After Anscombe: a closer look at MacIntyre

In this post I want to expand upon two previous posts on MacIntyre in order to clarify the sketchy accounts provided there — as much to try and get a handle on his project myself than anything else. In doing so, I will try to respond to some of Nate’s comments.

Elizabeth Anscombe’s seminal paper, ‘Modern Modern Philosophy’ (1958), was an important influence on MacIntyre’s strategy in After Virtue and his successive books and articles. As such, it might be helpful to consider it briefly. Anscombe defends three central theses, the second being the most relevant here:

the concepts of obligation, and duty — moral obligation and moral duty, that is to say — and of what is morally right and wrong, and of the moral sense of ‘ought’, ought to be jettisoned if this is psychologically possible; because they are survivals, or derivatives of survivals, from an earlier conception of ethics which no longer generally survives, and are only harmful without it.

To cut a long story short, it is outside of a law conception of ethics that Anscombe thinks that some emphatically moral ‘ought’ no longer makes sense. That is, insofar as moral considerations are conceived as fashioning us with distinctive obligations — ones that go beyond ‘oughts’ assimiliable to those whereby ‘you ought to oil the machine’ means that it is liable to break otherwise — then they must be tied to a legislative power that acts as an authoritative source of laws for us. But what could this authority be? For, in a nutshell, God is dead and self-legislation absurd. Yet, modern moral philosophy remains tied to emphatic moral concepts, the utilitarian and deontologist being wedded to a normative framework that prescribes moral obligations of a sort that would only be intelligible if there were legislative powers that, in fact, modern philosophers are either unwilling or unable to accept. (Anscombe’s position here is ambiguous given her Catholicism, though that is a story for another day.)

There is much that could be questioned in Anscombe’s account, but the most important aspect of her paper is, I think, its strategic vision. One of the ways this comes out is through its address to predominantly Anglo-American philosophers who had often made a virtue of sidelining the historical dimensions of philosophy — both its own history and history in general — it directed attention to the development of moral practices, highlighting the possibility of a degenerate moral culture. ‘Degenerate’ here in a literal sense, whereby it is suggested that once reasonably healthy moral practice — whether that of antique Greece which did not attempt to employ strong notions of moral obligation, or the medieval Christian tradition that did so with the necessary theological supplement to make this usage coherent — has become highly problematic because of a slowly lost grip on the presuppositions necessary to use its concepts for their original functions yet without reinventing those usages and functions in a way that does not remain equally disjointed and confused. As the story stands, through inertia old assumptions about morality’s connection to a divine lawgiver have been tacitly preserved although the rational ground for them, along with their easy fit with current everyday moral assumptions, is lacking.

After Virtue opens by confronting us with a similar possibility, asking us to consider whether contemporary moral culture might be best construed on analogy with something like the following: where a post-apocolyptic people who, rediscovering scientific artifacts — wrecked experimental equipment, algebraic formulas in old textbooks — were certain that these things had great signifcance but lacked the network of beliefs and behaviour that would enable them to qualify as engaging in science. As MacIntyre puts it:

all they possess are fragments: a knowledge of experiments detatched from any knowledge of the theoretical context which gave them significance; parts of theories unrelated either to the other bits and pieces which they possess or to experiment; … half-chapters from books, single pages from articles, not always legible because torn and charred. Nonetheless … [a]dults argue with each other about the respective merits of relativity theory, evolutionary theory and phlogiston theory, although they possess only a very partial knowledge of each. Children learn by heart the survivng portions of Euclid. Nobody, or almost nobody, realizes that what they are doing is not natural science in any proper sense at all. For everything that they do and say conforms to certain canons of consistency and coherence and those contexts which would be needed to make sense of what they are doing have been lost, perhaps irretreviably.

