Philosopher and essayist A.J. Ayer at a joint session of the Aristotelian Society and the Mind Association. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Our moral language is not okay

The triumph of emotivism

Artillery Row

Have you noticed that strange new verbal tic going around: that everything we once considered “wrong” or “evil” is now simply “not okay”?

Spend an hour online and you’ll see what I mean. Overturning Roe v Wade was “not okay”. Church sex abuse scandals are “not okay”. Body-shaming is definitely “not okay”. The more somebody disapproves of something, the more “not okay” it is — perhaps warranting a firm “Not Okay” or even, under exceptional circumstances, “NOT OKAY”.

Welcome to the mealy-mouthed vocabulary of emotivism

Bizarre, non? Our moral debates are supposedly more polarised and tempestuous than ever, yet increasingly we seem unable to express our outrage with anything other than the feeblest, clenched-teeth dribble. What’s going on?

Whizz back, for a moment, to the middle of the 20th century, when — for a very brief period — philosophical debate about ethics burst into the public sphere. One group in particular, known as the emotivists, spearheaded by the austere A.J. Ayer, began popularising the argument that the entire edifice of moral language — the vast array of words like good, bad, honourable, cruel and evil, by which men and women had for millennia made sense of their lives — was a fraud. There were no objective moral truths to be found. All our ethical words communicated, the emotivists argued, were mere personal preferences: to say that murder is wrong is to say no more than that I, myself, disapprove of it.

Emotivism was dynamite. The Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, while certainly not a fully paid-up member, nonetheless considered emotivism a good sociological analysis of where we find ourselves. Our debates, he argued, have become increasingly shrill and petulant precisely because most of us have deep down lost faith in moral language to communicate objective truths. Like proud knights fighting with substitute plastic swords, we lunge at each other more violently than ever, trying to cover up for the terrible humiliation of our newfound powerlessness. 

But what to do? MacIntyre’s fellow philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe proposed that, if we really no longer trusted in traditional moral language to do the business, we should simply do away with it altogether. But that seemed impossible — not knowing what else to use in its place, we clung on to it instead like a comfort toy. Until now. 

“Not okay”. “Normalise X”. “Do better”.

Welcome to the new, strange, mealy-mouthed vocabulary of true emotivism. All of the above, you’ll notice, deliberately avoid communicating any kind of moral content whatsoever — they could, indeed, be talking about anything. It’s “not okay” to jaywalk in certain American cities. I can “normalise” a snazzy new hairstyle. You can “do better” at throwing socks into your clothes basket blindfolded. (Reflect, while we’re at it, on the huge gulf in meaning between “do better”, which is in common use, and “be better”, which isn’t). 

We reduce the messiness of morality to simple 1s and 0s

Even a phrase that looks conventionally moralistic, like “such-and-such is violence”, still can’t quite bring itself to actually say that “such-and-such is wrong”. It’s as though we recognise, subconsciously, that in the past our religious convictions allowed us to “charge” words with ethical power — but now that that moral battery has been depleted, all we can do is transfer whatever moral energy still remains in our language from old word to new word. Remember how you once thought violence was bad? By equating it one-for-one with another word, we can simply transfer your emotional association from one to the other.

We seem curiously unable to establish any new forms of moral condemnation at all. If you want to criticise a politician today, you simply rewind a few decades and call them a fascist — these things were labelled back when our moral currency still had actual value, but now we have none left to spend on any new designations.

Needless to say, though, the new hollow vocabulary of “not okays” and “do betters”, while perhaps slightly more honest about our empty moral convictions, does no more to address the underlying problem. It simply shifts us, by a not very impressive sleight of hand, from the supposedly arbitrary morality of our religious past to a more acceptable, “modern” legalistic system of ethics. 

You can sort of see the intention. Fixating on nice clear-cut laws stops us from gawping at the huge abyss within. It’s also, perhaps, a more appropriate form of morality for an age in which we no longer believe we have souls, but like to think of ourselves as rational biological computers. Notice that “not okay”, as the negative form of “okay”, suggests a binary switch that can only ever be on or off — just as there are only two options between legal and illegal, acceptable and unacceptable, or permissible and impermissible. We reduce the messiness of morality to simple 1s and 0s. It isn’t surprising that our behaviour towards one another follows suit. People are simply “okay”, or they aren’t. And if they are “not okay”, that’s the one strike — they’re out.

All of this is only the appearance of morality. If no longer outright liars like “good” and “bad” once were, our new words are just ethical promissory notes. When we trace back their purported guarantors, they turn out to be the same moral frauds that went bust many decades ago. We’re still trying to deceive ourselves, to print moral Monopoly money, to paper over the miserable chasm of despair that lies at the heart of our culture. And that — well, let’s be honest — really is not okay.

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