showed a piece of theological propaganda that distorted what emotivism is. This introductory ethics lecture by Gregory Sadler of Marist College uses a more academically respectable approach, to make essentially the same point, which is that emotivism and relativsm are essentially the same thing as subjectivism, which amounts to giving up on ethics altogether.
Watch on YouTube.
Sadler's concern is getting rid of naive undergraduate conceptions of relativism, such as using muddled expressions like "true for me." If you believe everything is relative, he says, then I'm just going to give you an "F" in the class, because you'll have no justification to complain: that's what your performance was "to me," and fairness would involve some objective standard you can't appeal to.
I hope in our episodes we've adequately conveyed the point that this "absolute standards or nothing" approach, while it's one of the strands in philosophy, is not the only feasible option for very smart philosophers. All that's required to avoid arbitrariness in ethics (or epistemology) is to establish some standard or object that is independent of our whims. So even Nietzsche, for whom values are a matter of individual creation, offers a standard that, while individual, is to some degree objective: it's a matter of getting to know your own nature and rising to the challenge. Wittgenstein's point, which I read into MacIntyre, is that you can't coherently do this as an individual, in that the supposedly objective but unique to you standard can keep slipping without your knowledge, making subject to your (perhaps subconscious) whims anyway.
For Hume, we all naturally find certain things morally agreeable, so while it is based on human feelings, they're objective in that we all have them in common, and if someone disagrees and thinks murder is great, then we use that as evidence that they're screwed up. So this shared conception provides the objective standard, though there are certain epistemic limits, in that not all of morality is a matter of this natural feeling; it gets worked out through contingent, historical, cultural circumstances. For Moore, morality is likewise a phenomenological matter: he thinks that if we calmly consider the situation with enough philosophical sophistication, then my moral intuition and yours should coincide; he thinks that apparent intuitive disagreements are caused by confusions such as that between means and end or between parts and whole. We just need to keep talking until we're both clear about what we're really talking about, and then we'll agree.
In jettisoning Aristotle's teleology, MacIntyre assumes a cultural relativist stance whereby different people in different roles and cultural situations will have different, though objective (independent of their whims) duties. What makes his position tricky is the notion of a tradition being a pattern of moral progress, so that even the founding fathers said that slavery was OK, we can look to the "American tradition" to justify rejecting it regardless.
The big move in this lecture is to equate Sartre with emotivism. He cites the lecture "Existentialism is a Humanism," and presents the existentialist position whereby there is no inherent good for man, because there's no fixed human nature as "If I choose to do mean things, then those are good for me, and there's nothing you can do to argue against it." This criticism is so shallow, and not incorporating any of Sartre's actual words or examples, that I'm not sure what to say here. Sadler is just saying that the existentialist idea that there are no objective standards goes against our intuitions that there are, whereas for Sartre, or Nietzsche, or any other existentialist, your intuitions are a product of a sheep-like, pre-philosophical attitude, and that yes, they're actually delivering some new idea that will take emotional adjustment, not just summarizing what you already underlyingly think (as Moore, Kant, Mill, and Smith at least all do).
Even from what little we talked about Sartre's existentialism in our episode on him, we can see that Sadler's presentation here is misrepresentative. For Sartre, "the ego" is an objective thing in the world, created over time by the accumulation of our choices. This is not to be confused with consciousness, which is wholly free. If I choose some abhorrent action, no, this will not be (for Sartre) contravening an immutable moral law, but I could be being untrue to myself, i.e. making this ego incoherent. So the existentialist position shares with MacIntyre the concern with integrity and a coherent life narrative. I think MacIntyre/Wittgenstein still have a good point against this position, but it's a more subtle one than Sadler's.
Note that, as Sadler admits, emotivists (and it's not clear to me that Sartre is one exactly) can employ reasons in trying to convince others of a moral claim. Stevenson (on p. 19) states that this is a matter of trying to tie the sentiment which I want you to have with sentiments you already have. This could well involve an actual, logical argument, but the mechanics of it are like a commercial; the success of my persuasion is not necessarily dependent upon the soundness of my argument.
There’s a lot to comment on, but since I’m pretty unfamiliar with ethical theory I’m on shaky ground, so bear with me.
First, I’ll just get this out of the way, all values are cultural, since values are a cultural phenomenon; they do not exist in nature.
Second, if we are talking about actual real live humans, ethical problems are seldom subject to rational analysis, but are solved through embodied dispositions, which naturalize the internalized cultural values. If I do something morally repulsive enough I may feel nauseous and even vomit, just like I will if I try to eat a plate of worms. Neither reaction is natural, but they sure feel like it, so I’d be aware of reifying “moral intuition.”
