Thursday, January 24, 2013

Emotivism: Should we think that appearances are misleading?

Cognitivists think that moral judgments are expressions of one's beliefs (or other cognitive states).  They think that moral judgments have truth conditions/are the sorts of things that could be true or false.  Non-cognitivists, on the other hand, think that moral judgments are expressions of one's desires, sentiments, or other non-cognitive attitudes.  As such, non-cogntivists tend to think that moral judgments don't have truth conditions/that they're not the sort of things that could be true or false.

A. J. Ayer was a non-cognitivist who thought that moral judgments are expressions of an agent's feelings of approval or disapproval.  According to him, what one does when one makes a moral judgment is express one's moral sentiments--one doesn't report or describe some fact.   Ayer's version of non-cognitivism is known as emotivism.

Consider a moral judgment of the form:  "X is wrong"  Emotivists like Ayer think that this should be understood to mean something like:  "Boo X!" or "X, meh!"  Just as I'm not asserting something that could be true or false when I say "Go Badgers!,"  I am not asserting something that could be true or false when I say "X is wrong."  This is because what I'm really doing by saying this is expressing my feelings about X.  Such an expression--it's a sort of exclamation or rooting--isn't the sort of claim that could be true or false, or so Ayer's argument goes.

One objection to emotivism involves moral disagreement.  If I say "X is wrong" and you say "X is morally permissible," it appears that we have contradicted each other and that there's some fact about which we are in dispute (i.e., whether it is the case that X is wrong).

Here's (part of) Ayer's reply to this objection:

"When someone disagrees with us about the moral value of a certain type of action, we do admittedly resort to  argument in order to win him over to our way of thinking.  But we do not attempt to show by our arguments that he has the 'wrong' ethical feeling towards a situation whose nature he has correctly apprehended.  What we attempt to show is that he is mistaken about the facts of the case..."
(Language, Truth, and Logic, 1946, 111)

So he thought that moral disagreement isn't a case of having contradictory beliefs (as the cognitivist would see things).  Rather, it's a matter of having feelings that clash or do not coincide.  I feel that X is wrong and you feel that X is morally permissible.  These feelings are not contradictory.  What would it even mean to say that feelings are contradictory?  Given this, Ayer thought that there really isn't any such thing as moral disagreement. There's only disagreement about certain facts (e.g., whether Mary stabbed Paula on purpose or whether a fetus is a person) and this is what explains any intuitions we have about there being a conflict between the claim that X is wrong and the claim that X is morally permissible.

I don't find Ayer's reply to the "moral disagreement objection" very satisfying.  I'm not going to offer much of an argument here, since I'm primarily interested in what my students think about this issue.  One general worry I have about emotivism has to do with a divergence in how things appear and how things really are (assuming that emotivism is true).  That is, for example, the emotivist denies that a moral claim like, "X is wrong" functions as a subject-predicate sentence.  When one says something of the form, "a is b," she usually means to ascribe a predicate/property (b) to a subject/thing (a).  Emotivists deny that this is true of moral claims.  They think that "X is wrong" is not a subject-predicate sentence.  The "surface grammar" of such a claim is misleading.

A similar point can be made regarding moral disagreement.  It appears that you and I actually disagree when I say that X is wrong and you say that X is morally permissible.  That is, it appears from this exchange that we disagree about a fact--whether X is wrong--and that what we're doing is more substantive than simply expressing our feelings (which happen to differ) regarding X.  It seems different than when I say something like, "I love dark ales" and you say, "I prefer lighter lagers."  There's a sense in which we're disagreeing, but it's not the same sense as when we have a moral dispute.  It seems to me that moral disputes are often genuine disagreements, much like when I say that "Wellington is the capital of New Zealand" and you say "No, it's Auckland."  As indicated above, however, Ayer denies that things are as they appear.

So, the emotivist denies that appearances should be taken to indicate what's really going on.  Given this, I think the emotivist has some work to do to justify why we ought to accept her theory over one that doesn't have such counterintuitive commitments.  To his credit, Ayer does offer arguments for why one should accept emotivism.  But only a few of these speak to this issue of why we should view things quite differently than they appear--and, as you can tell, I find these to be rather weak.  Comments about this and other issues related to emotivism are most welcome.

13 comments:

J. Patrick S. said...

You seem to make the point that two people disputing the morality are having a genuine disagreement, as opposed to two people disputing how enjoyable a particular book is. The two people reading the book have different opinions of the book, but would not suggest that the book inherently contains multiple values for "enjoyability".

