— ON ORIGIN, DEFINITION & OBJECTIVE —
In the early 20th century, a school of philosophy known as logical positivism arose. This school of philosophy was a kind of radical empiricism whose center piece was “the principle of verification” that claimed a statement only has meaning (significants) if and only if it is either analytic or empirically verifiable. The meta ethical implication of this principle requires that ethical statements concerning right and wrong are meaningless. And that they are neither true nor false because they are not truth-apt. However, for clarity I should state that not all positivist’s were emotivist’s. According to A.J Ayer who was a proponent of logical positivism and Emotivism during the 1930’s and 40’s if one were to say ‘murder is wrong,’ that such is not analytic, nor empirically verifiable. For example, we can empirically verify that murder causes grief, pain, and suffering, that it is done out of anger. But we cannot empirically verify its “wrongness.”
For further clarity the term “emotive” means an expression of emotion, sentiment, attitude, and feeling. As opposed to descriptive, factual statements.
It should be noted here that one can be an emotivist without holding to “the principle of verification.” That is without being a logical positivist. One can agree with A.J Ayer’s claims concerning moral language and yet reject the long discarded verification principle.
In fact, in the introduction of the second edition of Language Truth & Logic Ayer stated:
“Consequently, even if it could be shown that these other statements were invalid, (The Principle of Verification) this would not in itself refute the emotivist analysis of ethical judgements; and in fact I believe this analysis to be valid on its own account.”
The purpose of this essay then is to put forth a form of Emotivism distinct from Logical Positivism in a simplified manner as to enlighten even the non-philosopher. This exposition of Emotivism is not meant to be exhaustive. If you are interested in probing the depths of Emotivism further I would recommend reading Chapter 6 of Language Truth And Logic by A.J Ayer and Ethics And Language by C.L Stevenson.
— ON THE FUNCTION & EMOTIVE NATURE OF MORAL TERMS —
Let us begin this exposition with an emotivist’s analysis of the function of some basic moral terms and sentences. When a person states that “Abortion is immoral” what are they trying to communicate? Is this a statement about the qualitative 3rd person event, or medical procedure known as “abortion”? If we were to examine every atom and molecule that would constitute said event would we ever arrive at some mysterious substance called “wrongness”? I think not.
Rather, I think it more likely that the sentence “Abortion is Immoral” is merely an expression of sentiment or a subjective value judgment. That is to say, that ‘X is wrong” is an attempt to express a preference, emotion or feeling about a given fact. But is not itself a statement of fact.
Let us now set out to illustrate this gap between descriptive, factual statements and the emotive use of language.
If I say “John is mortal” this is a statement of fact, not a value judgment. This fact can also be verified as fact if someone were to shoot John in the head or by some other empirical means. Now suppose I said “Shooting John in the head is evil” what fact is this communicating about the act of “shooting John”? Again, what about the physical 3rd person event known as “shooting John” is “evil”? What does evil mean? In my experience what people mean by “X is immoral” (or “evil”) is that they strongly dislike X or disapprove there of.
These two different ways of using language were duly noted by the philosopher C.L. Stevenson.
“Broadly speaking, there are two different purposes which lead us to use language. On the one hand, we use words (as in science) to record, clarify, and communicate beliefs. On the other hand, we use words to give vent to our feelings (interjections), or to create moods (poetry), or to incite people to actions or attitudes (oratory). The first use of words I shall call “descriptive”; the second, “dynamic.” — C.L Stevenson — The Emotive Meaning of Ethical Terms.
Try a social experiment some time. Ask someone why “shooting someone in the leg for their personal pleasure is wrong?”. (Make sure you know them well enough.) They may say something like “it is wrong because you will cause them harm” which raises the question “why is harming someone wrong?” and so on… What you will find (after pealing away enough layers) is that ultimately what they mean by “X is wrong,” immoral,” evil” etc, is that it always comes down to “I don’t like X” or “I disapprove of X.”
One collection of atoms (a bullet) colliding with another collection of atoms (a human head) is a fact, not a value or disvalue, though due to the nature or disposition of a specific human organism it may be valued or dis valued. That is, people do not like, they disapprove of that which is destructive to who and or what they value.
Thus, we see that moral terms do not state facts (or that which is true for all). Rather, moral terms merely express feelings about facts. ( It is my personal view that this is true of moral terms in general).
In his book Language Truth And Logic A.J Ayer put it this way:
“[I]f I say to someone ‘You acted wrongly in stealing that money,’ I am not stating 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 evincing my moral disapproval of it. It is as if I had said, ‘You stole that money,’ in a peculiar tone of horror, or written with the addition of some special exclamation marks. The tone, or the exclamation marks, adds nothing to the literal meaning of the sentence. It merely serves to show that the expression of it is attended by certain feelings in the speaker.”
