Martha Nussbaum discusses Euripides’ Hecuba and its implications for ethical life (via The Brooks Blog).
I love Hegel’s prefaces. In many ways, this makes me a bad Hegelian since Hegel is always complaining about prefaces, at least in philosophical books. He thinks that they can be nothing but “external and subjective remarks” by the author, never getting to the heart of the matter, which for him is the actual development of the concepts and principles that the work concerns. So too, in the Phenomenology (para. 70) he wryly observes that sticking to prefaces and book reviews is a “common way a man can take in his dressing-gown” and which shirks the “labour of the concept [Begriff]”. Nevertheless, I think that Hegel himself writes particularly good, engaging prefaces, which are often less stiff in tone than much of the books they introduce.
When re-reading the Preface of the Philosophy of Right, I came across the following interesting passage:
The particular form of guilty conscience revealed by the type of eloquence in which such superficiality flaunts itself may be brought to your attention here and above all if you notice that when it is furthest from mind [Geist], superficiality speaks most of mind, when its talk is the most tedious dead-and-alive stuff, its favourite words are ‘life’ and ‘vitalize,’ and when it gives evidence of the pure selfishness of baseless pride, the word most on its lips is ‘people’. But the special mark which it carries on its brow is the hatred of law. Right and ethics, and the actual world of justice and ethical life, are understood through thoughts; through thoughts they are invested with a rational form, i.e. with universality and determinacy. This form is law; and this it is which the feeling that stipulates for its own whim, the conscience that places right in subjective conviction, has reason to regard as its chief foe. The formal character of the right as a duty and a law it feels as the letter, cold and dead, as a shackle; for it does not recognise itself in the law and so does not recognise itself as free there, because law is the reason of the thing, and reason refuses to allow feeling to warm itself at its own private hearth.
p.7, Knox translation, bold mine
In this passage, Hegel rails against those who would reject the notion of law and its philosophical analysis in ethical and political matters. In the previous paragraph, he singles out Fries for criticism, who he reports as saying “[i]n the people ruled by a genuine communal spirit, life for the discharge of all public business would come from below, from the people itself; living associations, indissolubly united by the holy chain of friendship, would be dedicated to every single project of popular education and popular service”. (Fries was a contemporary post-Kantian, whose theoretical philosophy includes what is—perhaps unfairly—often thought of as a psychologistic reworking of the transcendental deduction. Politically, he was a nationalist liberal not a million miles away from Hegel, although they disliked each other personally (see Pinkard’s biography of Hegel).)
The first thing that I wondered after reading the original passage was whether this was not just a rebuke to Fries and his ilk but also an implicit criticism of Hegel’s early position, set out in his unpublished Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate. In that work, Hegel tries to cast Christianity as a radically anti-legalistic religion, as against the supposed Judaic obsession with a rigid divine code delineating what is permissible and what forbidden. So too, the central categories that he employs in his analysis include ‘life’ and ‘love’. As such, we might think that his insistence on law in the Preface of the Philosophy of Right, and his scornful attitude towards bonds of mere feeling—what we might gloss as appeals to life and love as ethico-political concepts—represents a rebuke of his earlier self.
On closer inspection though, I think that Hegel’s position is remarkably consistent, especially considering that the Philosophy of Right (1821) is the last of Hegel’s books whilst the Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate (1799) comes a good seven years or so before Hegel even completes the Phenomenology. To see this, we need to have a clearer understanding of both what the critique of law comes to in the early book and what Hegel finds problematic in the position of those who would reject law in the later book.
