In a recent case in North Carolina, a sweet faced and intellectually accomplished nun came to a Catholic high school to address the students about human sexuality. We don’t have the text of sister’s talk, but from the outrage expressed she not only criticized homosexual actions, but was down on divorce and sexual sin.
The mother of one student reported her son’s comments, “We had the worst assembly today, we tried to leave but were made to sit down. There are students in this school who are openly gay and some who are not out yet. Obviously, they felt bullied.” A petition organized by students stated, “We resent the fact that a school wide assembly became a stage to blast the issue of homosexuality after Pope Francis said in an interview this past fall that ‘we can not insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptives methods.’ ” Other students and parents were “outraged” and “in tears.” A meeting between parents and school administrators was held in which the wild emotions over the issue continued.
While high emotion often accompanies hot topics like sex in schools what we are seeing in the current moral debate in America is more than a typical emotional reaction to sex education. Instead of this being an emotional element in a heated debate, the debate seemed to consist of nothing but heated emotions. This is not emotion about morality this is emotion instead of morality, and there is a philosophical term for it: Boo-hurrah morality.
Another term for Boo-hurrah morality is emotivism. Emotivism is a gut level theory of the origin of ethics which suggests that moral judgements are no more than emotional reactions expressed forcibly to change someone else’s attitudes and actions. If you think this is all made up academic hocus pocus you would be correct. It was first proposed by the logical positivist A. J. Ayer in his 1936 book Language, Truth and Logic—a book which should have been titled, There’s No Such Thing As Language, Truth and Logic.
Emotivists contend that words which suggest an objective morality like “good,” “bad,” “right,” “wrong,” “should,” “ought” have no basis in reality. They are merely the emotional expressions of the speaker and that he uses these words to bully someone else to do what he wants. It’s called “boo-hurrah” morality because the morality consists of nothing more than one person saying, “Hurrah! to this” or “Boo! to that.” Morality is thus reduced to “It’s right because I said so loudly” or “It’s wrong because I objected loudly.” Emotivism excludes social, historical, cultural, spiritual, and religious considerations from the discussion of morality.
Emotivism is moral judgment as exclamation. Thus if Sister Laurel says, “Divorce is bad” she is only saying “I don’t like divorce.” If the students of Charlotte Catholic say “Fornication is okay,” they mean “I like fornication.”
I am not suggesting that American high school students and their parents are students of A.J. Ayer or that they are consciously aware that their “meta-ethical conclusion is emotivism.” Instead I am observing that emotivism describes the moral morass of our society.
Pope Benedict XVI coined the phrase “the dictatorship of relativism” and the rise of boo-hurrah morality illustrates the tyrannical nature of the current moral climate. Two kinds of emotion alternate in this tyranny. First is the emotion of the passive victim. When something displeases we get the firestorm of emotions: trauma, tears, tantrums, and irrational rage.
This tsunami of emotion disorients anyone who supposes there is a rational or authoritative foundation for morality, and immediately puts them on the defensive. Along with the turbulent emotions is a sense of victimhood. The opposition is put off balance. No one wants to be a meanie. No one wants to be seen to be the aggressor. The emotional blackmail works like a charm. The one who asserted or even so much as suggested an objective moral standard is put in the position of the comforter, the apologizer. He is the bumbling parent confronted with the tantrum throwing child or the befuddled bridegroom confounded and confused by the suddenly weeping wife.
Once the enemy goes to defend the wounded, weeping victim smells blood and is on the attack. The petitions are circulated. The lawyers are contacted. The lawsuits are launched. Apologies are demanded and resignations are forced. The emotivist army marches forth bristling with righteous indignation. They are no longer the wounded victims. They are the rampaging and righteous champions of the underdogs, the mistreated, and the misunderstood. They do not care about the majority vote for they are the brave pioneers who are destined to overturn the oppressive majority. They do not care for the process of law or democracy. Their cause is greater than all that. The surge in their hearts tells them so.
Why has the moral debate in America descended to emotivism? Because where there is no objective truth there can be no intelligent debate. If there is no such thing as right and wrong, then it is pointless trying to have a discussion on what is right and wrong. All that remains is your opinion against my opinion and therefore the one who best uses the tools of emotional blackmail and bullying will prevail.
Nor will their prevalence stop at bullying their foes into silence. What began as emotional blackmail will continue into active use of force. They will move from emotivism to activism. The lawsuits will be followed with other forms of financial, legal, and finally physical force. In the face of emotive violence the government takes over and decides what is legal, and what is legal is not necessarily moral, for any idea of morality has long since disappeared. When the only morality that remains is that which is legal, then those who make the laws determine what can be done or not done. At that point what is legal will inevitably be that which pleases those who make the laws, and when the law is made by those who benefit from the law, the triumph of emotive totalitarianism begins.
Editor’s note: This column first appeared April 18, 2014 in the Imaginative Conservative and is reprinted with permission.