So we see then that even when moral terms like wrong, immoral, evil, etc. are used in a descriptive sentence, the term is emotive and adds nothing factual or descriptive to the descriptive meaning. “YOU JUST SHOT BOB IN HIS KNEE CAP!” when expressed in an emphatic tone is 1 stating a fact or proposition to be believed and 2 expressing an emotion of disapproval about said event. The emphatic tone adds nothing factual whatsoever to the sentence, but it’s purpose is to provoke perhaps a feeling of remorse or to express one’s disapproval and or a shock of such a violent action on your part. Similarly, a sentence such as “You just fucking shot Bob in the Foot!,” the term (or “more colorful metaphor”) “fucking” — contributes nothing factual to the sentence. Factually speaking, it is as if one had just stated: “You shot John in the foot.”
One observation that can be drawn thus far in our examination of Emotivism is that since moral terms are emotive when a person states that “X is wrong” and another states that “X is good,” neither is stating anything true or making any factual claim. Rather, they are simply expressing two different sentiments concerning X and it would not make sense to ask “which one is right?”
— ON MORAL LANGUAGE & INFLUENCE —
Now, according to emotivist theory moral terms and sentences are often attempts to influence others. C.L Stevenson taught that moral terminology was frequently used by the speaker to effect or influence the listener.
He wrote: [Sentences are]…not [always used] to indicate facts, but to create an influence. Instead of merely describing people’s interests, they change or intensify them…
And “…For instance: When you tell a man he oughtn’t to steal, your object isn’t merely to let him know that people disapprove of stealing. You are attempting, rather, to get him to disapprove of it (adopt your sentiment concerning it). Your ethical judgment has a quasi-imperative force which, operating through suggestion, and intensified by your tone of voice, readily permits you to begin to influence, to modify, his interests…”
On this view then, when people are in a state of disagreement concerning an ethical issue, it is clear that each party is attempting to influence or persuade the others to adopt their attitude and follow their prescriptions concerning how one ought to behave, rather than making true or false statements.
Concerning this issue, Ayers wrote:
“It is worth mentioning that ethical terms do not serve only to express feeling. They are also calculated to arouse feeling, and so stimulate action. Indeed, some of them are used in such a way as to give the sentences in which they occur the effect of commands. Thus the sentence “It is your duty to tell the truth” may be regarded both as the expression of a certain sort of ethical feeling about truthfulness and as the expression of the command “Tell the truth.” The sentence “You ought to tell the truth” also involves the command “Tell the truth,” but here the tone of the command is less emphatic. In the sentence “It is good to tell the truth” the command has become little more than a suggestion. And thus the “meaning” of the word “good,” in its ethical usage, is differentiated from the word “duty” or the word “ought”. In fact, we may define the meaning of the various ethical words in terms both of the different feelings they are ordinarily taken to express, and also the different responses which they are calculated to provoke.” — A.J Ayer — Language Truth And Logic, Ch 6
There are many other examples which could be employed to illustrate the use of moral terms in language that are beyond the scope of this text.
— ON WHAT EMOTIVISM IS NOT —
In order to further comprehend Emotivism it is also important to show what Emotivism is not. Emotivism is not Subjectivism which is the view that X is morally wrong or right if it is approved of. Whereas Subjectivism states that moral terms and sentences are assertions of the existence of certain feelings by the speaker, Emotivism states that ethical terms are expressions of feeling and provoking exhortations.
It is important to distinguish between the claim “I like X” and expressing a disapproval of X. In essence, “X is good” means “Boo X!”. If “X is good” were an assertion that “I like X,” then when you tell me I am wrong about X being “good,” you would be telling me that I’m wrong that “I like X.” In other words, you would be telling me that “I don’t value X.”
On this point, A.J Ayer wrote “For whereas the subjectivist holds that ethical statements assert the existence of certain feelings, we hold that ethical statements are expressions and excitants of feelings which do not necessarily involve any assertion. For in saying that a certain type of action is right or wrong, I am not making any factual statement, not even a statement about my state of mind. I am merely expressing certain moral sentiments. And the man who is ostensibly contradicting me is merely expressing his moral sentiments. So that there is plainly no sense in asking which of us is right.” — A.J Ayer — Logic Truth And Language — Chapter 6
Emotivism is a form of Non–Cognitivism. Non-cognitivism is the meta—ethical position which states that ethical terms do not express propositions and, therefore, cannot be true or false. That moral judgment is not capable of being objectively true since they do not describe an objective feature of existence.
This, of course, places Emotivism in opposition to moral realism which states that moral terms are verifiable and real, not simply expressions of emotion.
— ON WHY ARGUING ABOUT VALUE IS IMPOSSIBLE —
Now, I think it important to note that one feature which Subjectivism and Emotivism share is that it is impossible to argue cogently concerning questions of value. That is we do not argue about values, but rather from values. We only argue about facts.
