I grew up in a protestant American household. I worked hard to redefine my beliefs, epistemology, and ultimately my meta-ethical views as those that I could defend. I find that emotivism is easily the soundest meta-ethical approach, with some of its cousins holding water as well.

There are myriad reasons for its sensibility, not the least of which being its agreement with societal norms (e.g., different societies and different people having different views. Those views being always informed by their attitudes, upbringing, and personality) and its agreement with the natural world and our evolutionary origins.

I cannot imagine why this theory is so unpopular, save 2 things:

  1. It has an unsavory conclusion that things like rape are not truly morally wrong. (I don't care about arguments that come from positions such as this. Thinking in terms of "but I don't like that conclusion" is backwards thinking.)
  2. The theory has some issues wherein statements do not hold truth values. These arguments against emotivism seem always to be able to be refuted by adjusting the meaning of the words (e.g., the sentence, "We discussed whether or not murder is wrong." has an issue under emotivism in that it does not express the emotions of its speaker and so its ending "murder is wrong" has zero meaning. But this issue seems refutable by rephrasing for clarity "we discussed whether society yays or boos murder" or "we discussed whether or not we would yay or boo murder in the case study in question".).

eagerly awaiting someone to show me how I am wrong here, because I don't love the conclusion that there is nothing morally true or false, but I cannot refute myself here. Help appreciated.

  • Can you explain why you prefer emotivism over sentimentalism? It seems to me that sentimentalism has most of the same upsides you perceive in emotivism, but it does not lead to (1), and is in fact compatible with realism and universalism (at least in some interpretations).
    – Kevin
    Commented Jan 17 at 22:11
  • People believe that things like rape and murdering children are always wrong. They take such judgments as basic data, so any philosophy that says otherwise is clearly false. It isn't at all clear why giving up basic moral judgments to embrace a nice-sounding theory is better than keeping the moral judgments and giving up the theory. Commented Jan 17 at 23:39
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    Because it leads to uncomfortable and socially disturbing conclusions. That has little to do with whether or not it is 'true' in some sense, but truth and popularity are too different things that rarely go hand in hand. As on most evolutionary accounts a key function of morality is to ensure social cohesion, they essentially predict their own unpopularity.
    – Conifold
    Commented Jan 18 at 1:06
  • 2
    @DavidGudeman Most societies around the world have a history of accepting the murder of children when they didn't have enough resources to raise them, so it's unclear to me who are the "people" in your comment and according to whom some philosophies are "clearly false".
    – Stef
    Commented Jan 18 at 17:27
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    @Stef, no, it isn't. You are inferring from the claim that something would have been useful or necessary to the claim that it was considered acceptable. That's an incredibly weak argument. People who accept that the pain that the dentist inflicts on them is necessary don't thereby accept that the pain is good, or even that it is not evil. Commented Jan 18 at 23:34

10 Answers 10


Ayer's emotivism cannot explain moral discourse. This problem is known as the Frege-Geach problem. If a moral sentence (one could say proposition but I don't want to unnecessarily invoke association with entities such as "meanings of sentences") has only the content that asserting it has (like "close the window!"), it is impossible to understand reasoning which involves the sentence.

With exclamations it is obvious that no reasoning can utilize them. It becomes clear why once you embed it in a conditional: "If close the window!, then I ought to close the window" - completly nonsensical, unintelligible.

Now compare that to moral discourse: "If it is good to close the window, then you ought to close the window" is completly unproblematic but nonsensical if for "it is good to close the window" you can substitute something like "close the window!" like the emotivists say. This is because the content of a moral sentence isn't exhausted by the act of assertion (sometimes called "force"), it also has further consequences, logical relation to other sentences.

Simon Blackburn's quasi-realism is an answer which incorporates most expressivist (emotivism is a variant of non-cognitivist expressivism linking morality with emotions of the subject) intuitions while also providing a (potentially) adequate semantics for moral discourse which isn't troubled by the problem.

Robert Brandom's Truth and Assertibility explains why embedding a sentence in a conditional is helpful to discover some of its semantic properties.

