You're offended? So what?

Why should emotional responses determine the curriculum? To find the answer, we need to look beyond today’s culture war skirmishes. In his 1981 book After Virtue, philosopher Alasdair Macintyre argued that the reduction of ethical judgments to psychological conditions is the defining feature of contemporary discourse. Rather than appealing to shared standards of right and wrong or beautiful and ugly, we simply describe how certain acts, works, or ideas make us feel.

Because they are descriptions of internal states rather than persuasive arguments, such statements cannot be separated from the subject who expresses them or subjected to rational criticism. Even if one disagrees with a particular reaction, it’s an incontestable account of the way that person experiences the world.

You might expect this tendency to encourage toleration. If we have irreducibly different responses to the same phenomena, there would seem to be no alternative to agreeing to disagree. In practice, though, what MacIntyre calls “emotivism” raises the stakes of controversy. To challenge my subjective experience isn’t merely an expression of disagreement. It’s tantamount to rejecting me.

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