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What Truth, If Any, Is There In Emotivism?

The claim that there is no truth whatsoever in emotivism seems somewhat far-fetched, in that it seems obvious that there are in fact instances where people use terms that would be classed as ethical terms (good, right, etc.) simply to express certain feelings of approval or disapproval. Emotivism, however, is the doctrine that preaches that ethical language is always used simply to express feelings, and that there are no cases where it is alluding to something beyond these feelings or some objective truths about morality.

Emotivism was founded as a direct result of verificationism, which denies that there can be any facts other than those that are a priori and those that are empirically verifiable. The logical positivists claimed that ethical theories that allude to objective truths that cannot be scientifically verified in any normal sense surely do not hold any weight, and, far from being reasons to follow the moral principles laid out, are simply inducements to believe the principles, and nothing more that people shouting 'Murder - Boo!' or 'Generosity - Hoorah'. Attempts to deny emotivism frequently fail to level with the reasoning behind it, and usually fail to show what is meant by an ethical claim, if it is not a reference to some demonstrable fact.

Ayer states that what the practice of ethics set out to do, and what, indeed, philosophers set out to do when approaching the area of ethics, is to translate assertions of ethical value into statements of empirical fact. It might seem easy for someone proposing a more normal ethical system, which claims to express more than a disgust or approval at various sets of acts, to state that this is simply not the purpose of ethics, and that it is never necessary to prove a moral view. This response does not seem wise, and Ayer seems well supported in this view. Most ethical systems do seek to justify their views with an appeal to something deeper, even if it be merely feelings and intuitions, and an attempt to claim that there is no reason to even attempt to argue with the emotivists will surely be begging the question. Indeed, many of those that attack emotivism fail to realise that their attempts to save more basic ethical perspectives cannot be an entirely negative task; frequently attacks on emotivism fail to justify the use of any ethical system, and in an age where it might be easier than ever before to claim that ethics is out-dated, and that evolution and psychology can explain why we might want to do some things instead of others, someone trying to defend ethics in any normal sense needs to at least attempt to disprove the emotivists' claim that ethical language is entirely meaningless (or rather simply seeks to alter the tone of a sentence) and show that we should view actions in a moral framework, rather than ceding to amorality.

Stevenson suggests that what ethical language effectively amounts to is a subtler version of an imperative - in saying that X is right, we might as well simply say 'Do X', except that ethical vocabulary seeks to do this in a less abrasive and obvious way (presumably so that it is not seen through, and has more power to persuade people to our views). He argues that any moral arguments is due to a difference in interests, not about interests - i.e. that if I argue in favour of X and you argue in favour of Y, we do so purely on the basis of different things that we desire and hope to achieve, not because one person thinks X is more valuable than Y and the other thinks the first is mistaken, but simply because each has (at that particular moment) more interests in one rather than the other.

He argues that when we try to bring people round to our view we do not attempt to argue that one interest is in some way better than another, but simply drop in words which appeal to the various interests each holds. Therefore when there is a debate about a moral issue, the two sides are not seriously attempting to show that the other side has mistaken views about the ethical matters at hand, but are simply trying to enter other pejorative words into the debate. When people talk about fox hunting, for example, the two sides introduce different words and ideas - one side using terms like 'vermin' and 'culling' and the other side using words like 'murder' and 'inhumane'. The claim is that it is not that either side believes that we should like vermin, or dislike culling, support murder or praise inhumanity, but that they each try to introduce such words to cloud the issue or put a different face on it. A major problem with this view, however, is that it doesn't in any way attack the idea that there are underlying ethical truths. If both sides knew everything about the issue and understood all the words that could be applied to it correctly, would they agree? If they would then it seems that far from simply expressing random opinions on the matter, there is an objective truth in play which leads to their consensus.

If Stevenson is correct, that ethical statements are merely there to alter or strengthen people's opinions then there is a major question that he still must answer - namely how they gain the power to do just this. If ethical words simply express approval or disapproval then it should be clear, as many attackers of emotivism have seen, that they should not have any power to affect people's opinions. There is no reason when someone I am talking to should change their actions simply because I say 'I don't like the chewing of gum'; they might do something about it if I were to phrase it as 'I don't like the chewing of gum, and I'll hurt you if you continue', or even 'I don't like the chewing of gum because it leads to toothache' - but clearly we cannot paint pure ethical claims as threats or appeals to someone's well-being - we are not trying to assert that it will benefit the other person to act in line with our approvals, according to Stevenson, but simply telling them of what we approve.