As a curiosity, I will mention that the language game Wittgenstein presents as an example of the most primitive language at the very beggining of his Philosophical Investigations (related to builders) behaves like the emotivist's picture of moral discourse.


If you define words to mean something incompatible with the definition in common use, you haven't come to a conclusion or expressed an opinion. You've just stopped speaking the same language as everybody else.

Things like rape are not what? Universally disagreeable? That's what wrong means in Emotiviglish, right? So when you translate Emotiviglish to English for the benefit of your non-Emotiviglish-speaking interlocutors, that's what you should say: the uncontroversial (albeit tactless) statement that "Rape is not universally disagreeable: the rapist rapes because he likes raping."

Or do you really mean that rape is not transgressive of divine law? Not maliciously harmful? Not deserving of severe punishment? Then we're speaking English, and the definition of wrong in Emotiviglish is irrelevant. If you have an opinion about whether rape is one of those things that it means in English, say that. If you think that not universally disagreeable necessarily implies not X where X is one of those things, say that.

See false friend and homonym.

  • It's not as if "wrong" has a clear, generally accepted definition in English. As children we are taught that certain things are wrong and that we therefore shouldn't do them, and the meaning of this word is not otherwise explained to us. It then falls to us as adults, or as older children, to decide what these words "wrong" and "should" actually mean, in a manner that generalizes and regularizes our initial hazy notions. Some people decide they refer to nothing but transgressions of divine law. Other people decide wrong means "harmful" or "deserving punishment" (what is "harm" or "deserving"?)
    – causative
    Commented Jan 18 at 19:44
  • @causative If you want an airtight defense of moral realism and the complete Rosetta Stone English course, I don't have either to give you. If you disagree that words have definitions, and you can't communicate if you use words as if they mean something not in the common use, then all I have to say to that is Tomato ballroom the introversion cannibal documenting for where not zipper run mangos.
    – g s
    Commented Jan 18 at 21:12
  • The meaning of words in natural language comes first from how they are used. This meaning grows organically and changes over time based on use. For most words, definitions are made up afterwards to fit use, not the other way around.
    – causative
    Commented Jan 18 at 21:33

The problem with emotivism is the same as the problem with the rest of the positivist project: The goal of reducing the universe of discourse to the objectively knowable results in leaving out the majority of what people are actually interested in talking about. Saying "I don't like rape!" fails to capture significant portions of what people mean (or at least, "mean to mean") when they say "rape is wrong."

With that said, in a pluralist society, where people have to work together despite having incompatible beliefs and moral commitments, emotivism is an arguably accurate and useful description of what we can agree upon. If your opposition to rape is based on a conservative commitment to sex being exclusive to marriage, and mine is based on a liberal belief in the right of every person to have absolute command over their own body, then "I don't like rape!" may in fact be the area of overlap that allows us to make secular laws forbidding rape.

This is, however (a) better thought of as a compromise position, not suitable as a basis for anyone's personal core commitments and (b) susceptible to brokering an uneasy and unstable peace, as demonstrated by the current disintegration of moral consensus in the pluralist and increasingly polarized and disunified United States.

  • 1
    Tnx for writing my answer!👍 Basically, start with positivism end with BS. QED! That said the 2nd para muddies the waters some... The 3rd again clears up. Fundamentally, the problem is one of confusing management & logistics with ontology/epistemology. It's a logistical problem of how to manage a society with very plural components. The secularists answers effectively Since it's the only one we know it's the only one that exist!. This sleight of hand trades long term chaos for short term stability
    – Rushi
    Commented Jan 19 at 14:46

The problem with emotivism - or at least some forms of it - is that it doesn't explain how we can judge that a moral judgment made by someone else is wrong. If the other person is merely describing their emotional state, how could they be wrong?

But we still do want to say that if someone thinks murder is fine, that person is wrong. Even if they are accurately describing their feelings at the time.

