The Believer and MacIntyre’s Emotivist Culture
Title: The Believer and MacIntyre’s Emotivist CultureAuthor: Katherine PerryDate Written: Feb. 22, 2006Words: 2,085In his book After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre asserts that members of contemporary society live in a world devoid of definitively objective moral foundation, a world he calls an “emotivist culture.” This essay will first define which specific characteristics MacIntyre believes are entailed in such a culture. Second, it will explain and elucidate the author’s argument for why the present state of the world reflects this emotivist culture. Last, it will present an argument refuting MacIntyre’s vision because his roster of emotivist social characters lacks a key non-emotivist player—the believer, or an individual who grounds his or her belief in a divine moral code.Before delving into an explanation of MacIntyre’s emotivist culture, it is both important and necessary to define emotivism as a moral philosophy. A theory of emotively-based moral judgments, emotivism purports that the assessment of values can be understood only in terms of emotive meaning, or on the basis of personal and individual realities. MacIntyre describes the theory as follows: “Emotivism is the doctrine that all evaluative judgments and more specifically more judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling, insofar as they are moral or evaluative in character.” (MacIntyre 10) In his argument, MacIntyre says emotivism fails as a theory of meaning but succeeds as a theory of use. To clarify, the statement “Capital punishment is wrong” as a theory of meaning might translate as “Capital punishment – boo.” As a theory of use, this same statement would have persuasive or rhetorical effects so as to garner support for the cause to perhaps end capital punishment. By combining MacIntyre’s account of emotivism with the concept of culture, or a particular society at a particular time and place, it is now possible to explain which features comprise today’s emotivist culture. The author paints a somewhat pessimistic portrayal of the modern world — one that would certainly both shock and disturb the average human being. In MacIntyre’s drearily-depicted emotivist culture, value judgments (or assessments of the universal goodness or badness of certain actions) are nothing but expressions of preference, attitude or feeling. Morality has no universal, overarching or objective grounds. Instead, moral choices are intrinsically arbitrary and are therefore at the mercy of the individual mind. Like having a favorite color, morality deals with taste and is merely a matter of opinion. To bolster his description of today’s culture as one based heavily on emotivist theory, MacIntyre emphasizes its distinctiveness from past societies. He alludes to past thinkers Nietzsche and Sartre to contrast the “very different moral philosophies in Germany and France” with contemporary emotivist cultures. In the past, emotivist theories proposed by such thinkers were unconventional and eccentric, but MacIntyre says such theories dominate present-day culture. He dwells on how pervasive such ideals have become in today’s society and explains how they form a consensus set of beliefs based on emotivism. MacIntyre emphasizes the centrality of emotivist thought to contemporary culture in the following passage: For one way of framing my contention that morality is not what it once was is just to say that to a large degree people not think, talk and act as if emotivism were true, no matter what their avowed theoretical standpoint may be. Emotivism has become embodied in our culture (22). In his description and differentiation of emotivist culture from past societies, MacIntyre makes two bold assertions. First, he claims morality is not what it used to be prior to the moral apocalypse. Second, and more importantly, he says what once was morality is gone. MacIntyre calls this “a grave cultural loss,” and arrives at such a jarring and novel claim—that is, that society today is in fact an emotivist culture—by constructing a proof of the reasoning behind his belief. The argument is valid, as its conclusion follows logically from its preceding premises. MacIntyre’s argument for his emotivist culture theory is unpacked and summarized below:Premise 1: Emotivism, by virtue of being a moral philosophy, implies a sociology, or study of social interactions among individuals.Premise 2: Sociology implies the presence of certain characters which embody the specific and telling social roles of a given society: the characters of today’s culture are intrinsically emotivist. Conclusion: The social roles of a society constitute its culture; social roles founded in emotivist rationale reveal the presence of an emotivist culture. Taking each statement separately, the explanation of MacIntyre’s argument begins with the premise that all moral philosophies require a sociology, or study of social interactions. Because emotivism is categorically considered a moral philosophy, the author asserts that it, too, presupposes a sociology. For every moral philosophy offers explicitly or implicitly at least a partial conceptual analysis of the