The Hoorah/Boo Theory of Ethics: A. J. Ayer Part 1

Notes and Thoughts on A. J. Ayer’s Critique of Ethics and Theology

Favourite Quote: “The propositions which describe the phenomena of moral experience must be assigned to psychology or sociology.  The exhortations to moral virtue are not propositions at all, but ejaculations or commands which are designed to provoke the reader to action of a certain sort…A strictly philosophical treatise on ethics should therefore make no ethical pronouncements.  But it should, by giving an analysis of ethical terms, show what is the category to which all such pronouncements belong.”


A. J. Ayer’s ethical philosophy is known as emotivism, which is sometimes known as hoorah/boo theory.  Basically, he argues that our moral inclinations and expressions are only reducible to emotional attitudes of approval or disapproval, hence hoorah/boo theory.  Moral statements and judgments have no meaning beyond that.

Emotivism is grounded in the epistemology of verificationism, which is idea that if the contents of a statement about the world don’t correspond to something in the world (that can be empirically verified) then it is a meaningless statement (i.e. it has not content).  We should be able to verify all statements for truth or falsity, if they are to have any meaning.   For example, if I say “my car has four wheels”, that is a meaningful statement because it is saying something about the world that can be empirically verified–you can look at my car and count the wheels and test if the statement is true of false.  

Ayer wants to argue that value statements are empirical but their content doesn’t correspond to what most people think it does.  For example, if I said, “you ought to help old ladies across the street”, we must ask, what does “ought” correspond to in the empirical world?  What could I check this against in the real world to verify whether the statement is true?  

One possible answer is that these statements correspond to moral facts.  But how do I measure a moral fact?  Where are they?  Can I touch them? Feel them? Taste them? See them? Hear them?  This is a problem.  

Another possible answer is that value statements like “x is good” or “one ought to x” correspond to empirical statements like “x produces happiness” or “doing x produces happiness”.  As we will see this solution has problems too.  Ayer’s answer is that value statements/judgments only reduce to the attitudes of “hooray” or “boo”, not empirical statements.  

Argument Against Judgments of Value

Ayer begins by considering a possible argument against his verificationist, emotivist position.  Lets define a few terms before we get into it.  The first is speculative knowledge.  Think of a philosopher sitting in his chair smoking a pipe thinking about how the world works (that’s wut we duz).  The product of this enterprise is speculative knowledge (he achieved the speculative knowledge through reasoning).  It is the type of knowledge we acquire through reflection and application of principles of reason.  Opponents of Ayer argue that from speculative knowledge we can identify two distinct kinds:  (a) those which relate to empirical facts about the world, and (b) those that are statements of value.  Ayer wants to say that speculative knowledge is of only one kind–(a)-type; there is no (b)-type.

Lets look at (a) statements first.  Imagine you are a world famous detective and you are looking for an excaped (i.e., wearing a cape shaped like an ‘x’) criminal.  The criminal cut himself on the barbed wire while jumping over the prison fence (he used to be an olympic high jumper).  You notice there are droplets of blood every 10 feet or so.  Using principles of reason you speculate that if you follow the trail of blood you’ll find the criminal.  

This scenario is an example of using speculative reason which relates to empirical facts about the world.  If you are so inclined you can test your statement “following the trail of blood will lead to the criminal”; that is, you can test whether the content of the statement matches up with the real world.  Also notice, that this type of speculative reason allows you to make predictions that can be verified, i.e., “if I follow the trail of blood, I’ll find the criminal”.

Consider (b) statements, that is, statements of value.  Lets use the usual example, “one ought to help little old ladies across the street”.  Opponents of Ayer want to argue that these statements are empirical statements about the real world, but unlike the (a)-type statements, we can’t use them to make predictions about the world.  They are a special branch of empirical statement that, despite their inability to be used for predictions, nevertheless do express something about the world.  

Ayer’s Account of Judgments of Value:  Can Ethical Statements Be Translated Into Statements of Empirical Fact?

As I mentioned briefly in the introduction, Ayer thinks value statements/judgements do correspond to something empirical, and that is the psychological states of “boo” or “hooray”.  He says

We shall set ourselves to show that in so far as statements of value are significant, they are ordinary “scientific” statements; and that in so far as they are not scientific, they are not in the literal sense significant, but are simply expressions of emotion which can be neither true or false. 

