Emotivism workbook


 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 terms of theology, Logical Positivists directly challenged the existence of God.
• In terms of ethics, they questioned the factual content of ethical statements. A logical consequence is to argue that the observable world is all there is (there is no place for God and the numinous or awesome consideration of the stars), and it is from here that one begins understand the context in which Emotivism was developed.


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:

 • Only statements which can be logically or empirically verified are ‘significant’ (analytic and synthetic propositions). • An analytic proposition is one such as “all bachelors are unmarried”.
• A synthetic proposition is one such as “swans are white.”
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).

Key Terms

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: Where any description (predicate) about a subject in a statement is not contained in the subject (E.g. ‘Some bachelors [subject] have girlfriends [predicate]’).
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).

Exercise: Just to recap, there is a division in ethics between normative, descriptive and meta-ethical. Are you clear about the difference?
In this instance, the principle of doing (right) actions which, ’cause the greatest happiness, or greatest balance of pleasure over pain’, is held to be a foundational principle with which to judge the moral worth of actions. Utilitarians also believe (good) moral statements are ‘significant’,when they are grounded on the Principle of Utility. However, Ayer believes problems arise when the principle of the ‘greatest balance of pleasure over pain’ is said to be an ethical fact. He writes, ‘It is not self-contradictory to say that some pleasant things are not good, or that some bad things are desired.’ (Ayer, 1971:139). The problem Ayer highlights is the naturalistic fallacy (following G.E. Moore and David Hume). When Utilitarians find moral conflicts arise on the basis of their fundamental principles, how will they be able to establish which of the conflicting propositions is a moral ‘fact’ (ie either true because it’s analytic, like “all bachelors are unmarried” or true because they are synthetic like “the grass is green”?
Exercise: express in your own words what the naturalistic fallacy implies for Utilitarians.
In other words, if naturalisitic ethical statements are factually significant, they must be able to be verified. Yet in the case of ‘proving’ which of the conflicting facts is true, we can be left with the idea that we cannot prove them true, but simply know them to be true (which is what is known as Intuitionism, discussed in the next section).. In the end, Ayer believes conflicts between ethical statements, based on the same normative principles, cannot be reconciled, and as such this is the basis of his Emotivist theory of ethics.

‘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’?

 What problems does Ayer highlight with regard to the Principle of Utility?
 Can you think up a moral conflict in which the principle of Utility might throw up two possible solutions, so producing the kind of problem Ayer is hinting at (that when faced with such a conflict we have no way of deciding because neither are statements of fact, as defined by Ayer)
 Why are ethical concepts, based on the Principle of Utility, regarded as unanalysable by Ayer, so only expressions of opinion?

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:
[1] The principle of the ‘greatest balance of pleasure over pain’ means ‘Stealing money is wrong’, because the person stolen from will suffer.

 [2] The principle of the ‘greatest balance of pleasure over pain’ means ‘Stealing money is not wrong’, because the person who is stealing the “Stealing money is right”, because this person is poor and will suffer without money to buy food.
If either [1] or [2] was a factual proposition, then either [1] or [2] would be true (or false). However, [1] and [2] also contradict each other. Both statements are based on the Principle of Utility, yet both are suggesting radically different ethical ‘facts’ about the nature of stealing. If either [1] or [2] was an ethical ‘fact’, then it should, in theory, be able to verify which one is true (or not). But we can’t.
 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!’.
Exercise: Draw a picture of two people standing side by side. One is taking a wallet (or purse) from the pocket of the other person.
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”.
Consider another statement: ‘Murder is wrong!’ Does this statement have factual content, or not?
Firstly, the simple act of defining what ‘murder’ is, is complex enough. Let’s say, for the sake of convenience, that it is the act of taking another person’s life without their consent (this being deemed to be wrong). The problem here is that soldiers would then be held accountable for murder during times of war. So let’s change this to the idea that murder is acting against what has been established by social law (this being that the act of taking another person’s life without their consent is wrong). This protects the soldier, but it makes the ‘murder’ simply an act that is deemed wrong by laws and social conventions. So let us consider whether the ‘murderous act’ has some inherent wrongness in it. The problem here is that ‘wrongness’ is a matter of degree, and is often decided according to conscience (either individual or collective). As such, we are left with a subjective response to the matter.
Others might argue (as in natural law ) God has given humanity an innate sense that murder is wrong . And what about Joshua? God appears to him with a flaming sword and tells him to destroy Jericho and the city of Ai and “they devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed everything in it: men and woman, young and old” (Joshua 6:21). Thus, we would need some ‘neutral’ criteria with which to evaluate that what their God had willed, in this case to commit murder, was actually a good thing to do (or not – for more on this see The Divine Command Theory of Ethics). In the end, the statement, ‘Murder is wrong!’, appears to have ‘no objective validity whatsoever’, and is ‘unverifiable for the same reason as a cry of pain or a word of command is unverifiable – because they do not express genuine propositions’ (Ayer 1971:144).
Exercise: explain what Ayer means when he says that, ‘The presence of an ethical symbol in a proposition adds nothing to its factual content’?
Exercise: why is an appeal to some higher authority (such as God), unable to give moral statements any factual content?

