Is Emotivistic Moral Nihilism Rationally Consistent?

Taylor: I know you’re bothered that I don’t believe in objective values, Pat, but I assure you I still care about the same things that you do. I just don’t say I’m being “objective” when I do so.

Pat: I don’t know why you think I would be impressed by that.

Taylor: Well when you boil things down isn’t that all that really matters—that at the end of the day I am just as committed in practice to what you want to call “moral” values even though I don’t think they’re “real”?

Pat: No, I find your rational inconsistency troubling in itself and capable of potential negative real world consequences.

Taylor: What “rational inconsistency” are you referring to? I think I’m being very scrupulous here and constraining my beliefs to what is rigorously factual. I’m avoiding confusing my preferences and desires for properties of things themselves. When I say “x is good” I am not deluding myself into thinking I’m describing some real property of a thing which constitutes its “objective goodness”. Instead I’m rather strictly, humbly, and rationally consistently accepting that in such a circumstance I am just referring to and expressing my feelings towards it.

Pat: But you’re not. I know you. You still are in the habit of using laudatory language about some people and actions and condemnatory language towards others. You still use moral terms like good and bad, and right and wrong. You ascribe virtues to some people in some cases and attribute vices to other people in other cases and you do so with a great deal of conviction. You seem to think these people really have these traits and that these traits are truly good or truly bad and not just things you like and things you don’t like.

Taylor: So I like those whom I like and I dislike those whom I dislike. Isn’t that what I have described myself as doing? I never claimed to have stopped liking certain kinds of people and actions and disliking others. A moment ago I even stressed specifically that my patterns of liking and disliking don’t diverge very much from your own patterns of valuing. So where is the problem?

Pat: The problem is the strength of your condemnations is too strong for expressions of mere disliking. When you complain that someone is misogynistic or racist or homophobic or selfish or greedy, etc. you get angry in a way you would not if you were describing that someone simply liked different kinds of films than you did or preferred a different flavor of ice cream. It does not seem at all like you are just noting that that other person has different likes and dislikes from your own or different proclivities towards actions than your own. You seem quite adamant that their ways of thinking and acting are objectively worse than yours—that they are worse than they should be.

Taylor: So I dislike misogynists more than I dislike people who prefer strawberry ice cream. So what? They’re both cases of dislike even though one is much stronger than the other. This is merely a quantitative difference, not a qualitative difference. I find strawberry ice cream gross and don’t identify with people who like it in the instances wherein they express their preferences for it. But this is usually a fleeting and irrelevant feeling as it concerns me so little. Maybe if someone were singing the praises of strawberry ice cream I would find it mildly annoying since my brain’s automatic response might be to say “No, it does not actually have a pleasant taste! Why is that person saying that? It’s false! Make them stop saying that!” Then on reflection I would see how amusing and arbitrary my brain was being.

On the other hand, when someone hates women and expresses that view, my brain also says, “I find that gross.” I don’t identify with people who hate women. Now since I would think of the harms of misogyny these would naturally ramp up my anger and my disdain for a misogynist more than a strawberry ice cream lover. And I would not dismiss these feelings as laughably arbitrary as I would my possible knee jerk dislike of the strawberry ice cream advocate. It makes perfect sense that I would feel greater anger and feel more inclined to cling to that anger. But it’s still an emotional response of not identifying with someone, feeling at odds with them, and feeling annoyed by their attitude because it is different from mine. So it’s quantitative difference, but the brain processes are of the same kind. I’m not secretly leaping from differences in feeling responses to overreaching judgments that I have a “moral truth” that the other person does not—no matter how repulsive and loathsome I might find that person to be.

Pat: But you think that there is no objective “repulsiveness” or “loathsomeness”, right? Those are projective terms to you, right? Like, you are repulsed by a thing and then call it repulsive as though it was intrinsically repulsive—when in reality you think it’s not intrinsically repulsive in any objective sense but only that it repulses you and that it repulses you for reasons that have to do only with your psychology and which have nothing inherent to do about its objective features. That’s your view right? That when we attribute to things value properties we are confusing our responses to things as reified traits that the things supposedly have themselves, right?

Taylor: Yes, I would agree with that. “Repulsiveness” or “loathsomeness” are not true properties of things. I just am repulsed or I just loathe and that’s a matter of me and my feelings and not objective features of the things or people themselves.

Pat: And yet you use the expressions anyway in describing people.

Taylor: They’re only expressions. It’s not like I think the people I use them to describe have such properties which sit there as part of them independent of my reacting to them with repulsion or loathing.

Pat: But why use those expressions for describing people if you think they’re misleading about the truth and are just a projection of your feelings. Your language treats them as though they are real but you don’t really believe they are. So why not be consistent. Remove this moral sounding language from your vocabulary.

Taylor: Because that would be needlessly cumbersome and limiting and counter-productive to expressing my feelings in a natural way. These are still my feelings. I really feel them. I really want to express them. And I want to use the language that conveys them as I feel them, even if there is a bit of inevitable imprecision in this. I correct for this imprecision when the issues of metaethics are being discussed explicitly, so I don’t see what the problem is.

Pat: The problem is that in metaethics you employ an arbitrarily narrow and false conception of what may be called or treated as “real. You refuse to allow certain complex, objectively describable relationships of effectiveness value relationships to be considered in any sense objectively determinative of truth about values in general or about what it is either more or less rational for people to value in particular. In that discourse you want to choke off potentially productive formulations of what happens when we use moral language—formulations which could ideally preserve, clarify, systematize, and advance our best and most rationally objective ways of settling important ethical disputes.

You are indifferent to the consequences of knee-capping the very concept of ethical legitimacy when you cavalierly and misleadingly take its subjective components as completely negating its equally present objective and rational components. You are indifferent—or even hostile to—articulating the valuable ways that a constructive discourse about value can be legitimate despite degrees of subjectivity and relativity if only it accounts for and respects these things while also exploring what is fruitful and rational about the objective and universalizable components of moral discourse.

You want to stack the deck totally against the value of all “constructed” moral categories when doing metaethics. But when the rubber hits the road in real life and you start making real world value judgments, you don’t have the courage of your supposedly iconoclastic, lopsidedly anti-realist convictions but rather you speak in vehement and unqualified  moral language as though it tracked the very truths your metaethics prides itself on staunchly dismissing as “unreal”.  And you reason morally in ways that effectively track the kinds of truths you tell me are merely subjective and not matters of truth or matters for objective reasoning at all! So, for example, you insist that harming someone is not “factually wrong” but “just something we don’t like”. And yet in your own reasoning you go right ahead and treat harming as a legitimate reason to dislike someone.

Taylor: No, it’s not a “legitimate” reason to dislike someone It’s just a likely one.

Pat: But you feel justified. You judge yourself as silly when you dislike a strawberry ice cream advocate but you judge yourself as right when you dislike a misogynist. That’s not just a difference in strengths of feelings, it is a difference in rational judgments about the appropriateness of each feeling. You often like to claim, in a sophistical way, that harm is not an objective category. You reject the idea that there are intrinsic states of health or flourishing that could suffer objectively identifiable and denunciation-worthy harms. Yet, you realize that your negative feelings towards strawberry ice cream advocates are worth abandoning while your negative feelings towards those who cause harm—which you can identify perfectly well with common sense—are worth staying angry at. You might even judge it appropriate to increase your anger in that case.

Taylor: No, I’m not grasping differences in “true worth”. I’m responding to differences in strengths of feeling. Perceptions of harm, whether tracking something true about the world or not, anger me more than disagreements over ice cream tastes. And I follow my emotions.

Pat: But you admitted earlier that sometimes you have inklings of emotions that are your brain being annoyed in “amusing” and “arbitrary” ways that then you put a stop to. These judgments of what is amusing and what is arbitrary are rooted in logic. We are amused by logical absurdity—and it is absurdly arbitrary to treat a trivial matter, like a difference in taste in ice cream, as though it were important enough to feel anger over. But you know quite well misogyny is not something arbitrary or amusing to feel anger about. Because you know it correlates with objective harms and you know full well both how and why they’re truly harmful in ways that merit your anger as a human being with an intrinsically vested interest in human flourishing.

Taylor: The silliness of getting angry over a dispute related to ice cream flavors is not a logical one. It is a disconnect of feeling. One part of my brain is getting hyped up and adamant while all the rest of me just can’t bring myself to give a crap, and so my general apathy on that issue means that my anger impulse is isolated and emotionally blown off with a laughter response. In the case of misogyny, no part of me feels like laughing it off. That’s the only difference, not any cognizance of objective “truths” about “objective wrongness” that relate to misogyny’s “intrinsic property of badness” or any such superstition.

Pat: You’re making a strawman of moral properties when you make them sound like mystical fantasy properties and not merely a priori graspable relationships that all people intuitively understand to at least some extent with our natural common sense. These are categories we live by and whose truth we inevitably assume completely when anything practical is at stake. To attack these concepts as superstitious nonsense when it comes time to analyze their logical relationships to each other and to the empirical world is not a scathing honesty but an unnecessary inconsistency that cuts out one’s own legs and makes one’s whole intellectual and personal life—filled as it is with vital moral and political judgments and debates—philosophically incoherent.

But more to the point, I reject your characterization of the reasons you distrust your dislike of a strawberry ice cream advocate. It’s not just a matter of more feelings of apathy happening to swarm and subdue outnumbered feelings of anger. You feel more non-combative and indifferent because your cognitivea priori grasp of fairness is does not rule against the strawberry ice cream lover but judges in his favor and tells your knee jerk negativity to shut itself down.

Taylor: “Fairness” is just a matter of feelings though too. Different people feel different things are fair.

Pat: But fairness is still an a priori category even if we have trouble discerning how to apply it most accurately to the world, and even if our feelings can prejudice those judgments some times. We intuitively recognize it is not fair (either to reality or to each other) that we let our feelings, instead of our reason, determine our judgments of fair and unfair. You grasp this, you know it is fair to dislike a misogynist and consider them objectively repulsive and you know it is unfair to be angry with someone over a different taste in ice creams.

Taylor: Even if I grant certain brain tendencies which lead us to regularly apply certain distinct moral concepts and categories, that still does not make them “real”. Where is “fairness” in the universe which is scientifically describable apart from human concerns? We may have developed the concept for some survival benefit—some way that it helps us regulate human relationships effectively, but that does not make it a part of reality in the human-independent way that, say, atoms and molecules and water and trees exist in themselves.

Pat: As long as fairness has an internal logic and is vindicated as good for us for whatever ways it can be demonstrated to help us either minimally stay alive, maximally flourish, or successfully reproduce then that’s all the objective reality we need to overcome the charge that it is merely a matter of hopelessly subjective, relative, and distortively “false” emotions. I’m not saying there are no subject-relative or situation-relative components to morality. I am just that there are also objective, a priori, generalizable, and true aspects as well—and that an honest and practically constructive account integrates and makes sense of these too so we our practices and our discourses can be coherent, rational, and beneficial.

Your Thoughts?

These fictional characters, Pat and Taylor, previously discussed the related topic of Immoralism using Nietzsche’s view of it as a touchstone.

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Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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