What does this mean?  The short version is that value statement do reduce to something empirical (emotional states of hoorah/boo) but don’t reduce to anything empirically verifiable any more significant than hoorah/boo. To examine his argument we need to look at how it applies to propositions that express definitions of ethical terms and determine whether statements of ethical value can be restated in terms that are empirically verifiable.  Lets see if we can get value statements to translate into empirically verifiable statements…

Case 1:  Vs. Subjectivist and Utilitarian Account of Ethics

Quick terminology lesson:  Subjectivists think that statements about the rightness of an act can be translated in terms of statements about the feelings of approval which a particular person or group feels toward the action.  So, for a subjectivist, if a person or community says “helping little old ladies across the street is good”, it is equivalent to saying “I/we have feelings of approval toward helping little old ladies across the street”. 

Utilitarians think that statements about the rightness of an act can be translated into statements about the pleasure or happiness that arise from the act.  For example, if a utilitarian says, “helping little old ladies across the street is good” it is equivalent to saying “helping little old ladies across the street increases happiness and/or pleasure”.

As I have shewn, both subjectivists and utilitarians believe that ethical statements can be translated into empirical statements of fact about subjective feeling or happiness, respectively.  Ayer sets out to prove this claim false.  To do so he relies on something similar to the naturalistic fallacy that we saw in G. E. Moore.  Lets deal with subjectivism first:

For a subjectivist saying something is good is equivalent to saying something is approved of by a person or community.  I.e., that feeling of approval are what make the thing good.  But there are plenty of example of things that are approved of but aren’t good (many of these examples might depend on where you sit on the political spectrum).  But, to use some historical examples, how about slavery and treating women as less than men?  These were approved of, but maybe not so good…Because of these (and plenty of other) counter examples we see that statements about what’s good cannot be reduced to statements about someone’s feelings of approval.

The utilitarian will have a similar problem.  Recall that he says that statements about good can be reduced to empirical statements about what produces the most happiness and/or pleasure.  I.e., The capacity to produce happiness is what makes something/an action good.  Well, heroin produces a lot of pleasure and happiness, does that mean passing out free heroin is good? (Only if it comes from Bangladesh, I hear).  There is no shortage of examples of actions that produce happiness and/or pleasure that few in their right mind would equate with ‘good’.  

In sum, we can’t say “x is good” is equivalent to “x brings about feelings of approval” or “x is good” is equivalent to “x brings about happiness”.  There are plenty of things we could plug in for ‘x’ that would show the sentences in each pair are not equivalent.  Ayer concludes that, whatever ‘good’ is, it is not empirically calculable.  In the man’s own words “[o]ur contention is simply that, in our language, sentences which contain normative ethical symbols are not equivalent to sentences which express psychological propositions, or indeed empirical propositions of any kind.”

Well, if subjectivism is wrong, and utilitarianism is wrong, maybe moral absolutism is the way to go?

Case 2:  Vs. Moral Absolutism

What’s moral absolutism?  Obviously, it’s the moral theory that pretty much anything goes–whatever you feel like doing is fine.  Ha! jk. lol.  Ok, for realz, think religion (but not necessarily).  There are whatever rules are written in a holy text, and those are the absolute moral rules.  There’s no room for leniency.  The laws are constitutive of morality for all time.  Acting against or changing the laws would be considered immoral.  Usually, along with moral absolutism comes the idea that all humans have some special (we’re special!) power to know what is right and wrong (this is the intuitionist branch).  We don’t need no fancy books, we can just feel what’s right in our hearts.  

Of course, absolutism makes its statements of value unverifiable because we can’t look inside the heads, nay! the hearts! of others to determine if they’re really feeling what’s right or just walking through the motions.  But wait, lets not be so dismissive.  Lets suppose absolutism is true and people can just sense what’s right and wrong.  How then do we explain the wide variety of moral views in the world, or even within families?  How do we explain people voting for George W. Bush 2x in a row?  Oooh! ad hominem!  How do we reconcile conflicting moral intuitions?  Do we have a “feel off” to determine who feels they’re right the strongest?  That’d be cool to watch.  

Conversely, when it comes to empirical statements we can objectively test the truth value of the statement.  Ethical statements about what is good or right or evil from an absolutist or intuitionist have no empirical test to which they can appeal.   So, we can conclude that ethical statements made by absolutists and their ilk (I just wanted to say that word) are unverifiable, although they may be saying something.  But here’s the dealee-yo: We want to say that synthetic statements (statements that require some sort of verification to determine truth value) are only significant (i.e., have meaning) if they are empirically verifiable.  But under the absolutist model, moral propositions might be about something, but their truth value is not verifiable; so of what use are they?

I’ll try to finish this up tomorrow with a part 2…g’nite

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