Ayer, however, avoids this problem, by presenting the system in a slightly different way. Rather than claiming that ethical statements are used to express ones feelings of approval and disapproval, Ayer suggests that they are simply evincing such feelings. He is effectively drawing a parallel between an ethical statement and the way someone goes 'Ow!' when they hurt themselves. People don't say 'Ow!' in an attempt to express their pain to someone else in order to elicit help or sympathy, they do so simply to evince their pain, almost as a reflex. Likewise with ethical assertions, we are not trying to say to someone 'I have this approval', we are merely making what is almost just an outburst - 'Approval!'. One of Warnock's chief attacks on emotivism is that it assumes that people are trying to change people's views, and actively seeks to alter their opinion on a matter. Ayer's system deals with this objection very nicely. Rather than claiming that in making an ethical statement we are trying to change someone's mind, Ayer removes the presumption that anything conscious is going on at all - it may be that someone is seeking to change the people around them and their opinions by expressing an opinion, but this is not at a conscious level - they are simply expressing a deeply felt (and certainly not necessarily well-grounded) feeling, and this is breaking out into the world in the form of words.

Ayer attacks ideas such as the Utilitarian claim that what is right is that which maximises happiness by claiming that this doesn't appear to be demonstrably the case, since there are sometimes things which would seem to maximise happiness that are not said by people to be right. Regardless of whether this were the case or not (and it is probably possible for a Utilitarian to argue that it is in fact not observably correct that there are cases where what is good isn't in line with what maximises happiness) this seems only to work as an argument again the simplest versions of such theories. Surely there are systems that adequately describe our views - even a list might suffice - and such a system would satisfy Ayer's requirement that we must be able to observe in people's opinions the sorts of ethical thoughts that systems claim to be prevalent.

Such a system, however, presupposes a consensus about what morality is and what things are right, yet such a consensus does not seem to be present throughout any societies, even when they hold the same basic moral systems to be correct. People argue about moral decision, and yet if emotivism were true such arguments would make no sense, since they would effectively just be trading opinions. If, for example, one person says 'X is right', for an emotivist it makes no sense for someone to come along and say 'No, X is wrong', since what the argument would effectively be saying is 'I think X is right', 'No, that's incorrect, because I think X is wrong', or, even worse, one person saying 'X - hoorah!' and the other saying 'X - boo!'. Clearly there is no disagreement here, and both opinions can happily be held at one and the same side. In fact the second person could even happily point to the first and say 'You think X is right, whereas I think X is wrong'. Moore points out that Ayer seems to claim just this - that disagreements about ethical issues simply cannot occur - and this seems patently ridiculous, unless we are going to claim that everyone is being very silly indeed in arguing about things where there cannot be any argument to be had. Ayer claims, however, that we never try to show that someone is wrong about values, but only facts (in a sort of hard-line version of the fox hunting argument above). This simply does not appear observably to be the case. His point, however, that arguments seem to work only in societies where systems already are in place does seem to be an interesting one. He claims that when we argue about moral matters we frequently exchange a debate about which view fits best a moral system - so people trade off claims such as that 'A reflects the will of God better than B', or 'X is better for the maximisation of happiness than Y', and it does indeed seem somewhat strange to see people argue that 'A reflects the will of God better than X maximises happiness'. Clearly many arguments do involve the question of how well choices obey certain ethical axioms, and Ayer introduces an interesting question in denying that moral arguments make any sense when they are not simply arguments about adherence to a system.

Overall, therefore, there must surely be some truth in emotivism in that it does psychologically describe the view we express some of the time. I would, however, support the doctrine much further than this - it does seem clear that moral truths must appeal to something that can be shown and that a claim of 'Murder is just wrong' will always beg the question 'Why?'. It must not be thought that emotivism rules out the possibility that there is a way to verify ethics, it simply says that no good was appears yet to have been offered; if one were then emotivism would not be dead, it would simply lend support to that particular ethical theory, in saying that demonstrability is the most important factor in deciding which theory to go with, as, indeed, I believe it should be.