The substantiation of this claim requires a lot of work of course. Very briefly, MacIntyre’s diagnosis of the impasses of modern morality centres on his claim that the tripartite schema of the Aristotelian moral tradition — untutored human nature, human nature as it could be if it achieved its telos, and the rational precepts required to transform the former into the latter — has been distorted through the influence of Protestantism and Jansenist Catholicism as well as tendencies encouraged by the rise of modern science. He blames these religious traditions for undermining confidence in the power of reason through their fixation on the lapsarian state of humanity, thus leading to the rejection of the claim that man’s telos can be rationally apprehended. The scientific assault on scholaticism is thought to have had a similar effect, mistakenly uprooting any traditions with Artistotelian essentialist suspicion hanging over them, no matter how nuanced and contextualised this human ‘essence’ is. He claims that these two assaults removed a crucial plank of moral reasoning, leading to an incoherent reformulation of the moral project in which Enlightenment philosophers tried to justify an inherited set of moral injunctions on the basis of features of the very human nature that these injunctions were meant to correct and thus be fundamentally discrepant with. For MacIntyre, although some modern philosophers have occasionally displayed a distant awareness of these problems, dimly and darkly as it were, they have continued with their impossible project that has contributed to shaping our misshapen modern moral practices.

With this backstory in place, it is possible to go on to respond to some of Nate’s comments. Firstly, I do not think MacIntyre’s strategy in After Virtue is intended to critique emotivism, whether by pointing to the functional role that it plays which favour some interests or otherwise, nor were my comments meant to demonstrate that emotivism is false. For the most part, I take it that MacIntyre thinks emotivism obviously wrong. The role it plays is somewhat different, and requires us to distinguish emotivism from emotivist selves. Emotivism simpliciter is a semantic thesis, that moral discourse is an expression of emotion without any further cognitive content (thus, it does not refer to moral entities or name solutions to practical problems, etc.). The notion of the emotivist self is a sociological one insofar as it marks a pattern of behaviour that is the implicit correlate of this semantic thesis. The best description of moral discourse would be emotivism if we were emotivist selves: ones who acted in such a way that although we might explicitly avow the coherence or robust objectivity of moral discourse, nonetheless our actions showed that we consistently acted as if morality were just an expression of fondness and disgust for certain things. (MacIntyre thinks all moral philosophies presuppose a sociology in this way.) MacIntyre believes that, for the most part, we do act in conformity with this sociological model, that to a large extent we have become emotivist selves. Thus, emotivism is not radically off the mark since it captures something important about contemporary moral discourse. Yet, he thinks it a mistake to take it as an analysis of moral discourse tout court — transhistorically, as it were. Rather, it is only appropriate as a descriptor of the de facto state of our current practice, that, along with Anscombe, he takes to fallen into confusion and disrepair. That emotivism has some plausibility is taken to be an indictment of the contemporary moral climate. MacIntyre’s project is to try to turn existing moral practice around, with help from resources from the classical tradition, such that emotivism loses what plausibility it may have had as a description of moral discourse that takes place within that practice.

Secondly, Nate wonders what is so bad about emotivism; why would it present a problem for critiques of capitalism, or the use of moral discourse in general for that matter? In short, the problem with emotivism is that it removes the normative bite from moral discourse. As Kant notes, the occurence of an emotion is not yet a reason — and both critique and moral deliberation are dependent on the rational force provided by reasons. But in itself emotivism does not even make it to the level of neo-Humean positions that try to base moral normativity on second-order desires: that we have a reason to do the ‘right thing’ because we desire to desire what is right. Under emotivist readings, reason is excluded from moral discourse — such discourse does not even qualify as truth-apt. Thus, we are left in the positon of a normative equivalent of the Dude from the Big Lebowski: ‘That’s just, like, your opinion, man.’

4 thoughts on “After Anscombe: a closer look at MacIntyre

  1. hi Tom,

    You’re making me want to pick of After Virtue again! Great post.

    Re: your final paragraph, what I wonder about is who the critique of emotivism is directed toward. The thoroughgoing emotivist will say something like “what you call normative bite is just another example of emoting dressed up in other terms, albeit a very strong type of emoting.” That is, the criticism of emotivism here won’t convince the emotivist because it appeals to something the emotivist doesn’t believe in – some non-emotive appeal, some ‘normative bite’ which is not reducible to (translatable without significant loss) into being an expression of strong emotion.

