Emotivism holds that moral judgements of right or wrong behaviour are a function of the positive or negative feelings evoked by the behaviour. Emotivism is a meta-ethical and non-cognitive theory that was first posited by A.J. Ayer and further deveolped by Charles Stevenson. The origins of emotive theory can be found in the epistemological discipline, the branch of philosophy that explores the nature of human knowledge. Emotive theory was also influenced by the work of David Hume(1711-1776), who separated taste from opinion.[1] Hume maintained that moral judgments were special types of expressionism that conveyed sentiment and moral senses.[2]

Emotivism sees a moral judgment as an expression of feeling, not a statement that’s literally true. Moral judgements are exclamations: “X is good” means “Hurrah for X!” – and “X is bad” means “Boo on X!” An exclamation doesn’t state any fact, and isn’t true or false.[3]

Ayer argued that ethical judgements express feelings. For example if I said “abortion is wrong,” I am simply expressing my disapproval for the act. He also argued that our intuitions are simply our feelings of approval or disapproval. Feelings are not cognitions of value, and value does not exist independently of our feelings, which argues against the principle of verification. Ayer held that moral utterances simply express the emotions of the speaker and therefore they were non-cognitive in nature.[4]

Emotive theory proposes that the expression of attitudes and beliefs do two things:[5]

1) Express factual information—one’s beliefs, or how matters can be truthfully explained, in accordance to their perspective.

2) Attempt to persuade the listener to agree, and adopt these expressed beliefs.

This theory attempts to pinpoint actual sources of disagreement/agreements in ethical discussions. Steveson suggested that moral utterances express the speaker’s non-cognitive positive and negative attitudes and seek to evoke these same attitudes in the ones to whom the utterances are directed. Tone is also important here. When I say “abortion is wrong,” the tone of my voice also expresses my disapproval. At the same time, I am also trying to impose my attitude toward abortion on the receiver of the message. Stevenson asserted that our attitudes are a result of what we believe to be right or wrong and if we are able to change what we believe to be right or wrong then our attitudes can change as well.[6]

In the end, if our attitudes remain different the best we can do is express them.


There are three different methods identified, to help resolve moral disagreements.[7]

1) Employ power of logic, perhaps pointing out inconsistencies in other person’s attitudes or definitions.
2) Rationalize and examine beliefs.
3) Employ non-rational, psychological methods, such as asking probing questions e.g. “What if everyone did the same thing as you?”

Strengths and Weaknesses

While there are strengths to emotivism it seems that the criticisms outweigh the strengths of the theory.


- Highlights why moral disputes are difficult to resolve decisively

- Acknowledges and values moral diversity

- It is true to say that moral opinions are often formed on the basis of gaining ones approval or avoiding disapproval


- Ethical statements are not usually judged on the response of the listener but on the claims themselves.

- If ethical claims were contingent on emotions; they would change as emotions change. They cannot be universal because emotions vary between individuals.

- Even when moral statements are carried by weight of public emotion, is does not make them right nor should they be adopted.

- Emotivism effectively prescribes complete freedom of action on the basis that everyone’s opinion is equally valid and everyone is therefore free to do what they choose irrespective of the opinion of others.

- How can we judge between two people’s moral opinions? What criteria is there - if any – for judging the relative merits of a moral viewpoint.

- Emotions can unite people in a common moral bond, but can also isolate groups and individuals.

- The emotional force with which a moral view is expressed is no recommendation of its value.

Furthermore, critics of emotive theory have pointed out the ambiguities between Stevenson’s definitions of attitudes and beliefs. In addition, they have argued that factual statements can be emotionally charged, just as ethical statements can be devoid of emotion. Emotivism has also been criticized for not including reasoning in moral judgments, and its inadequacy, in the case of terrible crimes, to argue that one was acting on “just emotion."[10]

[1] Urmson, J.O. (1968). The emotive theory of ethics. London: Hutchinson & Co.
[2] Ritcher, D. H. (1989). The critical tradition: Classical texts and contemporary trends. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
[3] Gensler, H. J. (1998). Ethics: a contemporary introduction. New York: Routledge.
[4] Retrieved from http://cw.routledge.com/textbooks/alevelphilosophy/data/A2/Moral/Emotivism.pdf on May 19, 2013.
[5] Waluchow, Wilfrid. (2003). The dimensions of ethics. Canada: Broadview Press, Ltd
[6] Retrieved from http://cw.routledge.com/textbooks/alevelphilosophy/data/A2/Moral/Emotivism.pdf on May 19, 2013.
[7] Retrieved from http://ethicsinpr.wikispaces.com/Emotivism on May 23, 2013
[8] Retrieved from http://www.slideshare.net/aquinas_rs/strengths-weaknesses-of-emotivism on May 23, 2013
[9] Retrieved from http://www.slideshare.net/aquinas_rs/strengths-weaknesses-of-emotivism on May 23, 2013
[10] http://ethicsinpr.wikispaces.com/Emotivism