Hegel’s early opposition to law is expressed in this passage:
This spirit of Jesus, a spirit raised above morality, is visible, directly attacking laws, in the Sermon on the Mount, which is an attempt, elaborated in numerous examples, to strip the laws of legality, of their legal form. The Sermon does not teach reverence for the laws; on the contrary, it exhibits that which fulfils the law but annuls it as law and so is something higher than obedience to law and makes law superfluous.
p.212 Early Theological Writings trans. Knox
What is going on here? To begin, we can examine Hegel’s claim to strip laws of their legal form. This might mean a number of things, which we can bring out by contrasting law with other normative vehicles. We might distinguish laws qua universal, applying impartially to all, from commands qua singular, directed towards an individual (e.g. ‘Thou shalt not steal’ versus ‘Lieutenant, report to base!’). Stripping laws of their legal form might be thought of as a move from a conception of ethics as a neutral set of injunctions that have equal force for all and to a more context-bound conception of the force of ethical demands; perhaps that would be one in which the intelligibility or traction of ethical responsibilities would be dependent upon a ‘thick’ background of conditions that relate those responsibilities to the particular engaged perspective of the agent.
Another option arises if we contrast law with desire. Whilst the validity of a law is categorical, the reason-giving properties of a desire are hypothetical. In other words, if a law has a legitimate authority, it is not for us to decide whether we ought to follow it; whereas if we have a genuine desire, it only provides us with a reason if we decide to endorse it. In this way, we might read Hegel as rejecting the idea that ethics is intelligible or valid independently of the attitude that we take towards ethical responsibilities.
There are four possible claims here then generated by two readings of two contrasts with laws. The two readings are semantic and normative ones: that the intelligibility (semantic) or bindingness (normativity) of ethics is dependent upon some further thing. The two suggestions for this further thing were brought out by contrast to commands and desires. The first contrast suggested a possible dependence upon the particular ‘rich’ context of the agent (e.g. social role or identity, place within an institutional structure or practice, etc.). The second contrast suggested a possible dependence upon the attitude of the ethical agent towards the responsibility in question. As such, the four positions are semantic contextualism, normative contextualism, semantic attitude-dependence and normative attitude-dependence.
Having set out these options, I want to set them aside. Although each of them arguably has a Hegelian ring (although I would be wary of attributing them all to Hegel), I do not think that any of them is what Hegel is driving at here. Rather, I think that, in talking of “stripping laws of legality, of their legal form”, Hegel has their imperative form in mind. This is neither their universality (as denied by contextualism) nor their attitude-independent validity (as denied by normative attitude-dependence). So, the idea is that what the law mandates (its content) still has a claim upon everyone regardless of the situation they find themselves in, and too regardless of what they think or feel about it. But while Hegel’s Jesus’ Sermon still “exhibits that which fulfils the law”, it “annuls it as law“.
What does this mean though? Bob Stern helpfully draws a comparison with Kant’s notion of the ‘holy will’ on this point. For Kant, a holy will is one that does not feel a tension between morality and sensibility (perhaps through having no sensibility, as with God), and so one which acts perfectly rationally. Such a will would be under no strict obligations—would not feel the force of compulsion to do its duty—because the countervailing pressures of pathological desire would be absent from it. Whilst this is not a perfect analogy to what Hegel is after, I think that something like it comes into play. The idea seems to be that when we approach responsibility in the right way we can transfigure it from a law which governs us into an non-coercive act of love. As Hegel puts it:
To complete subjection under the law of an alien Lord, Jesus opposed not a particular subjection under a law of one’s own, the self-coercion of Kantian virtue, but virtues without lordship and without submission, i.e. virtues as modifications of love.
But does Hegel retain such a conception of the perils of law in the Philosophy of Right? Can’t we see in his early work a “special mark which it carries on its brow”, namely, “the hatred of law”? It might seem as if Hegel’s talk of love is saccharine romanticism, no better than the “immediate sense-perception” and “caprice” that he later finds in Fries. I do not want to suggest that there are no discontinuities between Hegel’s two positions, but I think they are very much more minimal than this characterisation suggests.
Firstly, Hegel’s discussion of love is in reference to a theoretical concept that he develops throughout the Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate rather than gesturing towards some sort of emotional state. The role that love plays in Hegel acts as a forerunner to his concept of Spirit, although undergoing some important revisions before emerging as that latter idea. Even so, in its original use it does not merely pick out a feeling (in the crude sense of a ‘mental state’) but a complex interpersonal relationship that binds people together.
