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C H A P T E R S E V E N MacIntyre and the Emotivists J A M E S E D W I N M A H O N “Do this, because it will bring you happiness”; “Do this because God enjoins it as the way to happiness”; “Do this because God enjoins it”; “Do this.” These are the four stages in the development of autonomous morality. —Alasdair MacIntyre, “Notes from the Moral Wilderness” Emotivism looms large in Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory.1 Chapters 2 and 3—the first two real chapters of the book, after the preliminary disquieting suggestion—are directly concerned with emotivism, as the chapter titles indicate: “The Nature of Moral Disagreement Today and the Claims of Emotivism” and “Emotivism: Social Content and Social Context.” MacIntyre’s declaration in the first of these two chapters that “it is indeed in terms of a confrontation with emotivism that my own thesis must be defined” has prompted at least one commentator to claim that “the core of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue is an attack on emotivism.”2 That MacIntyre is preoccupied with the metaethical theory of emotivism in After Virtue comes as no surprise to those who are familiar with his intellectual biography.3 MacIntyre completed a bachelor’s degree in 165 166 JAMES EDWIN MAHON classics at Queen Mary College in the University of London between 1945 and 1949. While he was there, “from 1947 onward, [he] occasionally attend[ed] lectures by A. J. Ayer or Karl Popper, or by visiting speakers to Ayer’s seminar at University College [London], such as John Wisdom ,” after Ayer had become Grote Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Logic at University College London in 1946 (see chapter 1). Indeed, as MacIntyre tell us, “Early on I had read Language, Truth and Logic, and Ayer’s student James Thomson introduced me to the Tractatus and to Tarski’s work on truth. Ayer and his students were exemplary in their clarity and rigor and in the philosophical excitement that their debates generated” (see chapter 1). After graduating from Queen Mary College, MacIntyre went to Manchester University, where he wrote a master’s thesis on the subject of metaethics, entitled The Significance of Moral Judgments , in 1951.4 MacIntyre’s very first work in philosophy, therefore, was devoted to criticizing emotivism (and the intuitionism that inspired it). In the years that immediately followed, he published a number of articles on metaethics, including “What Morality Is Not” (1957), “Notes from the Moral Wilderness I” (1958), “Notes from the Moral Wilderness II” (1959), “Hume on ‘Is’ and ‘Ought’” (1959), and “Imperatives, Reasons for Action , and Morals” (1965), in addition to his introduction to Hume’s Ethical Writings (1965) and “Modern Moral Philosophy,” the final chapter of A Short History of Ethics (1966). In this essay I will provide an account of emotivism and its history and will examine MacIntyre’s critique of it, according to which emotivism fails both as an account of the meaning of moral judgment and as an account of the function of moral judgment. In part, this will serve as a defense of MacIntyre’s critique against the charge that he has provided “interpretations of Stevenson and emotivism that are plainly travesties.”5 However, my concern is not to defend his critique from those contemporary critics who would seek to argue in favor of some form of emotivism .6 My concern is to show that what is important about MacIntyre’s critique is what it reveals about the historical degeneration of moral judgment . On this account, the fact/value distinction on which emotivism is premised is not a timeless truth but the result of the “Enlightenment Project.” It was this historical turn that led to the degeneration of moral judgment. Moral judgment reached its nadir in the metaethical theory that is emotivism. Principia Ethica As MacIntyre says in After Virtue, “It is only in [the twentieth] century that emotivism has flourished as a theory on its own. . . . It did so as a response to a set of theories which flourished, especially in England, between 1903 and 1939.”7 The year 1903 was when G.E. Moore’s “quietly apocalyptic” first book on consequentialist axiological intuitionism, Principia Ethica, was published,8 and 1939 was the year of the publication of W.D. Ross’s last book on deontological intuitionism, Foundations of Ethics .9 Emotivism, then, was a response to the two forms of...


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