A Brief Critique of Non-Cognitivism (Ayer’s Version)

A. J. Ayer’s view of ethical judgments, often dubbed “emotivism,” is that ethical statements are neither true nor false and therefore are without significance. Behind this stance is his empiricism. In order for a statement to be meaningful, it must lend itself to some sort of verification. Without any possible means of verification statements fail to have to express anything. But Ayer does distinguish ethical judgment from other meaningless talk such that of speculative metaphysics or theology in that the former have at least a semblance of meaning since they display the attitude of the speaker toward certain types of actions. When one says, for example, “treason is wicked,” he is, on Ayers view, not uttering a statement with any cognitive content, but is, displaying his strong disapproval of treasonous behavior.

Ayer is at pains, though, to differentiate this view from the subjectivist position. The subjectivist says that ethical judgment are about the moral sentiments of the speaker. So when one makes some moral judgment, he is saying something about himself. In the previous example he would be saying something like, “I disapprove of treason.” Such statements do, of course, have content since they can be true or false. Ayer maintains that normative ethical discourse is not about the speakers feelings, it merely displays his feelings.

Ayer agrees with Moore’s strictures against so called naturalistic accounts of ethical judgments. Such accounts maintain that ethical judgments are, upon analysis, reducible to non-ethical language. The utilitarian, for example, asserts that such judgments as, “honesty is good,” are to be analysed in terms of some desirable end (pleasure or happiness) that such a policy tends towards. And as noted above, the subjectivist defines these judgments in terms of the utterer’s approval or disapproval toward certain types of actions.

As Ayer points out, the advantage of such views is that they turn problematic ethical judgments into something empirically verifiable and, thus, open to investigation by the sociologist or psychologist. But this advantage is illusory. Following Moore, Ayer argues that all such accounts fail because their analysis of ethical judgments proves defective upon reflection. Employing Moore’s Open Question Argument, Ayer contends that all such reductions fail to capture what is essential in ethical speech.

That the utilitarian is wrong is seen by the fact that after he says that a certain course of action will cause, on the whole, more pleasure than pain, we may still ask whether such action is good. But if goodness was truly analyzed in terms of pleasure such a question would be redundant. As for subjectivism, it fails because there is no contradiction in a man saying that he approves of some bad behavior.

Ayer’s agreement with Moore comes to an end at this point. Moore believes that while ethical terms (at least the term ‘good’), and thus judgments, are unanalyzable they are nevertheless meaningful, much like the unanalyzable term ‘green’ is meaningful. The reason Ayer rejects Moore’s view, or the “absolutist” view of ethics as he calls it, is primarily epistemological. Given that absolutist ethics must appeal to some type of intuition, Ayer points out the fact that intuitions are notoriously unreliable. What one intuits as good another intuits as bad. Failing some criterion to distinguish correct intuitions from incorrect ones, such appeals are worthless.

As for Moore’s criticism of subjectivism (that if it is true, there could be no ethical disagreements, but there obviously are ethical disagreements), Ayer agrees that this equally applies to his view. He maintains that such a criticism fails, however, because normative ethical judgments cannot be contradicted since they are without content. And so while it appears on the surface that moral disagreements can arise, analysis proves otherwise.

One minor criticism of Ayer’s view is the it does not, at least in his presentation, account for the moral pervert. The moral pervert may say with a wry smile that inflicting unnecessary pain on innocent people is bad behavior. Here the speaker is not at all evincing any disapproval. He, in fact, showing that his twisted delight is such activities.

A second criticism of Ayer’s account of ethical judgments is that his attempt to distance his view from subjectivism proves abortive upon analysis. While Ayer is prepared to admit that an assertion of a feeling implies an expression of that same feeling, he does not believe that converse is true. This is implausible. It seems clear that when one expresses such and such a feeling he implies that he has this feeling. When one yells, “Ouch!” for instance, others around him immediately infer that he is in pain. The same hold true of ethical utterances. If saying, “honest is good,” means “three cheers for honesty,” this implies that that the speaker approves of honesty. The proof of this runs along the lines of Moore’s paradox. It would make little sense to say, “Three cheers for honesty” and then go on to say, but I disapprove of honesty. So, just as knowing implies believing, expressing a positive feeling toward honesty implies an approval of it.

Thus feeling and expressions of feelings have a symmetrical relationship. In giving voice to one, the other is implied. And if this is so, the difference between the two is too thin to do the work Ayer intends it to do. This means that subjectivism and Ayer’s view are not far apart after all. At best they differ in where the emphasis is places. And this being the case, Ayers view is subject ot the same argument against subjectivism that he himself thought was devastating.

The major problem with Ayer’s view is that it is dependent upon his empiricism and particularly his principle of verification. This is not the place to challenge Ayer’s version of empiricism. Suffice is to say that verificationism is self-refuting in that it does not meet up to is own criterion. And other more sophisticated arguments, such as Hempel’s, have been offered against it as well. As of today, these arguments are still unanswered. This being the case, Ayer’s application of verificationism to ethical judgments rests upon an unsound foundation.

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