relationship of an agent to his or her reasons, motives, intentions and actions, and in so doing generally presupposes some claim that these concepts are embodied or at least can be in the real social world (23). The second premise has two parts: a broad statement and a specific application of this statement to contemporary society. MacIntyre says sociology implies the presence of certain characters which embody particular social roles that indicate the nature of a society. MacIntyre says characters are “masks worn by moral philosophers” which “embody moral beliefs, doctrines and theories” (28). Characters also encompass both sociological expectations and psychological wills of the individuals, and thus “morally legitimate a mode of social existence” (29). Regarding today’s social context, MacIntyre says three characters in particular embody the essence of culture: the aesthete, the manager and the therapist. All are rooted in emotivism, MacIntyre says, because each represents the “obliteration of the distinction between manipulative and non-manipulative social relations” (23). MacIntyre describes the aesthete as an individual who exists and flourishes in “environments in which the problem of enjoyment arises in the context of leisure” (25). For the aesthete, the social world is a mere arena for the pursuit and ultimate satisfaction of their own desires — a goal he or she will strive to attain even at the personal cost of others. MacIntyre’s second character, the manager, is the human embodiment of bureaucratic rationality, or the “rationality of matching means to ends economically and efficiently” (25). For the manager, the efficiency (not moral purpose) of a task is valued. The therapist completes MacIntyre’s trio of contemporary social characters, and describes a value-free and judgment-free individual concerned only with effectiveness and technique in “transforming maladjusted individuals to well-adjusted ones” (29). Just as a manager represents an obliteration of the distinction between manipulative and non-manipulative social relations, the therapist also represents this ambiguity “in the sphere of personal life” (29). Similar to the second premise, the argument’s conclusion is also comprised of broad and specific components. MacIntyre argues that the social roles of a given society — as embodied in its prime characters — define its culture, or way of life. Furthermore, social roles founded in emotivist rationale necessarily reflect an emotivist culture and “provide a culture with its moral definitions” (31). While in theory MacIntyre’s claim about contemporary culture seems plausible, closer observation into the practices of members of modern-day society indicate that something is amiss with the argument, primarily regarding his list of main characters. The list is incomplete. MacIntyre’s three characters are appropriate because they do correctly reflect the values and virtues of contemporary culture; however, to the aesthete, the manager and the therapist a fourth character must be added: the believer. The refutation of MacIntyre’s argument can be unpacked as follows: Premise 1: If culture is emotivist by nature, its “stock characters” or social roles must embody and reflect these same emotivist values.Premise 2: Not all social roles embody and reflect emotivist values.Conclusion: Therefore, culture cannot be deemed as truly emotivist. In MacIntyre’s second premise, he claims a certain sociology implies the presence of certain characters which embody the specific and telling social roles of a given society, and that furthermore, the characters of today’s culture are intrinsically emotivist. MacIntyre defines a character as “a very special type of social role which places a certain kind of moral constraint on the personality of those who inhabit them in a way in which many other social roles do not” (27). The believer’s place among the roster of social characters who are “immediately recognizable to the audience” is crucial because of his or her pervasiveness and influence in contemporary society. For MacIntyre, characters are “moral representatives of the culture” and “express bodies of moral belief in their actions” (28). The believer certainly fits this bill.A 2001 study by The Graduate Center of the City University of New York found that in the United States 85 percent of people are affiliated with a particular religious sect, with nearly 80 percent of this total belonging to some form of Christian church. Similarly, a 2001 Gallup poll found that 41 percent of Americans attend Church regularly. Although a significant portion of this percentage do not actually attend services, the very fact that individuals are lying about participation in religions activities indicates just how much people strive to embody and personify the character of the believer. The believer is not only melded in the sociological strata of culture — it’s embedded in its foundation and governmental aspects as well. The First Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees freedom of religion. Though in theory, government is fundamentally divorced from religious matters, through the separation of church and state, often times in practice the