Emotivism and morals: what is right and wrong?

The Jesuit priest and philosopher Harry Gensler (1945 – 2022), a scholar of logic and ethics, defined emotivism as a current of thought that holds that moral propositions cannot be analyzed as true or false, since they only express positive or negative feelings about something. In this way, a person who claims that “lying is evil” expresses that for her the act of lying is something negative or bad and therefore condemns it morally and – it is hoped – avoids lying.

This current of thought developed in the twentieth century from the philosopher A. J. Ayer (1910 – 1989), one of the creators of logical positivism. For Ayer, only empirical (which can be tested through the senses) and analytical (which are true by definition) propositions can be classified as true or false. The empirical proposition “It’s raining” can be tested easily: just go to the window and check whether it is raining or not, and thus you can prove it as true or false. The proposition “no single man is married” is analytical, and is true by definition, since the concept of “single man” is defined by not being married.

But the proposition “lying is evil” cannot be tested sensibly and is not true by definition; a person may never have lied in her life, but at a certain point she may lie and have some benefit from it (for example, a 59-year-old person in a hurry can use the cashier for seniors at the grocery store and leave earlier than usual). Emotivism, according to R. M. Hare (1919 – 2002), evolved from the ideas of David Hume (1711 – 1776) and G. E. Moore (1873 – 1958), but the connection with Hume is disputed.

On the one hand, emotivism helps to clearly connect the moral judgment and the motivation for the moral act, because a person who considers it morally wrong to lie will most likely avoid lying and denounce the liars, that is, she will be motivated to practice the (positive) act of always speaking the truth. On the other hand, emotivism reduces the role of reason in the moral decision: if a person feels that something is morally wrong, she does not do the act, but has no basis to justify her decision not to act that way. There is no evaluation of truth or falsehood, no reasoning that justifies the moral decision: the person will simply say that she finds lying bad, morally reprehensible, and so does not lie and does not accept that other people lie. There is no rational argument about the wickedness of lying and the goodness of speaking the truth.

Alasdair MacIntyre (1929) is one of the leading modern critics of emotivism. For the Scottish philosopher, the Enlightenment project of grounding morality failed to propose a basis for morality, and led to the so-called emotivist ethos, a practice of presenting propositions of preferences of feelings and attitudes to ground a moral judgment. For MacIntyre, society would abandon the possibility of rationally discussing morality, and each theory would be justified simply from feelings: if I feel this is the right thing to do, I do it; but if someone asks me why I acted this way, the best I can say is that it seemed to me to be the right thing.

In such a context, morality becomes an individualistic exercise, in which a person can appeal to a unique value structure in the world to justify her actions, and cannot be criticized because she simply does not present a rational argument to support his moral choices. If she feels right about acting in a certain way —f or example, telling the truth to his friends and lying to strangers if it benefits her — then she will be right. However, “to act good” is not “to be good,” and any rational moral theory requires at least a criterion for an act to be good.

In a rationally distorted world, where people consider themselves to be something because they feel they are, emotivism can find fertile ground to guide moral decisions. But it will never substantiate an acceptable moral theory, because it presents no solid proof of the morality of decisions, and without an ethical theory that at least aspires to universalization (however impossible it may seem), moral education becomes impossible. In contrast, virtue ethics is necessarily contextual, but the virtue in acting is only proved by a rational analysis of the context of the action; emotivist ethics, on the other hand, doesn’t need this rational analysis: if you think you’re right, you’re right. And if you don’t like it, it’s your problem.

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