NOTES on A.J. Ayer (1910-1989): Advocate of Emotivism, and Brand Blanshard (1892-1987): Critic of Emotivism

A.J. Ayer (1910-1989): Advocate of Emotivism

Although A.J. Ayer may appear to be difficult reading because of the philosophical vocabulary he uses, his theory called Ethical Emotivism is actually easy to understand. According to Ethical Emotivism, moral judgments are noncognitive, emotive utterances.

What does this mean? (As I wrote above, Ayer uses much philosophical vocabulary.) If a statement is noncognitive, it is neither analytic nor synthetic; that is, it is not used to convey information. Analytic sentences are those such as “A bachelor is an unmarried male”; whether this sentence is tautologous or self-contradictory can be determined by analyzing the terms used in the sentence. Synthetic sentences are those such as “A tall stepladder is in that closet”; whether this statement is true or false can be determined by empirical investigation — by opening the door to the closet to see if a tall stepladder is there.

However, according to Ayer, ethical judgments such as “The President of the United States is good” are not definitions and do not bear information about the world; instead, according to Ayer, ethical judgments merely convey emotions. When I say, “Lying is bad,” I am merely saying that I disapprove of lying, according to Ayer.

Ayer’s major claim is that “all synthetic propositions [i.e. those that are true or false] are empirical hypotheses.” According to Ayer, ethical judgments are not synthetic propositions — they are not true or false, but are only expressions of emotion.

Four Kinds of Moral Language

However, Ayer does not reject all kinds of moral language. He believes that moral language appears in four different kinds of sentences.

1) Definitions. An example would be a definition of “lying” or a definition of “promise”: “The phrase ‘to lie’ means …” and “The term ‘promise’ means … .”

Ayer has no problems with definitions of ethical terms; they are analytic and can be evaluated as tautologous or self-contradictory. To check up on definitions, we can ask people what they mean when they use the terms “lie” or “promise.”

2) Descriptions. Examples of descriptions include “People do not lie because they fear …” and “People keep their promises because they … .”

Ayer has no problems with descriptions of moral behavior; they are synthetic and can be evaluated as true or false. To check up on these descriptions, sociologists and psychologists can ask people why they don’t lie and why they keep their promises.

3) Exhortations. Examples of exhortations include “Don’t lie!” and “Keep your promises!”

Ayer has no problems with exhortations. They are noncognitive sentences, but they are useful in everyday life.

4) Moral Judgments. An example of a moral judgment is “It is wrong to lie.”

Now Ayer has a problem. According to Ayer, this sentence is neither analytic nor synthetic, and so he proposes to investigate moral judgments to find out what kind of sentence they are.

Ayer’s Investigation into Moral Judgments

How does Ayer explain moral judgments?

First, Ayer asks, Are they synthetic, factually significant? As an example, take the sentence “The President of the United States is good.”

In this sentence, does “good” equal a fact? If so, there are two ways “good” could equal a fact. It could equal an empirical fact, or it could equal a nonempirical fact. (Don’t worry; these will be explained in the next few paragraphs.)

Does “good” equal an empirical fact? There are two ways that “good” could equal an empirical fact. First, “good” could mean “approved by our group.” This is what the relativists mean by “good.” However, Ayer objects to this because it is not self-contradictory to say that something is approved of by our group, yet it is not good. For example, think of a group of teenagers who like to illegally drink beer on weekends. Drinking beer illegally is approved of by the group of teenagers, yet they know that they are doing wrong, and they would not want their preacher to find out what they are doing on the weekends.

Another way for “good” to equal an empirical fact is for “good” to equal “promoting the pleasure of humankind.” This is what the utilitarians mean by “good.” However, Ayer objects to this because it is not self-contradictory to say that something promotes the pleasure of humankind, yet it is not good. For example, I could promote the pleasure of humankind by selling grades to my students and donating the money to charity. My students would be happy, the charity would be happy, and I would be happy (because I would have fewer papers and tests to grade). Yet selling grades is morally wrong.

Another way for the moral judgment “The President of the United States is good” to be synthetic would be for “good” to equal a nonempirical fact. This is the way that the philosopher G. E. Moore regards “good”; he said that we use our intuition to verify whether a person is good. However, Ayer objects to this because our intuitions vary notoriously and so a person whom I think is good you may think is bad.