 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.

In his book The Elements of Moral Philosophy (1986), James Rachels refers to this as “simple subjectivism”, and suggests that this can lead to the conclusion that, “Where morality is concerned, there are no ‘facts’ and no one is ‘right [or wrong]'” (Rachels J, 1993:31). Is this to be the slippery slope towards moral (and cultural) relativism. However, although Ayer argues that ethical statements have no factual content, he does not believe they have no meaningful function. He writes,

“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).

A major component of Stephenson’s Emotivism is that statements such as “Stealing is wrong” are understood as not just an expression of one’s feelings about stealing, but an invitation for others to adopt the same view. In other words, in expressing the view, “I believe stealing is wrong”, I am not only saying something about how I feel about stealing, but also about how I feel others should think about stealing (ie “I believe stealing is wrong, and you should think so too!”).
 Exercise: Use your own examples to illustrate this dual nature of ethical Language for an emotivist (to express emotion and also to persuade others).
However, it is a mistake to think that this component was missing from Ayer’s original discussion. In fact, as we have already seen that Ayer believed there were persuasive elements in ethical language, and so he believed it was possible for there to be meaningful debate in moral issues. Yet the basis of moral dispute, as far as he was concerned, was not so much due to a difference in fundamental beliefs, but due to a misunderstanding concerning the facts surrounding a case. He writes, “If anyone doubts [this]… let [them] try to construct even an imaginary argument on a question of value which does not reduce itself to an argument about a question of logic or about an empirical matter of fact” (Ayer 1971:148).
Exercise: Go back to the picture of the two people and the wallet. I say “someone’s stealing your purse”, you say “my hands are full so I asked him to pass me my purse”.
Explain why this is a disagreement about facts.
Conclusion: In any dispute one is simply faced with questions concerning what people believe, and why they hold such beliefs. These are the only ‘facts’ in any ethical dispute, as far as Ayer was concerned, and the only basis for any useful moral debate.”We take note of these experiences as providing data for our psychological and sociological generalisations. And this is the only way in which they serve to increase our knowledge. It follows that any attempt to make our use of ethical… concepts as the basis of a metaphysical theory concerning the existence of a world of values, as distinct from the world of facts, involves a false analysis of these concepts” (Ayer 1971:151).

  1. What is the primary difference between ‘simple subjectivism’ and Emotivism?
  2. What, for Ayer, is the primary function of ethical language?
  3. What additional function did Stephenson note was present in moral propositions?
  4. What did Ayer believe was the primary cause of ethical disputes?
  5. 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.

However, in offering any criticism of Emotivism it is important to keep in mind three key aspects:
 1. Emotivism does not propose a methodology for making moral decisions. It is simply an analysis of the nature and content of ethical language.
2. Emotivism begins with the assumption that ethical language is non-factual. Thus, Emotivism stands apart from any ethical theory which proposes factual content to ethical propositions, such as naturalism.
 3. Logical Positivism attempted to define the nature and limits of knowledge based on analytic and synthetic statements.
Therefore, ‘facts’ were defined insofar as they were either analytically or synthetically known. Emotivism removes any factual content from ethical language, and does not discuss ‘ethical facts’. In their book “The Puzzle of Ethics” (1994) Vardy and Grosch show how easy it is to overlook the first two aspects when they offer the following criticism of Emotivism.

‘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).


  1. In what way could it be argued that Vardy and Grosch confuse Emotivism with ‘simple subjectivism’?
  2. In what circumstances might someone’s feelings about a matter be justified (Clue: think about the Mona Lisa example above)?
James Rachels, in his analysis of Emotivism (1986), also appears to make the same critical error as Vardy and Grosch, despite raising awareness of an important ‘factual’ distinction between it, and Simple Subjectivism. He writes,

“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.

At this point, Ayer is suggesting that ethical language is more than just an expression of feeling, but has some ‘normative’ quality to it (this being the intention to stimulate others to act in a way you feel is right). But on what basis can Ayer justify the moral propositions he might use to stimulate other people into action? It is here that Rachels suggests Emotivism fails; it cannot provide any adequate reasons why one person’s feelings about a matter should be any better (or more valid) than another’s. The question appears to be not one of facts, but one of authority. Just as the respected art-critic, or art-historian, might not be expressing facts about what they feel about the Mona Lisa painting, they are noted for having the authority to express their feelings about it. All Ayer can do is draw attention to the reasons why people have the different views they do, and then let the reader decide.

“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

 AYER, A. J.– The Problem of Knowledge, Penguin Books, 1956
 BOWIE, R– Ethical Studies, Nelson Thornes LTD: Cheltenham, 2001
 RACHELS, J– The Elements of Moral Philosophy (Second Edition), McGraw-Hill Inc: New York, 1993
STEVENSON,C.L– Ethics and Language 1944
VARDY, P. & GROSCH, P– The Puzzle of Ethics (Revised Edition), Fount Paperbacks: London, 1999 _______________________________________________________________







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