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

We’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, 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.  A person may get angry in a particular situation he has misjudged, but his anger may quickly subside when he hears reasons that explain the context.  And don’t we periodically change our moral perspective on certain issues, presumably because we think we have a good reason for doing so? But why should we take a person’s feelings, by themselves, as authoritative? 

Now we do have certain basic moral intuitions that anchored in a God-given conscience that we should never ignore—something C.S. Lewis points out in the appendix to his Abolition of Man.  Even though the conscience isn’t infallible and needs refining, we can get a lot right by paying attention to our conscience and not stifling it. If our conscience is functioning even half-decently, we can have a good start on recognizing basic moral truths—the wrongness of torturing babies for fun or mocking the mentally retarded.  But when we get into moral discussions about, say, politics, the death penalty, pacifism versus just war, only moral feelings seem to matter—without reasons or evidence to support such feelings.  To say “I feel” says nothing about the rightness or wrongness of war or the death penalty.  By contrast, to say “I think” reflects rationality and intellectual content that can be discussed and debated. When we say, “I think,” we imply reasons for our beliefs. “I feel” does not.

To reinforce the “I feel” over the “I think” message, movies, the internet, and other forms of entertainment diminish our capacity to think hard and to be disciplined in our reasoning.  The pursuit of entertainment leads to a trivialization of culture.  The late Neal Postman pointed out in Amusing Ourselves to Death that, unlike the printed word, the flitting images on the screen keep the eye moving; minimal comprehension skills are necessary; and the overarching goal is emotional gratification. The viewer is inundated with messages that he assimilates rather than logically processes. No prior knowledge is required for watching movies—nor is serious reasoning demanded, perplexity introduced, or elaboration permitted.  If any intellectual demands happen to be placed on the viewer, he will just click the remote control to watch something else.[2]

So it is easy for the uncritical TV or movie watcher to assimilate cultural messages without thinking about them—the “excitement” about an illicit sexual relationship, the “right” to get out of a “boring” marriage, the rationalizing of cutting moral corners since “it’s not hurting anyone.” No wonder people imagine they can simply “feel strongly” about their beliefs without offering supporting arguments!  René Descartes’ familiar dictum “I think; therefore I am” has been replaced by the mantra, “I feel; therefore I am.”

Given the instability and unreliability of emotions, believers should all the more carve out a place for serious thinking about life and to cultivate habits of the mind to do so.  Rather than letting the our culture press us into its mold, we are to reflect on what is our “reasonable [logikos] service” of worship in light of God’s mercies (Rom. 12:1-2, NET).[3]  True disciples of Christ are to be characterized by “discernment,” “wisdom,” and “understanding” (Phil. 1:9; Col. 1:9). We are to discipline our minds to take proper action (1 Pet. 1:13)—to think Christianly about our faith and how we are to live out kingdom-centered priorities.

Emotivism can also take the form of anchoring authenticity in feelings. If a person doesn’t feel like doing something, it’s hypocritical to go against his feelings. And why teach children to apologize when they don’t feel like saying they’re sorry?  Of course, the faulty assumption here is that our emotions are the sum total of who we are.  This ignores other features of who we are—our will; our identity; our character and its formation; and our relationships and the promises we make to cultivate and nourish them.  Our emotions are a fragment of who we are, and to become robust human beings, we will deprive ourselves of what may feel good in the moment—that is, postponing gratification—in order to achieve something of greater worth. Seeking our own well-being over against loving God and others will ultimately put true life out of reach (Jn. 12:25). When, by God’s grace, we cultivate habits of obedience and self-denial, we are involving in the process of shaping our character so that doing the right thing—what we were designed for—becomes “second nature” to us.  We train children to cultivate the habit of apologizing after wronging others and expressing thanks for kindnesses shown because it is the right thing to do—even if they don’t feel like doing so. Teaching them these habits is a reminder that their lives should not be driven by the whims of what they feel like doing.  Rather, their lives are to be shaped by concerns for moral and spiritual formation to achieve the goal of our humanity—namely, Christ-likeness.

In our therapeutic age, Westerners commonly view God as a divine therapist rather than as the cosmic Authority who commands our obedience and allegiance.  To those who trust in him, God gives the Holy Spirit, not the Happy Spirit. God is more interested in our doing good rather than feeling good, in character transformation rather than self-authentication. God is not only concerned about sincerity, but that sincere hearts be aligned with the truth; after all, people can be sincerely wrong, as history amply illustrates.  Only by losing our lives for Christ’s sake—by taking up our cross daily—will we actually find what is life indeed.  As we focus on right thinking and the importance of character-formation, we will avoid the pitfalls of emotivism and maintain an appropriate “critical distance” from our culture’s messages and morals.  After all, what is often esteemed by our culture is detestable in God’s sight (Lk. 16:15).

This blog post is adapted from a section in a forthcoming book by Paul Copan and Kenneth D. Litwak, The Gospel for Today’s Athenians:  Paul’s Mars Hill Speech in the Marketplace of Ideas (InterVarsity Press, 2013).


[1] Thanks to J.P. Moreland’s Love Your God with All Your Mind (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1997), which first got me thinking about the “I think” vs. “I feel” distinction.

[2] See Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (2nd ed.; New York: Penguin, 2005).

[3] See N.T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 154-59.

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

  1. This post is fantastic! I think; therefore I am, being replaced with I feel; therefore I am, sums our current cultural landscape up perfectly. Believers are many times painted as those that deny rationale, when in fact we are just the opposite. I really appreciated this post, and will be purchasing this book as soon as it’s available.

  2. Golden. Laminate this post.

  3. This seems like the natural progression of relativism. There has to be some guiding principle, so why not feelings….the narcissist’s way. I think sometimes the ‘Christian’ version of this is to translate feelings into ‘God told me’ language.

