Hurrah/Boo Theory of Ethics: A. J. Ayer Part 2

The Case for Emotivism


In part 1 we looked at Ayer’s arguments against the idea that any value assertion  (e.g. “x is good/right/bad”) by subjectivism, utilitarianism, or absolutism is not reducible to any testable claim, and is therefore meaningless, except as expressions of emotions of approval or disapproval.  So, for example, if I say “premarital sex is baaaaaaaaaaaad” there is nothing that I can measure this claim against to test whether it’s true except the attitude of disapproval.

Coincidentally, my friend, Dr. Nima just made a video that (unintentionally, I’m sure) closely demonstrates Ayer’s idea of what moral assertions reduce to.  Watch this video before proceeding so we can use it as a paradigm.  The emotivism starts at 1:20.!

Ok, now keep that video in mind as we explore Ayer’s theory…


As we saw in part 1, ethical concepts are unanalysable because there is no criterion by which we can test their validity.  So, value/moral words like “right/good/bad/evil” add nothing to the content of a sentence.  For instance, if I say “Dude! you’re hurting me and that’s baaaaad”, the content of that sentence is really just “Dude! you’re hurting me!” because that’s the only verifiable part of the sentence (i.e., I can check to see if I’m hurting you).  The “that’s baaaaad” part is simply the speaker indicating that they disapprove; it’s like saying “you’re hurting me!” with extra emphasis or, if I wrote it, with extra exclamation marks–or in caps lock if I’m really upset!  The value language doesn’t add any meaning to the sentence–it only displays approval or disapproval about the verifiable part of the sentence.  It’s just like the snowboarder and the spine’s various iterations of “dude!”

Lets take Ayer’s example of someone who says “stealing money is wrong”.   Since the “is wrong” part has no content I’m really just saying “stealing money!!!!!” in a certain tone and expressing moral disapproval.  What is important is the “is wrong” portion cannot be shown to be true or false; it is unverifiable.  Maybe someone disagrees with me and has different feeling about stealing.  But there is no way for either of us to prove the other wrong–no matter how many exclamation points I put at the end of the sentence, and no matter how much he shrugs his shoulders when he says “stealing money”.  In sum, no one can say they are right because there is no way to verify the proposition.  Simply put, there is nothing objective against which we can verify value claims.

How Is It Different from Subjectivism? 

Ayer is saying that moral claims express emotional attitudes–i.e., hurray! or boo!– toward acts or things.  How is this different from the subjectivist?  Subjectivism, as you surely recall, is the idea that values arise out of a person’s or culture’s attitudes toward acts and/or things.  For instance, a subjectivist might argue that slavery is bad because it elicits feelings of moral repugnance in our society.

The distinction is this, the subjectivists say that our emotional attitude toward slavery is the very thing that makes it “bad”, whereas Ayer says that our emotional attitudes don’t ascribe value.  He is merely giving a description of a person’s attitude toward something.   Think of it this way, is the fact that I feel that eating rabbits is evil sufficient to make it evil?  Nope.  What if our whole society thought eating rabbits was evil?  Still, probably not.  

Ayer’s point is that our emotional attitude toward things has no bearing on their moral value (in fact, there are no moral values, only moral attitudes), whereas the subjectivist says that moral value arises out of individual or collective emotional values.   So, Ayer would say that someone or a culture asserting “eating rabbits is wrong” is simply someone saying “eating rabbits!!!” with a certain tone and the “is wrong part” just refers to a particular attitude (boo!) expressed in the tone of voice.  The subjectivist thinks that “eating rabbit!!!” with the same negative tone and attitude is what makes feeding rabbits wrong.

Also, as we have seen, moral declarations aren’t translatable into anything that can be verified–only attitudes, and so have no content.  The subjectivist thinks moral assertions have content.

But Don’t People Actually Dispute Value Claims?

Ok, I need to do more reading on other things tonight so I’m going to go through this pretty quickly, my apologies if my explanations aren’t explicit enough.

Anyone who has come into contact with another human being can attest to having what seem like genuine disputes about values.  But if Ayer is right, and value statements aren’t really about values but just expressions of “hooray” or “boo”, what’s happening in these situations?  Are we having a competition to see who can say “hooray” or “boo” the strongest?  Admittedly, it sometimes seems that way…Consider Dr. Nima’s video, for example.

Ayer’s reply to this objection is that, if we look at our disputes more carefully, we are actually disputing facts.  So–at least until they totally disintegrate into verifiable “hooray/boo–offs”–people usually use arguments to support their positions.  What are the arguments usually about?  Maybe a misperceived motive of action? (e.g., I didn’t mean to cut you off) or misjudged effects of an action?  (e.g., “now, you’ve ruined everything!” “no, look, we can do x, y, z and everything will be fine”).  Maybe it’s about incomplete knowledge (“you don’t care about me cuz you didn’t call me last night” “My phone fell in the toilet…”). Anyhow, generally in arguments we are arguing about an interpretation of empirical facts, not over values.

It’s plausible that most of the time we are arguing over facts, when it’s with someone who grew up in the same social environment.  But there are times where both parties agree on the facts but still disagree on the moral value of an action.  In such cases, we throw up our hands and say it’s impossible to argue with them because the person has a distorted (from our perspective) sense of values.  We, invariably consider our set of moral values to be superior.  But, once we’ve agree on the empirical facts of a dispute, there are no arguments we can make for why our particular set of values is better than another’s, so we resort to verbal abuse.  Constructive argument stops because there is nothing factual (i.e. empirically verifiable) that we can refer to make our case.

We can only resolve moral arguments if we presuppose an already present system of values.  E.g., “Killing your enemy is good” “No, it’s not”.  “Yes it is, it says so right here verse 22 of the Upanishad–the one True book (i.e., presupposed shared system of values).  If the two parties have agreed on the facts but disagree on the values, there’s nothing they can reference to resolve the dispute.

That’s what Ayer says anyway.  Most people think there is some sort of universal morality.  That’s fine. But what about cases where reasonable people disagree on what the right thing to do is?  Is one person just wrong?  Does historical and cultural context matter?  Can we resolve it by saying “dude!” with different emphasis and tones?  It’s situations like these where Ayer’s emotivism comes crashing in.

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