Ayer’s Theory

Having argued that moral judgments are not synthetic, Ayer proposes his own view: Moral judgments are emotive. He makes three major points in his theory:

1) Fundamental ethical symbols (e.g. “good”) are unanalyzable because the moral judgments in which they occur are un-check-up-able. Ayer has tried to show this by arguing that moral judgments are not synthetic.

2) Ethical symbols are pseudo-concepts: According to Ayer, they add no factual content to the proposition in which they occur. The moral judgment “You acted wrongly in stealing that money,” according to Ayer, says exactly the same thing as “You stole that money!” when “You stole that money!” is spoken with a strong expression of disapproval. According to Ayer, the word “wrongly” adds no informational content other than evincing disapproval of stealing.

3) As expressions of emotion, your moral judgments:

  • make no factual claim
  • do not even claim something about your state of mind
  • evince your feelings, and that does not necessarily mean that you have those feelings.

This is interesting. According to Ayer, moral judgments merely evince feelings. You may or may not actually have those feelings. For example, to teach your young son or daughter that you don’t want him or her to steal, you could act shocked when he or she takes a quarter from your purse or pants pocket without asking. But in real life, you may believe in stealing when there’s a very good chance that you can get away with it.

Two final questions: Do so-called “moral disputes” present a problem for Ayer’s view? Can Ayer give a plausible interpretation of moral disputes?

For example, let’s say that there is a dispute about thrift. Person A says that “thrift is a virtue.” However, person B says that “thrift is a vice.” How does Ayer explain this moral dispute? According to Ayer, these two people are not arguing about morality at all. Instead, they are arguing about the facts of the case. Ayer believes that if you listen to the two people, you will learn that they are really arguing about facts.

Ayer’s theory is interesting; however, Brand Blanshard will mount a hard-hitting attack against it. Blanshard believes that moral judgments are synthetic statements.

Note: The quotations by Ayer that appear in this essay come from his book Language, Truth, and Logic (New York: Dover Publications, 1952).

Brand Blanshard (1892-1987): Critic of Emotivism

All of us are concerned about good and bad. Many of us believe that good and bad are objective — not dependent upon opinion, and incumbent upon all rational beings. According to objectivism, moral values and principles do not depend upon a particular person’s opinions. According to objectivism, moral values and principles allow us to judge ethical statements as either true or false. According to objectivism, moral values and principles are norms.


One view that disagrees with this is emotivism. According to emotivism, whenever we say that something is good, all we are really saying is that we feel approvingly of that thing. And when we say that something is bad, all we are really saying is that we feel disapprovingly of that thing. Therefore, ethical language is nothing more than emotive language.

Of course, emotivism is a form of subjectivism. After all, I may feel approval of something that you feel disapproval of. If that is the case, then that thing is both good (to me) and bad (to you) at the same time. Also, we have no basis on which to say that one of us is right and the other wrong, because if ethical language is nothing more than emotive language, then both of us are correct, even if we do contradict each other.

Critic of Emotivism: Brand Blanshard

A philosopher who criticized emotivism is Brand Blanshard, who was born in Fredericksburg, Ohio. In his article “The New Subjectivism in Ethics” (Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 9 (1948-49), 504-11), he provides six objections to emotivism.

In setting up his first few criticisms of emotivism, Blanshard engages his readers in a thought experiment. He asks them to imagine that they are walking in the woods when they come upon a rabbit whose leg has been caught in a trap. The rabbit struggled to get free and almost gnawed its leg off, but it died before it could escape. Blanshard believes that long and excruciating pain is bad in and of itself, and he wants the reader to agree that it was bad that the rabbit suffered in this way. Blanshard then sets about exploring and criticizing what the emotivist would have to say about this situation.

The First Criticism

Blanshard’s first criticism is that the emotivist is committed to saying that until the person walking in the woods happened upon the rabbit, nothing bad had occurred.

After all, if good and bad are nothing more than expressions of emotion, then if no one is around to express emotion, to say, “It was a bad thing that the little rabbit should suffer so,” then nothing bad can happen. Blanshard’s point here, of course, is that most of us believe differently from the emotivist; we believe that it would be bad that the rabbit suffered even if no one had happened upon the scene.

The Second Criticism

Blanshard’s second criticism is that the emotivist is committed to his original judgment that it is bad that the rabbit suffered so horridly even if later the emotivist discovers that he misjudged the situation and the rabbit really didn’t suffer.