Third, I despair at the way Sadler mixes cultural relativism and individual whim (though he talks mainly of the latter). If you talk about cultural relativism you can drop the psychopath examples. The Nazis also strike me as a bad test case, since National Socialism was a short lived political ideology that everybody did not agree with (certainly its victims didn’t). We should go further and recognize that cultures aren’t monolithic wholes that simply press their value systems on identical individuals. This does not mean that individuals can move beyond their culture, culture isn’t the Matrix or Marx’s false consciousness, but they can transform it while reproducing it in practical action.
Fourth, cultural relativism is not simply analogous to moral relativism. This is tricky, since it arose partly as a moral reaction against ethnocentric and racist theories of early social sciences. When 19th century evolutionists were confronted with the multiplicity of cultural behaviours they assumed that so called “primitive cultures” could offer a window into their own savage past. Thus they saw in unilineal development of cultures a type of moral progress, at the top of which (you guessed it) they placed themselves. This theory could be used to justify colonialism, since all other cultures were developmentally inferior to the West. This assumed inferiority was also reified as race, something the Nazi’s picked up.
In early 20th century cultural anthropologist like Franz Boas came along and said “no, no, no, you can’t view other cultures through your own value systems, and what’s this rubbish about race, these differences are cultural and not biologically inherited.” By the way Boas also actively advocated for the right of Native Americans.
Still this is not the same thing as complete surrender to moral relativism. M. Sahlins put it thusly:
“Cultural relativism is first and last an interpretive anthropological—that is to say, methodological—
procedure. It is not the moral argument that any culture or custom is as good as any other, if not
better. Relativism is the simple prescription that, in order to be intelligible, other people’s practices and
ideals must be placed in their own historical context, understood as positional values in the field of their
own cultural relationships rather than appreciated by categorical and moral judgments of our making.
Relativity is the provisional suspension of one’s own judgments in order to situate the practices at issue in the historical and cultural order that made them possible. It is in no other way a matter of advocacy.”
To say that you understand a culture is not the same as to say that you condone actions that members of that culture take. If I study Aztecs I can say that from their point of view Aztecs were rational while sacrificing humans, they weren’t simply evil or bonkers, but I do not condone human sacrifice. Some people argue that we shouldn’t try to understand Nazis since with understanding comes empathy. I think this is a horrible mistake, since if we do not understand the circumstances that gave rise to the ideology, but externalize it as something totally alien, an inexplicable evil, we risk repeating history.
Thus to make moral progress, if you want to call it that, I think we must recognize the socially constituted nature of our moral schemas and not hang on to idealized universalist grounding. Engaging with other value systems enables us to be more self-reflexive and sensitive to differences. When I say “I believe that…because” I know where the “I believe” and the “because” stem from.
Sorry for the bad grammar and stream of consciousness reasoning above. I’ll just add this:
Anthropology 101: there is no human nature.
Justin Boyd says
How might it change our conception of (and/or objection to) ‘subjectivist’ morality if we imagine the ‘individual person’ as a communal event occurring between bodies and as a part of history, rather than a self-consistent and autonomous humanitarian unit?
Despite the strong Hobbesian strain in Western social thought this is not a novel idea. Marx, for example, said that “society does not consist of individuals; it expresses the sum of connections and relationships in which individuals find themselves.” One could go on and claim that individuals themselves are also the sum of their relationships, as in fact many cultures see the case to be. For example, Marilyn Strathern has used the word dividual to refer to the Melanesian concept of personhood. There gifts are physical parts of persons and exchange allows your body to be collectively constituted.
The irony is that possessive individualism, far from being a natural state, is a creation of our collective consciousness, a cultural representation, which nevertheless guides our action and shapes our world. Social scientists have long been concerned about its possible effects (anomie for Durkheim, alienation for Marx, disenchantment for Weber etc.). In this respect you could argue that Western philosophy, if you are allowed such generalizations, has been one of the poorer judges of human nature, enchanted as it is by its own creation of the autonomous individual.
A good talk by MacIntyre, that made me yet more sympathetic to his philosophy
Alasdair MacIntyre: On Having Survived Academic Moral Philosophy (1 of 4)
Sadler just posted a 96 minute compilation of classes on Emotivism in Contemporary Culture on YouTube.
Lots of MacIntyre, with an emphasis on Emotivism’s practical consequences, as he relates its negative effects back to real-life issues in the latter part.
Ms. Qudaparcs says
Even while hyper-individualism is a socially constructed attribute of identity, like peoples of all societies, hyper-individualists co-create and inter-relate to a mutual reality. Inter-subjectively. I’ve often the sense that this is forgotten; that humans do not actually function as a solitary ‘I’. Thus the question of ethic (or morality for that matter) and debate surrounding naturalism and / or relativism rises oft enough from this unsteady ground. Where there is only one human, and the Other, as basis or model for inquiry.
Thanks for these posts! And thanks, Vasili, also for the link.