Stevenson, Charles.jpg

Charles Stevenson

Emotivism: An Extreme Form of Personal Relativism 

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 baseball World Series in 1964.

Both are declarative statements that are either true or false; both statements 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 express emotions and try to influence others to share the emotion.

Emotivists believe that moral language expresses emotions and tries to influence others; it has no cognitive content. 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.

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. And if that’s the case then emotivism is not a sound theory.

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8 thoughts on “Emotivism

  1. I find this theory from cognitive psychology very helpful.


    “Appraisal theory is the theory in psychology that emotions are extracted from our evaluations (appraisals or estimates) of events that cause specific reactions in different people. Essentially, our appraisal of a situation causes an emotional, or affective, response that is going to be based on that appraisal. An example of this is going on a first date. If the date is perceived as positive, one might feel happiness, joy, giddiness, excitement, and/or anticipation, because they have appraised this event as one that could have positive long-term effects, i.e. starting a new relationship, engagement, or even marriage. On the other hand, if the date is perceived negatively, then our emotions, as a result, might include dejection, sadness, emptiness, or fear. Reasoning and understanding of one’s emotional reaction becomes important for future appraisals as well. The important aspect of the appraisal theory is that it accounts for individual variances of emotional reactions to the same event.”

    So reason and judgment actually underlie our emotions. Just because we do not, or cannot, consciously interrogate all of our appraisals does not mean that reason isn’t there guiding them. This seems to completely undermine emotivism.

    >>Ayer thought that moral language was meaningless because it couldn’t be verified. …if I say that lying is bad, how you could verify this?

    My evolutionary ethical answer to this is that morals are just rules for survival. So the way moral prescriptions are verified is by discovering whether they lead towards survival or not, which is an objectively true or false position. The questions of whose survival, and for how long, as well as the extreme difficulty in answering such questions makes the determination of “good” moral rules very, very difficult, but we’ve got billions of years of behaviour to analyse for clues…

  2. Thanks for this. I had never heard of appraisal theory and it is surely relevant to the discussion. I too think there is much more to morality than the emotivists believe. And of course evolution is the key to understanding where morality came from although of course our “naturalistic fallacy” people deny that it tells us what morality is. Of course you and I and Bob Richards at the U of Chicago and others disagree.

  3. A question arises. The argument that there is more than just emotional response, like it-not like it declarations of badness/goodness, and pointing to reasons and rationality as an aspect of moral decision set me wondering if this is simply a circular argument. Could not “good”rationality and reason as opposed to “bad” irrationality and crazy/violent/ dissipated living also be described as also an emotive response ultimately?
    I believe so actually. I prefer the evolutionary or survival decision-making approach, including relational pleasure vs displeasure as enough motive force to act/decide generally in an ethical direction at least. Complimented by social laws and limitations for non-chaotic communal living.

  4. In 2018 a movie came out about Dick Cheney, called VICE – highly recommended. The movie demonstrates Cheney’s evil personality, and how the position of vice president to George Bush enabled him to reshape the world. Pairing Stalin with Cheney, in fact, is an subjective assertion, not an expression of feeling or attitude (Emotivism).

  5. In 2018 a movie came out about Dick Cheney, called VICE – highly recommended. The movie demonstrates Cheney’s evil personality, and how the position of vice president to George Bush enabled him to reshape the world. Pairing Stalin with Cheney, in fact, is a subjective assertion, not an expression of feeling or attitude (Emotivism).

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