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Emotive Theories Of Ethics Notes

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Are Ethical Statements Anything More Than Expressions of Emotion?

In this essay I intend to illustrate that ethical statements are nothing more than expressions of emotion. More specifically I intend to prove that ethical statements are not objective judgments about the world, but rather statements to interpret that world from an individual’s perspective. I will do this first by considering from the moral realist’s stance what can realistically be said about moral values, before going on to examine what is actually meant by ‘expressions of emotion’.

In order to discuss whether ethical statements are anything more than expressions of emotion, we should first discuss whether they could be statements of anything more. We will, therefore, consider that there exists an objective set of moral values for these statements to express.

Moral realism takes the stance that actions are better or worse than one another for granted. By moral practice we mean the concern to get moral questions right and, in so doing, we presuppose that there are such things as objective moral facts. However, the realists’ next premise is that these facts are determined solely by our circumstances. It follows that any two people’s decisions are equally right or equally wrong in identical situations (ceteris paribus). In practice, there are more problems with the implications of moral judgement. Suppose there is an old lady trying to cross the road, and you decide not to help her. Then suppose she gets run over. On reflection, you decide that this was the wrong course of action and this has motivational implications on you for the same situation in the future. To have a moral judgement, then, is just to find yourself with the motivation to act1.

The motivation to act can be considered a product of two things; desire and belief. If I desire to eat some cake, and I believe there is some on the table, then I can go to the table in order to satisfy that desire. The belief illustrates how the desire can be fulfilled.
According to the standard picture of human psychology, desire and belief are the two separate states of the mind. Unlike beliefs, which aim to depict the world, desires are facts only about our own personalities and therefore are not subject to truth/falsehood or even criticisms in themselves. Hence, it is generally accepted that desires are not subject to our beliefs about the world.

Against this, however, we can argue that facts about what we ought to do/not do are based on desires being that which, in idealised conditions for reflection2, we would decide upon. (Were this not the case then there wouldn’t be any need for moral judgments to be made, as our immediate instinct would be a direct reflection of our desires.) It could be said that if I am in an angry and reckless mood, and I help an old lady across the street, I only do so in case, in more idealised conditions, I would think that there was a good reason for helping old ladies across the street. In this sense, desire

1
‘Realism’ by Michael Smith (A Companion to Ethics; edited by Peter Singer, Basil Blackwell Ltd.)
2
I here reject Michael Smith’s idea of a collected, calm, cool, state in favour of the term ‘idealised conditions’ because often more rash, impulsive decisions are a better indicator of what we really desire.

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