Secondly, I think it is important to recall Hegel’s insistence that the content of law still be ‘exhibited’. That is, the law still specifies what we ought to do; the question is how we are to relate to that responsibility, not whether or not it is actually reason-giving for us. That is why I did not want to assimilate Hegel’s point to what I’ve called normative attitude-dependence: the idea that we have to first endorse something for us to have a reason to pursue it. By acting in a certain way, the law-form becomes superfluous for us, but that is not what Hegel will later paint Fries’ position as leading to. He seems to suggest that Fries is negatively determined by his rejection of law, such that he must reject law and turn to bonds of brotherhood and friendship as a separate normative or political standard.
Finally, I think the crucial part of the long passage quoted from the Philosophy of Right is this: “for it does not recognise itself in the law and so does not recognise itself as free there”. Here, Hegel makes it clear that he is not recommending law just for its own sake, or for its practical efficacy, but as something in which an agent can recognise themselves as free. An appeal to what Hegel calls “the broth of ‘heart, friendship, and inspiration'” fails to secure the right subject-relation in which people can be free. Indeed, excessive focus upon spontaneous upwellings of emotion and creativity can make law seem fusty, alien and oppressive, rather than being the true foundation of freedom.
I take it to be a key feature of Hegel’s mature views that freedom (secured by a relation to law) requires two central components: that certain objective conditions obtain and that certain subjective conditions obtain. It is in light of this two-fold approach that I suggest that we can find a perspective from which the apparent tension between Hegel’s early and late conceptions of lawfulness can be resolved. In the early Hegel, the pressures shaping his reaction to Kantianism mean that the emphasis is laid upon these subjective conditions—namely, our orientation towards our responsibilities, how we think, feel and enact them. In the later Hegel, his more conservative tone (whether genuine or feigned to avoid the real threat of censure) leads to an emphasis upon the necessity of our duties as citizens and ethical beings, as well as the broad shape of the objective social structures needed to realise our freedom, and which Hegel thought that progressive modern states were approaching.
Nevertheless, I think we can see both early and late Hegel as bringing together substantially similar subjective and objective conditions, taken as encompassing our own comportments and wider societal structures understood via an analysis of the concepts of right, in his diagnoses of modern life. Both share the idea that the form of law, of universal principles, can present a threat to liberty. This is so whether the danger is agents becoming self-alienated through enslavement to laws they legislate to themselves, or through the all-too-familiar alienation engendered by the impersonal legal-bureaucratic sphere that underlies the institutions of modern public life. But it seems to me that neither of Hegel’s positions represents a rejection of law which would seek to replace the law with something else (e.g. desire, well-being or community).
For the early Hegel, the solution is an ethics that attempts to ameliorate the imperative form of law which brought an oppressive element with it. As for St. Paul though, whose influence I see throughout that book, ‘love fulfils the law’, rather than replaces it. (I am not sure how well this fits with the picture of Paul and the law presented by Adam here.) I have taken up the suggestion that such an ethics is partially illuminated by reference to the ‘holy will’; and if it is right to say that God is love, then a will infused by love may merit description as such a holy will. But again, there is an important sense in which law remains in place regardless; the universal demands of politics and ethics have normative force whether or not we can escape the alienating effects of the law-form.
In the mature Hegel, the insistence on the absolute injunctions of the law are easier to see. But this remains coupled with an analysis of the necessary response to laws if they are to set us free rather than dominate us. We find Hegel saying of laws, “they are not something alien to the subject. On the contrary, the subject bears spiritual witness to them as to its own essence.” Here, I suggest both subjective and objective aspects are in play. To overcome alienation from laws will require us to understand them in a way that shows their inner rationality, so that we can come into a ‘homely’ affective and cognitive relation to them. The flip-side of that is ensuring that they, and the institutions and practices that give body to them, actually be rational such that we can express our freedom through them.
