III – Response One to Naturalism: Non-Cognitivism (like Emotivism)
Wittgenstein said that natural facts were simply all the truths there are, and since these did not shed any light on normative claims, we see that normative claims are not truths (or falsehoods). This idea was elaborated by 20th century Emotivists. The term Non-Cognitivism applies to all views like Emotivism, according to which evaluative claims are taken to be neither true nor false.
Emotivists take normative claims to express a speaker’s attitude. For example, “Murder is wrong” is taken to be a way of saying “Boo to murder!” or “Murder: yuck!” or “Down with murder, murdering and murderers!” Emotivists are fond of saying that “Murder is wrong” has a deceptive grammatical form which misleads is into asking whether it’s true that murder is wrong. The sentences they provide as translations, which allegedly express exactly the same thought as “Murder is wrong,” are not candidates for having a truth value. It doesn’t make sense to even ask whether it’s true that “Boo to murder!”.
Wittgenstein and the Emotivists are not being dismissive of normative language. They just think of it as not being a fact-stating language. While they deny that there are truths in ethics, Emotivists think that it’s possible to have reasonable arguments in ethics. Since ethical language expresses our attitudes, an ethical argument can set out to change someone’s attitude about an important issue.
People who oppose human euthanasia are taken by Emotivists to be rooting against it. In an ethical argument, we may try to talk them out of it. I’ve always rooted against the Yankees, and I had my reasons. One day, a compelling Yankees fan made me realize that my reasons were not very good. I wasn’t converted into a Yankees fan (though it could have happened), but I no longer insist on always rooting against them.
Something analogous can happen with ethical conclusions: We can imagine someone who is initially opposed to stem cell research learns more facts about the issue and changes her mind. I used to be opposed to genetically-modified foods, but lately I’ve come to accept that some genetic modifications really are worth pursuing. Why this change of heart? Because I became convinced of certain facts – namely, that 1) some genetic modifications are safe, that 2) fewer people will starve if we allow some modified crops, and that 3) genetically modified crops can be grown in more places and with less fertilizer. There are two ways you could talk me out of my view: By far the most realistic is one where you convince me that I have my facts wrong. Indeed, all those factual/descriptive claims (1-3) that I believe are controversial.3 If you convince me they’re false, it will change my attitude about the normative claim that genetic modifications are worth pursuing. The other, less plausible way to talk me out of the normative claim is to not dispute the facts, but the background values I have which give the facts their relevance here. If you convinced me that it’s perfectly OK for people to starve, and that heavy fertilizer use is really no problem, claims (1-3) would no longer support my conclusion. But notice just how silly it seems to question whether people starving is morally OK. Typically (though not always), we all agree on the most basic values, and we disagree simply on the facts. This means that our normative disagreement about whether we ought to allow genetic modification might be largely a factual disagreement – a disagreement about whether it’s safe and whether we have better alternatives for feeding people. Take some time to think about other ethical disagreements and try to diagnose whether these rest mainly (or entirely) on factual or normative disagreements.
We don’t hold our attitudes in a vacuum. For example, my negative attitude about the Yankees came partly from my perception that they are an arrogant team. Discovering that they are not really does affect my attitude. Becoming convinced that some genetic engineering is safe really does affect my attitude about whether it is morally acceptable. Unlike questions about which team to root for, ethical attitudes have an important impact on the world. Emotivists do not think that ethical claims express truths, but this does not force them to see these claims as unimportant. Emotivists, like anyone else, find it important to debate ethics, to try to improve people’s ethical attitudes and to sort out which ethical attitudes to take.
In Ch. 3, Rachels presents an objection to Emotivism. See if it makes sense to you. I think the view has other, more serious problems. I’ll talk about these in class if you’re interested. My goal here is to make you understand that the Emotivist approach is neither nihilistic nor dismissive of the importance of ethical controversies. Nonetheless, very few people these days are Emotivists. Historically, the most important arguments against Emotivism are rather technical, having to do with the parsing of sentences like “Is this wrong?” and “If x is wrong then y is also wrong.” The relevant parts inside these reasonable sentences cannot be replaced with “boos” and like emotings. For more details, see the following link: