An Argument Against Emotivism

Emotivism is the view that ethical judgments do not express propositions or beliefs that can be true or false.  Instead, they express sentiments or feelings about certain actions, which cannot be either true or false.  When a person says “That is wrong!” it is no more true or false than saying “Ouch!”  This makes emotivism a non-cognitivist theory of ethics, non-cognitivism meaning that moral judgments have no truth-value since they are simply expressions of feelings, approval, disapproval, etc.

The big proponent of this view is A.J. Ayer

Thus if I say to someone, “You acted wrongly in stealing that money,” I am not stating 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 . . . If now I generalize my previous statement and say, “Stealing money is wrong,” I produce a sentence which has no factual meaning-that is, expresses no proposition which can be either true or false. (1)

“Murder is wrong”, then, is not a proposition or even an assertion.  It is simply an expression that has no truth-value.

This view seems to run into a certain problem (2).  According to emotivism, “Murder is wrong,” seems to be making an assertion, but it really isn’t making one at all.  But what about contexts where that statement isn’t even remotely making an assertion?  For example, “If murder is wrong, then it is wrong for my brother to murder someone.”  “Murder is wrong” is not being asserted here, it is a hypothetical.  How does the emotivist account for this sentence?  Perhaps “Murder is wrong” by itself has a different semantic function than it does in the conditional where it is not being asserted, but then we run into another problem.

1) Murder is wrong.

2) If murder is wrong, then getting my little brother to murder someone is wrong.

3) Therefore, getting my little brother to murder someone is wrong.

This seems to be a completely valid syllogism.  Cognitivists, who believe that moral judgments have truth-value, can easily account for this syllogism since “Murder is wrong” is an assertion that has truth-value.  It has the same meaning in (1) as it does in the antecedent of (2).  But how does the emotivist account for this syllogism?  If “Murder is wrong” has different semantic functions in (1) and (2), then the argument is guilty of equivocation.  It is no more valid than saying

4) My beer bottle has a head.

5) If my beer bottle has a head, then it has eyes, ears, and hair

6) Therefore, my beer bottle has eyes, ears, and hair.

This syllogism is obviously invalid because it equivocates on the meaning of “head.”

So, as Alexander Miller puts it

. . . how can you give an account of the occurrence of moral sentences in ‘unasserted contexts’ – such as the antecedents of conditionals – without jeopardizing the intuitively valid patterns of inference in which those sentences figure? (p. 42)


(1) Ayer, Alfred J. Language, Truth, and Logic. New York: Dover Publications, 1952. 107. Print.

(2) Miller, Alexander. An Introduction to Contemporary Metaethics. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2003. Print.

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5 Responses to An Argument Against Emotivism

  1. Pingback: Posts on Morality, God, and Ethical Theories | Into the Harvest

  2. Pingback: Dealing with Moral Multiplicity – Foundational Research

  3. steve says:

    Hi, thank you for writing this article. I however do not find your criticism to be convincing, what A. Miller pointed out could indeed be troublesome, but it in itself does not invalidate the core of what emotivism proclaims.

  4. flumswack says:

    Hi, I know this article is pretty old, but I just came across it. This is a well written article, but I have to disagree with your reasoning.

    The clause “if murder is wrong” is not an assertion, but it implies that murder CAN BE wrong, i.e, “murder is wrong” CAN BE an assertion. It is a hypothetical assertion that is actualised in the second clause.

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