Not content to be caricatured by the likes of me (and it is a caricature, which I think we take too seriously at our philosophical peril), Kant responds:
As for those [e.g. Kant himself] who play down or outright deny the boasting eulogies that are given of the happiness and contentment that reason can supposedly bring us: the judgment they are making doesn’t involve gloom, or ingratitude for how well the world is governed. Rather, it is based on the idea of another and far nobler purpose for their existence. It is for achieving this purpose, not happiness, that reason is properly intended; and this purpose is the supreme condition, so that the private purposes of men must for the most part take second place to it. Its being the supreme or highest condition means that it isn’t itself conditional on anything else; it is to be aimed at no matter what else is the case; which is why our private plans must stand out of its way.
Kant, Grundlegung, Ak. 4:396
I am reading J.M. Bernstein’s Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics with a curious mix of delight and horror. Delight, because he outlines a tremendously exciting argument that reconstructs an Adornian story about disenchantment, conceptuality and the role of rationality in connection with normativity, all under the auspices of a particularistic realism. Horror, for the same reason: this is because in large part it is almost exactly the same story that I had hoped to tell about normativity, here told simply at the level of ethics. So, while on the one hand, it’s fantastic to see this story developed in such detail, I keep having lots of mercenary disappointment that someone has ‘got there first’. In terms of my thesis, my strategic aim was to counterpose McDowell and Brandom’s positions, side with McDowell in the broad outlines but to insist on a number of necessary inflections or modifications to his position. It now looks like Adorno (or at least Bernstein) has already broken much of the ground in this respect. In a way, of course, this is great, because it saves me a lot of difficulty bumbling about in the semi-darkness, allowing me more time to rigorously establish and finesse the position I want to develop. But, on the other hand, to a large extent it robs it of what little originality (I thought) my project had. Nevertheless, I’m sure there’ll be plenty in Adorno’s story as Bernstein reconstructs it that I will want to challenge or improve upon.
Either way, it’s a very good read (and I highly recommend Bernstein’s audio lectures on Kant and Hegel too). Here’s an excerpt from the Introduction:
[I]n his account of the disenchanting of the world, Adorno contends that not only does it eliminate previous objects of ethical esteem, but more emphatically and importantly it eliminates what I want to call the forms of object relation that previously had been manifest in ethical reasoning: experience, knowledge, and authority. Disenchantment thus effects not only beliefs (trading in bad ones for good ones), and a transformation of the objects of knowledge (eliminating certain certain items — starting with the gods and coming to an extinguishing of values as belonging to the furniture of the universe) but even more significantly our modes of cognitive interaction with objects. It is in virtue of the enlightenmnet critique of reliance on experience and authority that that ethical cognition too disappears (into sentiment, emotivism, will etc.); and with the disappearance of ethical cognition the entire structure of moral insight collapses.
J.M. Bernstein, Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics, p.32
Another pail of gloom winched up from the dank depths of the Kantian system:
Now, what in our judgement infringes upon our self-conceit humiliates. Hence the moral law unavoidably humiliates every human being when he compares it with the sensible propensity of his nature.
Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, Ak 5:73
Yet more gloom:
Even if a civil society were to be dissolved with the consent of all its members (e.g. if a people inhabiting an island decided to separate and disperse throughout the world) the last murderer remaining in prison would first have to be executed, so that each has done to him what his deeds deserve and blood guilt does not cling to the people for not having insisted upon this punishment; for otherwise the people can be regarded as collaborators in his public violation of justice.
Kant, Metaphysics of Morals, Ak 6: 333
I’m currently struggling in an attempt to articulate a problem, or rather clash of intuitions, concerning freedom and its limits. This problem is intended to play a structuring role in my research that will allow me to approach its deeper topic, not explicitly advertised initially, which will be a richer understanding of normativity that (albeit darkly expressed here) positions reason — or better: λογος — just as much in the world at large as in individual deliberation or social communities.
Returning to the surface topic though, that of freedom, one abstract way of expressing some of the tensions that this notion can seem caught up in would be as follows. Although a deeply contested concept or cluster of concepts, we can roughly characterise freedom as self-determination rather than external determination. If this as yet undefended conception of freedom is plausible — which ultimately I think it can be made to be — then it meets with friction when set against the notion of objective accountability. For while freedom is self-determination rather than external determination, answerability to what is objective can seem to demand external determination rather than self-determination. How then can freedom and objectivity co-exist, or at least how are we to understand their demands once it seems that these demands may be in competition?
