Emotivism or emotive theory is a non-cognitive, meta-ethical theory concerned with the expression of moral judgments.

Emotivists argued that moral expressions are different from factual ones because they express emotions. Therefore ethical statements, being based on emotions, cannot be true or false and can only be supported by persuasion, not by evidence.

Emotive theory proposes that the expression of attitudes and beliefs:

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. (1)

This theory attempts to pinpoint actual sources of disagreement/agreements in ethical discussions. For instance, if I can understand exactly what you mean when you say, “X is wrong,” I am more likely to pinpoint the source of agreement/disagreement, and we can engage in a more meaningful, and ultimately more persuasive dialogue. More specifically, if you say, “lying is wrong,” emotivists would argue that you are only expressing your attitude about lying, and that you also want to convince me to adopt the same attitude. Also, using what are called “patterns of analysis” I might learn that you think it is wrong to purposefully mislead someone, unless it is for their benefit, thereby coming to a better understand of what you mean when you say “lying is wrong.”


The origins of emotive theory can be found in the epistemological discipline, the branch of philosophy that explores the nature of human knowledge.[[#_edn2|[ii]](2) Emotive theory also was influenced by the work of David Hume (17111-1776), who separated taste from opinion. [[#_edn3|[iii]](3) Hume maintained that moral judgments were special types of expressionism that conveyed sentiment and moral senses. [[#_edn4|[iv]](4) However, A.J Ayer (1910-1989) is widely recognized as the founder of emotive theory, when he published his book, Language, Truth and Logic in 1936. According to Ayer, “moral utterances simply express the emotions of the speaker.”[[#_edn5|[v]](5)

Emotive theory was further defined by C. L. Stevenson, (1908-1979) who agreed with Ayer’s view that moral judgments express the speaker’s non-cognitive attitudes, but he added that they also attempt to persuade their beliefs/attitudes for their listener to adapt. For Stevenson, there were two distinct types of expressions, expressions like “ought,” and “right,” and expressions like “tall”, which are factual. [[#_edn6|[vi]](6)

According to Stevenson, there are two types of moral disagreements:
1) Disagreements in beliefs
2) Disagreements in attitudes.

Stevenson explains that disagreements in belief are rooted in factual interpretations, whereas disagreements in attitude involve subjective preferences, or values. For Stevenson, it is important to discern between the two types of moral disagreements, as a disagreement in fundamental attitudes (like religion), are unlikely to reach a resolution. However, according to critics, there is no clear distinction between these two types of disagreements, and even Stevenson himself admitted this to be his weakest point.[[#_edn7|[vii]](7)


There are three different methods identified, to help resolve moral disagreements.
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?”


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."

1. Waluchow, Wilfrid. (2003). The dimensions of ethics. Canada: Broadview Press, Ltd.
2. Urmson, J.O. (1968) The emotive theory of ethics. London: Hutchinson & Co.
3. Ritcher, David H. (1989). The critical tradition: Classical texts and contemporary trends. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
4. Waluchow, Wilfrid. (2003). The dimensions of ethics. Canada: Broadview Press, Ltd.
5. Waluchow, p.59
6. Morre, Asher. “Emotivism and intentionality,” from Ethics, April, 1961, Vol. 71, No. 3, p. 175-187, University of Chicago Press.
7. Morre, Asher. “Emotivism and intentionality,” from Ethics, April, 1961, Vol. 71, No. 3, p. 175-187, University of Chicago Press.