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Stevenson also supported emotivism. He discussed the emotive meaning of words; many moral terms such as “honesty” are both descriptive and emotive, expressing also what we feel about them. So when an individual is making a moral judgement he is not only communicating his feelings; he is also trying to influence others’ attitudes. This does mean that ethical statements can be based on emotions; however, these are not merely arbitrary, but rather based on our experience of the world and how we want it to be.
As he saw ethical statements as not only expressions of emotion, but also the result of attitudes based on fundamental beliefs, ethical disagreements between people are disagreement about fundamental principles. According to emotivism, religious language is meaningful.
A problem with emotivism is that, although it is an analysis of the nature and content of ethical language, it does not discuss ‘ethical facts.’ However, as Rachels argues, moral judgements appeal to reason; they are not just expressions of feeling.
So whereas some statements do not need reason, moral judgements do, else they are arbitrary. Ayer does suggest that ethical statements are more than simply expressions of feeling, but that they have the intention to stimulate others to act in the way they feel is right. This was also developed by Stevenson who questions why someone’s feelings can be better than someone else’s.
What emotivism does is draw attention to the reasons why people have different views and then let others decided.
But it has been shown in history that getting people to act using emotive speeches may have unfortunate results i.e. in the case of Hitler. Emotivism also allows everyone complete freedom of action since everyone’s opinion is equally valid but there may be many problems that occur because of this.
Another non-cognitive theory of ethics – proposed by R.M. Hare – is prescriptivism. He tried to show that the role of ethical statements is to say what ought to be done and such prescriptions are moral because they are universal. Hare argues that other theories, such as emotivism try to explain what we are doing when we make ethical judgements. Hare said that although these approaches are useful, universal prescriptivism is superior. It says “you ought to do this” and so everyone should do the same in similar situations. Ethical statements are prescriptive, which means they do not state facts and are not true or false, but they are imperatives that express our will or wishes.
The word ‘good’ always has a descriptive meaning. If we use the word ‘good’ in a moral sense, again we are using a set of standards that apply to a person or an action and we commend that person or action. This means that the word ‘good’ also has a good has a prescriptivism meaning, and when we use words with an ethical meaning we use them prescriptively. Prescriptivism suggests that, to achieve consistency in moral judgements, when we say that someone else ought to do something, we ought to do it as well. So according to prescriptivism, ethical language is meaningful.
A problem with prescriptivism is that if moral judgements are founded on prescriptions, this still does not mean that there is a valid reason for following one person’s prescriptions rather than another’s. It also does not necessarily mean that morals are universal, as one person’s preferences may be different from those of another. Prescriptivism says that ‘ought’ judgements are universal imperatives bit this foes against the way people approach ethics in their daily lives – in general people do think it is wrong to kill innocent people, steal etc.
Therefore you cannot use this theory to prove the meaningfulness of ethical language. Depending on whether you follow the cognitivist or the non-cognitivist approach, you may have a different opinion on whether ethical language is meaningful or meaningless. I think that religious language is meaningless because I think that it is simply a matter of opinion rather than facts.
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