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Emotivism: Ethics Is Not Expressed Rationally and Is Decided Emotionally


“Take any action allow’d to be vicious: Willful murder, for instance. Examine it in all its lights, and see if you can find that matter of fact, or real existence, which you call vice… You can never find it, till you turn your reflection into your own life, and find a sentiment of disapprobation, which arises in you, towards this action.” – David Hume


Through this article, the philosophy of emotivism will be defined, a brief history of where it came from will be given, and some core ideas that can be gathered will be compiled towards the end. We will also provide other resources to deepen your knowledge on the subject should you decide to.


What is Emotivism?


Emotivism in basic refers to the idea that all ethics and value judgments ultimately come from our emotions rather than rationality. So as a result under this theory, morality is an emotional attitude rather than a verified concept. This belief is closely related to analytical philosophy (breaking down systems of philosophical systems using rational analysis) and logical positivism (only statements that can be verified with logical proofs or direct observations are true).


Within this system, all moral concepts and systems within our world are as a result subjective and relative. Instead, the reason they exist and are treated as truth is that everyone agreed upon specific moral rules. However, an emotivist would claim that it is all relative and real verifiable reality has not been determined.


Subjectivism vs. Emotivism


The biggest difference between subjectivism and emotivism is how they define moral actions or concepts. Subjectivism focuses on defining moral judgment as statements that can be proven true or false which distances itself from emotion. However, an emotivist completely defines all morality as attitudes and commands which have their roots entirely in emotion.


A Brief History of Emotivist Theory


Emotivism owes its early development to the work of David Hume. In Book III of A Treatise on Human Nature (1738), Hume argues that our moral judgments are not making reasoned claims about the way the world is. He believed that morals have an influence on actions and feelings that reason alone cannot explain. Hume explains this through the example of one’s stance of murder. Despite both someone who is opposed to murder and someone supportive of it being able to come to consensus on the facts on any individual case they come to different conclusions on what should be done. To Hume, for two people to have such differing reactions despite no difference in their objective judgements must be driven by their individual emotions.


Emotivism first formally arose as a train of thought by British philosophers in the 1920s and 1930s. The British emotivists were reacting, in part, to the metaethical theory of non- naturalism advocated by G. E. Moore. Moore argued that moral words could not be defined except in terms of other moral words. From this he inferred from this that moral arguments are unable to describe natural or empirical facts as so doing always left out essential elements. Emotivists were convinced by these arguments, but rejected the notion of non-natural moral properties. To them the essential something not captured by naturalistic analysis of moral language is emotion.


A.J. Ayer used his ‘verification principle’ to arrive at his own version of emotivism. The principle is a criterion of meaning holding that to be a genuine statement of fact, a sentence must be either true by definition or empirically verifiable. Ayer viewed statements not verifiable by this principle as a “mere pseudo-proposition. The sentence may be emotionally significant to him, but it is not literally significant.” Calling back to Hume’s murder example, Ayer argued against the objective immorality of murder as there is nothing in its definition which makes it inherently wrong.


Charles Leslie Stevenson used Ayer’s theory of moral language to develop a meta-ethical theory, grounded in moral and linguistic psychology. It was intended to clarify the nature and structure of normative problems common to everyday life and the methods typically used to resolve them. His work was significant for making headway by progressing ethical theory by focusing on the underdeveloped area of what it is to think something is good or bad. He used this to show the relation between one’s interests and action, which characterizes much of today’s philosophy.


Emotivism began falling out of practice in the 1950s being largely supplanted by forms of noncognitivism considered less vulnerable to objection. This was largely driven by philosophers who recognized the holocaust as indescribably evil seeking to condemn the horrors of World War II in absolute terms. To them, arguing against such evil based merely on one’s own feelings was inadequate in ensuring it never happened again. Regardless, emotivism has a widespread legacy today and continues in the writings of philosophers such as Simon Blackburn who continue to argue for its core tenets.


Emotivism: Key Takeaways


While this may seem like a simple philosophy at its core, there is a couple of core takeaways to apply to your own life. These ideas are as follows:

  • Just because everyone agrees doesn’t mean it is right: While we would like to be accepted by others, that doesn’t mean we must accept what is generally agreed upon. It is the duty of every person within a society to challenge concepts and systems to their limits to improve what already exists. Without this mindset, misinformation can easily spread and it is easier to get farther from the truth as attitudes become habits that may or may not produce the best outcomes. In short, don’t be too afraid to challenge and question things because the status quo can easily be incorrect.

  • Emotions can cloud judgment: While a healthy amount of emotion can help you focus and understand things, it can easily get out of control. Being too fearful or angry can easily result in harmful behaviors and warp reality to create lies within our own psyches. The same is true for any other emotions. So we should manage our emotional reactions, reflect on them and the world around us, and develop real ideas, theories, and truths instead of unjustifiable attitudes and judgments.

Emotivism: Additional Resources

Here are some additional sources to get additional information:


Videos About Emotivism



Articles on Emotivism (With Sources)


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