Ethical Theory Spring 2019



We changed gears today. Now we’re talking about the basis for the moral beliefs we have been largely taking for granted throughout the term. More specifically, we want to know if the basis for morality is objective or subjective.

Our first author is A.J. Ayer. Ayer has an emotivist or expressivist theory of ethics (the two terms can be used interchangeably). What that means is that he believes that moral terms do not, strictly speaking, mean anything. They do not articulate thoughts that could be true or false. Rather, they express emotions. If so, morality is thoroughly subjective: what each person is doing in using moral terms is just expressing how he or she feels about things.

Ayer’s Expressivism vs. the utilitarians

As Ayer understands the utilitarians, they were trying to define moral language in terms of something subjective or natural: happiness. Consequently, he calls them “subjectivists” or “naturalists” (Ayer [1946] 1952, 104).

Let me warn you right now that different authors use terms like “subjectivist” and “naturalist” with wildly different meanings. It’s a fool’s errand to try to settle in your head what either term really means. Just mark how each author defines it and don’t ever take any particular definition for granted when you’re reading.

Anyway, Ayer’s reaction to this is that the utilitarians are wrong. You can say “that is good” about something that causes pain rather than pleasure without contradicting yourself. That shows that the word “good” does not mean “produces pleasure.” Again, according to Ayer, the word “good” doesn’t mean anything; it’s just a way of expressing how you feel.

There are two points I want to make here. One, this tells you what Ayer is doing. He is analyzing language. His theory is about what our words mean. Two, I do not think that this is what the utilitarians were doing. I think their theory is about what makes things good. So I myself don’t think that they would have ever maintained that someone who said “this painful thing is good” would have been contradicting themselves; I think they would have said that such a person is just wrong or saying something that could be true but is, in fact, false.


The biggest problem for Ayer concerns disagreement. If our moral words are meaningless expressions of emotion, we should not be able to disagree with one another. All we would be doing is expressing our different feelings.

Chris wondered whether it would make any sense to think about ethics at all if you believed this. All the terms are meaningless, after all.

Cassy had an interesting reply. She said that the expressivists can just do the same thing again. When I disagree with you, I express my attitudes about what you say and you do the same thing back to me. When we agree, we express our positive attitudes. So there would be a point to doing this, provided you wanted to garner positive expressions of attitudes from others.

Key Points

These are the points that you should know or have an opinion about from today’s class.

  1. What the expressivist (or emotivist) position is.

  2. Why disagreement seems to be a problem for it.


Ayer, A. J. (1946) 1952. Language, Truth, and Logic. New York: Dover Publications.