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Moral theory

Emotivism (A. J. Ayer): An introduction and overview

Information: This is Part 1 of an article exploring the fundamental features of Emotivism (as set out in chapter 6 of A. J. Ayer's book Language, Truth and Logic (1936)), as well considering some of the developments Charles Stephenson made to this ethical philosophy. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from the 1971 edition of Language, Truth and Logic. A version of this article was originally published on the website

Key Terms

  • Analytic statements: Where any description (predicate) about a subject in a statement, is contained in the subject (E.g. 'All bachelors [subject] are unmarried men [predicate]'). Analytic statements are also tautologies.
  • Synthetic statements: Where any description (predicate) about a subject in a statement, is not contained in the subject (E.g. 'Some bachelors [subject] have girlfriends [predicate]'). Synthetic statements need to be validated in some way, usually by our experience of the way things are in the world.


Front cover of Language, Truth and Logic by A. J. AyerEmotivism is not so much a moral theory, but a method for understanding the nature of moral propositions (or moral language). The Emotive theory of ethics stems from the school of Logical Positivism, whose proponents wanted to ground knowledge in what could be known through experience - or what was logically the case. They believed that anything which could not be verified by logical analysis, or through sense-experience (i.e. touch, taste, sight etc.), was deemed unverifiable. As such, to speak about unverifiable things was simply pointless (or meaningless). In terms of theology, Logical Positivism challenged (and rejected) the existence of God. In terms of ethics, it questioned the factual content of ethical statements (and rejected moral absolutism).

In grounding knowledge on experience, Logical Positivism leads people to say that the world (and everything in it) is all there is!

Something to think about: Where do we get our knowledge from? Is there any knowledge which is not grounded in some form of experience?

A Critique of Ethics

In Chapter 6 of his book, Language, Truth and Logic, British Philosopher A. J. Ayer (1910-89) attempted to set out, 'an account of 'judgements of value' that is both satisfactory in itself and consistent with our general empiricist principles' (p.136). The method he used to establish this was as follows:

  • All statements which can be logically or empirically verified as having factual content are 'significant' (analytic and synthetic propositions).
  • All statements which cannot be verified as having factual content, are 'expressions of emotion and neither true or false'.

In terms of our knowledge of 'facts' about the world, Ayer believed that such knowledge is justified only if, 'what one is said to know be true, secondly that one can be sure of it, and thirdly that one should have the right to be sure' (The Problem of Knowledge (1956), p.35). In the case of ethics, he suggests that those who ground morality on 'normative' principles (E.g. Utilitarianism), believe they are right to do so because they regard these principles as fundamental, and they claim to know them to be true. For example, in the case of Utilitarianism the principle of 'causing the greatest happiness, or greatest balance of pleasure over pain', is held to be a foundational principle with which to judge the moral worth of all our actions. Utilitarians believe that this can be seen in the way people live their lives (people seek pleasure and avoid pain), as that moral statements are factually true, when they are grounded on the Principle of Utility.

However, Ayer believed problems arise when foundational principles yield contradictory behaviours. For instance, the Utilitarian principle of the 'greatest balance of pleasure over pain', is said to be a moral fact. However, what happens when this 'fact' can be seen in totally opposite behaviours?

'It is not self-contradictory to say that some pleasant things are not good, or that some bad things are desired.' (p.139)

Photograph of the sum 2 + 2 = 5The problem Ayer is highlighting is that when Utilitarians find moral conflicts arising on the basis of their fundamental principles, with what criteria will they then be able to establish whether either of these conflicting behaviours is the moral 'fact'? In other words, if 'normative' ethical statements are factually significant, they must be capable of verification - but how are we to do this? Ayer goes on to say, 'Considering the use which we have made of the principle that a synthetic proposition is significant only if it is empirically verifiable, it is clear that the acceptance of an 'absolutist' theory of ethics [which is not grounded in experience] would undermine the whole of our main argument' (p.141 [Bracket mine]).

Therefore, according to Ayer conflicts between ethical statements based on the same 'normative' principle cannot be reconciled, and as such this is the basis of his Emotivist theory of ethics.

'We begin by admitting that the fundamental ethical concepts are unanalysable, inasmuch as there is no criterion by which one can test the validity of the judgements in which they occur.' (p.141f)

Something to do and discuss: Think about ONE reason why it could be said to be right for a country to go to war and one against this, based on the principle of this having a positive effect for the country. Both reason have positive consequences as the reason why they are 'good', yet one reason supports going to war and one says not to. Now on what basis can we decide which of these statements is right, or wrong (i.e. that going to war is good, or not)?


