Dismissal of Emotivism

In my post, The Truth of Truth, I linked to a BBC page outlining Emotivism. I did this even though the leading paragraph reads, as follows:

Emotivism is no longer a view of ethics that has many supporters. Like subjectivism it teaches that there are no objective moral facts, and that therefore ‘murder is wrong’ can’t be objectively true.

BBC Ethics Guide

As I subscribe to Emotivism and its Prescriptivist progeny, I’ll respond from my perspective. Let’s parse the paragraph stepwise:

Emotivism is no longer a view of ethics that has many supporters.

Notice immediately the appeal to popularity. People have been convinced rhetorically that this cannot be true, primarily because they are uncomfortable with the notion. People tend to resort to escalating commitment, digging in their heels and doubling down on their position.

Just because something is popular doesn’t make it incorrect, but neither are unpopular opinions untrue.

Like subjectivism it teaches that there are no objective moral facts

Indeed, as I’ve discussed at length, there are no moral facts. Morals are human constructs of language and subject to contextual framing. The prevailing meta-narrative is that a moral code is necessary in a society, which is further predicated on the notion that society is necessary. Any moral code is, then, by definition, subject to this underlying meta-narrative.

I can say that I think society and cooperation are necessary for the continuation of our human species, but this is also admittedly and unabashedly self-centred hubris—another unquestioned meta-narrative.

We also have a domain boundary problem. At times, we have altered the boundaries to exclude people from the definition, hyper-focus on people in the definition, or exclude entire other species and kingdoms.

All of these are subjective. So when the inevitable response is, ‘I mean for humans’, we now know the subject.

‘murder is wrong’ can’t be objectively true.

On the topic of emotion, murder is a heavy hitter. After all, who is going to argue that murder is not wrong, let alone subjective?

Even on the surface it’s obvious that this is a tightly scoped claim, and there a few things going on here:

  1. Murder is a legal subset of killing.
  2. As for the victim—murderee anyone?—, s/he is defined to be human. We cannot murder dogs or roses.
  3. As for the actor—I’m going with murderer here—, this subset is limited to (A) humans, (B) killing not authorised by the State, and (C) unintentional killing.
    • A human can be declared a non-person or a partial person in order to exempt it from the moral charge. We’ve seen this time and again throughout history, entire classes of people who could be killed with no moral outrage.
    • A human can be exempted (given a free pass) by maintaining that their killing isn’t murder whilst others are vilified for killing not yet regarded as murder. The rules are subject to change without recourse.
      • The State declares that killing in some justified circumstance puts a person in some protected realm outside of the scope of murder. These might be military personnel, police officers, executioners, and so on.
      • Abortion antagonists claim that doctors performing these procedures should be considered to be murders.
      • Euthanasia opponents claim that doctors performing these procedures are murders.

If one—the subject—does not accept this frame, s/he also doesn’t accept the, let’s say, verdict. Vegan philosopher, Peter Singer claims that all animal life should be protected, that any killing is immoral. Some have claimed that nature itself should have a voice.

And so a statement like ‘murder is wrong’ is nothing more than a prescriptive emotional statement:

I feel that murder is bad (emotions with justification defended by protective layers of reason), and you should too.

Just Saying

Not an ounce of objectivity to be found, excepting, of course, for the objection I have to the counter-claim.


I’ll save you a click to the BBC page. These paragraphs are as silly as the first.

Emotivism has become unpopular with philosophers because the theory that led the Emotivists to think that moral statements were meaningless has fallen from favour.

Less technically, if expressing moral judgements is really no more than expressing one’s personal opinion there doesn’t seem any useful basis for arguing about moral judgements.

In practical terms, Emotivism falls down because it isn’t very satisfying. Even (most) philosophers think moral statements are more than just expressions of feeling.

And it’s perfectly possible to imagine an ethical debate in which neither party has an emotion to express.

Non-philosophers also think there is more to ethics than just the expression of an attitude or an attempt to influence behaviour. They want a better explanation and foundation for shared standards of morality than Emotivism can provide.