I agree that it wouldn't make sense for the two people disputing the morality of 'X' to simply be stating opinion...UNLESS I take on the view of Ayer. Within his structured view of the non-truth-aptness of morality statements, it makes perfect sense for the two to quibble over opinions, especially if one person is a cognitivist. That is--when the non-cognitivist view is assumed, Ayer's suggestions seem sound.

To flip the idea on its head--someone could hold a view that books have multiple inherent values for enjoyability. While this view appears quite radical to me (how can the same set of words be more or less enjoyable in and of themselves and absent a secondary observer?), I would also argue that someone holding such a radical view would certainly feel that the previous dispute over the enjoyability of a book is a genuine dispute, just as the cognitivist feels about a dispute over morality.

Jesse Steinberg said...

Thanks for commenting, Patrick.

Your suggestion in your second paragraph is a bit confusing to me. Maybe I should try to restate my worry about emotivism.

It seems to me (and many others) that when a person claims that X is wrong and another person claims that X is morally permissible that the two people are disagreeing about something--and that this disagreement is a substantive one about what is the case.

Emotivists like Ayer think that such an intuition is mistaken. What might seem like moral disagreements are simply cases of people with different feelings about a certain issue. If there's any disagreement to be found, it's a disagreement about certain facts (not about what is valuable/feelings of approval or disapproval).

My point was simply that emotivism is thus counterintuitive. Ayer denies something that seems to be the case and so he needs to justify his view, explain why it's preferable to other views on hand, etc.

To put the worry more strongly/formally, one might offer the following argument:

(1) Any plausible moral theory ought to be able to make sense of moral disagreement.
(2) Emotivism cannot make sense of moral disagreement.
(3) Therefore, emotivism is not a plausible moral theory.

Ayer would presumably deny premise (1)--because he didn't think that moral disagreement exists and so he clearly didn't think that a moral theory had to make sense of this phenomena to be plausible. But this premise certainly seems true and it certainly seems that people do have moral disagreements. How might the emotivist reply to this kind of objection? What reason do we have for thinking that what appear to be moral disagreements are not disagreements at all (or are only disagreements about facts, not values)? Without plausible answers to these questions, emotivism is in trouble.

As we discussed in class, Ayer's got arguments for non-cognitivism and he likely thought that these would adequately justify emotivism/help in responding to this worry. Do you think that such arguments do the trick? Has he convinced you that, contrary to the way things appear, there are no moral disagreements?

Patrick S. said...

I don't think that Ayer's arguments adequately justify emotivism over cognitivism, and he certainly has not convinced me.

I suppose that I am trying to say that I don't find error with Ayer's view. When the rules, constructed by Ayer, are adopted, the view seems to hold true. I think that this is, at least in my mind, very similar to idealism. Ayer's view is radical. It certainly does not seem to be the case. At the same time, it seems to operate successfully under the specific set of rules adopted by the view. However, the view does not, in my eye, hold any truer than any other. It does not refute the idea of cognitivism (without adopting the rules of emotivism). With that as the case, I think that Ayer's view fails the verifiability theory of meaning...and by separate views of his, should not deserve the scrutiny of academic discourse.

Cassy K. said...

First of all, I would echo many of the points already made here. I think non-cognitivism seems to ignore the way things really are in a very important way. I think we've all encountered a moral disagreement with someone in which both sides very much have a strong belief about the matter. When I like coffee and you don't like coffee, I don't really have any investment in whether or not I can convince you to cross over to my side of the debate. In fact, I probably won't even have an interest in debating it with you.
Moral disagreements hold much more weight than whether or not we agree on the taste of coffee. Some people are more level-headed about moral disagreements and do employ the "different strokes for different folks" rule, but many (arguably, most) people don't. For whatever reason, we are actually very invested in moral debates with others. Adopting non-cognitivism in this way seems to just ignore this fact.
With that in mind, however, I would say that there is something to the argument that when we disagree (for instance with the example of abortion) it may be largely due to disagreements about facts. In this example, I think it seems that people often disagree on the status of the unborn child. If you believe that a fetus has the same moral standing as an adult human, then I can see how you'd think abortion is taking a life. If you don't see its status in that same way, you might be more likely to leave it up to the mother's discretion. So, in a way, I think it can be reduced to disagreements about facts in some way. But even so, I think you have a belief about the matter. It's not just that you have a feeling that a fetus has equal moral standing; it's that you firmly believe it.

Anonymous said...


Are things the way they appear?

Well, there are plenty of examples that show that appearances can be deceiving. Consider the appearance that my cursor is moving across my monitor screen - going from one place to another place successively over time. We all know that "really" what is happening is that pixels are lighting up and turning off in some specifiable order that underlies the appearance. Nothing is "moving" in the way it appears. The point is that appearances cannot always be taken to indicate "what's really going on."

