Ethical Theory Spring 2021



Ayer’s chapter is entitled “Critique of Ethics and Theology.” We will only discuss the part about ethics. So there is no need to read the material from pages 114-120.

Ayer is a logical positivist or, as he puts it, a “radical empiricist.” What that means is that he maintains there are only two kinds of statements that could be true or false: statements about empirical facts or statements about logical relations.

Statements about empirical facts are statements about things that can be verified using the senses. Examples of empirical statements are: “the table is brown” and “the value of the stock market increased last week.” You use your senses directly to see whether it is true or false to say that the table is brown. In the case of the stock market, the senses are involved indirectly. There is a lot of information that different people observe about the price of different stocks that is then compiled into a statement about the value of the overall stock market. Still, the positivists believe, it is ultimately a statement that can be verified as true or false using the senses. Something similar is true, they believe, of all the sciences.

Statements about logical relations do not have to be verified by the senses to be true or false. If I say “The cat is on the mat and it is not on the mat” you know that my sentence is false even without checking for yourself. That is because I said two things that contradict one another.

Ayer’s claim about ethics is that ethical statements are neither statements about empirical facts nor statements about logical relations. Consequently, he believes, ethical statement are neither true nor false. Rather, they are expressions of our emotions. When I say “Stealing is wrong” I am not saying that it is true that stealing is wrong. I’m just expressing my negative feelings about stealing. If you think stealing is OK, you would be expressing your positive feelings about it. That’s all there is to ethics, Ayer believes.

Ayer’s Expressivism vs. the utilitarians

As Ayer understands the utilitarians, they were trying to define moral language in terms of something natural: happiness (Ayer [1946] 1952, 104).

Much like Moore before him, Ayer believes 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.


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.

Ayer thinks that this is a feature rather than a bug. He thinks that when people argue about morality they are usually arguing about factual questions (Ayer [1946] 1952, 110–12).

For example, you say that he was being cruel when he said that thing to her; I say he was only trying to help and that you have misunderstood his motives. Here we are arguing about a factual question: what were his motives?

When this is what our argument looks like, we usually agree about the moral points. If he was trying to hurt her feelings, that would have been cruel and so bad. If he was trying to help, it would not have been bad, although he might have been mistaken about how to help.

When people genuinely disagree about morality, Ayer thinks they don’t argue with one another. Rather, they conclude that discussion is hopeless. “If you don’t agree that you should save the drowning child, I don’t know what to say to you,” for instance.

I think Ayer could have added that a lot of moral discussion fits his model pretty well. In many cases, what we are doing when we talk about morality is forming groups. People want their moral beliefs to align with the groups they identify with. Sometimes in expressing our moral feelings, we are trying to find out who belongs to our group and who does not. Sometimes we are trying to push the members of a group to agree with our moral feelings. Sometimes we are trying to show that we belong to a group.

Imagine, for instance, how uncomfortable you would feel if you had said “I don’t see why you have to save the drowning child.” No one wants to be the moral holdout.

This is what we will spend most of our time on.


I mentioned party identification and views on abortion. I don’t have the book handy, but here is what my notes say. “Pro-choice women switched to the Democrats: gender is their relevant social identity. Men, by contrast, were more likely to change their views of abortion to fit their party (Achen and Bartels 2016, 308).” I think that illustrates some of the complexity of group identification. The women who switched parties identified with something other than their political party; the men who switched their opinions about abortion identified more strongly with their political party (or the group that the party represents) than they did with their moral opinions. Alas, I did not record anything about independents. Sorry!

I mentioned a logical problem with expressivism as well. Roughly, this sentence tells you that if the part before the comma is true, then the part after the comma is also true: “if I did something wrong, then I will apologize.”

Expressivism holds that the part before the comma cannot be true or false. If that is right, then the sentence wouldn’t make any sense. Since the sentence does make sense, it appears that expressivism is not correct.

This is called the Frege-Geach problem. While I suggested that you could look it up on the internet, I quickly realized that was terrible advice. The internet is choked with overly complicated explanations of this problem. Here is a good one. It explains the problem in clear language and outlines some of the solutions that have been attempted.

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.


Achen, Christopher H., and Larry M. Bartels. 2016. Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Ayer, A. J. (1946) 1952. Language, Truth, and Logic. New York: Dover Publications.