Alasdair MacIntyre on the Emotivist Approach to Ethics

In After Virtue, MacIntyre identifies one of the characteristic aspects of modernity, that of the loss of the concept of “virtue” and a corresponding groundlessness to all discourse on ethics in the public realm. Or rather, it might be better said that MacIntyre argues that, either explicitly or implicitly, a view of ethics has developed within modern culture that he calls emotivism. Emotivism is the idea that all moral feelings or intuitions are, at base, preferences that are based on the choices of the individual and nothing more. They are not indicative of some kind of divine sanction or objective ethical values that really exist. They are merely feelings that are entirely subjective:

…whatever criteria or principles or evaluative allegiances the emotivist self may profess, they are to be construed as expressions of attitudes, preferences and choices which are themselves not governed by criterion, principle or value, since they underlie and are prior to all allegiance to criterion, principle or value. (p.38, third edition)

At the heart of the modern view of the individual, therefore, there is a belief in a certain type of freedom that consists in the ability to “choose” prior to any kind other factors. “Choice”, in this sense, becomes a kind of supreme good that takes priority over any other kind of consideration. When one thinks about it, it is quite obvious that this kind of “choice” is at once totally imaginary (because it is impossible to choose anything independently of the individual’s web of life experiences, human interactions, community environment, family and cultural influences and so on) and entirely arbitrary. Arbitrariness is built into its very definition: This is the right thing to do because I feel it is the right thing to do. How we have got to this state in modernity is the subject matter of After Virtue, and in my next post I will try to encapsulate MacIntyre’s articulation of the view of ethics that preceded emotivism.

A final point to make about emotivism is that, upon its foundation, it is impossible to resolve moral disagreement in any satisfying way: nothing is objectively wrong or right but is merely up to the preference of the individual. This includes acts of kindness and philanthropy as well as acts of child cruelty and murder. Any claim to objectively binding moral matters of fact are merely descriptions of the speaker’s preferences.

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