Now, what is said above is a point about what might be called "perceptual appearance." Things look a certain way, but our interpretation of our perceptions is mistaken. Sticks look crooked in water; things sometimes look further away than they really are; there are mirages; etc.

Now surely, this is not the sort of thing that Ayer is appealing to in saying that, although it might appear that we disagree when we have different opinions about what is right or wrong, this "appearance" is mistaken. His appeal must be to the mistaken idea that there is some "fact of the matter" that can settle the question.

His argument then can be of the form:

1) Disagreements about ethical statements can be settled only if there is some fact of the matter that makes one ethical statement true over another.
2) There is no fact of the matter that can make one ethical statement true over another.
3) Therefore, ethical disputes are not over facts of the matter.
4) Given that ethical disputes are not over facts of the matter, they must be over feelings or emotions.

What's the problem with this argument?



Jang,Woojae said...

About the emotivists’ denying "X is wrong" being a subject-predicate sentence…

It may be that what people mean when they say "X is wrong," is really “X? Yuk!”. But, the reason people say it in the subject-predicate form is that people are usually asked in a way that they can only answer in that way.

When somebody asks you about killing an innocent baby, they do not ask you “express your first emotional response to killing a young baby” Rather, they ask, “Do you think it is right (or wrong) to kill a baby,” which forces us to say “killing a baby is right (or wrong).”

Some people ask, “what do you think about killing a baby?” And in that case, you might be able to express your feelings without making any proposition(the all-or-nothing proposition such as “X is wrong”): “I think it is disgusting.” However, it is usually the case that the interlocutor wants more than just your feelings, “Oh, so does that mean it is wrong to kill an innocent baby?”

Moreover, the person now asks you to give him the reason(s) as to why you think “X is right (or wrong).” But, really, what reason? I’m not even sure if it’s possible to give reason why someone feels the way he does. Don’t we simply ‘recognize’ our feelings once it is aroused in our consciousness? So, what reasons can there be other than “I don’t know. That’s just how I feel about it?” (yet, this is another topic)

Take our Modern Ethical Theories class for example. We cannot just write, “Killing a baby? F***!” for our final paper and expect to pass the class. We have to state our opinion in a subject-predicate sentence, give logical arguments, and present my arguments in 5 pages or more.

In short, the questions, such as “what do you think about X” and “Do you think X is right or wrong,” are already forcing us to put aside our feelings and to state our “opinion” in subject-predicate form. And, requiring us to give reasons for our “opinion” makes it even worse for us to express our feelings.

Danny Witt said...

A few thoughts...

(1) I first would like to reply to Professor Steinberg’s response to “Ayer’s moral disagreement objection”—in defense of Ayer. In mentioning a divergence between how things appear and “really are”, you seemed to be referring to the grammatical value of the sentence “X is wrong.” It seemed that the objection arose that “X is wrong” resembled “a is b” so there is a necessary property predicated on a subject. But I seem to be missing how this pokes holes in the emotivist doctrine. Wouldn’t an emotivist respond that surely this English grammar convention exists, but this “ability to predicate” (or connect ideas logically) makes no claims about, nor evidences, the ontological/fundamental/fact of the matter existence of “a” or “b”? Couldn’t we say “Jeffrey is a BLALALA”, but realize that “BLALALA” has no fundamental/ontological/intrinsic meaning? The emotivist would say that “X is wrong” is certainly not a subject-predicate sentence, because to have such a thing requires both subject and a predicate, and for us to have a predicate it must be something verifiable/empirical. For instance, “the wall is blue” could be empirically tested. Despite contestation from some metaphysicists, “wall” and “blue” could be empirically arrived at independent of their predicate/subjection connection via an English sentence such as the one proposed. So, since “wrong” can’t be empirically validated, there is no predicate of value. To wrap that up, can “surface grammar” and conventional arrangement of ideas in a language actually have any bearing on the matter of fact/normative existence of the ‘actual ideas’ being expressed and linked together? I haven’t taken a philosophy of language class and would be curious for insight.

