Cognitivism and Non-Cognitivism
Cognitivism in meta-ethics claims that moral judgments can be evaluated in terms of truth and falsity; and can be the upshot of cognitively accessing the facts which render them true. Non-cognitivism denies this; in particular, it denies the first claim, typically arguing instead that moral judgments are, at root, expressions of feeling or commands.
Emotivism is a particular non-nogitive theory associated with Ayer and Stevenson. It takes on much of its inspiration from Hume, and its central claims have since been refined by philosophers such as Blackburn and Gibbard in order to respond to may of the objections raised against it. In this sense, it is an historical theory, rather than a live one; but its decendants are doing very well.
Ayer rejects cogitivism on the basis of Moore's open question argument, together with his commitment to verification. Following Moore, he claims that any factual anaylsis of good is inadequate, for the question may always be meaningfully asked whether an action that meets the analysis is nevertheless good. He then rejects Moore's intuitionism on the basis of verification: "Unless it is possible to provide some criterion by which one may decide between conflicting intuitions, a mere appeal to intuition is worthless as a test of a proposition's validity". Having concluded that ethical statements are literally meaningless, Ayer nevetheless, and perhaps, rather paradoxically, doesn't throw ethics away with metaphysics, but allows that literal meanings is not the only kind of 'meaning' a statement might have. Ethical judgments have emotive significance: 'If I say to someone, "You acted wrongly in stealing that money" ... 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'.
A first question we may prose, then, is whether Ayer can successfully defend a distinction between statements which are (out and out) nonsense, and those that have emotive significance; and whether, if he can, it will rule that ethical statements have emotive significance, but metaphysical ones don't. However, emotivism doesn't turn on this defence, for irrespective of a general analysis of meaning, we may still claim that ethical statements have emotive significance. Stevenson, for example, grants that may moral terms have descriptive significance, but argues that their distinctively ethcial element relates to the expression or arousal of emotion. (This second aspect is often overlooked in discussions, and wrongly so; it is easier to think of counter examples in which I am not expressing my feelings than cases in which I'm not seeking to influence others.) The strength of the theory rests in the obvious connection between morality and feelings, and its observations of the differences between moral and scientific debate.
Ayer famously claims that moral disputes are always either disputes about facts (not values) or exchanges of insults. Stevenson improves on the latter, providing a more extended analysis of *** debates that continue after the facts are agreed upon can be understood as disagreements in attitudes. Disagreements here should be understood in terms of assertions and truth values, but in terms of practical commitments - we can't live by both sets of commitments.
Numerous objects have been made to emotivism, many of them fairly technical. It is important to seperate the fundamental idea of emotivism - that moral judgments are in some way expressions of feeling, and should recieve a non-cognitive analysis - from the particular analysis that emotivism provides. Non-cognitivist theories have become very sophisicated since the formulations of Ayer and Stevenson.
1) Emotivism accepts that we treat moral predicates as though they refer to properties of the object, but claims this superficial feature doesn't reflect the deeper nature of moral judgments. But it doesn't explain how, once we have realised this, we can continue using moral language in good faith. Isn't it simply a mistake to think that 'right' and 'wrong' refer to properties in the world? And so, shouldn't moral language be eliminated or at least revised to reflect the true nature of such statements? The mistaken nature of moral language raises the further the concern that we can't take our moral judgments seriously - for isn't the emotivist committed to the claim that, in fact, 'wrong' acts are not really wrong?
2. How are we to understand cases in which moral statements aren't asserted, e.g. "If killing is wrong, then abortion is wrong" (known as the Frege-Geach problem)? It can't be "if boo to killing, then boo to abortion", for this fails to convey the logical nature of argument in "Killing is wrong. If killingg is wrong, then abortion is wrong. Therefore, abortion is wrong"
3. If moral judgments express emotions, then a change in emotions entails a change in moral judgment. The emotivist, therefore appears to be committed to saying that if our emotions changed, so would rightness and wrongness. But this is couterintuitive: if we didn't care about animals, this would not make it right to mistreat them.
4. Which emotion do moral judgments express? Ayer suggests that it is distinctive, but he doesn't tell us anything about it. If there are irreducible feeling of moral approval and disapproval? If this is the claim, the analysis of moral judgmennt ("a moral judgment is one that expresses a feeling of moral approval or disapproval") extremely thin - what makes this feeling distinctively moral? And what observable behaviour manifests distinctively moral disapproval as opposed to some other sort? The idea of an irreducible moral sentiment does not sit well with Ayer's verificationism. On the other hand, if the emotion isn't distinctively moral, what else could make a moral judgment distinctively moral (rather than aesthetic, say)? What is the emotivist analysis an analysis of?
Many of these objections receive initial replies from Simon Blackburn, who makes the ingenious, but simple, move of noting that we form emotions of approval and disapproval not only towards action, but towards other ethical sensibilities; and that many of the debates surrounding non-cogitivism can be seen as the expression of ethical sensibilities, rather than claims in metaethics. For example, to claim that if our emotions changed, right and wrong would change is the expresson of an ethical sensibility of which we can disapprove; and hence non-cognitivism can resist the charge that it is committed to such a claim. Blackburn's sophisticated claims lead us from emotivism to 'quasi-realism', but that is not our subject here