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Can emotivism make sense of moral judgements?


To: Pearl K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Can emotivism make sense of moral judgements?
Date: 8 May 2006 16:16

Dear Pearl,

Thanks for your email of 8 May, with your University of London essay, 'Can emotivism make sense of moral judgements?' You caught me just in the nick of time!

Why would anyone want to be an emotivist? A.J. Ayer who put forward an emotivist theory of moral judgement in his book 'Language, Truth and Logic' would be a good example.

In 'Language, Truth and Logic', Ayer argues that a proposition or judgement can be meaningful only if it is 'verifiable in principle'. A statement like, 'There is a mountain on Pluto which is more than 30000 metres high' is verifiable in principle. However, the statement, 'Torturing animals is wrong' is not verifiable. The only empirical data which we have, or could have even in principle, which is relevant to the torture of animals is that some persons 'like' it while others 'dislike' it.

Susan can say, truthfully and verifiably, that she strongly dislikes the torture of animals. This is an empirical judgement about her mental state. But when she saw the news report she didn't say this. She said, 'It is WRONG to torture animals.' Emotivism is concerned to explain what we are doing when we use words like 'right' or 'wrong'.

Does this make sense of moral judgements?

There are two central issues. One is concerned with the possibility of giving reasons for or against moral judgement. The other is concerned with the role of moral judgements as antecedents of conditionals.

If we want to be able to give reasons for or against moral judgments then we must be able to make sense of their role as the antecedents of conditionals, as you show in your four step argument.

Here you need to say something about what is required in order for a proposition to appear as the antecedent of a conditional. The requirement is that the proposition in question is capable of being 'true', i.e. that it has 'truth conditions'.

On the surface, we can apply the term 'true' to any sequence of words which form a grammatical statement. For example, 'It is wrong to torture animals' is true. That is how one is able to write down arguments using moral premisses and conclusions and formally test them for validity.

The problem is that the whole point of emotivism is to avoid having to attribute truth conditions to moral statements!

Another way to put the problem is to say that 'it is wrong to cause harm to innocents' in step 1. according to emotivism has a different meaning from 'it is wrong to cause harm to innocents' in step 2. thus rendering the argument invalid.

There is a possible way to get out of this. That would be to explain the truth conditions of moral judgements in terms of their *capacity* to invoke emotion. On this view, 'It is wrong to torture animals' is true, if and only if a sufficiently large proportion (whatever that means) of people when faced with an animal-torturing situation are prompted to say, 'Boo!' (i.e. express their strong displeasure).

On this emended emotivist theory, when I say, 'It is wrong to torture animals' I am making a truth claim, to the effect that a sufficiently large proportion of people agree in feeling emotions of strong displeasure at the torture of animals. Unfortunately, this move has the curious consequence that I could be a member of the small minority of people who love torturing animals and still say, 'It is wrong to torture animals!' which is a curious version of emotivism.

On the other hand, this theory captures the sense of 'righteousness' that we feel when we make a moral judgement. When we make moral judgements we demand or expect that others agree with the way we feel. On the simple emotivist theory, I am merely giving my personal subjective reaction, which might be different from everyone else. My disgusted reaction to the news report on the simple view is no different from, say, my disgusted reaction to the taste of pineapple. Just because I retch at the sight, smell or taste of pineapple doesn't necessarily have any implications for my views about the eating habits of others. Indeed, I might well be upset about my inability to enjoy pineapple, and envy those who are able to enjoy it.

I hope that helps.

All the best,