Moral statements are not facts!

Fundamental to understanding Ayer's critique of ethics, is his idea that ethical statements are NOT facts! The rejection of ethical statements as 'facts' by Logical Positivists, is key to understanding Ayer's position here:

'The presence of an ethical symbol in a proposition adds nothing to its factual content. Thus if I say to someone, 'You acted wrongly in stealing that money,' I am not saying anything more than if I had simply said, 'You stole that money.' In adding that this action is wrong I am not making any further statement about it. I am simply evincing my moral disapproval of it. It is as if I had said, 'You stole that money,' in a peculiar tone of horror, or written it with the addition of some special exclamation marks.' (p.142)

For Ayer, the statement 'Stealing money is wrong' has no factual meaning. Consider how he arrives at this conclusion, using the Principle of Utility as an example:

  • [1] The principle of the 'greatest balance of pleasure over pain' means 'Stealing money is wrong', because the person stolen from will suffer as a result.
  • [2] The principle of the 'greatest balance of pleasure over pain' means 'Stealing money is not wrong', because the person who is stealing the money will suffer as they have no means with which to buy food.

Stealing a wallet from a back pocketIf [1] and [2] are factual propositions, then either [1] is true or [2] is true. This is because [1] and [2] contradict each other, and cannot be true at the same time. Now both statements are based on the Principle of Utility, yet both are suggesting radically different ethical 'facts' about the nature of stealing. If either [1] or [2] was an ethical 'fact', then we should in theory be able to verify which one is true (or not). If the notion of 'wrongness' has some factual content to it, then this should aid us in deciding.

However, 'wrongness' (for Ayer) is not a fact, it is more an interpretation of events. The 'presence of an ethical symbol in a proposition' (in this case - 'is wrong' or 'is not wrong'), 'adds nothing to its factual content'. By saying, 'Stealing money is wrong' (or 'Stealing money is not wrong'), one is merely expressing a feeling (or a  personal belief) about the subject. There are no facts to debate here, just a report of what one believes (or feels) to be the case (or not). It is as good as saying 'Stealing, hooray!' (or 'Stealing, boo!').

Something to think about: Reflect for a moment on the picture above. In describing the various elements in it one might say there is a person, a pocket, a wallet and a hand. But what is happening in this picture? Well, one might say that someone is either taking a wallet from the pocket, or putting it back. Okay, so let's say that the wallet is being taken from the pocket, and not by the person who's wallet it is, and nor by someone they know. At this point one might be tempted to say that the wallet is being stolen. However, the word 'stolen' is not an element present in the picture. When asked to describe what is happening, all one can do is describe what one sees. The picture is not about the moral significance of what is occurring. That is an interpretation of what is going on in the picture. Words like 'steal' or 'stolen' may invoke some feeling about what is going on. However, to say 'The wallet is being stolen', is simply an interpretation of what is going on! 'Stolen' is not an element in the picture. Therefore, this picture has no factual content, insofar as Emotivism is concerned.

Let us consider another statement: 'Murder is wrong!' Does this statement have factual content, or not? Firstly, the simple act of defining what 'murder' is is complex enough. However let's say for the sake of convenience, that it is the act of taking another person's life without their consent (this being deemed to be wrong). The problem here is that soldiers would then be held accountable for murder, during times of war.

Picture of man firing a gunSo let's change this to the idea that murder is acting against what has been established by social law. This protects the soldier, but it makes 'murder' simply an act deemed wrong by laws and social conventions (not an act wrong in itself). This would mean that 'murder' is not wrong, if there is no law preventing it. So let us consider whether the 'murderous act' has some inherent wrongness in it. The problem here is that 'wrongness' is a matter of degree, and is often decided according to 'conscience' (either individual or collective). Thus we seem to be left with a subjective response to the matter, decided by who has the more sensitive conscience, or not.

What about the possibility that God has given humanity an innate sense that murder is wrong (via our conscience)? The problem here is that one first needs to be believe in God to agree with this, and that technically atheists would be allowed to commit murder because they do not. Furthermore, sometimes people say that God has told them to commit murder! Thus, we would need some 'neutral' criteria with which to evaluate whether what God had willed, was actually a 'good' thing to do (or not). All this means that in the end, the statement, 'Murder is wrong!' appears to have 'no objective validity whatsoever'.

'[Moral statements are] unverifiable for the same reason as a cry of pain or a word of command is unverifiable - because they do not express genuine propositions.' (p.144)

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