Chapter One: INTRODUCTION
Section 7. Emotivism
Emotivism or Irrationalism as in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
The emotive theory of ethics : From Oxford University Press: Emotivism
That moral responses and judgments have an emotional aspect is allowed by very different moral theories, and can hardly be reasonably denied. The emotive theory, however, argues that the emotive element is the ultimate basis of appraisal. 'Reason' examines the situation to be appraised, and discerns the alternatives for action. Reason, however, is inert; it cannot provide the equally necessary dynamic, action-initiating component: only emotion can. The language of moral judgment expresses the speaker's emotion and evokes the hearer's.
The philosophy of mind and action on which the theory relies was enunciated clearly by Hume, and has had immense influence. It attracted numerous twentieth-century philosophers with positivistic, non-cognitivist leanings. A distinction was made between analyses that equated moral judgment with a 'report' on the subject's inner feelings (but thereby making moral disagreement enigmatic), and those that saw it as an essentially emotive reaction, non-propositional expression analogous to exclamation (hence the nickname 'Boo! Hoorah!' theory). It was readily claimed, in addition, that beliefs about the context of action, and disagreement over beliefs, entered essentially into moral deliberation and dispute. In other versions, 'emotion' shaded into 'attitude' - basically 'approval' and 'disapproval'. Analyses on clear-cut emotivist lines tended to be displaced (particularly under the influence of R. M. Hare) by 'prescriptivist' accounts.
In its simplest forms, the emotive theory omits (or dismisses) far too much of its subject-matter. Moral judgments are not in fact discrete explosions of feeling: they have logical linkages. Emotions can be responses to already discriminated moral properties; and, crucially, they can (and ought) themselves be judged morally appropriate or perverse. The theory cannot properly distinguish moral reasoning from rhetoric; nor can it give an intelligible account of how a perplexed moral agent who lacks initially any definite, unambiguous reaction to a moral challenge can think his way responsibly towards a moral position.
Notable among critics of that general theory of motivation which hinges on a
dichotomy of reason-feeling or belief-desire - the theory from which emotivism
and other forms of non-cognitivism spring - are some late twentieth-century
'moral realists', e.g. Jonathan Dancy, in his Moral Reasons (Oxford,
See also Emotive and descriptive meaning; prescriptivism.
Bibliography C. L. Stevenson, Ethics and Language (New Haven, Conn., 1944).
J. O. Urmson, The Emotive Theory of Ethics (London, 1968).
The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, © Oxford University Press 1995
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