Article Summary: “A Critique of Ethics” by AJ Ayer

Ayer, AJ. Language, Logic, and Truth. New York: Dover, 1952, 102-113.

Summary

Ayer argues that ethical terms are not really propositions at all – they are ’pseudoconcepts’ which do not add any factual content to sentences in which they occur, but merely express the feelings of the utterer. They can thus be neither true nor false. Ayer pursues this conclusion by attempting to show that the alternative theories of meaning with regard to ethical terms – naturalistic theories and what he calls the ’absolutist’ theory – are incorrect. Then, Ayer deals with a major objection to his theory.

First, Ayer differentiates four common subjects of ethical philosophy, and says that only one of them is actually philosophy proper: (i) The exploration of the meaning of ethical terms; (ii) The study of propositions describing moral experience; (iii) Commands to be moral; and (iv), The study of actual moral judgments. Ayer thinks (ii) is not philosophy but rather psychology; (iii) is merely telling us what to do, and thus do not belong in philosophy or science, and (iv), though not strictly categorizable, is not philosophy to the extent that it does not deal with ethical terms. So, only (i) is really ethical philosophy, and thus Ayer only need demonstrate that it does not deal with factual content to show that value judgments in general are not factual.

Ayer argues against naturalistic theories of the meaning of ethical terms by defusing the two strongest naturalist theories: utilitarianism and subjectivism. Ayer rejects the distinctly utilitarian notion that ethical terms can be reduced to descriptions of empirical fact about happiness, pleasure, or satisfaction because he says it is not contradictory to say that it is sometimes wrong to perform an action which will yield the greatest happiness or satisfaction. Further, it is not contradictory to say some pleasant things are not good. So utilitarianism cannot be correct about the meaning of ethical terms.

Subjectivism – the view that ethical terms reduce to psychological states of individuals (e.g., approval or disapproval) – too must be rejected, for it is not contradictory for a person to say that he approves of a thing that is not good, and likewise to disapprove of something that is good. If this is right, then subjectivism cannot be correct.

This leaves the ’absolutist’ view: the view that ethical terms are indefinable and unanalyzable. On this view, ethical judgments are produced by intuition. Ayer agrees with the absolutist view that ethical terms are indefinable and unanalyzable; he thinks this is the case because they are pseudoconcepts which have no real factual meaning. Ayer gives an example: If a person says ’You acted wrongly in stealing that money,’ in reality, he has merely said ’You stole that money.’ The two sentences yield the same factual content. The former, an ethical judgment, merely adds a certain tone to the latter sentence. If the ethical judgment is generalized into a principle, the proposition containing it is neither true nor false. So, the absolutist view is wrong about why ethical terms are indefinable and unanalyzable, and Ayer’s radical empiricist theory is the only alternative.

Ayer then deals with a major objection to his theory: Moore’s objection to subjectivism, which says that if subjectivism were true, there could be no disputation of values; but, since there is in fact disputation about values all the time, subjectivism must be false. Ayer recognizes that on his view, there can be no disputation of values. So, if Moore’s objection to subjectivism is correct, Ayer’s view must be wrong. Ayer attempts to show that the objection fails because, in actuality, there is no real disputation about values. That
is to say, when a person disagrees with another about the moral value of an action, upon close examination the interlocutors will be disagreeing merely about empirical facts, such as the motivation of the agent, the consequences of the act, or the circumstances in which the act occurred. If they agree about the facts and still disagree about the value of the act, they resort to abuse – calling the other person morally undeveloped and the like. So ethical judgments, to the extent that they are factual, reduce to empirical facts.

Logical Outline

Argument One (Radical Empiricism is correct about ethical terms)

  1. Either naturalistic theories, the ’absolutist’ theory, or radical empiricism is correct about the nature of ethical terms.*
  2. Naturalistic theories are not correct about the nature of ethical terms.

S1. As the strongest representatives of naturalistic theories, if it is not the case that either utilitarianism or subjectivism is correct about the nature of ethical terms, then naturalistic theories in general are not correct.*
S2. If utilitarianism is correct about ethical terms, then they can
be reduced to empirical facts about happiness, pleasure, or satisfaction.
S3. Ethical terms cannot be reduced to empirical facts about hap-
piness, pleasure, or satisfaction.
S4. Therefore, utilitarianism is not correct about the nature of
ethical terms. [S3,S2]
S5. If subjectivism is correct about ethical terms, then they can be
reduced to statements of individual preference.
S6. Ethical terms cannot be reduced to statements of individual
preference.
S7. Therefore, subjectivism is not correct about the nature of eth-
ical terms. [S6,S5]
S8. Neither utilitarianism nor subjectivism are correct about the
nature of ethical terms. [S4,S7]
S9. Therefore, naturalistic theories are not correct about the nature
of ethical terms. [S8,S1]

3. The ’absolutist’ theory is not correct about the nature of ethical terms.

S1. If ’absolutist’ theories were correct about ethical terms, then
ethical terms would be legitimate propositions which express factual
content about the world.
S2. Ethical terms do not express factual content, but rather are
mere expressions of emotion; ethical concepts are pseudoconcepts that
are neither true or false.
S3. Therefore, ’absolutist’ theories are not correct about the nature
of ethical terms. [S2,S1]

4. Therefore, radical empiricism must be correct about the nature of ethical terms. [1-3]

Argument Two (Refuting Moore’s Objection to subjectivism)

  1. 1. If Moore’s objection to Subjectivism is correct, then there is in fact disputation of values in ethics.
  2. If there is in fact disputation of values in ethics, then radical empiricism
    is false.
  3. Therefore, if Moore’s objection to Subjectivism is correct, then radical
    empiricism is false. [1,2]
  4. There is no disputation of values in ethics; all disagreement is over
    empirical facts.
  5. Therefore, Moore’s objection to Subjectivism is not correct, and radical
    empiricism has not been shown to be false. [4,1]

Symbolic Notation

Argument One
1. [(N ∨ A) ∨ R] ∧ ¬[(N ∧ A) ∨ (N ∧ R) ∨ (R ∧ A)]
2. ¬N
3. ¬A…Therefore,R
4. (N ∨ A) ∨ R (1, SIMP)
5. N ∨ (A ∨ R) (4,ASSOC)
6. A ∨ R (5, 2,DS)
7. R (6, 3,DS)

Where N=Naturalistic theories about ethical terms are correct, R=Radical empiricism is correct about ethical terms, and A=The ’absolutist’ view is correct about ethical terms.

Argument Two
1. O1 → D
2. D → ¬R
3. O1 → ¬R
4. ¬D…Therefore, ¬O1
5. ¬O1 (4, 1,MT)

Where O1=Moore’s objection to subjectivism is correct, D=There is disputation of values in ethics, and R=Radical empiricism is correct about the nature of ethical terms.

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