Let’s suppose that someone is playing a practical joke on the emotivist. The practical joker has created this horrifying scene in the woods with the help of a realistic stuffed bunny and a bottle of ketchup. So just after the emotivist says to himself, “It was a bad thing that the little animal should suffer so,” the practical joker jumps out behind a bush and yells, “Ha! Ha! I got you!” But if good and bad are nothing more than emotion, the emotivist is committed to saying that there was evil in the scene when he expressed dismay at the suffering of the (fake) rabbit. But that’s not the way an objectivist uses language. The objectivist can say, “I made a mistake — the rabbit really didn’t suffer and so nothing bad occurred (except for a rather tasteless practical joke).”

Please note: A common mistake that many students make is to say that the emotivist cannot change his or her mind about the situation. That’s not true. The emotivist can think on Monday the situation was a good situation, change his or her mind on Tuesday and think that it was a bad situation, and change his or her mind yet again on Wednesday and think once more that it was a good situation. However, the emotivist is committed to saying that the situation really was good on Monday and Wednesday, and it really was bad on Tuesday. On the other hand, the objectivist would say that the situation is either good or bad, and on at least one of those days the emotivist is mistaken about the nature of the situation.

The Third Criticism

Blanshard’s third criticism is that if we restate our original judgment after our emotions have cooled, our judgment would have no meaning.

Suppose we found the (real) rabbit in the woods a week ago and were overcome by pity when we said, “It was a bad thing that the little animal should suffer so.” That judgment has meaning because it expresses a real emotion. But suppose that we’ve been through a trying week and are completely drained of energy and so are completely incapable of feeling emotion. Further suppose that we repeat our judgment that the suffering endured by the rabbit was bad. Since we feel no emotion when we make this judgment, the emotivist is committed to saying that there is nothing bad about the situation. However, that is not what the objectivist means when he makes that statement — the objectivist means that long and excruciating pain is bad in and of itself, no matter how he feels when he makes that judgment.

The Fourth Criticism

Blanshard’s fourth criticism is that if emotivism is true, then we can no longer assess attitudes as fitting or unfitting.

In illustrating this criticism, Blanshard refers to Dostoevsky’s novel The House of the Dead. In this novel, Dostoevsky writes about prisoners who gleefully tell stories of the murders they’ve committed. He writes, “I have heard stories of the most terrible, the most unnatural actions, of the most monstrous murders, told with the most spontaneously childishly merry laughter.”

Of course, the objectivist regards the attitude of these criminals to their murders as unfitting. A fitting attitude would be remorse. But if emotivism is correct, then since badness resides only in emotion, the best way to get rid of badness is to change your emotion. So if you want to get rid of the evil of a horrifying murder, the best way to do so is to cry, “Hurrah for murder!” So the emotivist is committed to saying that these murderers have adopted the best attitude possible toward murder. Of course, the objectivist disagrees.

The Fifth Objection

Blanshard’s fifth objection is that emotivism makes mistakes about values impossible.

Objectivists believe that we can make mistakes about values. We may do something that we feel is right; however, we may be mistaken about that act. So the act may feel subjectively right, yet be far from what is in fact objectively right. In such a case, the objectivists would say that we made a mistake about values, about what is right.

As an example, we can use cases of child abuse. Often, a child abuser uses the excuse, “Spare the rod, and spoil the child,” to justify their actions. The most horrible cases of child abuse are sometimes justified by their perpetrators in that “it’s for the child’s own good,” even when the child dies from the abuse. Objectivists definitely believe that these child abusers have made a mistake about values.

But the emotivist is committed to saying that these child abusers are right. If they believe that what they are doing is right, and if right and wrong reside solely in emotion, then the child abuser is doing the right thing as long as he or she feels it is the right thing.

The Sixth Objection

Blanshard’s sixth objection is that if emotivism is widely believed, it will lead to international chaos.

This sixth objection is based on pragmatism. Blanshard points out that in dealing with other countries, the United Nations assumes that “there is such a thing as right and wrong in the conduct of a nation, a right and wrong that does not depend on how it happens to feel at the time.” However, if emotivism is the correct philosophical position, then terrorists are doing the right thing as long as they feel terrorism is right.

Blanshard concludes his essay by referring to two famous Communists, who are widely regarded as evil: “So if our friends the subjectivists still hold their theory after I have applied my little ruler to their knuckles, which of course they will, I have but one request to make of them: Do keep it from Mr. Molotov and Mr. Vishinsky.”

Note: The quotations by Blanshard that appear in this essay are taken from his essay “The New Subjectivism in Ethics” (Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 9 (1948-49), 504-11).


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