Just Sentiments by Angus J. L. Menuge


Just Sentiments

Emotivism versus Traditional Morality
by Angus J. L. Menuge

On the railroad trains, all the passengers together were a community, called by a shared moral understanding to sacrifice for each other. But if, as we now seem to think, there are no other passengers, there is no community. . . . The illusion that we travel life alone is ruining us all. The proper name of the illusion is incivility.1

As Aristotle understood it, virtue is what enables one to live well in community. Thus, virtue is foundational to civilization. That virtue and civilization are in a lamentable state ought to be beyond dispute. However, language itself has been corrupted and euphemism is used to mask moral failures as progress.2  Abortion is “reproductive freedom,” and the abdication of parental responsibility for tiny children is an “early opportunity for socialization,” and a means of “empowerment” for adults. How and why has this decline in virtue and civilization happened? What can be done about it? Both C. S. Lewis and Alasdair MacIntyre have diagnosed emotivism as the chief malady and certain kinds of narrative as among the potential cures.


Emotivism “is the doctrine that all evaluative judgments and more specifically all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, . . . of attitude or feeling. . . .”3  This is the view expressed by the authors of the “Green Book” (an English textbook4) criticized by C. S. Lewis at the beginning of The Abolition of Man. According to this book, when Coleridge said that a waterfall was sublime, he only seemed to be talking about the waterfall; in fact, he was talking about his own feelings.5  Though this is an aesthetic rather than an ethical judgment, it suggests the full doctrine of emotivism to the reader, that all value judgments, including ethical ones, can be interpreted as subjective reports of feelings.

As Lewis saw, emotivism trivializes ethical statements, because it provides no standard for determining which preferences or emotions are appropriate. The preferences of the child molester are in principle just as “valid” as those of the protective parent. Emotivism eliminates the central idea of all traditional ethical systems (which Lewis calls the Tao), that “objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence, or our contempt.”6  Traditional ethics asserts that one’s preferences can be wrong, as when Lewis confesses that though he does not personally delight in children, that is a failure in him, because children are, objectively, delightful.7 

On the face of it, emotivism is a highly implausible account of the meaning of ethical statements. When we say that murder is wrong, we take ourselves to be saying something true, and if a psychopath denied our claim, we would hold that he was mistaken, not that he was entitled to his preference. Yet emotivism was a quite widely held academic philosophy in the first half of this century, and if MacIntyre is correct, it is the implicit philosophy of many ordinary citizens today. How can this be?

According to MacIntyre, the chief historical reason for the rise of emotivism is to be found in the failure of modernism to provide a rational justification for the objectivity of value statements.8  Modernism is characterized by the view that statements must be able to demonstrate their credentials; appeals to revelation, tradition, or the authority of others are not sufficient to pass muster. If a statement is to be accepted as true, we must have evidence for it, whether from the senses, as empiricists emphasized, or from conceptual reason, as rationalists averred. Coupled with the extraordinary success of experimental science, this outlook reached its sharpest statement in the logical positivism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Logical positivism proposed the new methods of science as the only valid path to knowledge. In its popularization by A. J. Ayer,9  it asserted that statements are literally meaningful only if they are either true by definition (logical truths, like 2 + 2 = 4 or “A bachelor is an unmarried man”) or they are in principle verifiable by observation.10  This criterion created insuperable problems for ethical statements. One cannot deduce the concept of “wrongness” from the concept of “torture,” so it is not true by definition that torture is wrong. At the same time, however sickened one might feel at witnessing torture, it is false that the wrongness of the action is something one perceives with one’s senses or which could be detected by any conceivable scientific instrument. Thus, ethical statements are never literally meaningful, so if they mean anything at all, they must be a disguised, indirect report of something else.

Since ethical judgments are often asserted with considerable emotion, a natural suggestion, made by Ayer, Bertrand Russell, and C. L. Stevenson, was that ethical statements (indeed all value judgments, since they all fail the same test) are really reports of the speaker’s emotion of approval or disapproval. One particularly amusing version of the view came to be known as the “Hurray-Boo” theory of ethics, because it translated “X is right” as “Hurray for X!” and “Y is wrong” as “Boo to Y!” Thus, we end up with emotivism.

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Of course, the average person has not heard or consciously agreed with these ideas; but there is reason to think that they have indirectly affected his thinking. Although the specific formulations of logical positivism have long since been rejected by analytic philosophy, the key ideas that ethical statements are problematic, because we lack a scientific procedure for determining their truth value, and that ethical statements are basically about feelings, have been highly influential in educational philosophy. This is because educational philosophy has largely bought into scientism,11  the worldview that animated logical positivism. Scientism claims not merely that science is a method for gaining knowledge, but that it is the only objective method for doing so. It follows from this that while descriptions of nature are objective, evaluative judgments are not, since the former but not the latter are amenable to scientific testing. “Values” therefore cease to be qualities that might objectively characterize actions and become attitudes the subject has towards those actions.

Angus J. L. Menuge is Professor of Philosophy at Concordia University Wisconsin, where he is associate director of the Cranach Institute (www.cranach.org). He has edited three books, including C. S. Lewis: Lightbearer in the Shadowlands, and has recently published Agents Under Fire: Materialism and the Rationality of Science (Rowman & Littlefield).

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