Ethical Realism

January 14, 2009

Chapter 3.1 “Critique of Ethics and Theology” by A. J. Ayer

The first contemporary essay that I will discuss is “Critique of Ethics and Theology” by A. J. Ayer.

A. J. Ayer provides us with the first noncognitive theory that is called “emotivism” (28-40) (Noncognitivists believe that moral statements have no truth value.) He suggests that everyday ethical judgments are not what we think. We think they are cognitive, but they are actually emotional expressions. To say, “Murder is wrong,” is actually something like saying, “murder!” in an angry voice. It shows an emotional dislike of murder.

Some people have described emotivism as the theory that moral judgments (stealing is wrong) say something like “Stealing, boo!” The word “boo” emphasizes the fact that we are merely expressing our emotion.

What kinds of argument does Ayer use to defend his theory of emotivism?

(1) We cannot replace our current moral language with a nonmoral language (29).

Some philosophers decided that we could dispense with moral language by replacing it with a nonmoral language. For example, utilitarians can claim that the word “good” means the same thing as “produces the most pleasure.” To say, “Stealing is wrong” is merely to say that it produces suffering rather than pleasure. Ayer points that that this isn’t how we currently use the word “good” and we currently don’t have a way to replace moral language with nonmoral language. By rejecting this kind of reductionism (reducing moral statements to nonmoral statements), we have slightly more reason to accept noncognitivism. If every alternative to noncognitivism is rejected, then noncognitivism might be the most plausible metaethical theory.

(2) Moral absolutism is unverifiable (30).

We cannot verify if a moral statement is true or false. (How do we know that “stealing is wrong” is true?) Moral intuition is the traditional kind of evidence used for such truths, but this form of evidence is unreliable. (Different people have different moral intuitions.) By rejecting moral absolutism, we have slightly more reason to accept noncognitivism.

(3) Subjectivism does not describe our actual moral language (32).

According to a subjectivist, when we say, “Stealing is wrong,” we are saying, “I disapprove of stealing.” This is very similar to Ayer’s theory, but it attempts to make it more literal. Although it is true that moral language is a way of expressing feelings of approval and disapproval (or whatever moral emotion), we aren’t literally telling someone how we feel.

Also, Ayer argues that we don’t actually have to have the emotion in order to “evince it.” When we make a moral judgment, we are showing an emotion, but we aren’t stating a fact that we have the emotion.

By rejecting subjectivism, we have slightly more reason to accept noncognitivism.

(4) Moral argument is about nonmoral facts, not values or emotions (33).

We don’t tell people what emotions or values to endorse, we only tell them what nonmoral facts to accept. For example, we can argue that something is unhealthy, but we can’t argue that “health is good.”

We might worry that emotivism ignores the fact that people argue about morality, but A. J. Ayer says that we don’t argue about morality (values). We argue about nonmoral facts, even when we think we are arguing about morality.


There are many reasons to reject noncognitivism or Ayer’s justifications for noncognitivism. A. J. Ayer eventually denounced logical positivism and noncognitivism, so his essay can only be taken with a grain of salt. (Check youtube.)

It should be clear that Ayer doesn’t argue that it is false that “we should drink five glasses of water a day.” This kind of statement could merely be about our goals. If we have a goal, then in some sense we “ought” to do what we can to succeed in accomplishing the goal. In the same way, it might be true that you “ought to use a gun” when you have a goal of killing someone. This kind of “ought” has nothing to do with morality. (Admittedly, it isn’t always clear when we are using a moral “ought” or not. “You ought to drink five glasses of water a day” is true nonmorally if you want to stay healthy, but it is a moral “ought” if you have a moral obligation to stay healthy.) For this reason, we shouldn’t argue that the simple fact that we “ought” to do things is a counterexample to his theory.

(1) A. J. Ayer never argues against nihilism (the view that moral statements are cognitive, but are all false).

Although we might want to reject absolutism, that doesn’t mean that moral statements don’t refer to something like intrinsic values. “Stealing is wrong” can have something to do with intrinsic value like, “Stealing leads to intrinsic disvalue through suffering”).

(2) Ayer’s argument that “we don’t argue about values” is false.

I know some people who argue about emotions quite often and make judgments, such as:

  • You shouldn’t get angry!
  • You need to learn to control your anger.
  • It’s not good to feel negative emotions.

In particular, Buddhists, Aristotle, the Stoics, and Epicureans have quite a lot to say about emotions and which ones we should want. If arguing about which emotions are good is out of style, then that has something to do with contemporary morality rather than ethics throughout history.

Epicurus, Aristotle, and some utilitarians also have something to say about intrinsic values as well. (Should we agree that pleasure, pain, knowledge, virtue, human life, and/or happiness have intrinsic importance?)

(3) We don’t say what Ayer thinks we say.

When I say, “Stealing is wrong,” I am not just expressing an emotion. It is quite rude for Ayer to tell me that I am saying something completely different than what I intend to be saying and to trivialize it. Phenomenologically, Ayer is describing human behavior in the worst possible way. It is “contrary to experience.”