It can even apply to retroactive judgments about yourself. Suppose at time t=0 you think that lying in a certain situation is okay (moral). Then at time t=1 you have read an argument that convinces you that lying in that situation is not okay (immoral). At time t=1 you judge that you were wrong at time t=0. And being the better informed person at t=1, you have some justification for this judgment. This is despite the fact that at both times you are accurately describing your emotional state.

The resolution to this is what I like to call "persuasionism." Moral truth consists of those moral attitudes you would hold eventually, if you were able to examine all the arguments on both sides and observe all relevant empirical evidence. In other words, moral truth is the (emotive) attitude of a hypothetical "fully-informed person." We do not actually have any such people on Earth, but we can talk about them as an ideal, and speculate about what views they would hold, if they existed.

A person is wrong, morally, if they are acting in a way that goes against the moral attitudes of this hypothetical "fully-informed person."


I suspect it is unpopular because people are irrational and have a tendency to equate strong feelings and instincts with objective truth. There are all sorts of beliefs which are subjective but which are considered by their adherents to be unquestionable truths. Why should ethics be any different?

Where critics of emotivism might be wrong is assuming that it implies that ethical values are 'just' expressions of emotion, as if that means they carry no weight. Why assume that? If, for example, the overwhelming majority of humans have an instinctive feeling that murder is wrong, regardless of their culture, age, gender, religious beliefs, political affiliations, and so on, why would you not treat that as sufficient justification for the view that murder is wrong? Why would you feel it necessary to buttress the view by appeals to a god or some claim about the existence of absolute moral truths?

  • +1 You suspect? I can confirm! The capacity for rationalization is universal.
    – J D
    Commented Jan 25 at 15:25

Ultimately, we can drop the use of generic moral terms and engage in a replacement semantics (c.f. John Rawls on moral conceptual analysis) whereby we ask questions like, "Does such-and-such action conform to the categorical imperative?" or, "Does such-and-such action promote the greatest utility?" And these will be cognitivism-minded questions by the by.

Or as Quine said once, "Change the logic, change the subject," and so deontic logic seems strongly cognitivist, too. Take deontic logics with ought-implies-can. Does any noncognitivist representation imply a cognitivist one in the required way? Does, "Hooray for x!" or, "Do x," imply that it is possible for x to be done? (Worse, does any sentimentalist kind of thesis at all comport with ought-implies-can?) Perhaps we need not adopt such deontic logics as have this principle (though when we speak of what we "need," here, we are venturing into normative territory by the by as well: see about e.g. metaepistemological realism), but from a sort of pluralist standpoint on this matter, it will be open to whosoever chooses to decide on which form of moral language they wish to adopt, and how should we gainsay the cognitivist their decision, then, here? The emotivist language game has nothing more going for it than the language game with ought-implies-can, does it?

Addendum: the state of the dialectic

Perhaps the appearance of emotivism being "unpopular" can be understood in the following (SEP-sourced) terms:

Non-cognitivism first came on the scene as a rather starkly drawn alternative to prevailing cognitivist and realist construals of moral discourse. As it developed to enable it to explain features of moral discourse relied on by its critics, the view became more subtle and presented a less stark contrast with realist positions. The main negative claims were often somewhat moderated. For example, the claim that moral judgments had no descriptive meaning evolved into a claim that any such meanings were secondary. The claim that moral judgments could not be true or false became the claim that they could be true or false only in a minimal or deflationary sense. Not all of the shifts have been embraced by all non-cognitivists, but it is fair to say that current versions are more complex and subtle than the theories from which they descend. As a result the arguments for and against the views have gotten rather intricate and even technical. That trend is likely to continue for at least a while longer as ideas from other areas of philosophy are employed to further hone the objections and fill out the responses to them.

E.g., if there are weaker and stronger concepts of "facts," then there will accordingly be weaker or stronger ways of drawing the fact/value distinction. A fortiori, even given a distinction between truths and facts, there will be weaker and stronger distinctions between ethical and non-ethical truths (even when there are few to no moral facts!). And so on and on: in other words, it seems hard to sustain a robust non-cognitivist moral language game for the sake of interpreting all pre-theoretic moral language games. Normativity is too elementary to even scientific or other "factual" discourse to be separated from such in a way that lends itself to keeping the non-cognitivism/cognitivism distinction itself "in play," in the end.


