NOTES on Ethical Emotivism: Historical Antecedents

A.J. Ayer was much influenced by the logical positivists, who analyzed sentences to determine what logical type they belonged to. We will analyze several sentences to see what the logical positivists were up to:

  1. The person reading this page is six feet tall.

This sentence is meaningful. It is a cognitive sentence, which means it bears information. In addition, it is the kind of cognitive sentence that is known as synthetic, which means that it can be verified through the use of our senses. To verify the sentence, you would measure yourself and see if in fact you are six feet tall. If you are six feet tall, you have verified the sentence. If you are not six feet tall, you have falsified the sentence; that is, you have shown that the sentence is false.

  1. Life forms exist on planets circling Alpha Centauri.

This sentence is also meaningful. It is also cognitive and synthetic. One thing to notice about this sentence, however, is that it is verifiable only in principle. (We can’t verify the sentence right now.) If we go to Alpha Centauri and search for life on its planets, we will be able to verify the sentence if it is true and falsify it if it is false. Ayer and the logical positivists regard sentences that are check-up-able (that means, able to be checked up on to see whether they are true or false) as meaningful.

  1. All squares have four sides.

This is another meaningful sentence. It is cognitive because it bears information. However, it is not synthetic because we have to verify it by means other than the use of our senses. In this case, we verify the sentence through an analysis of the terms used in the sentence. Sentences of this type are called analytic sentences. Another example of an analytic sentence is “All bachelors are unmarried males.”

  1. Oh, it’s wonderful to be in love!
  2. Don’t slam the door!
  3. What time is it?

None of the above sentences is cognitive because none of them bears information; nonetheless, all of them are very useful in real life. The first sentence is exclamatory (it makes an exclamation), the second is imperative (it gives an order), and the third is interrogative (it asks a question).

  1. I have as a friend a shy little elf that disappears whenever anyone tries to check up on him.

Now we come to a very interesting sentence. Suppose I make the claim that I have as a friend a shy little elf that disappears whenever anyone tries to check up on him. If you try to see him, my shy little elf disappears. (As everyone knows, shy little elves have magical powers. After all, have you ever seen a shy little elf that didn’t have magical powers?) If you try to touch him, he moves out of your way. If you try to smell him, he quietly sprays the room with air freshener.

How many of you believe that I really have as a friend a shy little elf? Of course, none of you (except possibly a few people with bumper stickers reading, “I brake for Hobbits”). The reason you don’t believe the claim in this sentence is because the claim is un-check-up-able: There is no way to verify the claim if it is true, or to falsify it if it is false.

This, of course, leads to the logical positivists’ main point: Sentences that are un-check-up-able in principle are nonsense.

  1. The Prime Minister of England is good.

Here we have another interesting sentence. This sentence certainly appears to be meaningful; however, verification of this sentence can be difficult because people’s opinions of the goodness of the Prime Minister vary enormously.

  1. God exists.
  2. God loves us.

Here we have two more interesting sentences. Once again, it is difficult to see how these sentences can be verified. Philosophers — and other people — disagree about whether these sentences are true or false. They are not analytic sentences, although they do seem to be synthetic. However, the logical positivists believe that these sentences are not empirically verifiable and so they are not synthetic. Since in their opinion these sentences are neither analytic nor synthetic, they are not cognitive and therefore these sentences are as much nonsense as the sentence “I have as a friend a shy little elf that disappears whenever anyone tries to check up on him.”

The logical positivists and Ayer wanted to do away with much traditional philosophy. The logical positivists and Ayer wanted to put much of ethics and religion on the scrap heap.

Ethical Intuitionism

E. Moore did believe in objective ethics; nonetheless, his theory of Ethical Intuitionism contributed to the development of Ethical Emotivism by criticizing one way in which ethical judgments could be synthetic. That way would be if the term “good” meant something that could be empirically verified. For example, if the term “good” meant “being charitable,” we could easily check up on the truth of the sentence “The President of the United States is good.” All we would have to do is to check the President’s income tax forms to see if, in fact, the President gives money to charity.

However, Moore denied that the word “good” stands for a property that can be empirically verified. According to Moore, goodness is a quality that is unique, simple, and indefinable. Indeed, Moore believed that you commit what he called the Naturalistic Fallacy if you identify goodness with a quality that can be empirically verified. Moore did believe that we can verify the sentence “The President of the United States is good.” However, he believed that we verify ethical judgments through the use of our intuition. (Unfortunately, people’s intuitions vary notoriously. For an example, look at people’s opinions about our current President of the United States.)

In addition, Moore stated that if we identify goodness with a quality that is empirically verifiable, then even if we find someone who has that quality, it will be an open question whether that person is really good. This is known as Moore’s Open Question Argument.

For example, let’s return to the example that we identify goodness with being charitable. This is something that we can easily verify. But suppose we do find a person who gives money to charity — that does not prove that the person is good. After all, the charitable person may be a rich politician who gives money to a hospital not out of a concern for poor people, but only because he hopes the favorable publicity resulting from a large donation will bring him votes.

A.J. Ayer

Ayer did not want to entirely do away with ethics: He did not want ethical judgments to be regarded as nonsense. Therefore, he proposed that ethical judgments are really noncognitive sentences that only seem to be cognitive sentences.

After being influenced by the logical positivists and by G. E. Moore’s Intuitionism, Ayer came up with a theory that stated that ethical judgments such as “The President of the United States is good” are nothing more than expressions of emotion. This theory is known as Ethical Emotivism. According to Ayer, a person who says, “The President of the United States is good,” is evincing approval of the President of the United States. Of course, the person may not really approve of the President of the United States — the person expressing the approval may only be putting on an act for other people.


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1 Response to NOTES on Ethical Emotivism: Historical Antecedents

  1. If a thousand years before now, someone had said,

    “There are very small living organisms (bacteria) on people’s skins.”

    The statement would have been meaningful and true whether people could have verified it or not. The truth of a statement does not depend upon whether humans know it to be true or not.

    The logical positivists and Ayer etc. seem to be obviously wrong. Also they do not seem to have understood Kant’s Transcendental Idealism. I wonder why.

    What do you think?


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