[Paleopsych] Routledge: Michael Smith: Emotivism

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Michael Smith: Emotivism
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy

    Emotivists held that moral judgments express and arouse emotions, not
    beliefs. Saying that an act is right or wrong was thus supposed to be
     rather like saying 'Boo!' or 'Hooray!' Emotivism explained well the
     apparent necessary connection between moral judgment and motivation.
     If people judge it wrong to lie, and their judgment expresses their
     hostility, then it comes as no surprise that we can infer that they
      are disinclined to lie. Emotivism did a bad job of explaining the
       important role of rational argument in moral practice, however.
      Indeed, since it entailed that moral judgments elude assessment in
      terms of truth and falsehood, it suggested that rational argument
    about morals might be at best inappropriate, and at worst impossible.

      In the early part of the twentieth century, under the influence of
     logical positivism, a new view about the nature of morality emerged:
     emotivism (see Logical positivism). Emotivists held that when people
    say, 'It is wrong to tell lies', they express their hostility towards
     lying and try to get others to share that hostility with them. Moral
    claims were thus supposed to be very different from claims expressing
    beliefs. Beliefs purport to represent the world, and so are assessable
    in terms of truth and falsehood. Emotions, by contrast, do not purport
     to represent the world, so moral claims were supposed to elude such
     assessment (see Analytic ethics §1; Moral judgment §1). Judging acts
       right and wrong was thus rather like saying 'Boo!' and 'Hooray!'

      Emotivism had evident appeal. It is widely agreed that there is a
     necessary connection of sorts between moral judgment and motivation.
    If someone judges telling lies to be wrong then they are motivated, to
     some extent, not to lie. But what people are motivated to do depends
     on what they approve of, or are hostile towards, not simply on what
      they believe (see Moral motivation). Imagine, then, that someone's
     judgment that telling lies is wrong expressed a belief. In order to
      know whether they are inclined to lie or not we would then need to
     know, in addition, whether they approve of, or are hostile towards,
      telling lies. But we need to know no such thing. Knowing that they
     judge lying wrong suffices to know that they are disinclined to lie.
    This fits well with the idea that the judgment itself simply expresses

       Emotivism also had its difficulties, however. Though emotivists
    admitted that rational argument about morals had an important role to
     play, their view entailed that this role was strictly limited. Since
     they agreed that less fundamental moral claims are entailed by more
    fundamental claims along with factual premises, and since they agreed
     that factual premises could be criticized rationally, they held that
     less fundamental moral claims must be rationally-based. Someone who
    judges lying wrong because they think that lies are harmful must, they
      thought, change their mind on pain of irrationality if shown that
    lying is harmless. But at the same time they insisted that fundamental
    moral claims - those that are not so derived like, perhaps, the claim
        that it is wrong to cause harm - are immune from such rational
      criticism. This was the so-called 'fact/value gap' (see Fact/value
                  distinction; Logic of ethical discourse).

    It is unclear whether emotivists were consistent in allowing even this
                 limited role for rational argument, however.
      * 1 If it is wrong to cause harm and lying causes harm then it is
        wrong to tell lies
      * 2 It is wrong to cause harm
      * 3 Lying causes harm
      * Therefore, it is wrong to tell lies

    This argument is valid only if 'It is wrong to cause harm' in premises
       (1) and (2) means the same thing. If this phrase means different
           things then there is an equivocation and the argument is
    straightforwardly invalid. Emotivism entails that someone who asserts
      (2) expresses hostility towards causing harm. Yet whatever 'It is
    wrong to cause harm' means in (1), it most certainly does not serve to
    express such hostility. In (1) the phrase appears in the antecedent of
     a conditional. Someone who asserts (1) may thus even deny that it is
    wrong to cause harm. They need therefore have no hostility to express
                            towards causing harm.

      Philosophers sympathetic to emotivism have tried to rescue it from
    this objection. There is a real question whether emotivists themselves
     should ever have been interested in preserving an important role for
      rational argument about morals, however. If the function of moral
      judgment is simply to express emotions and arouse like emotions in
    others then it follows that rational argument is at best one way, and
    perhaps not a very good way, of achieving these aims. We might be more
     effective if we distracted people from the facts and used rhetoric,
    humiliation and brainwashing instead. It is hard to see how emotivists
      could find fault with the idea that a practice in which the use of
     such technologies was widespread could still constitute a perfectly
                            proper moral practice.

     The best emotivists could say at this point was, 'Boo for persuasion
      and brainwashing! Philosophers who thought this response failed to
    acknowledge the central and defining role played by rational argument
    in moral practice concluded that emotivism extracted too high a price
    for its explanation of the necessary connection between moral judgment
       and motivation. Subsequent theorists have focused on whether an
    alternative explanation of the necessary connection is available, one
     which also accommodates the idea that rational argument plays such a
      central and defining role. No consensus on this issue has emerged,

    If nothing else, emotivism succeeded in making clear how difficult it
      is to explain the necessary connection between moral judgment and
      motivation, together with the idea that rational argument plays a
      central and defining role in moral practice, if the emotions that
     cause our actions are assumed to be beyond rational criticism. Much
      recent work about the nature of morality proceeds by calling this
                          assumption into question.

      See also: Ayer, A.J.; Expression, artistic; Moral knowledge; Moral
    realism; Morality and emotions §§1-2; Prescriptivism; Stevenson, C.L.

                        References and further reading

      Ayer, A.J. (1936) Language, Truth and Logic, London: Gollancz; 2nd
                              edn, 1946, ch. 6.

      NOTE: (Contains a classic statement of emotivism by a logical

      Blackburn, S. (1984) Spreading the Word, Oxford: Oxford University
       Press, ch. 6. (Shows how modern versions of emotivism attempt to
                 avoid the problems faced by their ancestor.)

        Smith, M. (1994) The Moral Problem, Oxford: Blackwell. (Argues
          that, contrary to the standard assumption, emotions can be
        rationally criticized. Ch. 2 contains a critical discussion of
                  Ayer's emotivism and more modern versions.)

        Stevenson, C.L. (1944) Ethics and Language, New Haven, CT: Yale
         University Press. (Another classic statement of emotivism and
       explanation of the difference between disagreements about values
                        and disagreements about facts.)

           Warnock, G. (1967) Contemporary Moral Philosophy, London:
       Macmillan, ch. 3. (Contains a critical discussion of emotivism.)

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