How people select truths is a fascinating and complicated subject. While philosophy gives us tools to analyze beliefs, particularly through the study of logic, the philosophy of mind has only since the advent of cognitive science as a discipline really started to unpack the relationship between feelings and reason. There are two claims that are becoming increasingly clear with modern reasearch:

  1. People are not Homo economicus and are irrational in many ways including cognitive biases.
  2. Beliefs are an extension of one's emotions and are susceptible to cognitive dissonance, rationalization, and originate in the gut as per the somatic marker hypothesis.

Non-cognitivism as a meta-ethical theory (IEP) on its face makes a claim that complex ethical arguments essentially reduce to simplified emotional claims. That great sermon given by your pastor that ran 45 minutes long? It's simply "Yay for the Golden Rule!". MLK's I Have a Dream reduces to "Boo for racism!" While the Geach-Frege Problem and other objections have some technical weight, it's hard to escape the conclusion that philosophical arguments are rooted in first principles that often have emotional significance. Children are experts at reasoning from conclusion to premises, for instance to get what they want.

It's an empirical question of why many people reject non-cognitivism (despite the strengths of its position and consistency with an empirical exploration of how people reason practically), however, it's a rather a truism that by definition rationalization as a psychological activity is a defense mechanism to protect us from our feelings. Therefore, a person engaged in rationalization must behave in a way as to be oblivious to the act of rationalization itself. Unlike philosophical bullshit, a person who rationalizes does have a concern for the consistency of truth-conditions, because the emotional import of the truth and falsity of statements is what is at stake in the reasoning process.

Think about how people rationalize to avoid the emotional impact of their inevitable death. If one wants to avoid Camus's project of confronting death head on, and hides in comforting myths of a religion, then the best way of doing that is to engage in a lengthy and distracting process of sifting through claims, reason, and truth conditions to mitigate the impact of the truth. But if you reduce their position to "Jesus yay, because death boo", you bring back to attention the premise of inevitable death. This is such a common tactic of death with uncomfortable and inconvenient truth, that the Buddha made a religion out of pointing out that it is not Right Thinking.

That people routinely use language to obfuscate and avoid truth is part of the language-game in the Wittgensteinian sense. People lie, palter, use false implicature, obfuscate, use rhetorical tactics, advertise, bluff, conceal, and distract routine to affect claims of truth. This is part of how language works since it has illocutionary, locutionary, and perlocutionary effects. Non-cognitivism strips away some of the illusion and ambiguity of language and drills down to people's authentic feelings, and attempts to make plain people's agendas. People who abuse language to avoid truth and honesty, and that's a fair number of people, as well as people who persist with a cognitive distortion about how the world really works find the reduction of complex ideas to simple feelings do not want or cannot deal with such vulnerability.

So, while there are some technical objections to non-cognitivism, the great objection, in my estimation, seems to be that people have beliefs about reason which overestimate its power and effect. People believe they have more control then reason actually affords. People resent having all of their complex logical arguments reduced to simple value propositions. People refuse concede to the extent of their own irrationality. Thus, the objections are more of a psychological nature than a philosophical one. Thus, most people simply stick to "Reduce my thinking to my feelings? Boo!"


The superficial reason that emotivism has failed to gain traction is that — starting with the Enlightenment — the philosophical trajectory has held that reason is the antidote or panacea to irrationalism based in emotional thinking. Starting with Hobbes and moving all the way through modern philosophy, thinkers have worked from the assumption that human beings are driven by entirely amoral impulses. The Enlightenment abandoned the previous idea that these impulses could be controlled by faith, piety, and devotion, and instead tried to reformulate moral and societal conventions on principles of 'pure' reason. But still there's a conceptual divide between the 'visceral' self (whether conceived as base human nature, the Freudian id, or biological impulses), and the 'cerebral' self of will, reason, and intellect. To that mindset, emotivism sounds like a regression to prior spiritualism or an abandonment of reason (and the Enlightenment project) entirely.

