Reconsidering Ayer’s Emotivism

Alfred Jules Ayer was a key proponent of emotivism. In ethical theory, emotivism is considered as a non-cognitivism which contends that moral judgments are expressions of moral attitudes or opinion that cannot be true or false. As a branch of non-cognitivism, emotivism holds that moral judgments are expressions of positive or negative feelings. For an emotivist, a statement like “lying is wrong” has no meaning. Its meaning is no more than “yuk boo!” that expresses a negative feeling about something. Since it is not an empirical or analytical statement, we cannot justify whether it is right or wrong. At this point, we can see how emotivism and subjectivism are different. Unlike emotivism, subjectivism declares that we can justify right or wrong (moral judgments) through subjective states of individuals. Thus, a moral judgment such as “lying is wrong” could be right or wrong depends on the feelings and attitudes of the persons who think about such things.

Though some people think that emotivism is better than subjectivism, there are some criticisms which are addressed to emotivism. I am going to discuss three criticisms that might be problematic for this theory. Firstly, emotivism does not provide room for genuine moral disagreement. Let us consider this example, if I say that “euthanasia is bad” and you claim “euthanasia is good”, then, essentially, what we are talking about is no more than “boo for euthanasia!” and “hurrah for euthanasia!” In this case, it is impossible to have a genuine moral disagreement among the agents. Secondly, emotivism does not provide moral judgments about some sorts of actions that we ought to do. Consider this example: “You should not eat meat”. In this case, emotivism will express it by saying “boo for eating meat!” Since it is only a matter of expression, it does not mean that we have to avoid eating meat and we ought to be a vegetarian. Thirdly, moral statements do not express moral propositions. It is in line with the position of emotivism as a logical positivism that holds that only empirical and analytical judgments have meaning. Because moral judgment cannot be verified, then moral propositions should be wrong and not acceptable.

In response to such criticisms, Ayer argues that we should not confuse between disagreement about fact and disagreement about attitude. For him, moral disagreement is not a disagreement about fact, rather a disagreement in attitude. One, for instance, may disagree with another man about the wrongness of stealing, in the sense that they may not have the same feelings about stealing. Since they only express their own feeling, it does not make any sense in asking which of them is morally right. Accordingly, it is understood why there is no genuine moral disagreement between the agents. To the second criticism, Ayer contends that emotivism does not provide moral judgments because “it is impossible to find a criterion for determining the validity of ethical judgments” (Ayer {EMR}, p. 31). It is also important to note that the validity of ethical judgments is correspondent to the validity of moral proposition. At this point, it is clear why emotivism does not provide moral propositions (response to the third criticism).

In addition to such criticism, Ross addresses his objection to Ayer’s ethical theory. Ross asserts that Ayer is incorrect when he says that there are no ethical judgments; instead, they are merely expressions of approval or disapproval about a certain action. Ross contends that it is impossible to approve or disapprove something without thinking and analyzing whether it is worthy or not (Ross, 1939:34). It seems to me that Ross wants to reveal that the process of thinking and analyzing involves self-evident to justify moral judgments. Since it is a self-evident, moral judgments do not need to be verified.

In replying to Ross’s criticism, Ayer will make serious effort to be consistent in his argument. I think he will say that self-evident is not suitable to verify ethical judgments. Ethical judgment that supported by self-evident is still meaningless because it is non-empirical, non-testable, and pure tautologies. I do think that Ayer should reject Ross’s argument in order to be consistent as a proponent of logical positivism.

Sumber: Tugas Reading saya dalam mata kuliah "Ethical Theory" sewaktu belajar di Colorado State University

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