Ayer: The Emotive Theory of Ethics

by Carson Reynolds

Ayer, starting from a position of logical positivism (in reaction to subjectivist accounts of linguistic propositions) argues “that ethical philosophy consists simply in saying that ethical concepts are psuedo-concepts and therefore unanalysable.” His argument could be distilled down into the following structure. He firstly argues that ethics and aesthetics present an obstacle to the radically empiricist’s accounts of language. He then divides ethical language into 4 categories:

  1. Propositions that define ethical terms
  2. Propositions that describe the phenomena of moral experience
  3. Exhortations to moral virtue
  4. Ethical judgments

Ayer argues that the 1st of these categories is the true domain of ethics. The remainder he assigns to psychology, sociology, and other non-philosophic inquiries. Following this, he argues that statements about moral experience, virtue, and judgments are often expressions of feeling (Boos or Hoorays). Ayer argues it is entirely consistent for one person to say “Thrift is a virtue” and a second to say “Thrift is a vice” because both are simply expressing feelings related to their own moral context. As such they aren’t true or false in the traditional sense, but are complex terms superimposing statement and feeling. Ayer then strongly asserts “There cannot be such a thing as ethical science, if by ethical science one means the elaboration of a ‘true’ system of morals.” He ties up his analysis by relating it to Kantian and socially-motivated recommendations of altruistic behavior.