two are fused. Evangelical Christians, for example, have tremendous influence in elections because their strong moral stances are generally consistent. In the 2001 presidential election, analysts purported that this group played a key role in George W. Bush’s victory over John Kerry precisely because their strong believes caused them to vote in unison on moral issues such as abortion and gay marriage. A common thread in today’s political world is the power of Christian voters, undoubtedly believers, who seek an objective moral code for the answer to such ethical issues and vote accordingly. In these instances, politicians often allude to God or call upon faith to garner votes. It is important to add that a distinction must be made between believer and priest, minister or churchgoer, as MacIntyre says societal characters cannot be defined in terms of institutions (29). “The requirements of character are imposed from the outside, from the way in which others regard and use characters to understand and to evaluate themselves,” he says (29). Therefore, what makes the believer a key character in present-day society is not purely the statistical evidence. The believer is a key character because his or her actions reflect his or her valuation of a divine and objective moral code. With the addition of the believer to MacIntyre’s list, the last statement of his second premise (that the characters of today’s culture are intrinsically emotivist) is untrue, as clearly the believer grounds their opinion in some type of divine moral code. Thus, the leap cannot be made from the emotivist nature of the characters to the emotivist nature of society because one of culture’s most key players is essentially non-emotivist. Clearly, the distinction between manipulative and non-manipulative social relations has been eliminated in terms of the aesthete, the manager and the therapist. MacIntyre describes this elimination as a situation in which “each person treats the other primarily as a means to his or her ends” (23). To use someone as a means to an end, he says, is to be unwilling to influence another except by reasons which the other individual adjudicates to be “good.” In such an emotivist culture, each character is responsible for defining his or her own morality and acting on his or her own set of beliefs by employing other individuals as “instruments” in their task (24). This cannot be the case for the believer; however, who adheres to an objectively ecclesiastical source of morality and looks to this – not themselves – for guidance in their day-to-day actions.MacIntyre’s argument for an emotivist culture is compelling; however, it is not whole without the addition of the believer. The failure of MacIntyre’s second premise, that characters of contemporary society are essentially emotivist, falls apart when this character is added to the cast. MacIntyre’s claim that society is emotivist because the majority of key social characters reflect such values cannot be made due to the influence and pervasiveness of the believer. In the end, society cannot be correctly labeled as “emotivist” because there exists evidence of non-emotivist tendencies, as embodied by the believer.
Nietzsche’s Assault on Modern Morality: the Kamehameha II Connection
German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche is most remembered for the jarring statement, “God is dead,” but to reduce him to such a slogan would be to truncate an intricate and complex critique of morality into just three short words. Nietzsche saw the morality of his own social context as a sickness inherited through a series of generations. In his 1884 work The Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche traces the roots of morality and thereby explains the origin of its pathogen. In this essay, I will first explicate Nietzsche’s critique of morality and explain his proposed alternative to the modern system. Second, I will evaluate author Alasdair MacIntyre’s claim that Nietzsche’s denouncement of contemporary moral beliefs closely parallels Hawaiian King Kamehameha II’s abolishment of kapu, or taboo, in 1819. I will conclude with the assertion that Nietzsche’s argument is valid because it recognizes the necessarily non-foundational nature of morality. Unlike the “taboo morality” of Enlightenment thinkers, Nietzsche recognizes that morality — though grounded in one concept — is spontaneous and irrational. For this reason, MacIntyre’s linkage between Nietzsche and Kamehameha II is not only brilliant — it is additionally well-founded.Nietzsche’s Critique of Morality Nietzsche did not only think that the morality of his respective society was faulty or misguided. He thought it was sick. In The Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche argues that his civilization has inherited an acute illness from prior generations. The purpose of his “genealogy,” in essence, is to thoroughly trace the pathogen that affects his world — and thus blow the whistle on the Enlightenment project. In the introductory sections of his first essay, Nietzsche embarks on an assault of the “English psychologists,” like utilitarian John Stuart Mill, whom he believes have shielded their eyes from