Explain what scholars mean when they say that ethical statements are no more than expressions of opinion.

Authors Avatar

Elena Solaro 12E

1. Explain what scholars mean when they say that ethical statements are no more

than expressions of opinion.


As its name suggests, emotivism is an ethical theory based on people's emotional responses to situations and events in the world around them. However, unlike most moral theories, it is not concerned with 'what is right', and 'what is wrong', instead, emotivism explores the way in which human beings use language to convey what we think is good or bad, right or wrong. In this way, emotivism could be characterised as a moral 'non-theory'.

In the nineteen twenties, a group of philosophers, known as the Vienna Circle, were working in Austria, trying to discover how we use language as a means of conveying knowledge. They did not want to know how we gain this knowledge, but simply the method by which we can attempt to explain it. This idea became known 'Logical Positivism', and its fundamental argument was that only propositions or statements which can be verified empirically (using the senses) have meaning. The logical positivists only accepted two types of verifiable language. These were firstly, 'analytic' or 'a priori' propositions. Such statements do not depend on experience, but on knowledge acquired separately from it. Analytic propositions can be said to be true before experience, because their denial would involve a contradiction. For example, we know the statement ' 2 + 2 = 4' to be true without having to test it. It would be impossible to claim '2 + 2 = 5' because it would completely contradict what we know to be correct, and this could be proven by testing the statement mathematically. In other words, analytic propositions are ones which are viably logical. The second type of statement is known as a 'synthetic' or 'a posteriori' proposition. These argue that the truth of a proposition may only be decided if empirical evidence can be provided to support its verity or falsehood. It is possible to test these propositions: For example 'aliens have just landed in London' is a synthetic proposition, because we could prove this statement by going to London and seeing the aliens with our own eyes. Therefore, we can say that 'a posteriori' propositions are scientifically or empirically testable.

Logical positivists said that all statements must fall into one or other of the categories. Unless a statement can be classed as analytical or synthetic, it is totally meaningless. This method of deciding the meaning of a statement became known as the 'Verification Principle'. The principle states that we know the meaning of a statement if we know the conditions under which that statement is true or false. The logical positivists used the verification principle to argue that discussing such things as God, ethics, or metaphysics is utterly pointless. This began a debate on whether religious and moral language really was meaningful or not. If we take the example of proving the existence of God, logical positivists would say that because we cannot prove His existence using the senses, any discussion relating to religion, or belief is meaningless. Similarly, if we think about the statement 'giving money to charity is good', from the angle of a logical positivists, we can say that this too has absolutely no meaning. Both these statements are neither 'a priori' nor 'a posteriori'; they are not mathematically logical or scientifically testable. Because we cannot see or hear 'goodness', it is an abstract concept, which cannot be experienced in its pure form through the senses. We may be able to point to examples of good things, but we cannot actually understand what 'goodness' is. In this way, the logical positivists argued that all ethical statements, which rely on an understanding of 'good' and 'bad', are rendered meaningless.

Join now!

Some logical positivists developed this idea by saying that moral language was not only worthless, it was also nothing more than an expression of our opinion. In his book, 'Language, Truth and Logic' (1934) A.J Ayer, a well-known logical positivist said: " Sentences which express moral judgements are pure expressions of feeling and as such do not come under the category of truth or falsehood. What he really means is, when we say 'torturing children is wrong', we are simply saying 'I personally do not believe in torturing children'. We cannot actually judge whether the act is right or ...

This is a preview of the whole essay