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.
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.
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). 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).
 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.
 See Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (2nd ed.; New York: Penguin, 2005).
 See N.T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 154-59.