#MAGA, morality and God: The non-cognitivist guide to surviving 2017

12/30/2016 02:30 pm ET Updated Jan 05, 2017
Daniel Oines / Flickr / CC

The New Year compels us to revisit basic philosophical assumptions about life and U.S. politics

While the concept of non-cognitivism has existed for decades, perhaps now is the time to revive it, at the dawn of a new era for American society.

Non-cognitivism sounds quite abstract and philosophical for application to the political arena, but it just might be the right way to cope with complex existential questions in the Age of Trump.

Instead of resorting to nihilistic despair, and deciding that nothing you can do really matters in the scheme of things, maybe it’s better to adopt a more realistic perspective on where you stand relative to other folks on important issues.

At a micro level, we have the power to embrace our subjective stances, as we find futility in denying the reality that certain ideas, individuals, and institutions attained great power in 2016.

For your sanity and stability in an unpredictable epoch, it’s healthy to define what you can do to make a difference in meaningful ways, yet accept the bigger facts you simply cannot change.

Explaining non-cognitivism

As a conceptual framework, the non-cognitivist idea stems from fundamental assertions about the Higher Power and ethics, but can be extended into any type of human value judgment.

At heart, theological non-cognitivism says that the tension between theism, atheism, and agnosticism (all considered forms of cognitivism) is incapable of being resolved. This false triad of options provides an inherently unsatisfactory buffet for those trying to figure out whether “God exists.” In trying times, there are theists and atheists whose unshakeable faith (or lack thereof) strengthens, and also agnostics whose uncertainty about the future deepens.

Non-cognitivists say that we are unable to offer a single objective and verifiable answer to the question -- believing that religious language (or “God-talk”) can never be proven. They acknowledge belief is often in flux, such that one person can move back and forth between the categories depending on the circumstances.

Going beyond agnostic skepticism, the subjective non-cognitivist sees the limits of what we can truly know, despite endorsing others’ right to choose his/her preferred mode of (non-)belief.

Ethical implications

When carried over into the broader universe of moral language, non-cognitivism suggests that ethical evaluations are no more truth-capable than mere psychological preferences or aesthetic opinions.

Take, for example, the statement “abortion is bad.” A non-cognitivist adopts the meta-ethical view that this is meaningless because it simply expresses a subjective emotional reaction to the controversial issue. She would say there can be no moral knowledge about whether abortion is bad, good, or somewhere in the middle. A radical non-cognitivist would even argue that objections to theft and murder do not reflect more than personal displeasure.

This theory suggests a “for or against” attitude has no higher function beyond “emoting” -- the crux of AJ Ayer’s hurrah/boo theory within the realm of logical positivism.

But one can only get so far in arguing that such principled feelings are as insignificant as preferences for food or music. Obviously there is a hierarchy of value for most reasonable people.

Notwithstanding the more absurd conclusions when this school of thought is taken too far, we can agree that moral systems lose nuance when reduced to such black-and-white terms.

Yet instead of arguing about right or wrong, or establishing all-or-nothing propositions, it makes pragmatic sense to chart a course transcending the extremes of moral absolutism and relativism.

Trump: Good, bad, ugly, or other?

If we extend the non-cognitivist approach to the political realm, we might reach an understanding that using the statement “Make America Great Again” reveals one’s stance, but offers no answer about the objective goodness intrinsic to “The People’s Billionaire.”

You could agree (America will resume being great), disagree (America is already great), or reject the premise entirely (America was never great). But there is yet a fourth option: “MAGA” is viewed as “good” or “bad” by most Americans, but we lack a universal “truth-apt” way to address it. Thus, one’s response is a function of political slant, not historical or moral truth.

As with God and morality, if there can be no agreed-upon answer using politically charged language, we shouldn’t ground everyday politics in such semantics. Regardless of whether political preferences are deemed rational, they reflect easily malleable beliefs that can quickly change. Is Trump good? Will he fix America? Maybe he won’t be so bad? Or are we on course to catastrophe?

Rather than banging our heads against the wall trying to answer such unknowables, we can embrace the situational facts on the ground that are cognitively more meaningful because they impact power politics rather than just offer fickle commentary.

You can uphold your perspective, and appreciate the other narrative, recognizing the subjectivity but relative truthfulness of both. Fight for your side while avoiding the traps of relying on “boo remarks” like “Trump sucks,” which merely serve as armchair activism and amount to a form of quasi-realism. This could identify partisan group membership but has no legitimate claim to universal, objective truth.

Stating your preference “for or against” is not enough, since political action, not denialism, is the key. Political decisions are generally made for their own sake, independent of any claim to moral high ground. This doesn’t constitute a political cop-out, but is a concession that the lack of definitive answers should inspire tangible moves.

The realism of ‘resistance’

The liberal crisis of 2016 has emerged not just because of widespread political failure to gain the confidence of voters to manage conflict, enforce law, impose order, and allocate resources. There is a much more profound philosophical deficit whereby an electoral majority (albeit not a popular one) rejected the excessive use of technocratic reason and ultimately shunned excessive appeals to universal morality.

For the election victor, triumph wasn’t articulated with “truth-apt” words, which endlessly frustrated hyper-rational critics obsessed with literal interpretations. The liberal left could be existentially well-suited to picking battles strategically and defining where it stands on policy, not in disputing semantic coherence and moral facts.

Outspoken “resistance” leader Robert Reich essentially has called for Trump opponents not to overthink but to take concrete steps during the administration’s first 100 days. This includes politicking, protesting, boycotting, writing, marketing, documenting, investigating, litigating, and fundraising.

For Trump supporters as well, the tendency to put too much stock in slogans remains problematic. How does “drain the swamp” translate into actually cleansing Washington of corrupt political culture? Will economic advisers be held to account for policies that won’t help the working class? And will the immigration system see symbolic crackdowns rather than genuine reform?

In pursuing choices consistent with political realism, not with bruised and battered morality plays over conflicts of interest or PC violations, Americans of all political stripes can more honestly address the policy concerns that matter to them. This is not to suggest that morality should be removed from politics, but that different demographics really do hold different policy values that are far from universal.

A blue-state resident can work towards political goals that are worthwhile, not from an abstract sense of justice, but just because he prefers a multicultural society with more gun control, improved infrastructure, better funding for public schools, serious climate protocols, and wise foreign policy. Not couching such aims in ethical terms but in practical language could reap rewards.

Even so, with politics being the clash of mass psychological preferences, success is the ability of a leader to coerce more people into backing his ideals -- especially in such a chaotic world of war-torn Syria, ISIS attacks, Russian hacking, and media hype all around.

Whether you are with Trump, the opposition, or independent, it’s best to accept that not all our fellow citizens agree with how we voted.

Yes, some Americans are rightfully proud of their all-encompassing moral belief in God, and the greatness of Trump, while others proffer staunch opposition from their own equally tenable positions.

In the New Year, the non-cognitivists among us should resolve not to worry about words, but seize the moment by elevating political action over meaningless moralizing.

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