Objections to emotivism

Joseph asked:

What are the objections to emotivism?

Answer by Graham Hackett

To see what the main objections to emotivism are, we would need to know what problems its originators thought it solved, in the first place.

Consider these problems:

1. are our moral judgements powered by our reason or our emotions?

2. are our moral judgements and values objective?

3. can we say of our moral judgments that they are true or false?

One approach to these problems is called cognitivism. To be a cognitivist we would need to hold that statements about moral beliefs and values are ‘truth apt’, meaning that it is possible to say that they are true or false. Also, it is necessary to hold the view that the circumstances which make such statements true or false do not just depend upon us; they are objective in some manner. Cognitivists would say that there are ‘facts of the matter’ which are ‘out there’, and which make our moral pronouncements true or false. So, to take an example used by Simon Blackburn, if we say,

‘setting fire to cats is wrong.’

the cognitivist would be able to answer ‘true’ or ‘false’, and also say that there are objective facts they can refer to, in order to support the answer.

Some philosophers argue that this approach is all wrong, and they are referred to as non cognitivists. They say moral statements are not truth apt – it is just not possible at all to answer ‘true’ or ‘false’ to them. Secondly, there are no objective facts-of-the- matter to which one can refer when claiming support for moral pronouncements. Emotivists are non-cognitivists.

Emotivism was largely a development of the logical positivist A J Ayer. The logical positivists were concerned with reducing the real world to entities which were provable and discoverable by science and mathematics, or which were analytic truths (obvious to the unaided reason). There was no room in such a viewpoint for moral facts. Ayer would hold that moral statements are just not capable of being held to be true or false. Further, what we are doing when we are making moral judgements is making emotional statements of approval or disapproval. So when we say,

‘Setting fire to cats is wrong.’

we are actually saying,

‘Boo to setting fire to cats’.

You may already know the the sardonic reference to emotivism as ‘the boo-hurrah’ theory.

Opponents of emotivism argue that it removes the universally objective grounding for moral statements. If moral statements have no truth values, and if there are no moral facts in any case to ground such statements, then where does the authority for moral judgements come from? Some think this is quite a telling criticism, and there have been various attempts to answer it. C L Stephenson, who agreed with Ayer about the emotive nature of moral judgements thought that moral language had also a ‘magnetic’ quality about it, the idea being that it attracted (or repelled). It had an imperative quality which urged us to act. However, it could be said that this just resurrects the moral authority question in another direction; what gives moral judgements their imperative nature?

There is a view called Moral Fictionalism, which holds that non cognitivism is true, and that there are no such thing as objective moral facts. Nevertheless, it is possible to follow a pragmatic approach and hold that moral principles are a useful fiction, and we should behave as though they are true! You may find this a feather odd approach, and, in fact, there are few modern philosophers who advocate it. However, you should take a look at the view known as Quasi Realism developed by Simon Blackburn. Blackburn borrowing ideas from John Hume, holds that our emotions ‘gild and stain’ the natural world, so that although there are really no objective moral facts independent of us, it seems as though there are. Our moral susceptibilities are projected onto the real world. Blackburn has also developed a form of logic to help explain why we can legitimately talk about moral truths and untruths even though there are no such things actually in existence. It is also Blackburn’s long term project to develop a form of moral realism which is compatible with emotivism. It is a moot point how far he has been able to do this, and even whether it is possible, but he is very keen to deal with what he called the ‘schizoid attitude’ to moral values, which is one of the main criticisms of emotivism. The schizoid attitude occurs when we hold the position that there are no such thing as moral facts, yet pragmatically continue to behave as if there are.

Another problem for emotivism has to do with moral disagreement. Clearly, if moral statements are just expressions of approval/disapproval, then there appears to be no possibility of disagreement. If I say; ‘Abortion is wrong’, and you say; ‘Abortion is right’, then this might seem to be like a disagreement. Remember though, that these statements are really saying ‘Abortion ! Boo!’ and ‘Abortion! Hurrah!’ There is no argument going on. You might think that there is something wrong here, since experience seems to suggest that moral disagreement occurs all the time. Yet expressionism does not seem to be able to give a good account of it. Finally, we mention the Frege-Geach problem, which many seem to think is the chief problem for expressionism (and for other forms of non cognitivism).

Consider the following exchange

1. Murder is wrong.

2. If murder is wrong then it is wrong to hire someone as an assassin.

3. It is wrong to hire someone as an assassin.

This seems like a standard logical argument. However, In statement 1, ‘murder is wrong’ is an expression of disapproval, whereas in statement 2, it is not being asserted, so is not an expression of disapproval. This means that the statement changes its meaning between 1. and 2. This change of meaning is called a ‘fallacy of equivocation’, and means that expressions 1. 2. and 3. do not constitute a logical argument. It would mean that for non-cognitivists like emotivists, the ordinary rules of logic do not apply. Such a problem does not exist for cognitivists, because moral statements are propositions like any other, and are truth-assessable. This may sound like an abstruse problem, but what you should remember is that it seems to make logical argument about moral judgements and values impossible. Although there have been attempts to dissolve the Frege Geach problem, it remains in dispute whether the problem has been solved.


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