amo, amas, emote

Consider Alisdair MacIntyre’s thesis, set out in the opening chapters to After Virtue, that modernity has nurtured an ’emotivist self’. This self would be one that lacks the resources required to engage in collective moral reflection, its engagement with ‘moral debates’ effectively being a mere incantation of private predilections — a matter of asserting its brute, unquestionable ‘values’. The sort of argumentative impasses that MacIntyre is gesturing towards ought to be familiar ones. To give what I find to be a particularly infuriating example, think of rights-discourse in the media, such as when someone will assert criminal suspects’ rights to a robust and fair legal procedure and then is met by claims on behalf of the rights of victims of crime. There is still a tacit appeal to an impersonal standard for resolving the dispute here (i.e. the existence of certain rights) but nonetheless there is usually an insufficient framework for rational discussion, with appeals to conflicting principles whose only grounding seems to be derived from the conviction that their proponents invest in them. How often does a fruitful exchange occur in these circumstances, let alone a reasonably settled consensus? MacIntyre’s ultimate project is to try and rehabilitate a form of Aristotelianism (what, in fact, turns out to be a neo-Thomisim) that he thinks gives us resources to avoid moral arguments degenerating into such dead-ends, of being little more than appeals to nebulous intuitions; but I won’t go into that here.

Assuming that MacIntyre’s historical position is defensible, that as moderns we do find ourselves in the situation he describes, what has led us here? MacIntyre thinks that certain Enlightenment philosophical assumptions — even if not always, or even predominantly, bound up with academic philosophy — have distorted our conceptions of ourselves and our role as moral reasoners. I want to suggest another explanation of this phenomena (perhaps not even a conflicting one, per se) with reference to the wider structural effects of the cultivation in us of a moral self-conception in implicitly emotivist terms.

Asking a simple question, who or what benefits from such an emotivist self? One obvious answer: capital. At a superficial level, such a self — one that conceives of its moral identity simply in terms of a set of preferences, or is at least embedded in a system that treats it that way — has a similarity to liberal-democratic conceptions of the individual. This is ethics as consumer choice, as contiguous with any other desires or inclinations that we happen to have and to be maximised no differently. Our job is merely to be self-interested agents employing instrumental rationality to satisfy desires that are not intrinsically privileged; we just happen to care about moral preferences and that’s the only reason why we ought to pay any attention to morality.

Conceiving ourselves as moral agents in this merely emotivist way is congenial to the interests of capital in a number of ways. Not only does it buttress a liberal-democratic conception of personhood (liberalism being the handmaiden of capitalism, as we know), it weakens the foundations of practices that can act as sites of resistance to capital. Someone who treats their own moral dispositions as no more than emotional preferences, or else a social system that functionally reduces them to mere preferences, strips the moral realm of its distinctive importance. Moral considerations can then be bargained away, assigned a quantitive value alongside any other outcome that we find satisfying. What are arguably broadly morally centred traditions and institutions (Marxism, Christianity, etc.) lose their autonomy. That is, they become integrated with, and subsumed under, a utilitarian logic that can only acknowledge their importance insofar as they promote the fulfilment of existing desires — desires that are predominantly unquestionable, uncriticisable ones. The necessary standpoint for critique is squeezed out, and we are left with agents whose mercenary pursuit of their own interests could not come to be legitimately opposed. The result? Homo economicus reigns.