Meta-Ethics, Part IV: Emotivism

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This is part IV in a series on meta-ethics begun here. See that post for more details. So far I've looked at a simplistic version of subjectivism, one that thinks ethical statements are about our own attitudes but are still the sort of statement that can be true or false. That view is hard to square with how we use moral language. A more sophisticated subjectivist view simply denies that our moral statements are the sort of thing that can be true or false. They don't have any cognitive content. The view is thus called non-cognitivism.

The most basic version of non-cognitivism is emotivism. As with any form of non-cognitivism, it says moral statements aren't really statements at all. There aren't really moral truths, but moral statements aren't false either. They're not the sort of thing that can be true or false in the same way that it isn't true or false that chocolate ice cream is better than black raspberry. Some people prefer one or the other and thus have different attitudes, but there's no truth or falsity of either one.

With moral statements, it would be as follows. My claim that terrorists' actions on 9/11 were morally wrong is only an expression of my attitude, one like expressing my distaste for coffee or my love of chocolate. Moral statements such as "Abortion is wrong" and "Gay marriage is good" thus are interchangeable with statements like "Ugh! Abortion!" or "Yay! Gay marriage!" If I say anything that looks like a moral claim, I�m not reporting a truth. I�m expressing my values (thus the view is called emotivism, because our emotions or attitudes are coming out in some form but not as a statement about them). It�s almost the same way someone might express emotion by shouting profanities. That sort of outburst isn�t true or false. That�s not the kind of speech it is.

It would be like saying "awesome!" when seeing a really cool special effects sequence on Stargate Atlantis or saying "yuck!" when tasting something you think is gross. You're not saying something about the effects. It has no cognitive content. It's just an expression of how exciting you take it to be. You're not saying that there's some property in the food that tastes bad. You could say that as well, but what you do when you say "yuck!" is merely express your disgust. That doesn't have cognitive content the way it would if you said the taste was really bitter.

The simpler version of subjectivism turns out to say that everyone is always right. That kind of infallibility isn't here, because no one is right. If moral statements can't be true or false, then it's just not true that everyone is right. Of course, that assumes that 'infallible' means "always true". A more reasonable definition would be "never wrong". Non-cognitivism most certainly still has the problem that no one is ever wrong, so we still have moral infallibility in the more important sense.

Also, one problem with the simpler view is that we don't end up with disagreeing with anyone on moral issues, because all we're doing is talking about ourselves. The content of each person's claim is thus not about the same thing as the content of anyone else's, because each person is talking about himself or herself. So we don't disagree at all. Emotivism solves that problem by saying that we do now disagree in one important sense. We disagree in terms of expressing different values. We disagree in the same way people might on whether they like coffee. I hate the stuff, but I know many people who love it. In a sense, we disagree. We have different attitudes. Our attitudes confict with each other. It's not as if there's cognitive content to that disagreement, though, at least if the emotivist account of food preference is correct. With moral attitudes it would be the same.

But doesn�t it seem as if moral disputes are over something of more substance than a mere attitude with no content? I guess emotivists are going to disagree with me on this, but it just seems to me that our moral statements really do attribute certain properties to actions and character traits rather than simply expressing my attitude toward those actions or character traits.

Also, there�s no point in giving reasons for your views if this is all morality is. If it�s not about true or false, there�s no reason to give arguments for moral beliefs, and yet that seems to be the right way to convince someone that something is good or bad. Why would you argue with someone that your view is the one to take if you don�t think the views are true or false to begin with?

There are other versions of non-cognitivism. I think most of these problems will arise with any non-cognitivist view. The only other ones I'm aware of might solve one of these problems while retaining the rest (and perhaps adding others). Since I know less about the details of those views than I do about the general issues I've laid out here, I intend to move on to other things in my next post, which will begin the contrast between naturalistic and non-naturalistic foundations of morality.

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One of the commenters on my post on whether we're abandoning science pointed out this post, which talks about a battle between science and religion. I won't comment on most of the post, but there's one part that reminded me... Read More


In this paper it seems that a non-cognitivist argument is either used as a starting point or at least defended with a little more sophistication. Or is this not a non-cognitivist argument at the heart?

"If it�s not about true or false, there�s no reason to give arguments for moral beliefs, and yet that seems to be the right way to convince someone that something is good or bad. Why would you argue with someone that your view is the one to take if you don�t think the views are true or false to begin with?"

We often prefer that others share our attitudes (think of the supporters of rival sports teams). Moreover, I think emotivists could still argue productively. They might start off with an attitude their opponent shares, and try to show why that commits them to some other attitude.

My main objection to emotivism is that I think moral claims really do have content. Further, it should be universal, so that everyone is talking about the same thing when using the word 'morality'. Agent-relative approaches contradict this requirement.

Richard put pretty much exactly what I was going to say -- I'd even put the same passage into the clipboard before reading his comment. I'll only add to his point, now, that we *do* sometimes offer reasons for our non-cognitive attitudes; I could try to convince you to have a positive attitude toward the San Francisco 49ers. I could point to features of their objective awesomeness, and you might recognize how amazing they are, and come to have a positive attitude toward them.

I have trouble understanding how it's not at least partly cognitive once you start offering reasons. If I start explaining why I think some young shredder isn't as good a guitar player as an old classic, and I give objective criteria like being able to improvise in unpredictable ways, using uncommon melodic patterns and so on rather than just playing really, really fast, then havnen't I engaged in cognitive reasoning?

Also, there�s no point in giving reasons for your views if this is all morality is.

No "point"? Sounds to me like there's a pragmatist meaning there, which means you're already on the way to joining non-cognitivist ranks.

- jpe the non-cognitivist (of the sub-species prescriptivism)

I'm not sure where you're finding the pragmatism in that statement. The pragmatist would say that it doesn't matter whether there's an ontological grounding for moral reasoning. We have to do it anyway, or we should do it if we want to achieve our purposes. I'm saying the opposite. It does matter whether there's an ontological grounding for giving moral reasons (and that only happens if cognitivism is right). That's a flat-out denial of pragmatism.

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