the truth of morality. Nietzsche claims that “these analysts … have specifically trained themselves to sacrifice what is desirable to what is true, any truth in fact, even the simple, bitter, ugly, repulsive, unchristian, and immoral truths — for there are truths of that description.” (10) He harshly criticizes the psychologists of his time because they are not historians of morality. They think the concept “good” was developed by those who had such goodness, he says, but in reality it arose from a culture of self-affirming aristocrats. Nietzsche pinpoints the fault of these thinkers in order to provide the foundation for his own argument. “The whole train of their thought runs, as was always the way of old-fashioned philosophers, on thoroughly unhistorical lines,” (10) he says before diving into an intricate genealogical critique of morality. Nietzsche begins his history lesson in the time period spanning Homeric Greece through the 8th century BC. During this era, the concept of good was exclusively coined by the aristocracy. For the most powerful members of society, “good” was merely a self-affirming term to describe the very traits they and only they possessed: physical strength, nobility, wealth and the like. The judgment “good” did not originate among those to whom goodness was shown. Much rather has it been the good themselves, that is, the aristocratic, the powerful, the high- stationed, the high-minded, who have felt that they themselves were good, and that their actions were good, that is to say of the first order, in contradistinction to all the low, the low-minded, the vulgar, and the plebian. (11)As a secondary and complimentary definition, “bad” was ascribed to those individuals who did not express the traits of the aristocracy and was used to define those characteristics of the lower classes. Nietzsche says the “fundamental instinct of a higher dominant race coming into association with a meaner race, an ‘under race,’ this is the origin of the antithesis of good and bad.” (11) On the grounds of this distinction, Nietzsche argues that the origin of “good” is “far from having any necessary connection with altruistic acts.” (11) He sharply criticizes the widely-held belief that the definition of “good” aligns itself with such deep, morally good characteristics. Instead, goodness rests on the “arch-trait,” or the concept that aristocrats believe themselves to be of a higher order than the rest. (13) To further buttress this claim, Nietzsche cites historical examples of the “arch-trait” as embodied by past cultures — the Greeks meaning “the truthful” and the Goths stemming from the German word, “gut,” or god-like. (13) He also discusses how words with negative connotations, like “dark” and “black,” were most likely derived from the dark-haired European peoples who were overtaken by the fair-haired Aryans. As a rule, Nietzsche concludes, political superiority necessarily implies a psychological superiority. (15) The next phase in Nietzsche’s genealogy addresses the usurpation of power by the priestly class, which is marked by a movement against some of the most fundamental characteristics of the former noble class. Ironically, he says, the priestly mode originated from the aristocrats but quickly named them the chief moral enemy. Pure and impure became opposites to associate with good and bad, and the self-affirming morality of the aristocracy was transformed into a morality largely shaped by self-denial. Nietzsche disparages this new morality, and says “humanity itself is still diseased from the effects of the naïvetés of this priestly cure.” (15) Amid his scorn for the priestly mode, however, Nietzsche maintains that one positive outcome did result. With this shift in morality, human beings became more complex due to the introduction of the concept of the “soul” — something that sets man apart as “an interesting animal,” he says. (16) Nietzsche blames his final phase for the modern illness in morality. The slave morality, which stressed the battle of good vs. evil, was spurred by the Nietzschean concept of ressentiment. This term goes beyond “resentment,” as it requires a non-optimal situation coupled with the inability to escape such a situation. Nietzsche says it is ressentiment that drives the self-denying slave morality, which is founded not on love — as many tend to believe — but rather on its direct antithesis. The weakness of the slaves “ causes their hate to expand into a monstrous and sinister shape, a shape which is most crafty and most poisonous,” he says. (16) Nietzsche calls the embittered slaves the worst enemies namely because they are the weakest individuals and the greatest haters. The slave revolt in morality precedes the rise to power of the priestly class, in which the upper class is convinced to adhere to a new self-denying morality in the place of the self-affirming one. Nietzsche says, “the slave morality says ‘no’ from the very outset to what is ‘outside itself,’ ‘different from itself,’ and ‘not itself’: and this ‘no’ is its creative deed.” (19) This “radical transvaluation of values” (17) came about because of the deeper desire of the slave class to achieve ultimate revenge against their