The emotivist self at home

Alasdair MacIntyre characterizes the modern self as emotivist — cut from objective, rational criteria for basing moral judgements, it sees all moral discourse as only expression of preference. This has social correlates:

The bifurcation of the contemporary social world into a realm of the organizational in which the ends are taken to be given and the means are not available for rational scrutiny and a realm of the personal in which judgment and debate about values are central factors, but in which no rational social resolution of issues is available … is itself an important clue to the central characteristics of modern societies which may enable us to avoid being deceived by their internal political debates. These debates are often staged in terms of a supposed opposition between individualism and collectivism, each appearing in a variety of doctrinal forms. … But in fact what is crucial is that on which the contending parties agree, namely that there are only two alternative modes of social life open to us, one in which the free and arbitrary choices of individuals are sovereign, and one in which the bureaucracy is sovereign, precisely so that it may limit the free and arbitrary choices of individuals. Given this deep cultural agreement, it is unsurprising that the politics of modern societies oscillate between a freedom which is nothing but a lack of regulation of individual behavior and forms of collectivist control designed only to limit the anarchy of self-interest. … Thus the society in which we live is one in which bureaucracy and individualism are partners as well as antagonists. And it is in the cultural climate of this bureaucratic individualism that the emotivist self is naturally at home.      

After Virtue

I feel like we can recognize the opposition he describes, and actually see these two forces alternately holding sway over this or that part of our society. (For example, a single person might be an individualist on abortion, and a collectivist on poverty.)

I do not know if MacIntyre is right, but I’m intrigued by his analysis. He’s saying that absent an ability to conduct moral discourse together from some agreed-upon starting points we get two competing (and secretly conjoined) impulses: individualism (moral judgements are my own to make) and collectivism (bureaucracy takes over to organize this mass of individuals and runs itself on inertia, its means not open to moral judgments which are only individuals’ own to make). This should put the question to the church, the university, etc: can you narrate together a framework for moral discourse robust enough to work at the levels of the individual and of the group so that something more coherent than oscillation between individualist and collectivist emerges?

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2 Responses to “The emotivist self at home”


  1. 1 Adam February 20, 2009 at 9:31 am

    Here’s an interesting talk in which Barry Schwartz calls for what he calls “practical wisdom”, which is recognizing when the individual should take precedence over the bureaucracy within the realm of the organizational:

  2. 2 periphery February 21, 2009 at 3:29 pm

    I won’t be able to watch that TED talk for a while – I’m out of town, left my headphones in Ann Arbor and only have public internet for the next five days – but I wanted to comment quickly to advance the conversation.

    Question @ Adam: on what does Schwartz base this “practical wisdom?” Intuition? De-mythologized religious discourse? It’s really not clear to me what our resources for “practical wisdom” should be in such a plural, atomized society as C21st America. [Wisdom’s kissing cousin is “common sense” – the “sense” that people have “in common.” In my experience it’s not possible to draw on such a thing – my sense, and the sense of my friends, has been arrived at so personally and idiosyncratically.]

    I also wonder how Schwartz’s emphasis can really address the problem of the individual emotivist / collective bureaucratic tension: just based on your summary of the talk, it seems like it reinforces the oscillation between individual demands / bureaucratic mechanism.


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