On Friday, I said that I would write something about why “emotivism leads us to court political power.” What is emotivism?
It’s not simply that we act on feelings when we should use our brains. We do fall into this trap, but the reason for this is not that we are childish or bad people. There is a history to our predicament. In what follows, it is important that you keep in mind that I believe that there is also a way out of our predicament.
We’ve all experienced futility in certain types of arguments. Many friends of mine in recent weeks have expressed their belief that supporters of Donald Trump are “irrational.” We experience others as “unreasonable,” unable to give reasons for acting as they do, believing what they do. When this gap appears, fruitful discussion evaporates. What we are confronting is the outworking of incompatible principles, or at least first principles for which we have no way of judging priority. Is it worse that Donald Trump’s rhetoric fuels racism, or is it worse that Hillary Clinton favors a permissive abortion policy (a question that confronted conservative voters)? How do we make judgments between free trade, job creation, health care, and all the rest when we can’t find any kind of bedrock on which we can all agree?
This is what I mean when I say that we are incapable, at present, of having a rational discussion about politics. Persons living in places as different as rural Mississippi, Portland, and Detroit have, unsurprisingly, espoused multiple first principles, and together we have no obvious way of negotiating between their rival claims on us. As philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre points out (actually pointed out, already back in 1981), the situation is even worse than that. The problem with first principles is that by definition, we can’t give reasons for holding them. Don’t we reason from first principles and not to them? But if so how does it come about that we seem to know what they are? And how in the world can I argue with someone who holds first principles that seem wrong to me?
The answer is that we don’t argue, for the most part. We pretend to argue, but what we are usually doing is trying to manipulate other people into changing their first principles, or at least into giving way and letting us follow our principles. This hidden power play of manipulation was already noticed by a much earlier philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. He made the very strong claim that what appears to be moral reasoning in our public and private lives is really the expression of a desire for power. We then dress up this “Will to Power” with a respectable front of reasoned argument. In other words, when I say something like, “we should raise taxes on the wealthy and redistribute the money to the poor,” it is not completely off the wall to ask what my real motives are. Am I resentful of rich people, and want to see them taken down a notch? Will some of this money come to me? Do I get to enjoy feelings of moral superiority for apparently altruistic aims? Do I want the gratitude of poor people, so that they won’t be a potential nuisance for me? I could go on.
I’m not sure that I was aware of the extent to which Nietzsche was right until I entered the monastery, oddly enough. I’ve always liked Nietzsche, or perhaps felt that he was the primary thinker who needed to be answered if we were to have anything like a flourishing civil order. And to be honest about it, I suspected other people of emotivism, but assumed that my arguments and first principles were unassailable. Monastic life is about conversion, and one of the more surprising aspects of my own conversion (and if it’s real conversion, much of what we discover will come as a surprise, welcome or unwelcome), is the realization that I’m more a part of the emotivist problem than I wanted to admit.
So what have I done about it? Answering that will have to wait for now. Here, I want to finish off the modest point at the heart of this post.
If we have no way (yet) to resolve our moral disagreements rationally, and if our attempts to do so turn out to be assertions of power rather than reason, an important consequence follows. If, in a debate, we recognize that we lack the power to silence opposition and push through our moral agenda, we will try to enlist a more powerful third party who can do this for us. The very interesting sociologist Jonathan Haidt notices this very trend in the campus culture of microagresssion and victimization. Various strategies include organizing protests, public shaming on social media, and so on. But the election of a president is the big prize. He or she has the most power of all, and I suspect that one of the reasons that we have, over the past century, continually added to the power of the presidency, is that we’ve sensed at some level that we need a strong person to enforce policies that we can’t agree on as a people. Note that a major factor in this drift is the original sin of the American republic, that of slavery. We solved the problem of slavery by force, the force of the presidency no less. In contemporary life, when we have a president who shares our first principles, we tend to have a certain sense that good will has a chance of prevailing in the world, and when the president is someone who does share our first principles, history seems to be against us, evil prevailing, and so on. At some level we sense that it depends on power. “Q.e.d.” quoth Nietzsche from the grave.
The presidency is not the only example. Catholics are tempted by the same kind of whiplash. Conservatives who felt that we were finally righting the ship under Pope Benedict XVI feel like we are quite suddenly and astonishingly weak under Pope Francis. Liberals who despaired of seeing the fruits of Vatican II realized because of the traditionalist leaning of the same Pope Benedict XVI, suddenly find blossoming of goodness and love everywhere under the same Pope Francis. The apparent rapport of the two of them doesn’t seem to affect this perception, which should lead us to believe that something other than a Manichean struggle between good and evil is going on, or at least that we have not characterized the struggle between good and evil properly, as one that goes through our own hearts and not through the conservative/liberal divide that we have inherited from the French Revolution. In the Catholic case, this over-reliance on the Holy Father is especially irritating to me, given that one of the best ideas, in my opinion, to come from the Council is that of subsidiarity. This means learning to solve problems at a local level without constantly appealing to higher-up third parties. To some extent, this implicates the project of Benedictine monasticism, properly understood.
1) The problem of morality as a thing.
2) Will talking about it help? Or not?
3) Nietzsche (almost) right again: truth as relationship.