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.