    The emotivist anti-capitalist might also reply to the MacIntyrean anti-capitalist, “look, I want the abolition of capitalism as much as you do, and if we look at our activities directed toward that end my revolutionary time-card is just as filled out as yours. So you’re not doing anything that I’m not, except that you understand your actions and perhaps mine in a non-emotivist framework whereas as I understand both of your and my actions in an emotivist framework.”

    The emotivist could also say “you’re right that as an emotivist I’m committed to saying that my view that capitalism and war are revolting is all just my opinion, but the ‘just my opinion’ does not mean that I hold this opinion as lightly as my opinions, say, that onions on pizza are good and elevator music in annoying. ‘Just my opinion’ is not a claim about the importance or depth of conviction on the issue. Rather, ‘just my opinion’ is a claim about the degree to which my views on capitalism and war are no more subject to exhaustive foundation or conclusive establishment, than any other opinions. This is why I try to make such compelling narrative and visual propaganda, comrade.”

    I think the emotivist could also reply to MacIntyre
    “you’re diagnosis that emotivism is a symptom of the present moral climate is just you emoting strongly against the fact that emotivism is correct, transhistorically. The fact that you lament this does not change that correctness.” Of course this doesn’t actually establish the truth of emotivism either, but what I’m trying to say is that the emotivist could account for (could render aufgehoben!) MacIntyre in a fashion that MacIntyre is trying to do to the emotivist.

    Does that make sense? Put another way, much shorter, I agree with you that for MacIntyre emotivism is just obviously wrong. MacIntyre’s account then is presumably directed toward others who share this view. It’s not clear to me what the point is, though, what argumentative or rhetorical work is done by the discussion of emotivism beyond to say “look at these degenerates!” as a sort of marshalling his fellow catholic virtue ethicist non-emotivists toward restoring some moral order to the world. In that sense, what recommends the critique to those who aren’t already convinced? I’d accept moral intuitions, but I don’t think MacIntyre would.

    take care,

  2. Perhaps one way of reformulating some of your remarks would be as asking the following: what gets lost if we try to translate discussions in a non-emotivist vocabulary into an emotivist vocabulary? For, aren’t the practical consequences the same — the anti-capitalist seems to be able to go on just as before, only articulating their self-understanding in a different idiom.

    One response would be to say that, regardless of the practical consequences for the activity of the emotivist, as philosophers we want to have a correct meta-ethical description of the emotivist. So, while the emotivist may claim that the moral practice of herself and others is simply an expression of emotion, we can see that, for example, it embodies commitments that are not emotivist, so she has misunderstood moral practice. MacIntyre will not want to remain on this purely meta-ethical level though. He resists such an aloof stance in a number of places, such as the Introduction to A Short History of Ethics.

    If we are to discern a role incorporating a more practical traction for a rejection of emotivism it might be something like the following. As I try to articulate, the problem that I see with emotivism, and which I think MacIntyre also has with it, is to do with the consequences of its non-cognitivism. So, for example, if emotivism is true then then there is no such thing as a moral end for individuals, nor a fortiori can we engage in a rational discussion over such ends, etc. Insofar as emotivism forms part of someone’s self-conception then the practical consequences of this are liable to become manifest. So, they are liable to believe that there is no point arguing over certain ends but only means (thereby slipping into what, for me, is an overly-instrumental rationality). Attendant consequences of this in the Marxist case might be an overly crude dichotomy between dialectical materialism qua science and contrasting value-laden ideological constructs that have no place in such a science. I suppose one of the central problems I am trying to avoid here is that emotivism, rather than somehow privileging emotions (as the way you formulate things might intimate towards) — understanding our important, engaged practices, such as emancipatory struggle, in terms of emotions — in effect, in logical positivist fashion, ends up excluding them as either illegitimate or at least failing to be rationally based or rationally criticisable.

