Is Ethics Relative? (Part 4–Conclusion)

Left to right: Plato, Kant, Nietzsche, Buddha, Confucius, Averroes

(continued from yesterday’s post.)


4A    Emotivism Defined 

The English philosopher A.J. Ayer (1910 – 1989) and the American philosopher Charles Stevenson (1908 – 1979) developed a different version of subjectivism. Emotivism is a theory that claims that moral language or judgments: 1) are neither true or false; 2) express our emotions; and 3) try to influence others to agree with us. To better understand emotivism, consider the following statements:

The Earth is larger than Jupiter.
The St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series in 1964.

Both are declarative statements that are either true or false, and have cognitive content. Now consider the following:

Go Manchester United!

Both are exclamatory statements that are neither true nor false, and have no cognitive content. They expresses emotions and try to influence others to share the emotion.

Emotivists believe that moral language expresses emotions and tries to influence others. If I say homosexuality is evil, I’m just expressing my feeling that homosexuality is disgusting! I am expressing my emotions and, at the same time, trying to influence you to dislike homosexuality. The same analysis applies to any moral judgment. If I say that capital punishment is wrong, I’m just expressing my dislike for it, and trying to get you to agree with me. I might as well have said capital punishment, while shaking my head and rolling my eyes.  And if I say that Stalin or Cheney were bad men—which they were—I’m merely trying to get you to agree with what I’m really saying.

Now the difference between emotivism and personal relativism (subjectivism) is subtle. When personal relativists say Gandhi was a good man they report their view of Gandhi. And this report is true or false depending on whether they are telling the truth. But the emotivist claims there is no truth or falsity to moral judgments whatsoever! If I say I hate abortion—assuming I’m being sincere—then this expressed emotion is neither true nor false, it just is. In other words, the emotivist says that different moral judgments are just like differences in taste. I like carrots; you don’t. I like homosexuality; you don’t. But emotivists don’t consider moral judgments as reporting a speaker’s beliefs; they just express emotions. In the same way that cows moo, humans emote. Therefore, according to the emotivists, moral language has no factual content at all and thus cannot be true or false in any way. Now why would one think that moral language is just a disguised emotional expression?

Ayer thought that moral language was meaningless because it couldn’t be verified. If I say that there’s a dollar on my desk, you know what I mean and you can verify or falsify my statement—you just go look. But if I say that lying is bad, how you could verify this? Where would you go to see that lying was bad? Ayer argued that statements that couldn’t be verified were meaningless. There is no meaning to propositions like abortion is immoral because there is no way to show these statements are true or false.

While Stevenson granted that moral language didn’t have factual or cognitive content, he argued that it had emotive meaning. Moral propositions aren’t true or false, but they aren’t meaningless either—moral language allows us to express emotions. Thus he could easily account for our differences regarding ethics—we have different emotions. And when we disagree, Stevenson said we have a disagreement in attitude. But reasons or arguments will not change other people’s attitudes.

4B Critique of Emotivism 

Do moral judgments express emotions, exclusively? If I say that Mother Theresa was a good woman, I’m expressing my emotions, trying to influence you, and I’m making a moral judgment. On the other hand, aren’t I doing more? Don’t I believe that Mother Theresa was good in comparison with some standard of goodness? After all, I’m not just saying Mother Theresa, and then smiling. So when I say Mother Theresa was good I express my fond feelings for her, and I do want you to feel the same, but that doesn’t mean that’s all I’m doing. I almost certainly believe that Mother Theresa was good in a way that Dick Cheney wasn’t. So while a moral judgment isn’t exactly the same as a factual judgment, it isn’t exactly the same as exclamatory judgments either. Why?

Consider how I would go about persuading you that Mother Theresa was good, while Dick Cheney was not. I might appeal to her selflessness working with the poor of Calcutta, her devotion to her friends, her daily prayer and meditation, or the positive effect she had on strangers. And by doing this I’m giving you reasons for thinking she was a good person. Now you might say that I just happen to like selfless nuns who win Nobel Peace Prizes and that she was not better than Cheney. In response, I point out that Cheney masterminded the extermination and torture of thousands, had a violent temper, was very unpleasant company, was a Nixon operative, has no remorse for anything he ever did, and almost certainly never meditated.  Again my opponents might not be persuaded. Maybe killing  and torturing thousands is a good thing, or being nice is an awful thing.

But notice that you’re asking me for reasons, and I am giving you plenty of reasons why Mother Theresa, or almost anyone else for that matter, was a better person than Dick Cheney—reasons that most rational persons would accept. And whenever I give reasons, I’m doing more than just expressing emotions; I’m assuming that there is more to moral claims than emotions. If not, why try to convince someone? True, I could try to convince someone by merely continuing to express my emotions. But my emoting wouldn’t convince a rational person. So it seems that objective reason must play some role in ethics.

Certainly it’s true that some people might not be convinced by good reasons, but that does not mean that I didn’t give them good reasons or that reasons are unimportant. It might just be that they won’t accept the good reasons I have given them. Thus, if I point out that your disliking me is irrelevant to what I deserve on a test, then I have given you a good reason why I shouldn’t have failed. And we can probably think of many examples when we give others good reasons to do or believe something and they just won’t listen. This appealing to reasons to persuade suggests that we use moral language to do more than merely express emotions.

Therefore, emotivism presupposes that moral disagreements are incapable of being resolved by rational discourse. There is no way to resolve our attitudinal disagreements unless we are persuasive enough (or violent enough). But we have already seen that there’s another way to persuade—using reason to support our position. We can provide good reasons why x is right or x is wrong. If we appeal to reason, we have discovered a way to resolve our disputes that other than by shouting or beating others into submission. And if reason plays a role in ethics, then there is truth or falsity about ethical judgments.


Some things aren’t relative—throw this book out the classroom window and it will fall. Some elements of morality may be relative, but surely not all of them—you shouldn’t kill your good friend because he owes you a dollar. Tolerance is a generally a good thing, but there is no special connection between it and relativism. We do express ourselves and try to influence others when we make moral judgments, but that’s only a small part of what we do. Killing an innocent person could possibly be justified, but are you ever justified in torturing someone for your own pleasure when there is no good reason to do so? As long as you answer no to this question, you aren’t a relativist. But even if ethics is objective, why should I abide by its dictates?  Why shouldn’t I just seek pleasure? Why shouldn’t I just do whatever I want?  We will discuss these questions in further posts.

For Further Reading

Harman, Gilbert & Thomson, Judith Jarvis. Morality Relativism And Moral Objectivity (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996).

Ladd, John. Ethical Relativism (Belmont, CA.: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1973).

Moser, Paul K. & Carson, Thomas L. eds. Moral Relativism: A Reader (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

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