Simon Hanzal | 14 January 2019
An article in the student press at the University of Glasgow provokes a regular contributor to defend the concept of dignity against philosophical emotivism.
Photo credit: Matt Rheinbold
Like student papers everywhere, Glasgow University’s The Glasgow Guardian is little read beyond its cover story, but every now and again we do run across the entertainingly bizarre in its pages. Consider the recently published essay “Is Logic absent of morality”; another game attempt making good on an undergrad philosophy education by bringing to the arena of student journalism a bit more depth of thought than readers are used to (or editors are able to see through.) But before I engage with Finley Allot’s dubious positions on the concept of dignity (and his perfectly insidious practical outcomes), I may want to supply the reader with a caveat; I do not wish to assume for a second any teachings of a higher moral authority (not even Allot’s John Harris.) This is simply because I find Allot’s argument to be a classic philosophical fallacy.
I would like to maintain that morality can be at once logical and moral precisely because it is logical, and that this apparent cognitive miracle can in fact be achieved in this post-truth world. Those who think it impossible are usually called emotivists, and logic with syllogisms and rationality causes them immense difficulty. Logic is a concept notoriously difficult to grasp; some would define it as “reasoning masterfully” - arguing consistently and validly - and, despite changing their mind a couple times throughout the essay, the author does seem to use logic at some points. Therefore, they inadvertently concede to one of its maxims: an argument is unsound if any of its premises is false.
One of Allot’s practical conclusions here is to give the right for a doctor in the UK to euthanise a person who gave consent because they no longer live in dignity. The challenged premise on which it hinges is the emotivist claim that we can assume someone lost their dignity on emotional grounds and so can choose to override nature’s decision as to when that person should die. Let us turn to this premise now.
Emotivism is almost a kind of epistemological magic. There is something charming about the allure of feelings in disputes about morality which is why emotivists swarm to them like moths to the flame. Allot debuts with an interesting maxim. To paraphrase: although we have a duty to prevent death, perhaps indefinitely, we ought to do so only when it is emotionally possible. Emotional intuition can help the modern everyman draw the line beyond which it is too stressful not to renounce someone’s dignity whilst they are alive. This newly discovered morality invents its new emotion-friendly logic which advises us what to do once a person is unpersoned by our feelings and how to turn their death into the maximum happiness of the greatest number (the greatest number of repurposed organs for the best buyers.)
“Dignity” comes from Latin dignus, which means worthy, respectful and honourable. Let’s try to see if it is possible to deny it to some people based on emotion: a man cheating on a woman, a woman cheating on another woman, a mother giving birth amidst smell and disgusting liquids, a toddler requesting a change of diapers, a passionate fan watching the Twilight saga, a person who has someone with severe cognitive impairments as their boss, a homeless person begging others to fuel their alcohol addiction or an intellectual intentionally cultivating ugliness in thought and looks to match the late Jean-Paul Sartre. Potentially all these people’s claim to dignity may be emotionally unbearable.
Furthermore, the category of the undignified often extends in the eyes of the emotivist to scandalous situations: a rapist who preaches chastity, a respected relationships coach who terrorises his wife, a murderer who is vegan. Following pure emotion without logic, we can easily give in and conclude that all these people do not have dignity. However, most of us have been in pitiable situations when our foolish opinions or ill-considered actions made others feel like we are unworthy. Herein lies my central objection. If our judgments must rest on emotion and instinct, it appears that people with double standards are undignified.
As mentioned before, everyone loses their own dignity at some points in life. Thus, any pronouncement of someone’s loss of dignity on emotional grounds is done by people who themselves have lost dignity in the past. Grounding dignity in emotion leads us to an absurd conclusion that everyone is a hypocrite. “It was too hot on the beach” remarks Mersault in Camus’ L’Étranger by way of defence for his blasting out the brains of an Arab. Mersault’s defensive appeal to his instinct becomes acceptable to an emotivist.
Hopefully this reflection on dignity prompts us to see that moral standards based on the emotivist maxim are doomed to contradict themselves. As much as personal feelings and emotional distress need to be acknowledged, I cannot understand how they can flex a moral position on human dignity. Dignity is not something we can lose because we feel we have lost it or - even worse - we feel someone else has lost it.
We may of course, in our charity, agree to remove the sudden by-product of a screaming baby’s digestion. But nowadays, we are meant to agree with essays on morality written by emotivists with self-fabricated criteria for dignity revealed to them by an infallible dogma of personal emotion. This time, instead of parents frustrated by a sharp-smelling mess, we have grieving parents in the Netherlands and Belgium whose children were euthanised by an illogical morality.
Simon Hanzal is a regular contributor to The Medusa Review.
Find The Medusa Review on Facebook and Twitter