(2) I also want to review Ayer’s discussion of Moore’s criticism that moral disagreement proves that questions of value are more than a speaker’s feelings. When we frame our disagreement as “X is wrong” versus “X is morally permissible”, it seems that many would simply it into “X is A” and “X is ~A”. End of story right? By logic those seem to be contradictory. The contradiction only has meaning if A happens to be of empirical value though. Right? Just saying something “appears” to be matter of fact doesn’t make it matter of fact, correct? Doesn’t our ability to assign what is “matter of fact” stray into epistemology (an area I admit I lack a lot of background)? Are we running with Hume’s interpretation that we can know through a priori (analytic) means or through a posteriori means—granted there has likely been advancement in epistemological doctrine since Hume? I may be way off, but I guess that you can set up all the logic that you want, but at the end of the day logic won’t reveal truth/false values or whether those exist for a certain predicate/subject connection. Logic is applied as a tool after human beings fill in their idea of truth or falsity. I guess I return to my question: how would we establish that predicating moral symbols (e.g., right, wrong, etc.) on a subject is true or false? Isn’t making sure something is empirically testable (T/F) at the heart of how western logic operates? How can we prove things without empirical validation (i.e., making sure things can in principle be T/F)? I feel myself becoming a bit closed minded (and the caffeine is wearing off), and I would appreciate any responses!

Danny Witt said...

(3) I guess where I object with Ayer is in his attempt to distance his doctrine from that of the orthodox subjectivists. His attempt to suggest that we can express a moral proposition without asserting it seems very unintuitive and fairly ad hoc. For Ayer to say that we do not describe our true feelings when we make moral claims seems completely tailored around his attempt to create space between radical empiricism and subjectivism. This is a completely unsubstantiated claim. From my reading of Ayer, it seems like he posits that ethical statements are emotional expressions which “do not necessarily involve assertion (which I take to mean core belief)”. While I agree that nothing normative can be derived, I disagree with Ayer in his position which states that “I believe that X is wrong” could not have truth aptness. I definitely subscribe to Ayer’s earlier text regarding “X is wrong” as making use of ‘wrong’ as a descriptive ethical symbol, as opposed to making a normative claim. I think it is easy to say that we have some universal or absolute values since we are exposed to societies that have a “presupposed system of morality”.

(4) Despite everything I have said previously, perhaps we do have some “intellectual intuition” which provides an absolute standard of morality. Ayer is pretty dismissive of this theory because it seems that we currently have no empirical way of validating such a mystical mechanism. G.E. Moore seems not even ready to call it mystical; good is good--it just is! Some refer to this camp of philosophers as ethical intuitionists. This is a foundational claim about the human ability to know some moral truths without inference. For further light reading on the matter:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethical_intuitionism

It is difficult to handle ethical intuitionism through the lens of an empiricist, since they likely contest any nativist beliefs and would handle a statement about a priori (analytic) ethical claims in the same manner as the empiricist metaphysicists (Locke, Hume, etc.) condemned the rationalist metaphysicists (Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, etc.). Empiricists of any discipline try to clear the “linguistic rubble” conjured in our minds. Is ethical intuitionism something we claim is native but actually empirically derived from a long list of subjective experiences and conditioning? How would we test such a thing, since our classical means of testing involve empirical methods? And if psychologists could rig up an appropriate protocol to somehow gather evidence of ethical intuition, would Ayer’s objection that it only describes “causes” of our ethical propositions hold up? Perhaps GE Moore is right: "good is a simple notion, just as yellow is a simple notion; that, just as you cannot, by any manner of means, explain to anyone who does not already know it, what yellow is, so you cannot explain what good is" (Principia Ethica).

Jesse Steinberg said...

This is a fascinating discussion and I really appreciate your contributions.

A few things are clear:

(a) Not all sentences that have a subject-predicate form should be taken to involve the ascription of a predicate to a subject.

(b) Plenty of things seem a certain way but are not that way. Water does not seem to be composed of little molecules. A straight stick in water appears bent. We might think that moral judgments appear to be something that they really aren't.

(c) Emotivists like Ayer have the resources to reply to what might be called the "disagreement objection." First, Ayer might insist that what appear to be moral disagreements are really disagreements about facts related to the issue at hand (not some moral fact). Second, he could insist that our intuitions are mistaken--so-called moral disagreements are simply instances of people having different feelings about an issue. And feelings cannot be true/false or contradictory. Finally, Ayer could offer a diagnosis of why people might have the intuitions that they have. Woojae mentioned some relevant things, as did Danny. [Ayer did say the first two things. I'm sure he'd agree with the last.]

So the two objections I offered seem rather weak in the end (these might be called "the surface-grammar objection" and the "moral disagreement objection"). Are there other objections to emotivism that are more powerful?

Claire Stein said...

In a philosophy of language class I took last semester we looked at Ayer's verifiability thesis and some objections to it presented by Hempel - I thought this may be of interest to you all. Hempel sets out to deny Ayer's verifiability thesis by showing three problems it presents: 1) that universal truths are impossible to prove 2) that disjunctions work in a funny way and 3) that negation of verifiable things cannot always be verified.

