Emotivism

A number of thinkers influenced by logical positivism, most notably A. J. Ayer and Charles L. Stevenson, rejected intuitionism and with it the conviction that moral discourse was objective and cognitive. The resulting theory, emotivism, denied that "good" or "right" named any sort of objective, intuitable property. Rather, to say of something that it is "good" or "evil," "right" or "wrong," is to express a subjective attitude or emotional response toward it. For example, the proposition, "You ought not to have lied to that patient," asserts nothing more than "you lied to that patient"; the "ought" merely notes an attitude of disapproval on the part of the speaker. Emotivists emphasize the imperative quality of moral utterance. To say lying is wrong is, in effect, to issue the command, "Do not lie." To place ethical discourse in a recognizable context, the effort on the part of agents is to influence the behavior of others and to persuade them to adopt different beliefs. If emotivists like Ayer and Stevenson are right about the meaning of moral statements, the demand to account for "moral knowledge" is senseless, since all moral discourse is inherently noncognitive, nonrational, and subjective.

Perhaps this is an acceptable price to pay to make the phenomenon of moral disagreement intelligible. An intuitionist would be vexed by disagreements such as the following:

(1a) Active, involuntary euthanasia is morally acceptable under certain conditions, versus (1b) Active, involuntary euthanasia is always immoral, under any and all conditions.

Yet what for the intuitionist is an epistemological dilemma, for the emotivist is not a dilemma at all. The proponent of (1a) is "commending" the permissibility of involuntary, active euthanasia under certain conditions rather than asserting a true-or- false proposition; she is expressing a "pro-attitude" toward (1a), and trying to persuade others to do so as well. The proponent of (1b) is doing precisely the same thing, expressing an "anti-attitude." The disagreement is one of subjective attitude and feeling and does not concern anything objective; there is no deep, moral truth under dispute.

But perhaps it might be premature to claim that the ability to make sense of moral disagreement thereby vindicates emotivism. One serious difficulty with emotivism is that it narrows the human significance of moral discourse by flatly denying that whenever one makes a moral claim, one places oneself in the position of having to back up that claim by citing what one takes to be good reasons in its behalf.

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