interactive handout with suggested exercises and discussion points on emotivism.
• Emotivism argues that ethical statements are non-factual.
• Emotivism derives from Hume’s fork, using the analytic/synthetic distinction.
• Emotivism is a theory of moral language, not a theory of values.
• Emotivism is sometimes called the “yah!, boo!” theory of ethics, because Ayer argues that moral statements are a. expressions of opinion and b. attempts to persuade you to act in a certain way..
• Emotivism has two major weaknesses: it cannot explain the richness and diversity of language (such as metaphorical truth or irony), nor does it adequately explain what we seem to mean in making a moral statement “stealing is wrong”.
• Emotivism is said to be weak because Ayer thinks a second function of ethical statements is to stimulate people to act, but he cannot seem to provide any reasons why we should be inspired to act by some people, but not others.
• Emotivism is strengthened by Stephenson (1944). But Prescriptivism, based on Kantian ethics, would seem to be a closer description of what we mean by making moral statements.
Exercise: Draw a diagram showing the three main branches of ethical theory (normative, descriptive, meta-ethical), and write a definition under each. List some of the main theories under each categorisation.
Emotivism is not a methodology for how to live a moral life, but a method for understanding the nature of moral propositions (or statements). The Emotive theory of ethics stems from the school of Logical Positivism. Thinkers such as A.J.Ayer wanted to ground knowledge in what could be known through experience (synthetic truth), or what was logically the case (analytic truth). In doing so, they believed that anything which could not be verified by logical analysis, or through sense-experience (touch, taste, sight etc.), was deemed unverifiable. Exercise: reread the above paragraph, then cover it and write your own definition of Logical Positivism. As such, to speak about unverifiable (unprovable) things, was simply pointless (or meaningless).
In essence, Rationalists believe there are ultimate truths, which are capable of being discovered by reason. Rationalists tend to be inclined towards the idea that there are a priori principles, and that to say something is ‘true’, is to accurately describe these a priori principles (rather like completing a jigsaw puzzle, according to the picture on the lid of a box). Exercise: What is meant by an “a priori principle”? Can you define it and list some? Exercise: What is an a posteriori principle? Can you define it and list some?
Empiricists believe that all we will ever know for certain is found through what we observe in the world and universe. Empiricists tend to emphasise a posteriori knowledge, which is knowledge gained through experience. Here’s an example of how empiricists would reason about the question: “will the sun rise tomorrow?” That’s fine for (to take a simple example) knowledge of the existence of a chair,or the belief that the sun will rise tomorrow. But what about moral statements? Can we deal with them in the same way, or are they somehow different?
Ayer’s criticism of Naturalistic Ethics
An ethical naturalist argues that “good” and “right” are qualities which are observable in the natural world.
Exercise: write your own definition of “good” in each of these philosophical theories. Utilitarianism……………………………………………………………………………… Natural Law…………………………………………………………………………………. Kantian Ethics………………………………………………………………………………
In Chapter 6 of his book, Language, Truth and Logic (1936), reproduced below, the British Philosopher A. J. Ayer attempts to set out
“an account of ‘judgements of value’ which is both satisfactory in itself and consistent with our general empiricist principles”(Ayer, 1971:136)
Here is his argument:
Analytic statements obey rules of logic, (because the logical property inherent in being a bachelor is that you are unmarried. If you describe a married person as a bachelor, you are simply speaking nonsense!). Synthetic statements, obey rules of verifiability by observation (the grass in Australia is yellow, for example, so we can’t say greenness is a logical property of grass, merely a synthetic or observable property). All statements which cannot be verified as having factual content are ‘expressions of emotion which can be neither true or false’. This seems to place moral statements in this category by default (because we can’t place them in either of the other two categories).
Analytic statements: Where any description (predicate) about a subject in a statement is contained in the subject (E.g. ‘All bachelors [subject] are unmarried men [predicate]’). Analytic statements are tautologies.
Synthetic statements need to be validated in some way, usually by our experience of the way things are in the world. In terms of our knowledge of ‘facts’ about the world, Ayer believes such knowledge is justified if,
‘First that what one is said to know be true, secondly that one can be sure of it, and thirdly that one should have the right to be sure’ (Ayer, 1956:35)
In the case of ethics, he suggests that those who ground morality on normative principles, for example Utilitarianism, believe they are right to do so because these principles are said to be fundamental (they know them to be true).
‘We begin by admitting that the fundamental ethical concepts are unanalysable, inasmuch as there is no criterion by which one can test the validity of the judgements in which they occur.’ (Ayer 1971:141f)).
Exercise: What does Ayer mean when he says a statement is ‘significant’?
Fact or value?
Fundamental to understanding Ayer’s critique of ethics is his idea that ethical statements are not factual.
“The presence of an ethical symbol in a proposition adds nothing to its factual content. Thus if I say to someone, ‘You acted wrongly in stealing that money,’ I am not saying anything more than if I had simply said, ‘You stole that money.’ In adding that this action is wrong I am not making any further statement about it. I am simply expressing my moral disapproval of it. It is as if I had said, ‘You stole that money,’ in a peculiar tone of horror, or written it with the addition of some special exclamation marks.” (Ayer 1971:142 my italics)
Let’s apply this, using the Principle of Utility as an example:
 The principle of the ‘greatest balance of pleasure over pain’ means ‘Stealing money is wrong’, because the person stolen from will suffer.
Conclusion: By saying, ‘Stealing money is wrong’ (or ‘Stealing money is not wrong’), one is merely expressing a feeling (or personal belief) about the subject. It is like saying ‘Stealing, hooray!’ or ‘Stealing, boo!’.
What is happening in this picture? Perhaps someone is either taking a wallet from the pocket, or putting it back. But let’s say that the wallet is being taken from the pocket, and not by the person whose wallet it is, and not by someone they know. At this point one might be tempted to say that the wallet is being stolen. However, the word ‘stolen’, is not an element present in the picture. When asked to describe what is in the picture, all one can really say is that there is a person, a pocket, a wallet and a hand. The picture is not about the moral significance of what is occurring. That is an interpretation of the picture. Words like ‘steal’ or ‘stolen’ may invoke some feeling about what is going on. However, to say ‘The wallet is being stolen’, is only an opinion! ‘Stolen’ is not an element in the picture. It is not a “fact”.
The Function of Ethical Language
Is the emotivist branch of Meta-ethics any use to us in forming moral opinions or having a debate? Or do we just go our separate ways crying “yah!” or “boo!”? A simplistic understanding of Ayer’s Emotivism would suggest that according to him, moral statements have no meaningful function to them. In other words, if moral statements do not have any factual content, then there appears to be no point in ethical debate.
“It is worth mentioning that ethical terms do not serve only to express feeling. They are calculated to arouse feeling, and so to stimulate action”(Ayer,1971:143 emphasis mine).
In fact, Ayer is highly critical of the philosopher G. E. Moore for suggesting that,
“If ethical statements were simply statements about the speaker’s feelings, it would be impossible to argue about questions of value”, and claims it should be obvious to him that, “we do discuss questions of value, and… that the particular form of subjectivism [Moore] was discussing was false.” (Ayer 1971:145f ).
In his book “Ethics and Language” (1947), the American philosopher C. L. Stephenson built on this much-overlooked aspect of Ayer’s ethical philosophy. Stephenson believed that although Ayer correctly analysed moral statements as primarily non-factual expressions of feeling, such statements also contain elements of persuasion in them. In this way, Stephenson wanted to introduce the idea that real meaningful discussion can be held between people, who hold different ethical views. The key issue to any moral dispute, as far as he was concerned, is not that one person is said to be stating a moral fact, and the other is not, but that underlying each person’s views are fundamental principles, which are actually the basis of their disagreement. In his book “Ethical Studies”( 2001), Robert Bowie suggests that Stephenson’s intention was also to show that some moral disputes are not really disputes at all. Referring to an example of two doctors discussing the best way to treat a patient, Bowie writes, “[They] may disagree about which method to employ to treat a patient, but they aren’t disagreeing about the necessity to treat the patient”. (Bowie R. 2001:80).
