“I Feel; Therefore, I Am”: Reflections on Cultural Emotivism

by Paul Copan

feelingsWe’re familiar with relativism’s slogan, “That’s true for you but not for me.” Well, in the worldview neighborhood, emotivism is just around the corner.  This philosophy of life is centered on feelings or emotions, entirely or partially eclipsing truth from consideration.  In ethics, emotivism stresses that statements like “Murder is wrong” don’t express moral truths; they only express feelings: “I don’t like murder” or “Murder—yuck!”  With its emphasis on feelings, the Romantic movement in art, literature, and philosophy began in the early 1800s in response to the seemingly cold, sterile rationalism of the Enlightenment (1650-1800). And in our day, we are witnessing something of a renewed Romanticism and the widespread flight from reason.

We encounter emotivismin the moral claim “I feel that this is right” or “That makes me feel uncomfortable.”  In their research papers, university students with increasing frequency write “I feel” rather than “I think” to establish their point.  Some might ask, “Well,

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what’s the difference? Aren’t a person’s feelings and opinions (thinking) pretty much the same thing?”  No, they are not, and we should try to speak with greater precision—beyond the mere expression of feelings—with a view to actually reflecting on and assessing the truth-content of beliefs.[1]

First of all, to say “I think” sounds more argumentative than “I feel.” Also, our culture increasingly takes feelings to be self-justifying—as though no further argument or supporting reasons are necessary.  And how can you disagree with how someone feels?  Think of the person who says, “I like chocolate ice cream.”  That statement reflects a personal preference—someone’s inner state—and there’s no point in disagreeing with it. But what are we to do with it? It sounds authoritative, but are we to adopt chocolate ice cream as our own favorite?

Emotivism doesn’t express moral facts—only moral preferences. The problem, though, is that feelings are often misguided, and we need good thinking to direct our emotions and help bring them under control…

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