1) Hempel's objection here, which we did discuss in lecture today, is that universal truths that seem like they should be meaningful may not be verifiable. He explains, for example, the sentence "all swans are white" seems meaningful even though it is impossible to prove because verifying it would require someone to go out and observe the color of every single swan. That universal truths cannot be verified is a problem for Ayer's theory.

2) When we produce phrases that use a disjunction, although they may be logically valid, they do a funny thing for Ayer's theory by retaining their meaning. For example, the sentence "the swan is white" has meaning if you can observe that the swan is white. The sentence "the swan is white or I'm a monkey's uncle" is logically true (with the disjunction only one must hold true, so if "the swan is white" is true then "the swan is white or I'm a monkey's uncle" is true) but Hempel points out that it's odd that this phrase should retain all the meaning that "the swan is white" is granted.

3) Lastly, Hempel points out that when we negate something verifiable, the negation is not always verifiable and it seems like it should be. For example, the sentence "there exists a white swan" is verifiable if you can observe the color of a swan, white "it is not the case that there exists a white swan" seems to not be verifiable for the same reason that universal truths aren't - it would require someone to go out and observe the color of every existing swan.

Also, in his paper, Hempel attacks Ayer's theory by questioning whether things like magnetism or temperature - things we think are meaningful - can be observable at all.

On a second, unrelated note, Quine also responds to Ayer and other logical positivists by setting out to deny logical positivism by denying that there exists a distinction between analytic and synthetic statements at all, and that therefore there are no analytic statements. If analyticity is out the window, things seem to get sticky for Ayer's theory as well.

Hope ya'll found this interesting - perhaps it will spark more ideas of how to go about denying Ayer's theory of verifiability.

Claire Stein said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Eric Bumbaca said...

I would like to give one more objection to the Emotivist theory laid out by Ayer, this time in context of a real life moral disagreement that I have seen in another philosophy class. Let me begin by explaining the aspect of Ayer's argument that I disagree with.

I object to Ayer's view that moral disagreements are not based on value, but rather based on fact. Ayer states: "But, in all cases, we find, if we consider the matter closely, that the dispute is not really a question of value, but about a question of fact." My objection is based on the idea that I can foresee a morally disagreeable situation in which the facts of the matter are consistent on both sides.

The situation that comes to mind is the abortion debate and Judith Thompson's response to pro-life advocates. The abortion debate may be framed on a disagreement of fact, that being whether the fetus is indeed a person. Thompsons argument is persuasive because she is able to defend a pro-choice argument while accepting that a fetus is a person from the moment of conception. Thus, by accepting the personhood of the fetus, Thompson negates any disagreement in fact that Ayer suggests is the heart of moral disagreements. I believe that this argument lays an impressive objection to emotivism in the context of moral disagreement put forth by Ayer above.

Ayer's argument for emotivism runs into many objections from many different angles, and I simply wished to provide another example of the failure of his moral disagreement hypothesis.

David Qilin Chen said...

There are two things I would say to say about Ayer and his emotivist moral theory.
Firstly, I agree with Ayer in pointing out that in many everyday situations, when ordinary people talk about moral issues and make moral claims, they are often doing nothing more than expressing their emotions. Like Ayer argued, when two ordinary people chat about slavery, their claims against slavery are merely sentences like “slavery, boo!” However, I disagree with Ayer in arguing that ALL moral claims are like that, even the ones that were made by generations of philosophers with centuries of their deep reflection. I believe moral claim such as the categorical imperative are not mere emotion expressing claims. In those deeply reflected philosophical moral claims, there must be at least something, if not all, that is fundamentally different from claims like “Go Badgers!” If there is such a difference, then it would be where the objectivity of moral truth lies. (Truth about the human nature may be a candidate of this.)
Secondly, I do not find Ayer’s agreement against utilitarianism and subjectivism very persuading. Ayer’s agreement against those two theories seems to rely heavily on a premise that he did not made it very clear. It is the premise that “if we find that it is not self-contradictory to say that it is sometimes true for the opposite of X, then we have a good reason not to accept X”. What I do not understand is where does the argument power of Ayer’s “not self-contradictory to say the opposite” come from. It seems to me that only logical truths need to satisfy that premise. For contingent truth (which some moral claims may well be), it seems perfectly alright to that it is not self-contradictory to say the opposite. The truth of “Earth is round” is a contingent truth, and it is certainly not self-contradictory to say that “Earth is not round”.