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Emotivism Notes

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Becky Tun

01/04/08

'Ethical statements are just expressions of the speaker's feelings.' Discuss. This view of the nature of moral language - called emotivism - holds that moral judgments express and arouse emotions, not beliefs. The theory was put forward by A.J. Ayer in the early 20th century as part of his project of logical positivism. Ayer needed a way of classifying moral statements (along with everything else) as either meaningful or meaningless, and for him that meant verifiable or unverifiable. His emotivist analysis of ethical language allowed him to say that moral judgements were not capable of having verification conditions, because they did not really make statements. Emotivism is sometimes called the 'Boo!/Hooray!' theory, because saying that, for instance, honesty is right or lying is wrong is supposed to be like saying 'Boo to lying!' or 'Hooray for honesty!' Obviously a moral statement might make a factual claim in so far as it actually reported that something had happened, but the point is that the moral judgement involved would add nothing to the factual content. So for instance, 'you were wrong to steal the money' says nothing more than 'you stole the money', and the moral language involved serves to express the speaker's feelings towards the state of affairs, so that it would be something like exclaiming 'you stole the money!!' While emotivism was proposed by Ayer under the influence of his logical positivism, emotivism is not necessary for logical positivism - Ayer could have found another analysis that was consistent with his position. Neither is it necessary to be a logical positivist to think that emotivism is a correct analysis of ethical language. Therefore, emotivism can be assessed as a linguistic analysis in its own right, and so the question is whether it accurately accounts for the meanings and uses of moral language. In the 18th century, Hume had already put forward an emotivist-style theory of moral judgments, saying that in moral deliberations, once we know all the relevant facts pertaining to an action or state of affairs, 'the understanding has no further room to operate, nor any object on which it could employ itself. The approbation or blame which then ensues, cannot be the work of the judgment, but of the heart; and is not a speculative proposition or affirmation, but an active feeling or sentiment'. Hume and Ayer seem to be in agreement that we do not have ethical beliefs but ethical feelings, and Ayer carries this over into his theory of moral speech-acts, saying that our ethical 'statements' do not express anything that could be a belief, but merely express feelings. Linguistic analysis of ethical terms is not the same as the ontological question of whether there are any such things as objective values or ethical truths, although presumably if emotivism were correct, and the moral component of our language did not state facts, it would entail that there were, at least as far as we know, no objective ethical values. So emotivism must presuppose the 'subjectivity' of moral values. On the other hand, the view that there are no objective moral truths does not entail emotivism, since one might still think that emotivism was a bad analysis of the way we use moral language. What sets emotivism apart from other subjectivist linguistic analyses is that although it says that moral statements are subjective, it is not saying that moral statements are subjective claims. This is different from the subjectivist view that while value judgments do describe something, what they describe are not special moral and suchlike facts but human attitudes, whether the speaker's own or other people's. Ayer

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