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Philosophy of Language. Emotivism - Can We Talk About Right and Wrong?

Updated on June 12, 2019

What is the 'right' thing to do?

Emotivism is a meta-ethical theory which focuses on Linguistics - the examination of the nature of moral statement and moral language (statements about whether something is right or wrong, just or unjust, preferred or distasteful). Emotivism is most often associated with the philosophers A.J. Ayer and C.L. Stevenson. Emotivism is a non-cognitive theory as it states that there are no moral facts – morality and statements of morality are more individual or societal preferences never objectively right or wrong.



Hume has weighed in on emotivism claiming that we will never locate the wrongness of an action based purely on the facts of what has been done. Hume wishes to make a clear distinction between the world of facts and the world of values. This he attempts to do by claiming that although reason can aid us in deriving factual conclusions from factual premises, we cannot derive moral conclusions from factual premises. Emotivism therefore makes the claim that moral statements (e.g. stealing is wrong) are not capable of being true or false. From the factual statements that Person A bought the necklace and it was in Person A’s possession when Person B took it from them against their wishes and that Person A was very distressed by the events and the law of the country they live in says this is illegal… we cannot ever conclude that therefore stealing is wrong. While we can derive factual conclusions from factual premises such as Person A owned a necklace and Person B took it from Person A’s possession against Person A’s wishes… we can derive from this that therefore Person B stole Person A’s necklace. Morality cannot be derived from facts and it cannot therefore claim to be factual or sound.


Ayer believes that statements must be true or false to be meaningful and so moral statements are meaningless to him. The verification principle works under the principle that ‘a sentence will only be meaningful if it is either true by definition or if it can, in theory, be verified by observation’. This would therefore mean that only analytical or synthetic statements are of any worth. Thus the statement ‘My dad is older than me’ is a meaningful statement as it is true (though I am sure arguably meaningless as it’s inherently true) while the statement that ‘my dad is great’ has no meaning to it as it is not quantifiable or provable (nobody can objectively verify this as the true reality based on facts though I would still make the claim). The question though arises as to why then we use moral statements in describing an action as good or bad. Ayer may not value them but clearly they are an intrinsic part of our language and so they have a purpose. Ayer claims that the purpose of moral discourse is to simply express differing emotional attitudes to an issue but is there more to it?


Stevenson argues that language has two principle uses; ‘descriptive use and dynamic use’. Descriptive use is when we wish to communicate a belief or record a fact. Dynamic use is when we use a statement to express our feelings or provoke others to feel or behave in a certain way. This means that although moral statements have no factual significance they can be described as having emotive meaning. This is a feeling which hovers about a word which makes it particularly suited to a dynamic use. This can be described as the boo-hooray theory. This theory states that when using moral statements we are only saying we approve of something (hooray) or we disapprove (boo). Stevenson elaborates on Ayer’s purposed purpose of moral discourse by claiming that we are not only expressing hostility or appreciation to an action but also making others share our feelings. There is a social aspect to it; a building of communal beliefs perhaps that societies can be built on.



Emotivism does appear to fit in with our everyday understanding of morality. It is definitely true that moral language is used because we want to express how we feel about an issue and in some cases want to persuade others to share our feelings. It is also true that emotive language is extremely effective in changing the attitudes of others. However, emotivists cannot explain what makes a moral expression any different from other sorts of expression. If all statements about morality are equally meaningless then why do we treat statements about subjects (e.g. religion and art) as being crucially different? Emotivists fail to explain this. By abandoning moral objectivism altogether Emotivism leaves us ill equipped to explain how we can resolve any moral disagreements. According to Emotivism it is therefore not possible to establish that ‘child torture is wrong’ as definitively true. One response to this would be to state that Emotivism is simply a meta-ethical theory of moral language and so we should be able to make moral statements without being committed to the metaphysical and epistemological issue of whether there are objective ethical truths. We may still though have to change out views on disagreements. Emotivism claims that two people supporting opposing moral views are not disagreeing about facts only the emotions they express towards issues. If we therefore accept Emotivism the we can accept that there is no such thing as moral arguments. Stevenson’s claim that we use moral discourse to persuade others can be rejected as during moral debates we are not persuading others to adopt our attitudes the same problem applies when we are alone and thinking about an issue. Therefore, Emotivism does make a praiseworthy attempt to explain moral statements in a way which fits with our everyday understanding of morality. However, there are many faults with the theory.


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