On a deeper level, though, there is a good deal of confusion about the relationship between emotions and reason, and particularly around the notion of 'attitudes'. Hans-George Gadamer (a European social theorist) makes an interesting distinction between the German terms 'erfahrung' and 'erlebnis'. Both these terms translate as 'experience' in English, bur 'erlebnis' implies an in-the-moment or in-the-flow experience, while 'erfahrung' suggest the accumulation of such in-the-moment experiences into long-term cognitive structures. We have the same issue with the term 'attitude': sometimes we use the word to mean a momentary, fluctuating, changeable mood (as in the phrase "check your attitude"); other times we use it to suggest a fixed disposition (e.g., "they have a hostile attitude towards immigrants"). but in fact there is an important difference between the immediate, reflexive attitude we present in any given moment and the long term attitudes we develop out of these immediate reflexes.

If we keep this distinction in mind, we can see that emotivism and rationalism are not as distinct as we like to make them. Attitudes in either sense are largely non-cognitive in the sense of emotivism, but reason plays an essential role in mediating the first kind of attitude and in developing the second kind. Moral reasoning becomes a matter of developing sound, long-term attitudes in conjunction with others in society.


EDIT - The Behavior Window

The Behavior Window is a concept taught in Leader Effectiveness Training (LET).


The person applying the behavior window observes a pattern of behavior and finds the pattern to be acceptable or unacceptable. Judgments that we label as moral and/or ethical arise when a human observer is affected emotionally by observing or participating in a specific pattern of behavior in the dramatic context. This cognitive function requires a biological structure, the human body, that performs the function, observing patterns of behavior and automatically or deliberately generating moral and ethical judgments in the sensory context.



Emotivism, In metaethics (see ethics), the view that moral judgments do not function as statements of fact but rather as expressions of the speaker’s or writer’s feelings. According to the emotivist, when we say “You acted wrongly in stealing that money,” we are not expressing any fact beyond that stated by “You stole that money.” It is, however, as if we had stated this fact with a special tone of abhorrence, for in saying that something is wrong, we are expressing our feelings of disapproval toward it. Emotivism was expounded by A. J. Ayer in Language, Truth and Logic (1936) and developed by Charles Stevenson in Ethics and Language (1945).

I will argue that this is unpopular with people who make automatic personal judgments of right or wrong, good or bad, etc., without the conscious awareness of arriving at those judgments, because the judgments arise as the product of an unconscious cognitive process.

Murder may be wrong, bad, or illegal, but in law we do not assume that young children are capable of forming bad intentions prior to attaining the Age of Reason. If the child does a crime or tort prior to age seven, under the doctrine of the common law, then there is no bad intention and no negligence involved. The moral harm to a Plaintiff might as well have been caused by an animal or other force of nature. The parents of the child could be judged to lack prudence under the doctrine of negligent supervision. The persistence of this doctrine called The Age of Reason means that the common law jurists as a supergroup or cultural institution recognize prudence, the ability to govern action by the use of reason, as an emergent property of the maturing human body in the social context. The concepts of right or wrong, good or bad, have no source outside the judgment of the adults in society, although the tendency to agree on these matters can be attributed either to emergence, socialization, or some external source imposing the values such as God or Natural law origins or evolutionary psychology with variations in norms and values emerging across cultures and individuals.


I can say why I find it relatively uninteresting, or rather a fall-back position

Emotivism did a bad job of explaining the important role of rational argument in moral practice


Not to throw the baby (a plausible account of why ethics matters) out with the bathwater, but without rational argument what is anyone doing when they speak?

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    +1 I'm upvoting on account of the link. To answer your rhetorical question, they care conducting speech acts of which, reason often plays a minor role. See also pragmatics and Sprachspiel. Welcome! Continue to contribute.
    – J D
    Commented Jan 25 at 19:22
  • thanks @JD i might
    – user71226
    Commented Jan 25 at 19:23

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