Emotivism - Strengths and Weaknesses

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Strength and Weaknesses of Emotivism


  1. Consistent with the Open Question Argument

Any attempt to define ‘good’ in terms of facts leaves open the question as to whether these facts really are good.  Therefore moral judgements do not describe natural facts – instead, it is possible that they are expressions of attitude/ emotion.

2. Supported by Hume's Law

Empirical investigation cannot discover any fact of the matter corresponding to our moral concepts. A complete scientific account of reality would not include terms of moral approval or disapproval. No factual description of an action can entail a value judgement concerning it. 


1.Oversimplifies Disagreement

When we argue, we seem to be doing more than just expressing feelings. It seems that we are reasoning with someone in ways which suggest that there are rational ways of assessing moral attitudes.

We expect moral views to be consistent and coherent, which we would not expect if they were mere feelings which are beyond the reach of reason. But emotivism seems to reduce ethical debate to emotional manipulation.

Given that we do not necessarily become emotional when discussing moral issues, and can recognise the immorality of certain actions without being moved emotionally, this seems wrong.

 James Rachels criticizes Ayer for drawing a parallel between a reaction to something like pain, and a moral response an ethical problem. Rachels claims that moral judgements appeal to reason – the statement ‘I like coffee’ needs no rational justification, but moral judgements require reasons, otherwise they are arbitrary.

Ayer’s Response:

Ethical discussion is about the facts.

For example, when arguing about abortion, we draw each other’s attentions to certain facts. If we agree on the facts, but disagree morally, there is simply nothing left to discuss.

So, ethical debates are rational insofar as they are concerned with facts, and this means that attitudes can change as a result of factual information – but ultimately, the attitudes themselves are not rational. Furthermore, moral statements are not expressions of emotion – they express feelings of approval/disapproval.

2. The verification principle is unverifiable

An issue with logical positivism as a whole is that according to the principle of verification, the verification principle is itself meaningless. The claim that ‘a statement has meaning only if it is analytic or empirically verifiable’ is not itself analytically/synthetically verifiable.

But if it is meaningless, it cannot be true - so it does not provide a valid argument for ethics being meaningless.

Response: Stevenson’s Emotivism.

3.No limits placed on what can be valued [Naturalism]

A difficulty for emotivists is that they


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