Emotivism is a meta-ethical view that claims that ethical sentences do not express propositions but emotional attitudes. Hence, it is colloquially known as the hurrah/boo theory. (WP)

I have been reading the 3rd edition of Alisdair MacIntyre's 1981 After Virtue, in which he criticized contemporary moral philosophy as being inherently emotivist—which he reaffirmed 26 years later:

For one way of framing my contention that morality is not what it once was is just to say that to a large degree people now think, talk, and act as if emotivism were true, no matter what their avowed theoretical standpoint might be. Emotivism has become embodied in our culture. (22)

ChristopherE recently commented on my claim that contemporary morality is largely emotivist:

I'm curious: the mention of "current-day emotivism" seems out of left-field. Most ethicists working today reject emotivism (though I'm not suggesting it's wrong!). I'm not sure why you mention it.

So, I have three questions:

  1. To what extent is contemporary (popular) morality emotivist?
  2. To what extent is emotivism still popular among [meta]ethicists?
  3. To the extent that emotivism is not popular, what has replaced it?
  • It's my impression that emotivism has largely been supplanted by expressivism. I can't say for sure, though, as this is well outside of my area of expertise.
    – Dennis
    Commented Oct 30, 2013 at 22:32
  • Emotivism is certainly worth mentioning as one contemporary moral theory — no doubt about that. My question was about picking it out alone as a contrast for "pre-enlightenment meta-ethical moral frameworks." That is, there are a lot of other post-Enlightenment meta-ethical positions. For the same reason, I wonder if you'd reframe the question about "what has replaced" emotivism? I don't believe it's ever been the dominant meta-ethical view in English-speaking philosophy. Commented Oct 31, 2013 at 14:28
  • @ChristopherE: I'm mostly just going off of MacIntyre, whom several philosophers I respect have called 'good'. Feel free to provide an answer which questions the very premise of #2. :-) As I push through the rest of After Virtue and perhaps read a few of his other books, I may be able to frame some good questions about whether this or that modern metaethic can avoid being reduced to something like emotivism. I think there may be value in my Q reflecting the viewpoint of MacIntyre?
    – labreuer
    Commented Oct 31, 2013 at 16:12
  • 1
    Yes, MacIntyre is a good philosopher, and After Virtue is a worthy book. I just think the empirical data (below) show he's wrong about this, at least for early-21st-century anglophone philosophy. If you're asking, however, about how many philosophers might secretly be emotivists, unbeknownst to themselves, while espousing positions that contradict it, then you're asking about the conclusion to a complicated false-consciousness argument. And so you'd need to make that argument. In the absence of an argument nobody's — especially not an ethicist's him/herself — answer should be trusted! Commented Oct 31, 2013 at 16:54

1 Answer 1


I'll focus on your Question 2 about the popularity of emotivism among contemporary meta-ethicists, and maybe the answer to 3 follows from it. Most contemporary anglophone meta-ethicists are moral realists and cognitivists (see below), but a specialist could speak better to the distribution of particular views in the subfield.

As for popular morality (Question 1), that's a question psychologists are better positioned to reply to. I know Darcia Narvaez works on the empirical analysis of moral views in the United States public, for instance.

But for Question 2:

In the November 2009 PhilPapers survey, in which most of the 3226 respondents were professional philosophers including PhD students, 17% said they accepted or leaned towards some form of non-cognitivism about moral judgment. (Emotivism is one form of non-cognitivism.)

Among professional philosophers with an AOS (Area of Specialization) in Meta-ethics, 15.6% (16/102) said they accepted or leaned towards some form of non-cognitivism about moral judgments.

Let's keep in mind that being a minority position among philosophers in no way entails being wrong!

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