oppressors. “The wretched are alone the good: the poor, the weak, the lowly, are alone the good; the suffering, the needy, the sick, the loathsome, are the only ones who are pious, the only ones who are blessed, for them alone is salvation — but you, on the other hand, you aristocrats, you men of power, you are to all eternity the evil, the horrible, the covetous, the insatiate, the godless; eternally also shall you be the unblessed, the cursed, the damned!” (17) Nietzsche contrasts the two modes of morality to further elucidate his deep-seeded distaste for the mode employed by the slave class. He says the slave morality — “an act of cleanest revenge” (17) — was caused by ressentiment, which gravely differs from how the self-affirming morality of the aristocrats was originally created. “The ‘well-born’ felt themselves ‘the happy’; they did not have to manufacture their happiness artificially through looking at their enemies,” he says. They didn’t have to “lie themselves” into happiness, unlike the slave classes. (20) Furthermore, the aristocratic man “lived in confidence and openness with himself”, while the “resentful man” is neither sincere nor honest with himself. (21) The slave revolt conceives and fabricates a notion of an “evil” man — though Nietzsche argues this man should be honored — and creates a “contrasting and corresponding figure” in himself. (21) In his concluding points, Nietzsche argues that the basis of all forms of civilization is to “domesticate” man and bring him down to the level of other lowly animals, and that ressentiment is a mere “tool of civilization.” (23-24) Moreover, the severe wrongs of the slave morality go unnoticed by the masses and have “moved out of our sight” only because they have “achieved victory.” (17) Like other long-term processes, Nietzsche says the modern mode is difficult to recognize. “The ‘redemption’ of the human race is progressing swimmingly; everything is obviously becoming Judaised, or Christianised or vulgarized,” he says. (18-19) Throughout his Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche is more sympathetic to the aristocratic viewpoint though he also admits the faults of such a stance. He is clearly more critical of the slave morality because, though he commends its innately introspective nature, he says it is based on a foundation of vengeance. Nietzsche’s Morality Ideal As an alternative to the morality Nietzsche identifies in his own society, he proposes a new a mode — a “sigh of hope” — that will manifest “a glimpse of man that justifies the existence of man, a glimpse of an incarnate human happiness that realizes and redeems, for the sake of which one may hold fast to the belief in man!” (25) Nietzsche’s advocacy for such a morality is supplanted by his unforgiving outlook on modern culture, as we have effectively lost “the will to be man.” (25) The central and most devastating problem in European society, he argues, was rampant Nihilism. Nietzsche’s proposed morality is founded on his desire to return to the self-affirming moral narrative of ancient times while still maintaining the somewhat accidental benefits of later slave morality — that is, the notion of culture and complex introspective nature of human beings. Thus, the challenge for Nietzsche in how to reconcile these two necessary elements of his proposed morality. Nietzsche advises his contemporaries to look to his own heroes — like brilliant poets and composers — and not what he calls “the lost men” for a model of this new morality. The way man must manifest himself in the world and the way man must act as a moral agent, he argues, lies in the ever-important “will to power.” Nietzsche describes this phenomenon in his 1886 work Beyond Good and Evil: “[Anything which] is a living and not a dying body … will have to be an incarnate will to power, it will strive to grow, spread, seize, become predominant — not from any morality or immorality but because it is living and because life simply is will to power … which is after all the will to life.” (Section 259)Nietzsche lays the groundwork for the will to power theory in his Genealogy of Morals when he draws the distinction between lambs and birds of prey. It is understandable and entirely natural for a lamb to perceive birds of prey as evil creatures, but he says this standpoint is neither well-founded nor valid. For Nietzsche, the bird’s action of preying upon a lamb is merely an expression of its strength — the deed and the “doer” are thus separate entities. It would be wrong to distinguish the bird’s strength from its capacity to kill. He argues that “’the doer’ is a mere appendage to the action” and, furthermore, “the action is everything.” (26) The lamb perspective of Nietzsche’s contemporaries is precisely what is wrong with morality, he says. “Man has been tamed,” his greatness stifled by ressentiment, pity and invalid sympathy. (31) A critic might argue that if Nietzsche is attacking morality on moral grounds, his argument will be severely weakened, if not obliterated. After all, if Nietzsche finds incommensurable flaws in the entire history of human morality, what makes his proposed mode any different? Furthermore, because Nietzsche finds defect