    The larger question you raise, as to how a critique of emotivism is to get any traction at all and what its strategic intent might be, is a difficult one. One thing that might be worth recalling is that MacIntyre takes it that most people are not, as it were, proto-theoretical emotivists: they really do understand themselves to be engaging in sensible moral debates and to be doing-the-right-thing rather than doing-what-makes-them-think-hooray!-for-this. The criticism comes at the diagnostic, genealogical level, where the moral culture is seen as perverted by left-over Enlightened assumptions that mean that in-effect people behave as emotivists would describe. Thus, he is not simply preaching to the converted inasmuch we may already think emotivism is a recipe for degeneracy, but then read MacIntyre and come to agree with him that the modern moral project — whose assumptions we have shared — is incoherent and leads to a form of practical emotivism in the shape of emotivist selves, of which we may not have heretofore realised that our own practice conforms to. Thus, we may go on to revaluate that practice. Addressing the hardcore reflective emotivist will be a different matter of course, but that is not, I think, MacIntyre’s central task. For a schematic critique of non-cognitivism simpliciter, Putnam marshals a persuasive set of thoughts in this recent audio lecture (

  3. hi Tom,

    Thanks for the thoughtful response, this is fun. I _am_ going to reread After Virtue now, maybe on my trip out of town at the end of the month if there’s a copy available at the library.

    I’m not convinced by the argument about the effects of holding to emotivism. That’s possible, but only possible. For it to work as an attack on emotivism as such would I think need empirical proof (it may be that emotivists are more moral in their behavior), then it would need to be argued why those negative effects are the most likely result from holding to emotivism (rather than accidents along the lines of most actually existing emotivists happening to have had philosophy teachers who were moral degenerates such that the behavior is not the result of their emotivism but the degeneracy they got from their teachers). I also think that one could make this kind of argument in too many other ways for it to be convincing – I’m thinking of assertions made about the bloody history of Marxism/Catholicism/dualism/reason/etc.

    I think the correct meta-ethical description of the emotivist (and the MacIntyrean) is part of what’s at issue here, I think the one you offer involves ideas the emotivist would reject. I’m not sure I follow you when you write that “moral practice (…) embodies commitments that are not emotivist”. What do you mean by non-emotivist commitments? I mean, “there is a world” or logical rules are non-emotivist, because they’re not moral utterances, but they’re a different sort of non-emotivist than MacIntyre’s non-emotivism. So yeah, I don’t understand.

    Presumably the emotivist could just take the emotional make up of a person as functionally primitive. That makes emotivism a description of certain utterances — “good” means something like “hurray!” as you said and “bad” means “ugh!” — rather than an explanation of how people come to utter them in this or that circumstance – emotivism is not a theory of where hurray vs ugh responses come from, how they get linked to this or that phenomenon. Though an emotivist would not be barred from inquiring into these responses. I think emotivism also wouldn’t preclude a sort of moral activism, trying to move others to say hurray and ugh to the same things I say hurray and ugh to, and with the same levels of intensity. I think that’s one way to describe Rorty’s remarks about the salutary nature of sharing sad stories. I also think Rorty’s lauding of social engineers suggests that there might be rational moral discussion (or something approximating to it) in emotivist terms. Something like: “All of us here say hurray and ugh with the same intensity to the same phenomena. As part of this we say hurray to the commonality in when we say hurray and ugh, and we say hurray to the thought of more people coming to say hurray and ugh when and how we do. Let’s come up with a plan to produce this result. Part of this plan involves investigating the history of our coming to say hurray and ugh in the way we do. Let’s vote, who says hurray to this proposal?”

    On that same line of thought, I don’t know that “moral end for individuals” is necessarily barred from translation into the moral vocabulary Emote. The emotivist who thinks all moral doctrines are just translations of utterances in Emote should be committed to saying that at least some of what others call “moral ends” have corresponding terms in Emote. Right? It may be that the emotivist doesn’t hold that there’s _one_ set of what others would call moral ends, but we could imagine a sort of Darwinian/evolutionary-psychologist emotivist who believes that there are biologically better and worse things for our species such that there will be or should be a general convergence on utterances of ‘hurray’ and ‘ugh’ in the face of certain phenomena. (Ugh to global warming, say, or genocide, and hurray to security of access to thing like shelter and food and enjoyable activities.) I could also imagine a sort of Rawlsian emotivist, something like – “the best society is that where the person who says ugh the most in a society says ugh the least compared to other societies.” So I think rational discussion of morality may still be possible for the emotivist.

    I’ll check out that Putnam talk, thanks for that.

    take care,

  4. Pingback: Ethics and the Moral Law, Part I: Anscombe « Grundlegung

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