At a less abstract level we can reintroduce the potential tension by considering individual agents. For, on the one hand, in judgement and action we take ourselves to be free: it is up to us how we are to make up our minds and comport ourselves towards the world. Yet, we also experience the world as imposing its own horizons on our activity. We take our judgements to be answerable to what is actually the case and so too our practical actions to be assessable according to standards more robust than doing what seems to us to be right or good. In other words, we must marry freedom with objectivity such that our authority over ourselves is consistent with the authority over us exercised by how things stand beyond our immediate selves.
This way of framing the matter introduces the distinction between normativity and causality. (These are two ‘moments’ of the concepts of freedom and objectivity but do not necessarily lead to a dualism within the concepts–that is, they might be describable in a uniform metavocabulary in which they are not understood as involving two irreconcilable modes of explanation of freedom and objectivity.)
For when we speak of our ‘authority’ over ourselves and the ‘authority’ of how things stand in the world inclusive of that beyond ourselves, we can take this authority in at least two senses. Taken causally, this authority will consist in the de facto power to bring about some act. So, an adequate account of freedom and objective accountability in this vein would show how the causal nexus responsible for bringing about an act includes both contributions from the agent (e.g. deliberation about what to do, resolution to φ, etc.) and from the world at large (e.g. relevant features of the context of the act, etc.). Taken normatively, this authority will consist in the de jure power over some act. An adequate account of this type would show how the act is licensed or authorised on the basis of contributions from the agent (perhaps as conforming to rational self-legislation or as based on a reflectively endorsed set of desires, etc.) and from contributions from the world at large (maybe it accords with a set of social norms or the way things stand determine it to be correct, etc.).
Ultimately, normativity and causality, as two moments of freedom and objectivity, should, I think, be reconciled. If we consider freedom, without a normative component — that is, lacking direction according to principles of what we deem right or good — the power to direct ourselves is little more than caprice, whereas bare proclamations of what we ought to do without the power to enact them are impotent. So too, being causally receptive to our environment is of little use if we continue to err in our approach towards it nonetheless, whereas acting rightly not on the basis of some receptivity to the context of our acts seems to be mere chance liable to give way at any moment.
Recapitulating then, we can be free by being able to bring about ends and by being able to authorise ends (at least in part); and we can also be objectively accountable by having the world at large being able to bring about ends and by being able to authorise ends (at least in part). Thus, to frame things in Kantian terms, we are creatures of both spontaneity and receptivity. The issue is how we are to understand their necessary co-operation. More specifically, can we hold on to satisfyingly robust versions of the following four conditions:
(i) We cause our own actions.
(ii) The world at large causes our actions.
(iii) We determine the propriety of our actions.
(iv) The world at large determines the propriety of our actions.
Right now, I am not so concerned with the fine details of a solution to, or dissolution of, this problem. Rather, having formulated it thusly, I want to know whether it seems coherent or engaging at all. If anyone has made it this far down, I would be greatful to hear whether you can see any problems, highly controversial assumptions, trivial solutions, underaddressed points, and so on, as to how I’ve set up this initial question. As I say, I’m unsure as to how coherent the problematic I am trying to setup will appear, and as such any comments would be greatly appreciated.
Another nugget of gloom:
The consolation of the virtuous is the shortness of life.
Kant, Lectures on Ethics, Ak 27: 624
Three cheers for an early death then!
My secondary supervisor, being a Hegelian of a generally cheery disposition, is always complaining of the ‘gloominess’ of Kantianism, whether its excessive epistemic modesty or dour take on humanity. Coming across passages like the following — charming as it is — it’s hard to disagree:
However virtuous a man may be, there are tendencies to evil in him, and he must constantly contend against them. He must guard against the moral self-conceit of thinking himself morally good, and having a favourable opinion of himself; that is a dream-like condition, very hard to cure.
Kant, Moralphilosophie Collins, VE 27:464
Indeed, heaven forfend having a favourable opinion of oneself! Any further suggestions of suitably gloomy Kant quotes would be appreciated…
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.’