    I was listening to a radio interview of a girl who was calling to ask advise about which of the two men in her life to marry. She decided that God told her to marry the one who is not the father of her children. She kept using “I feel’ as a natural transition to ‘God told me’. When the counselor asked questions she admitted that this man hadn’t expressed any interest in marrying her, and she couldn’t offer anything to substantiate why she thought God wanted this except “I feel….”.

    Good post, Paul. I’ll be listening for this!

  4. What a timely post and how true. Perpetual self-discovery and a quest to feel good has us drunk on emotivism in much of the professing church. Sad to say I’ve mixed this cocktail myself more than once.

  5. Thanks for the comments. Glad the post has been helpful. Susan, a perfect illustration to add to the discussion!

  6. hertzsprung2012 January 3, 2013 at 5:10 pm

    I think you have written a good post that needs a hearing in our culture. An emotivism that eclipses rationally argued truth as a justification for conduct and identity must be resisted. I just skimmed through Paul’s letter to the Galatians, however, and I feel that you need to write another post in which you address the role that feelings, or desires, or passions play in our discourse. Paul reasons through a very tightly argued letter, near the end of which he states that a crucifying of the passions and desires of our flesh, or sinful human nature, does not result in an absence of passions and desires, but that the Holy Spirit now nurtures in us new passions and desires. In what sense can these new passions and desires inform our rational discourse?

  7. Hi Paul. I have a few thoughts on this excellent post.

    First, I do wonder about how you had said our feelings can tell us some things such as some obvious moral truths, but not some more iffy areas per se. This seems problematic. What is the basis for trusting feelings in one moral area but not another? Could we not point out statements about the actions themselves in relation to the nature of goodness?

    Second, I like how you said movies don’t require a context. (Although there is some to an extent.) I find it important to point out too many Christians read the Bible the same way thinking the Bible is not written in a cultural, social, literary, and historical context, but is rather written in a “plain” way for 21st century Americans.

    Third, I like that you pointed out we’re not totally emotional at the end, but I would like to see more clarification on the role emotions are to play in the lives of believers, especially since some people are more emotional than others. In our household, I’m the thinker and my wife is the feeler for instance.

    Overall, great post though. I thoroughly agree with people equating “I feel” with “I think.” (And anyone who says chocolate ice cream over peanut butter is a heretic who deserves to be anathema.)

  8. Really great post! Thank You.

  9. Paul, Great post. Feeling is the new king in our society.

    I appreciated your paragraph about the conscience as a balance to your main idea of thoughts over feelings.

    Sometimes, however, a thing is so terrible and shocking that our reasoning fails us. I recently saw some footage from the Holocaust that portrayed some of the perpetrators not as monsters but as humans. Using my reasoning, I could not come up with a satisfactory answer to the twin questions of “How?” and “Why?” humans, not monsters, could do this to other humans. In this case feeling overwhelmed reason to condemn these actions and these people. I think (not feel) that this was a more typical response to the horror so openly portrayed.

  10. This reads like a universalist’s take on subjectivism, which is the ethical system that emotivism feebly seems to resemble. While, personally, I find true subjectivism incongruent with any functional society, to deride emotionality and its role in life is impossible. To dismiss emotionality, in a broad sense, is dismissing a chemically and organically intrinsic aspect of being human. While, yes, emotions need to be tempered with rationality and shouldn’t be used too often as a sole justification of a personal stance, they are important. Also, in the spirit of subjectivism, I would like to point out that such a broad condemnation of emotionality sounds like universalism, a dangerous road to tread.

  11. Truth Unites... and Divides January 9, 2013 at 6:11 pm

    In conflict resolution, sometimes folks are encouraged to preface their statements with “I feel….”

  12. This idea seems to be quite prevalent within the church, though maybe not often stated.

    I once asked a family member what her church believed, what was contained in their statement of faith, or what their doctrinal stances were. She was unable to tell me, but said she simply enjoyed the service, (the unspoken implication being that she enjoyed the way it made her “feel”.)

    I would venture to say that many church-going individuals have a similar view. It makes sense that secularists would value feelings over moral facts, what reason do they have to do otherwise? The real problem lies in the church’s propensity to either adopt faulty theological stances simply because of how they feel, or, what is much more common, abandon interest in any theology at all that delves deeper than “Jesus loves me”.

  13. Me thinks the author may be massaging his point a little here. Romanticism wasn’t simply a reaction promoting feeling over reason, but a movement celebrating our connection to nature as conscious, natural beings. It was a reaction to the absolutist garbage of THEIR time, which was eagerly dictating dogma on a global scale. Feeling in the context of Romanticism was a conduit to our essential nature, a gateway to experiencing true nature as natural beings. In the eyes of the Romantics, you don’t discover God by getting told what and where God is, you allow yourself to reconnect to the womb of being, which IS Nature. By reconnecting to one’s essential nature, one experiences who God is. Nature is not apart from God, but is God – which in their view, is intimately connected to our multidimensional nature. Once again, a point entirely missed by those promoting ‘reason’ to dictate dogma.

  14. This post nails it! The crux of the post-modern mindset is that of the age that we live in. With the advent of television, the internet, smart devices, push content, and general information overload, society is not required to think critically. It is all to easy to use your popular search engine to find your personal source of truth, which is for all practical intents and purposes, a gospel of it’s own. In a TV commercial, a young woman makes the statement, “They can’t put anything on the internet that is not true.” Unfortunately this is the assumption that many people employ, and unconsciously endorse. I came from a generation who’s mantra was, “Question authority.” The thing is, do we still do that today? At what point do we do like the Bereans who searched for truth in Scripture daily?
    What is your felt need for truth and what is your source of that truth? It is time for society at large, to question their own motives, which is neither subjective or experiential.


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