On this matter A. J Ayer was clear. In chapter 6 of his book Language Truth and Logic Ayer wrote:
“For we hold that one never does dispute about questions of value. This may seem, at first sight, to be a very paradoxical assertion. For we certainly do engage in disputes which are ordinarily regarded as disputes about value. But, in all such cases, we find, if we consider the matter closely, that the dispute is not really about a question of value, but about a question of fact. When someone disagrees with us about the moral value of a certain action or type of action, we do admittedly resort to an argument to win him over to our way of thinking. But we do not attempt to show by our arguments that he has the “wrong” ethical feeling toward a situation whose nature he has correctly apprehended. What we attempt to show is that he is mistaken about the facts of the case. We argue that he has misconceived the agent’s motive: or that he has misjudged the effects of the action, or its probable effects given the agent’s knowledge; or that he has failed to take into account the special circumstances in which the agent was placed. Or else we employ more general arguments about the effects which actions of a certain type tend to produce, or the qualities which are usually manifested in their performance. We do this in the hope that we have only to get our opponent to agree with us about the nature of empirical facts for him to adopt the same moral attitude towards them as we do. And as the people with whom we argue have received the same moral education as ourselves, and live in the same social order, our expectation is usually justified. But if our opponent happens to have undergone a different process of moral “conditioning” from ourselves, so that, even when he acknowledges all the facts, he still disagrees with us about the moral value of the actions under discussion, then we abandon the attempt to convince him by argument. We say that it is impossible to argue with him because he has a distorted or undeveloped moral sense; which signifies merely that he employs a different set of values from our own. We feel that our system of values is superior, and, therefore, speak in such derogatory terms of his. But we cannot bring forward any arguments to show that our system is superior. For our judgment that it is so is itself a judgment of value, and accordingly outside the scope of the argument. It is because argument fails us when we come to deal with pure questions of value, as distinct from questions of fact, that we finally resort to mere abuse. In short, we find that argument is possible on moral questions only if some system of values is presupposed.”
— ON FEAR AS A CHIEF MOTIVATING FACTOR —
Later in chapter 6 of his book Language Truth And Logic Ayer stated that one of the primary motivating factors behind moral behaviors is both conscious and unconscious fear.
“For one finds that one of the chief causes of moral behavior is fear, both conscious and unconscious, of a god’s displeasure, and fear of the enmity of society. And this, indeed, is the reason moral precepts present themselves to some people as “categorical” commands. And one finds, also, that the moral code of a society is partly determined by the beliefs of that society concerning the conditions of its own happiness—or, in other words, that a society tends to encourage or discourage a given type of conduct by the use of moral sanctions according to as it appears to promote or detract from the contentment of the society as a whole. And this is the reason altruism is recommended in most moral codes and egotism condemned.”
— ON THE FUNCTION AND EMOTIVE NATURE OF AESTHETIC TERMS —
As a side note, I would like to point out that on the emotivist view what has been said of ethical terms may be said about aesthetic terms as well. On this subject Ayer said….
“Aesthetic terms are used in the same way as ethical terms. Such aesthetic words as “beautiful” and “hideous” are employed, as ethical words are employed, not to make statements of fact, but simply to express certain feelings and evoke a certain response. It follows, as in ethics, that there is no sense in attributing objective validity to aesthetic judgments, and no possibility of arguing about questions of value in aesthetics, but only about questions of fact.”
— CONCLUSION —
In conclusion then, on this view, ethical and aesthetic terms do not state facts but are merely expressions of emotion. They are indeed emotive. There are perhaps some cases however in which ordinary speakers who suffer the delusional belief that their moral judgements (or that of a divine entity) is some how objective, binding and true. In such cases “X is immoral” refers to some metaphysical belief. Some such erred beliefs may have their origin in the fact that some moral judgements are based upon the objectification of emotion. There are other examples I could give that are outside the scope of this brief exposition.
There is no evidence to suggest nor reason to believe in a metaphysical realm of values; that values exist as “non-natural properties” as G.E Moore contended, or that there is some deity which makes their existence possible as many theists claim.
It is in the nature of the human primate to value and to many it is comforting to believe that our evaluations are objective and binding, and it is indeed quite useful to convince others that they are. Just as it is quite useful and comforting for some to believe that there exists some mysteriously vague entity who magically summons into existence “Moral Truths.” However, I see no rational reason or scientific evidence to entertain such notions.
As I see it, systems of so-called morality are for the most part a means to control others, a kind of moral matrix, a prison for your mind. Like religion then, It is an all too human convention by which unwitting adherents are manipulated.
Let us then, transcend the dualistic confines of “good” and “evil”.