Philosophical Ethics: A.J. Ayer And The Emotivism Of A Positivist

Philosophical Ethics: A.J. Ayer And The Emotivism Of A Positivist September 20, 2009

In a series of posts this semester, I am going to blog all (or almost all) the lecture topics for the two Philosophical Ethics classes I am teaching this semester.  Each of these posts will primarily explicate the reading or a theme that dominated class discussion in a way that should be accessible to novices (such as my students are).  I will also offer some degree of analysis of the ideas considered and then pose suggested discussion questions.  These posts will usually feature more speculation than argumentation from me as I try to stimulate your thinking rather than stake out my own positions.  Some of my students will be responding to these short discussion primers in a private forum through the university.  I’ve told the students they are free to discuss the blog post versions of these discussion primers as well, so they might show up here.  This post explores A.J. Ayer’s brand of emotivism and both its notions which stem from views held in common with G.E. Moore and and ones which directly contradict his belief in truths about values.

Ayer was a logical positivist who thought that statements’ meanings were specifiable in terms of the conditions in which they could be verified.  What x means is identical to whatever we would experience if x were true.  Things which have no verification conditions have no meanings.  If all of our experiences will be identical whether or not there is some x, then x has no sense for us.  Unless x’s being true would make for some discernible difference in the world which we could specify in advance as the meaning of what it is for there to be an x, x has no meaning but is a nonsensical term.  There are some nonexistent things which are nonetheless meaningful.  Santa Claus is nonexistent and yet we can understand the meaning of “Santa Claus” as long as we can specify the conditions by which we would verify that there was a Santa Claus.  In fact, we can say that Santa Claus does not exist precisely because we know what it means for there to be a Santa Claus and to the best of our current investigation we have no verifying evidence whatsoever of a jolly red suited, white-bearded, toy-making fat old man who owns flying reindeer and delivers toys to the world’s nice children once a year.  To prove there is a Santa Claus involves producing a man with all these features and behaviors.  The various traits that go into being Santa Claus are the meaning of the term Santa Claus and to say Santa Claus exists would involve producing the verifying evidence that someone who embodies all the characteristics and biographical details specified within the idea of Santa Claus has been located.  According to Ayer we use words that have no sense when we attempt to refer to things which have no verification conditions by which we could come to realize the thing exists, or in terms of the absence of such verifying evidence, infer its non-existence.  Definitions of God, for example, which make no verifiable predictions about what such a being’s existence would entail lead to a nonsensical idea of God.  It is not that God merely does not exist but when the idea is formed with no specific verification conditions that would observably distinguish a world with an existing God from a world without one, the idea is nonsense and not even about something that could at least theoretically exist, let alone actually exist.

Ayer agrees with G.E. Moore that goodness is not equatable to merely verifiable natural phenomena like pleasantness, usefulness, or a thing’s being in fact desired by creatures.  If goodness were any of those things then it would be a verifiable and meaningful concept.  We could ask verify that there was goodness wherever we could point to an instance of pleasure or of usefulness or of something which is desired by someone if all goodness meant was one of these naturally verifiable features of reality.  But while Ayer agrees with Moore that we cannot define goodness in terms of any natural properties, he rejects the idea that unverifiable intuitions of a simple, indefinable, non-natural property have any meaning at all.  If goodness makes itself discernible through no distinguishable, verifiable circumstances in the world which it brings about or leaves us missing in its absence, then the terms is nonsensical.

But to call the word “good” nonsense and meaningless is not to say that we do not understand each other when we use the term.  What it means simply is that we do not mean anything but rather we just express something when we use the word.  Ayer’s emotivism differs slightly from C.L. Stevenson’s brand on this semantic and psychological point.  For Stevenson, the word good has the meaning of “I like x” but is a necessarily dynamic/expressive/emotive way of saying “I like x.”  So, for Stevenson, I do say something meaningful when I say “x is good” but I say it in such a way as to emote my liking of x to you rather than to neutrally relay a piece of information with no intended effect on you. For Ayer, x is good is purely an emotional expression of my feeling of affection for something and not at all a reference to the fact of that affection.  Ayer also agrees with Stevenson though that when I use ethical terms I do not only express my feeling but also calculate to arouse similar feelings in others.

So, for Ayer ethical terms are ejaculations of emotion like crying or laughing or growling or screaming “AAARGH” or saying “Yikes!” or scrunching the nose and saying “Yuck!”   saying “Ouch! ”  When I laugh I don’t refer to the fact that I am in good humor, I directly express my humor itself.  When I cry I do not refer to my sadness but I express it.  “Ouch!” does not translate to “I am in pain” but rather it expresses pain and “Yuck” does not mean “this is gross” but is an expression of aversion itself, etc.  And so when I say x is good, I do not refer to my feelings, I express them.  It is closer to saying “hooray for x!” than it is to saying “I like x.”

Ayer distinguishes his position from what he calls the “Orthodox Subjectivist” who equates “x is good” with assertions of our approval (e.g., “I like x”) on the grounds that not all assertions of preference are identical with expressions of them.  I can say I am sad without expressing my sadness or afraid without expressing my fear.  But to say x is good is itself to express my emotion of approval in a form of ejaculation.   Ayer also opts for an emotivist account of the meaning of ethical terms for the same reason as Stevenson does and that’s because if “x is good” meant only “I like x” then when you tell me I am wrong about x being good you would be telling me that I am wrong that I like x.  But that’s not at all what our debates about goodness are like.  They are not disagreeing accounts of our psychological states and preferences.  We are not disagreeing about whether we like something or not. Rather we are trying to persuade each other to like as we do.  And so Ayer reasons that the word good is itself simply this expression of our emotion in such a way as to try to persuade.

Only within established sets of value feelings can we have moral arguments in which we give reasons for our positions.  But these disputes are entirely predicated on our shared feelings, which themselves are not arbiters of true and false.  When we both feel two different things to be good and I say you “have a distorted or under-developed moral sense” all I am saying is that you “employ a different set of values from my own.”

What do you think?  When we say things are good and bad are we necessarily always just emoting?  Is it what we really mean to do, as Ayer thinks?  Do you think that all moral persuasion is or must necessarily be as fundamentally irrationalistic as this?  Do you think that there are any bases for moral objectivity of which Ayer takes inadequate account?  Do you think that all of our senses of the word good are exhausted by Ayer’s account?  Do you think that if we consciously thought about moral arguments as being the way Ayer characterizes them that it would change their dynamics?  And if so, how so and does this constitute an objection to the theory in any way?  If Ayer is correct about the nature and origins of statements about goodness and badness and rightness and wrongness, would this undermine our sense that it is fair to punish people who break laws or to hold negative feelings towards those we consider immoral or to admire some people or things more than others?

Could the emotions form a justifiable basis for morality or if our emotions are the seat of our moral judgments does that mean that they lack all genuine authority?  Where would authority about morality or what is good even come from theoretically such that we could judge whether emotions are a good or bad source of it?   How would we know that emotions can or cannot ground authority unless authority is itself a concept that is not merely an expression of emotion but has some other basis?  Alasdiar MacIntyre argued in his book After Virtue that G.E. Moore’s intuitionism which had people appealing to their “intuitions of good” against each other with no clear criteria for how to adjudicate their disagreements in intuitions is historically responsible for the rise of emotivists who figured that all morality is is people asserting their irrational prejudices against each other.  Is there some way that correcting Moore’s account of goodness might stave off Ayer’s conclusions?

Please consider any of these questions and possible challenges I have brainstormed here or feel free to generate your own based on the ideas here presented.

Your Thoughts?

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