Explain why this is a disagreement about facts.
- What is the primary difference between ‘simple subjectivism’ and Emotivism?
- What, for Ayer, is the primary function of ethical language?
- What additional function did Stephenson note was present in moral propositions?
- What did Ayer believe was the primary cause of ethical disputes?
- What did Stephenson believe was the primary cause of ethical disputes?
Criticisms of Emotivism
Emotivism is a particular view of ethical language, grounded in the philosophy of Logical Positivism. As such, where Logical Positivism may be said to ‘fail’, so might Emotivism. In recent years Logical Positivism has become a much maligned philosophical school. This has occurred in large part because Logical Positivists were said to be building their ideas concerning the nature of language and truth, on fundamental principles which could not be verified by their own methodology. Thus, one might be tempted to discredit Emotivism for the same reasons.
‘If all ethical conduct and behaviour is simply about how we feel, if it is to do just with our psychological response to something, then how can we be sure of anything?’ (Vardy P & Grosch P,1999:83).
As Rachels has pointed out, the suggestion that Emotivism removes any foundation for morality is to confuse it with ‘simple subjectivism’. Ayer made it quite clear that he was not proposing to use,”ethical… concepts as the basis of a metaphysical theory concerning the existence of a world of values.” (Ayer 1971:151). Vardy and Grosch are wrong to criticise Emotivism for not providing any justification for a system of values. Ayer never intended to do this. They continue to overlook this aspect when they write,
“The principle difficulty with Emotivism is that if we accept it as offering the justifiable analysis of moral discourse, then all moral debate becomes, at the end of the day, just so much hot air, and nothing else” (Vardy & Grosch 1999:83).
Yet this is to ignore a fundamental distinction between description and interpretation. One might find that a description about the methods used to paint the Mona Lisa, for example, are factually verifiable, and very useful for some people to know. However, whether one feels the painting is any good (interpretation), is equally worthy of discussion. If one was to follow Vardy and Grosch’s line of reasoning, we might never discuss what anyone felt about the Mona Lisa painting, for such a discussion would be pointless because it is based on what one feels about it (which would be ‘so much hot and air, and nothing else’). Yet sometimes our feelings about a matter are not justified solely on the basis that one must prove what one says is true, but may equally be justified on the basis of who is doing the talking (ie the person telling us what they feel about the Mona Lisa painting might be a respected art-critic, or art-historian).
- In what way could it be argued that Vardy and Grosch confuse Emotivism with ‘simple subjectivism’?
- In what circumstances might someone’s feelings about a matter be justified (Clue: think about the Mona Lisa example above)?
“A truth of ethics is a conclusion that is backed by reasons: the “correct” answer to a moral question is simply the answer which has the weight of reason on it side” (Rachels (1993) p.40).
However, this criticism is valid only if Emotivists are said to be making ‘normative’ ethical claims, which they are not. Ayer never allowed the discussion to enter the arena of ethical facts, so Emotivism cannot be compared and critiqued on the same grounds as ‘normative’ ethical theories. Emotivists cannot be criticized for the weakness of their ethical claims because they never try to make any claims. However, that said, Emotivists such as Ayer do have a problem to address when they consider the function of ethical language to be that of arousing feeling, and stimulating action.
“The critic, by calling attention to certain features of the work under review, and expressing his own feelings about them, endeavours to make us share his attitude towards the work as a whole” (Ayer 1971:150).
This overlooks a fundamental principle as to why people act the way they do. They do so, because they believe they have good reasons to do so. These criteria for reasonableness are what Kant, for example, tried to establish in his theory of universalisability. And it’s why Hare’s theory of Prescriptivism is, I believe, a much more useful and accurate guide to what we mean when we say “stealing is wrong”.
AYER, A. J.- Language, Truth and Logic, Penguin Books, 1971