Friday, January 25, 2013

[PHI 2200] Emotivism and Relativism

There is an interesting post over at Steinblog about Ayer's (the badass) emotivism. In the comments, Jesse outlines the following argument against emotivism:
  1. Any plausible moral [i.e., meta-ethical] theory ought to be able to make sense of moral disagreement.
  2. Emotivism cannot make sense of moral disagreement.
  3. Therefore, emotivism is not a plausible moral [i.e., meta-ethical] theory.
What do you make of this argument?

Here is a potential reply on behalf of the emotivist. Consider the following:
A: It's hot in here.
B: No, it's not.
Apparently, A and B disagree. But the disagreement is only apparent. What A really means is "I feel hot in here" or "It feels hot to me," whereas what B really means is "I don't feel hot in here" or "It doesn't feel hot to me."

Now, consider the following:
A: That's wrong.
B: No, it's not.
Apparently A and B disagree. But the disagreement is only apparent. What A really means is "It feels wrong to me," whereas what B really means is "It doesn't feel wrong to me."

So, the emotivist could argue that moral disagreements (like CASE II) are merely apparent disagreements (like CASE I), not real disagreements.

What do you make of this reply on behalf of the emotivist?


  1. Denying the first premise and insisting that moral disagreements are merely apparent and are like other apparent disagreements like the one you mention over whether a room is hot or not doesn't do justice to common-sense/widely-held intuitions. One intuition is that when people have a moral dispute, they are engaged in a real disagreement over a fact. Whether some action is actually morally permissible or not is something that people disagree over. And this seems like a real disagreement, not merely an apparent one. When I say "We ought to have more stringent laws related to guns" and you say "No we don't," it seems we are doing more than simply expressing our feelings. It looks as if we expressing beliefs that are truth-evaluable. It appears as if we are disputing whether something is the case--in the sense that what I say and what you say are in conflict. But Ayer's view is that all of this is a mistake. I think what Dr. Steinberg was getting at is that Ayer doesn't give a good enough argument as to why we ought to deny that things are the way they look. Emotivism might be true, but it involves denying something that seems plausible. So to simply say, as you describe it, that moral disagreement is apparent will not do the trick for removing the counterintuitiveness of Ayer's claim. In fact, it looks like the emotivist is just biting the bullet here. So, the reply is bound to be unpersuasive.

    The "emotivist" about how a room feels might have a case for why the disagreement you describe is only an apparent disagreement. But the emotivist about morality doesn't. This is because the cases seem importantly different. Disagreements about how a room feels don't seem to really be disagreements. But moral disagreements do seem to really be disagreements.

    1. To describe what’s going on here as “the emotivist is just biting the bullet” is somewhat inaccurate. Here is how I see it. Emotivism has several consequences (predictions, if you will). One of them is this: If emotivism is true, then moral disagreements are merely apparent, not real. Now, to some, this consequence of emotivism seems counterintuitive. But so what? On the face of it, this consequence is not absurd or contradictory. So why should the fact that it seems counterintuitive to some count against emotivism?

      As far as theories go, the history of science shows that theories that made seemingly counterintuitive predictions were subsequently vindicated (e.g., relativity and the bending of light). No one would argue that quantum mechanics is implausible because it makes counterintuitive predictions. No one would argue that the Standard Model of elementary particles is probably wrong because it implies that macroscopic objects are composed of mostly empty space, which seems counterintuitive. So why should an implication of a meta-ethical theory that seems counterintuitive count against that theory?

      If anything, we need a good reason to believe that things are as they seem, since it is often the case that things are not as they seem (as far as theories and their predictions go).

      By the way, it is also somewhat inaccurate to say that “It looks as if we expressing beliefs that are truth-evaluable. […] But Ayer's view is that all of this is a mistake.” In CASE I and CASE II, what A and B say is truth-evaluable. The room either feels warm to A or it doesn’t. A and B’s claims are either true or false. It’s just that their claims are about their emotions.

  2. Thanks for your reply to me Dr. Mizrahi. I'm "anonymous" from the last comment.

    I see what you mean about biting the bullet. I agree also that there's nothing contradictory about saying that moral judgments are expressions of emotions and that moral disagreements are merely apparent. But I still think that a metaethical theory ought to be in line with commonsense unless there's some overriding reason to think that commonsense gets it wrong. And since it's commonsense that moral disagreements exist, that they're not merely apparent, the emotivist needs to do something to show that their non-commonsense view is correct. The reply to the objection you mentioned denies premise one. So you deny commonsense. And to say something like "well it's not contradictory to deny premise one" doesn't really remove the force of the objection. It does still sound like biting a bullet to me. Sorry for not agreeing with you :) It's as if the emotivist admits that what the opponant wants that there's no such thing as moral disagreement. But that's not commonsense.

    You say that many commonsense theories are often wrong. But I'm not so sure that this is true. And there are overriding reasons for accepting the counterintuitive ones. It took alot of arguments to show that we should accept relativity and deny commonsense. I expect the emotivist to offer strong arguments before I'm willing to accept their argument. I think also that common sense gets things right very often. It's commonsense that objects fall to the ground, that more force is required to move more massive objects, etc. If one were to deny these theories of commonsense, then they'd need to show us why we should deny them. Commonsense is "innocent until proven guilty." So Ayer needs to prove that our intuitions about morality are "guilty" before I'll give up my intuition that moral disagreements exist. Do you know what I mean? I think the kind of argument I've got in mind here is called an "abductive argument", an argument for the best explanation. And the emotivist doesn't have the best explanation as far as I can tell.

    Thanks again for answering me. I like your blog very much.


This is an academic blog about critical thinking, logic, and philosophy. So please refrain from making insulting, disparaging, and otherwise inappropriate comments. Also, if I publish your comment, that does not mean I agree with it. Thanks for reading and commenting on my blog.