in the Enlightenment project — or the search for the foundation of morality — a critic would say it is hypocritical for him to form his own morality grounded in the “will to power.” But to make this argument is to fail at comprehending the entire Nietzschean project. For Nietzsche’s moral foundation for mankind, the “will to power, ” is not really a foundation after all. The will to power is at once spontaneous, irrational and illogical. Unlike the moral foundations of Hume, Kant and Kierkegaard — passion, reason and choice, respectively — Nietzsche’s “non-foundation” is only a groundwork in that it drives us all. Though the will to power indeed is universal for all men, its manifestations are not. In other words, though each man is endowed with a will to power, it will invariably be played out in different ways for different people. Therein lies the fundamental difference between Nietzsche and the Enlightenment project thinkers he refutes in his Genealogy of Morals. In After Virtue, MacIntyre says Nietzsche wants us to become “autonomous moral subjects by some gigantic and heroic act of the will.” This “new table” for morality must be constructed entirely from the individual. (114)MacIntyre, Nietzsche and Kamehameha II Nietzsche attacks the “taboo” morality of his own cultural context. The contemporary mode, he argues, seeks to rationalize the innately irrational character of mankind’s will to power. In other words, the morality of Nietzsche’s time is merely a futile attempt to justify the unjustifiable. Nietzsche’s proposed morality is a mode which hearkens back to an ancient morality while still incorporating the positive, albeit accidental, benefits of the severely faulty morality of the “slave revolt.” Most central to this new morality is necessity to recognize and understand why morality is fundamentally irrational. In After Virtue, MacIntyre describes the force of the Nietzschean position as contingent on “the truth of one central thesis”: “[T]hat all rational vindications of morality manifestly fail and that therefore belief in the tenets of morality needs to be explained in terms of a set of rationalizations which conceal the fundamentally non-rational phenomena of the will.” (117) Additional, he explains Nietzsche’s argument as follows: “[I]f there is nothing to morality but expressions of will, my morality can only be what my will creates. There can be no place for such fictions as natural rights , utility, the greatest happiness of the greatest number. I must myself now bring into existence ‘new tables of what is good.’ … The rational and rationally justified moral subject of the eighteenth century is a fiction, an illusion.” (114) From here, MacIntyre claims that the irrationality of Nietzsche’s will to power — and the consequent justification of the unjustifiable — is at the heart of the modern taboo morality. This feature, he argues, is what allows for Nietzsche to assume the position of the Kamehameha II of the European tradition. MacIntyre explains the voyages of Captain Cook and his seamen and their perplexed discovery of the Polynesian notion of taboo. The seamen simply did not understand the rationale behind certain rules and societal customs of the natives. “But when they enquired further what taboo meant, they could get little information,” MacIntyre recounts, “Clearly, taboo did not simply mean prohibited; for to say that something — person or practice or theory — is taboo is to give some particular sort of reason for its prohibition.” (111) But if there did exist a reasoning behind the foreign rules, why were Cook and his men unable to grasp it? MacIntyre argues that it is because of the anachronistic nature of taboo. These rules and prohibitions are merely survival mechanisms from past cultures and are embedded in a context such that they are intelligible. “[D]eprive the rules of their original context and they are at once apt to appear as a set of arbitrary prohibitions,” MacIntyre says. When “resources of culture are too meager” to allow for reinterpretation, taboo rules become obsolete and justification becomes impossible. (112) Not surprisingly, Kamehameha II was able to eradicate such rules “without any social consequence.” (111) MacIntyre then asks: “Why should we think about our modern uses of good, right and obligatory in any different way from that in which we think about late-eighteenth century Polynesian rules of taboo? And why should we not think of Nietzsche as the Kamehameha II of the European tradition?” (113)The deontological character of moral judgments is the “ghost of conceptions” of objective moral law — something that is “quite alien to the metaphysics of modernity,” MacIntyre says. Furthermore, if the teleological character is simply a “ghost,” then conceptions of human nature will be cloudy and intelligible. (111) The parallels MacIntyre draws between modern morality and the notion of taboo are indisputable. Although Kamehameha II effectively absolved Hawaii of taboo rules, and Nietzsche effectively failed at his similar project, the two men indeed shared a comparable goal. MacIntyre’s claim, which he backed with exhaustive explanation and detail, is both laudable and well-founded.