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Introduction to Ethics Lecture 6 Ayer and Emotivism
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  1. Introduction to EthicsLecture 6Ayer and Emotivism By David Kelsey

  2. Ayer and Verificationism • Ayer was an Empiricist. • He was famously a logical Positivist. • As an Empiricist, Ayer wanted all his beliefs verifiable by sense experience. This lead him to hold Verificationism. • Verificationism: • “All synthetic propositions are empirical hypothesis.” • A claim has meaning (I.e. propositional content) and can only be true or false if it is either analytic or verifiable by sense experience (or at least if it is possible that it is verifiable by sense experience). • Ayer thought that since ethical propositions are neither analytic nor verifiable by sense experience that they are meaningless.

  3. Non-Cognitivism • Ayer’s view is a brand of Non-Cognitivism. • Non-Cognitivism & Moral judgments: • Non-cognitivism says moral judgments do not state facts. • So Moral judgments have no propositional content. • So Moral judgments are neither true nor false. • So statements of value “are not in the literal sense significant, but are simply expressions of emotion which can be neither true nor false.” • Non-Cognitivism & Moral and ethical terms and properties: • Moral judgments don’t even ascribe any properties at all. • So Ethical and Moral terms don’t refer to any property at all. • The function of ethical terms is to express and elicit emotions, attitudes or preferences.

  4. Ayer on Subjectivism & Utilitarianism • Ayer on Subjectivism: • Subjectivism, according to Ayer, says “to call an action right, or a thing good, is to say that it is generally approved of…” • Ayer rejects it because “it is not self-contradictory to assert that some actions which are generally approved of are not right, or that some things which are generally approved of are not good.” • Ayer on Utilitarianism: • “…it is not self contradictory to say that it is sometimes wrong to perform the action which would actually or probably cause the greatest happiness…” • Thus, “…it cannot be the case that the sentence ‘X is good’ is equivalent to ‘x is pleasant’…”

  5. What Emotivism denies • Emotivism & normative ethical symbols lack proposition content: • Normative symbols such as “wrong” or “right” are indefinable in factual terms. • If the moral sense of “wrong” appears in a sentence, the sentence doesn’t express an empirical proposition at all. • The presence of an ethical symbol in a proposition adds nothing to its content. • Pseudo-concepts: • For Ayer, Ethical concepts are ______________. • Ethical concepts lack propositional content. They add nothing to the factual content of a proposition. • Ethical concepts are _____________. • They appear to behave like a natural property of the sciences and yet aren’t empirically verifiable so they aren’t really like the natural properties after all.

  6. Emotivism and moral judgments • What Moral judgments are not: • 1-Since moral judgments don’t express an empirical proposition at all and • 2-since only empirical propositions are true or false, • 3-so moral judgments are neither true nor false. • So “Stealing is wrong” • Has no factual meaning • expresses no proposition which is true or false.

  7. What Emotivism asserts • What moral judgments are: • So moral judgments lack propositional content. • So they aren’t true or false • And they aren’t expressions of fact • Instead moral judgments are expressions of feeling: • they express certain positive or negative feelings or attitudes about certain objects. • Moral judgments express emotion. • A feeling or attitude: • When I say ‘stealing money is wrong’ “…It is as if I had written “Stealing money!!”--where the shape and thickness of the exclamation marks show, by a suitable convention, that a special sort of moral disapproval is the feeling which is being expressed.”

  8. Emotivism on Ethical concepts • Ethical terms and concepts: • Ayer thinks the function of Ethical words is purely emotive. • Ethical words are used to express feelings and emotions about certain objects… • Besides expressing feeling, ethical terms, can arouse or evoke feeling in others. • This stimulates action… • Some terms give the sentences in which they occur the effect of a command: • “It is your duty to tell the truth”:

  9. Emotivism on disagreement • Emotivism on moral disagreement: • “For in saying that a certain type of action is right or wrong…I am merely expressing certain moral sentiments. And the man who is ostensibly contradicting me is merely expressing his moral sentiments. So that there is plainly no sense in asking which of us is in the right. For neither of us is asserting a genuine proposition.” • Thus, if 2 people make contradictory ethical claims, (for instance X is right and X is wrong), since neither claim expresses a proposition neither do the two individuals express incompatible propositions. • Thus, it isn’t possible to argue about questions of value. • An example: • “if a man said that thrift was a virtue, and another replied that it was a vice, they would not, on this theory, be disputing with one another…” • For Ayer, each man would simply be expressing a different feeling.

  10. Problems for Emotivism • No Moral disagreement? • Emotivism entails that there is no such thing as moral disagreement. • But surely, as G.E. Moore points out, we have moral disagreements all the time. • Ayer’s response: • He thinks moral disagreements are reducible to factual disagreements. • When someone disagrees with a moral judgment we have made we attempt to show “that he is mistaken about the facts of the case. We argue that he has misconceived the agent’s motive: or that he has misjudged the effects of the action, or its probable effects in view of the agent’s knowledge; or that he has failed to take into account the special circumstances in which the agent was placed…”

  11. Does Emotivism lead to Moral Nihlism? • Moral Nihilism: • Says objective morality does not exist. • Thus, no action is preferable to any other. • Thus, no action is morally wrong. • Emotivism entails Moral Nihilism: • If Ayer is correct and moral judgments are neither true nor false then why should we make them at all? • Why should we even worry about doing the ‘Right’ thing at all?

  12. Emotivism is counter-intuitive • Emotivism fails to capture two of our key intuitions about morality: • 1-the objectivity of morality. • We all talk as if there are objective standards of rightness and wrongness. • “I did the right thing” for example. • Yet morality isn’t objective for Emotivism. • 2-we do seem to think our moral judgments are true or false when we make them. • Moral judgments appear to behave truth functionally. • Emotivism says they aren’t truth functional though.

  13. The Frege/Geach Problem • Moral judgments in unasserted contexts: • What account can Emotivists give us of “murder is wrong” in an unasserted context like a conditional claim? • Consider: • 1-murder is wrong. • 2-If murder is wrong, then getting my little brother to commit murder is wrong. • 3-getting my little brother to commit murder is wrong. • Of course this argument is valid but can the Emotivist say this? • It appears not because the meaning of ‘murder is wrong’ is different in 1 and 2. • In 1 an attitude is expressed but not in 2.