Could noncognitivism be verified by natural science? This seems very unlikely considering the fact that our everyday experience of moral argument is nothing like what he describes. We really believe that our children have real importance and make the world a better place. A world without people would be a much less valuable world. It should not be surprising that our moral arguments will be based on these cognitive facts.

(4) Noncognitivism is unverifiable.

If we could find out that noncognitivism is unverifiable, then it would not be a tenable position for a logical positivist. However, noncognitivism is verifiable in principal. A logical positivist needs to know that a statement can be verified in principal, not whether or not a statement has actually been verified.

A. J. Ayer could have endorsed metaethical agnosticism. If we can’t know anything about ethics, then why endorse any metaethical position? It does make sense that noncognitivism could be verified by natural science. We just find it unlikely. (Such verification in science would require evidence for the “principle of verification” itself, which was never provided.)

(5) Ayer misses the point.

Sometimes philosophers need to return to Earth and realize that what they have to say has significance to everyday human beings. When someone tells me that there are no moral facts, I will want them to explain the most “obvious” of moral facts, such as, “Pain is bad.” When we experience pain it doesn’t seem like a morally neutral category. We experience it as “bad” in a sense of intrinsic importance. If someone tells me that pain isn’t “bad” then I wonder if that person knows what the word means. If someone doesn’t think it is bad, then that person shouldn’t mind being tortured. Of course, Ayer would never allow us to torture him, but why? Does it seem bad, but it really isn’t?

Is “pain” intrinsically important? When we say that something is “bad” we can mean something nonmoral: It disrupts our goals. Pain does disrupt our goal of “not feeling pain” but that is about it! Our ability to feel pain is actually a good thing to have. People without the ability to feel pain have a lot of problems. Instrumentally, pain seems good. However, only by feeling it do we know that it is bad.

Of course, pain often coincides with other goals. Our goal to not feel pain often coincides with our goal to avoid harm. If we feel pain, then we are often harmed. However, it doesn’t coincide 100% of the time. It is possible to feel pain without attaining physical harm, and we still have good reason to want to avoid it. (Being pinched, for example.)

Also, the most painful experiences often have nothing to do with physical harm. Emotional suffering has a lot more to do with our belief that something bad has happened. A loss of a loved one, for example. But if we need to believe that something “bad” happened, then this seems to presuppose a belief in moral realism. We need to believe that it is true that something bad has happened.

Why people reject the fact that pain has intrinsic significance: Pain is “subjective.” It is something we experience within the first person perspective and we contemplate it through introspection. We don’t percieve pain from the outside world. Although we might say that something is pyramid shaped in the outside world through sensations, it wouldn’t make sense to say that something is painful in the outside world. We don’t think pain is a property of sharp objects. Many empiricists, such as Hume, will only allow perceptions of objects in an “outside world” to count as evidence. Since pain is something that we don’t perceive as existing in an “outside world,” we have no evidence of pain. (We don’t “observe” pain, but we do experience it and we can examine it through introspection.) Therefore, pain is often taken to be a mere illusion or peculiar “hallucination” caused by our bodies and situation. The “badness” of pain will likewise be part of that illusion.

We will only reject the existence of pain or the “badness” of pain if (1) we reject personal experience as evidence, or (2) we have certain metaphysical commitments. If personal experience does not count as evidence, then it is predictable that we will end up with a materialistic metaphysics. We will disregard all thoughts and experience as being a kind of illusion.

The related metaphysical commitment: Each kind of evidence corresponds to a kind of reality. The evidence of pain (personal experience) is quite different than the evidence of a pyramid-shaped object (observation). Many people will then say that these two kinds of evidence are of two different kinds of substance. Observation is of the “outside world,” but personal experience is about “mental stuff.” Descartes took mental stuff to be an objectively existing part of reality, but many philosophers want to think of mental stuff as being some kind of illusion (just like Hume).

After reading the entire book on contemporary ethics, the ordinary concern about “pain being bad” was never mentioned. Isn’t this one of the most basic forms of evidence that something can have intrinsic importance?


  1. […] Chapter 3.1: Critique of Ethics and Theology by A.J. Ayre […]

    Pingback by Contemperary Metaethics Part 1 Table of Contents « Ethical Realism — September 12, 2009 @ 12:38 am | Reply

  2. […] exist because morality is merely an expression of our emotions. This is the position of non-cognitivists. Hume never made it clear that he was a non-cognitivist, but his moral theory seems to imply that […]

    Pingback by Objection to Moral Realism Part 1: The Is/Ought Gap « Ethical Realism — October 19, 2009 @ 8:00 am | Reply

  3. […] be true by definition that we can’t reason about moral values. Some philosophers, such as A. J. Ayre, have argued that moral reasoning is only means-to-ends reasoning. What food you “should […]

    Pingback by Objections to Moral Realism Part 4: Beliefs Can’t Motivate « Ethical Realism — November 10, 2009 @ 12:06 pm | Reply

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