The Scourge of Emotivism

Our Philosophical Doubts Have Led Us to Contempt

By Jason Kettinger | Posted at 11:25 AM

Emotivism is a philosophy which posits that all claims of truth are motivated exclusively by the pursuit of power. This is also sometimes called the “boo-hurrah” philosophy, because the one who holds it can “deconstruct” any other person’s truth claim, by “explaining” what they really mean, and why they truly are holding any position.

Emotivism by its very nature is in bad faith, because charity assumes the exact opposite: that the person with whom I am speaking actually believes what they are saying, and is motivated by the desire for truth.

On the other hand, there are times when it is appropriate to question one’s good faith presumption, when interacting with someone. But the claim that someone is acting in bad faith has to be supported by some other evidence. The presumption of bad faith is flatly contrary to fruitful dialogue in charity.

I want to note that emotivism is actually the fruit of epistemic skepticism; if reason cannot actually tell us anything useful about the world in which we live, then all claims of truth are a waste of time, at best. Bad faith follows the presumption and assumption of absolute uncertainty, when anyone else claims to be certain about anything.

When we consider how to disconnect from a culture of contempt, whether it is present online, or in politics, or in our everyday interactions, we might begin by asking ourselves whether we truly believe that it is possible to know things with certainty by reason alone.

When religious faith becomes overly reliant on the unique sources of what we would call “supernatural” or “special” revelation, it becomes something private, belonging to specialized experts. That which is private is by definition not binding upon all. When all human knowledge becomes dependent upon a rigid empiricism alone, which must be demonstrated, and cannot be assumed, then things in the realm of reason and natural philosophy are mistakenly placed among the things that belong to faith.

Beyond the hostility and contentiousness that does not produce any helpful information exchange, we have to fear essentially not knowing, or at least claiming not to know. If we cannot be certain about what we can observe and test, then we cannot be certain about what is good, and what is evil. Everything that a practical working philosophy would rely on is undermined by uncertainty.

Many of the most contentious debates in the public square involve the purposes of human bodies, the existence or non-existence of male and female, and the basis for the dignity of all human beings. On the one hand, there is expressed a lot of moral outrage, among people who claim not to be certain about things their forefathers took for granted. On the other hand, I suppose I am glad that people are not so blasé about everything that they are still capable of outrage. I take some solace in the fact that I’ve never met a consistent relativist in my life. Even so, the basis for our certainty must be established. Certainty without reason is a hope or a wish, or some sort of superstition.

In very crude terms, the discipline of epistemology in philosophy— literally the science of how we know things— is divided between “idealists” and “realists.” Idealism posits that a person creates the reality he or she inhabits. She is not bound by anything she appears to observe. She may name or define anything she wishes as she wishes it. Because the certainty of what is external to the person is not established, two people observing the same thing are not bound by anything they observe; they are not sharing in the experience of coming to know, because what any one knows is individually determined. I cannot imagine a more efficient prison for the mind.

Realism, as it goes back to the classical thinkers in ancient Greece, posits that the observable world is real, and those things in a sense reach out to the one who observes. Man is able to abstract apart from what is particular to a thing, to the essence of a thing. The best and most well-known Greek thinkers, like Plato and Aristotle, had no time for those who doubt their senses for the sport of it.

As the Western world transitioned from medieval to modern in its modes of knowing, it separated itself from classical thought, especially in epistemology. The reasons for this are numerous, but the use of “facts” and “science” as substitutes for meaning testify to a certain despair over the possibility of epistemological certainty. We swim in this skepticism, and then have the gall to wonder why we can’t rely on what we once knew. In fact, people don’t even remember what they once knew.

In this fearful search for something or anything we can know to be true, people can be very hostile to anyone who questions whatever intellectual edifice they have created for themselves. This emotivism is a regrettable but understandable reaction to anyone or anything which threatens this man-made peace, and self-regard.

I will note briefly something called, “optimistic nihilism.” This philosophy is the idea that the world is meaningless and absurd, but that somehow, that’s no reason to be dour about it. I suppose it could be a form of Epicureanism, seeking pleasure in some socially acceptable way, while one waits to die. But if there is no purpose in living, why live at all? Most adherents claim to want to do no harm, but how is “harm” defined?

Existentialism offered the possibility of defining one’s own meaning and purpose, but that seemed exhausting to those who attempted it. Suicide— in the absence of living for some greater good outside oneself— seems likely. We could say much more about various philosophies, both by themselves, and in combination. In the end, perhaps it would be best to say that we can charitably credit an interlocutor as one who seeks the truth, if and only if we believe that truth is able to be found.

Jason Kettinger is Associate Editor of Open for Business. He writes on politics, sports, faith and more.

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