Two Serious Problems for Emotivism

A popular alternative to moral objectivism is what’s called “emotivism.” The basic idea is that our moral statements aren’t meant to convey truths, instead they are just expressions of emotion. So when someone says, “Killing children is bad,” they aren’t meaning to say it’s TRUE that killing children is bad, they’re really just expressing an emotion like, “Killing children, boooo!” That’s emotivism.

Sadly, most people that hold emotivism do so unreflectively. One can see the allure; emotivism is easy and fits nicely into a Naturalistic worldview. The problem, however, is that emotivism is actually highly problematic. After laying out the view, I’ll cover two serious problems for emotivism.


To fully appreciate the two problems for emotivism, it’ll help to understand the context out of which it arose. Emotivism sprung from a view called Logical Positivism (LP) [1]. LP was an attempt–a failed attempt, anyway–to completely reform philosophy. This view stated that only those statements that were either analytically true (true by definition) or empirically verifiable (able to be confirmed through observation) were meaningful.

One of the implications of LP is that it rendered moral statements meaningless. Consider the moral statement, “It is wrong to torture infants for fun.” This statement is not analytically true. That is to say, it’s not true by definition. Nor is the statement empirically verifiable. That is to say, there is no set of observations that can verify its truth. Since moral statements live up to neither standard, they, according to LP, are meaningless. Instead, moral statements can be thought of as expressing non-cognitive emotions.

Emotivism says that when we utter moral statements like, “shoplifting is wrong,” we aren’t actually saying something that’s either true or false. Instead, we are merely expressing some deeply rooted emotion. The statement “shoplifting is wrong” translates to something like “shoplifting: boo!”

It’s important to make a distinction here. There’s a difference between expressing an emotion and describing an emotion. If I am feeling angry, I can describe that anger by saying, “I am angry.” That description of my emotion can be true or false (I could be telling the truth or lying). But expressing anger is different from describing anger. In expressing my anger, I might say something like, “Ugh!” or “How annoying!” These expressions, importantly, are neither true or false; they are verbal expressions of what I’m currently feeling.

It follows from emotivism that moral truth, moral objectivity, moral disagreement, and moral progress are all impossible. I take those as a serious problems for emotivism, however, in this post I want to cover two of the more technical problems that I think expose pretty clearly why the view fails.

The ‘Frege-Geach Problem’

To put it simply, if moral statements merely express emotions or attitudes, then the meaning of moral statements differ in asserted and unasserted contexts. For instance, if I say, “Murder is wrong,” then on emotivism I’m saying something like, “Murder: boo!” However, if I say something like, “George and I were discussing whether murder is wrong,” what is being expressed here? In the second statement, I am not expressing any negative emotion about murder. Bizarrely, the meaning of “murder is wrong” changes depending on whether it’s straightforwardly asserted verses when it’s embedded in a statement.

Consider the following syllogism:

(1) If murder is wrong, then paying someone to murder is wrong.
(2) Murder is wrong.
(3) Paying someone to murder is wrong.

Try and work out how each premise translates on emotivism. “Murder is wrong” means “boo to murder” in premise (2), but it must mean something completely different, if it means anything at all, in premise (1). Remember that on emotivism, moral statements are identical to expressions of emotions. So what happens when it’s embedded into the antecedent of a conditional? The conditional statement is no longer an expression of emotion, so the entire statement loses it’s meaning. This is incredibly bizarre.

Even if we could work out the meaning of (1), “Murder is wrong” means something completely different in premises (1) and (2).┬áThis entails that the argument above commits the fallacy of equivocation.

Jorgensen’s Dilemma

The emotivist must maintain that moral statements have no truth value. However, if that’s true, then premise (2) of the argument above can’t be true, nor can it be false. Think about it. “Boo to murder” isn’t a true or false statement. It’s just an expression of emotion. When my daughter makes a “mmmm” sound when she’s eating ice cream, that utterance isn’t true or false. It’s just an expression of what she’s feeling.

On emotivism, the argument above isn’t even valid. Even if we can solve the Frege-Geach problem and show that the meaning of moral statements doesn’t change in asserted and unasserted contexts, we still are faced with the problem that moral statements can’t be true or false. This entails that no moral argument can be valid. But it seems obvious that we can make rational inferences through moral arguments (see the syllogism). Hence, moral statements can’t be mere expressions of emotions.


Emotivism is a view that might look appealing on the surface, but has very serious problems, the severity of which I think ought to lead us to reject it.


[1] One doesn’t need to hold to LP in order to be an emotivist. That isn’t the point. C. L. Stevenson is an important figure in emotivism and he’s not a verificationist.

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Alasdair MacIntyre argues that emotivism is prevalent today because of the combination of intuitionism with regard to ethics and the intractability of solving ethical problems. Basically, once ethics turns inwards and ethical debates have no resolution in sight, it just wells up in the ethos that ethics must not be anything more than internal feelings. People might not be able to justify that rationally or deflect criticisms, but the larger problem is how to undo all of this since citing the Frege-Geach problem simply won’t do it, people will continue to act as if emotivism is true.


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