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🤔 Emojivism 😀

Sally Latham introduces a moral theory for millennials.

In ethics, emotivism is a non-cognitivist theory of moral language. It was advocated by David Hume (1711-1776), followed much later by, amongst others, A.J. Ayer. A non-cognitivist approach says moral judgments do not make factual claims that can be true or false. Instead of expressing beliefs about the way the world is, they express something else, usually taken to be feelings or desires. This contrasts with the cognitivist approach, which takes moral judgments to be making factual claims about the world that can be true or false, and hence expressing beliefs. In this article I will outline the reasoning behind emotivism before proposing a new understanding of this theory for the twenty-first century.


David Hume
David Hume and friend.
Hume pic coloured in by Alvaro Marques Hijazo

In Book III of A Treatise on Human Nature (1738), Hume argues that our moral judgments are not making reasoned claims about the way the world is. Morals have an influence on actions and feelings, and reason alone cannot have such an influence. We can never find the ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of an act by examining the act itself:

“Take any action that is agreed to be vicious – wilful murder for instance. Examine it in all lights and see if you can find the matter of fact or real existence that you call ‘vice’. However you look at it, all you’ll find are certain passions, motives, volitions and thoughts; those are the only matters of fact in the case. The vice entirely escapes you as long as you examine the individual action, the murder. You can never find it until you turn your reflection into your own breast and find a sentiment of disapproval that arises in you towards this action.”

If we accept this, then we might compare vice and virtue to what John Locke called secondary qualities, such as sounds and colours; they are not qualities in the objects themselves but rather perceptions in the mind of the beholder. It would thus be more correct to speak of moral feelings than moral judgments.

Here lie the roots of emotivism, the theory that moral judgments do not have factual content but are expressions of emotions. ‘Murder is wrong’ becomes ‘Boo to murder!’ – and ‘Boo!’ is not a factual claim that can be true or false, but a reaction of disapproval to the murder. Someone who says ‘Hooray to murder!’ is not disagreeing about the facts in any sense, as both agree on the facts concerning murder. The difference is in the emotional reaction, and this presents no contradiction between any judgments.


Ayer used his ‘verification principle’ to arrive at his own version of emotivism. The verification principle is a criterion of meaning. It says that to be a genuine statement of fact, a sentence must be either true by definition (that is, logically evident) or empirically verifiable (scientific). As he argued in the book that shot him to fame, Language, Truth and Logic (1936): “a sentence is factually significant to any given person if, and only if, he knows how to verify the proposition which it purports to express – that is, if he knows what observations would lead him, under certain conditions, to accept the proposition as being true, or reject it as being false.” If someone utters a statement that is neither tautological nor verifiable by experiences then, said Ayer, it is a “mere pseudo-proposition. The sentence may be emotionally significant to him, but it is not literally significant.”

Moral judgments are neither tautological nor verifiable. Suppose we define murder for instance as ‘the premeditated killing of another human being’. ‘Murder is wrong’ is not true by definition, as there is nothing in the definition of ‘murder’ that contains its moral wrongness, and it can be denied without contradiction. Nor can any sense-evidence be relevant to the determination of its truth or falsehood. What empirical evidence could you discover to show that murder is wrong? This means the statement ‘Murder is wrong’ is not significant in any literal sense.

Some cognitivists, such as G.E. Moore (1873-1958), said that ethical concepts such as ‘good’ were simple and unanalysable because they were a different, non-natural, sort of thing in the world. Ayer responded that ethical concepts were unanalysable because they were pseudo-concepts which had no real meaning: “They are expressions of emotions which can be neither true nor false.” According to Ayer, moral judgments are not propositions about the state of things but rather exclamations or commands designed to provoke the reader or listener to action of some sort. Ethical terms express feelings, but are also calculated to arouse feelings and so stimulate action. They are unverifiable for the same reason a cry of pain or a command is unverifiable – because they do not express genuine propositions. Imagine I put my hand into very hot water and swear loudly. My expletive is not a factual claim that can be true or false; rather, it is an emotional reaction to my experience of the hot water. It may also influence you not to put your hand in the water. In the same way, if I were to witness a murder and say “*@$! murder!”, this would be an emotional reaction of disapproval, perhaps also intended to discourage the hearer from murdering.

Hume and Ayer agree that it is impossible to cross the ‘is-ought’ gap which separates facts from values. We make such a move regularly, but they argue that it’s a mistake to think that such a move has any basis in reason or logic. I may see one man steal another’s property (fact) then say “He ought not to have stolen it” (value) – but this is a purely emotional response, not one based on any reasoning. Facts and values are totally different and the latter cannot be derived from the former. So according to Ayer, if I say, “Stealing money is wrong”, then the ‘is wrong’ part expresses a value that cannot be derived from the fact that people steal, and adds nothing factual to the statement. What ‘is wrong’ actually serves to do, is show disapproval. But there’s nothing more to it than if I had said “Stealing money!!!” in a loud tone of horror.

Picture This

That’s emotivism then. Let me now offer a new interpretation of emotivism whereby the expression “Boo!”, the tone of horror, the exclamation marks etc, are replaced by that curse of modern day communication… the emoji.

The dictionary definition of an emoji is ‘a small digital image or icon used to express an idea or emotion in electronic communication’. They’re used to add emotional responses to expressions of fact; and yet I would argue that they convey no factual information themselves. Rather, just like moral judgments under the emotivist view, they express emotion and attempt to evoke it in others with the view to influencing action. Interestingly, it has been argued that Ludwig Wittgenstein introduced the concept of the emoji when he argued that pictorial representations can convey more information that language. In a 1938 lecture at Cambridge he claimed: “If I were a good draughtsman, I could convey an innumerable number of expressions by 4 strokes.” It is likely that Wittgenstein was thinking about more flexibility in pictorial representation than our current emojis allow, but that doesn’t affect the argument here.

Let’s take an example of a text message:

You missed your philosophy class today.

By adding an emoji we can express either approval or disapproval to this fact:

You missed your philosophy class today. 😁

You missed your philosophy class today. 🙁

You missed your philosophy class today. 😡

Both the sad face emoji and the angry face emoji are equivalent to ‘you ought not to have’ in moral discourse.

There is no factual dispute between the people who added the different emojis. If we say ‘murder is wrong’ or ‘murder is right’, then according to what I would like to call ‘emojivism’ this is no more than:

Murder 😁

Murder 🙁

Or perhaps:

Murder 😡

My emoji is intended to arouse a similar feeling in you, but there is no truth or falsity to any use of them.

Interestingly, Ayer did refer to ‘wrong’ and ‘right’ as ethical symbols. He said: “The presence of an ethical symbol in a proposition adds nothing to the factual content.” If we replace ‘symbol’ with ‘emoji’, and ‘proposition’ with ‘text’, then I think we have emojivism: “The presence of an ethical emoji in a text adds nothing to the factual content.”

Potential Criticisms

One criticism of emotivism is an issue with all non-cognitivist theories: if there is no truth or falsity to moral judgments, how can there be any moral discussion or debate? I say ‘Hooray!’ and you say ‘Boo!’ (or I text 🙂 and you text 🙁), and that is the end of the matter.

Ayer addresses this criticism by saying that we can dispute facts, and this is usually what moral disputes come down to: one person may have miscalculated the consequences of a certain act, for example. But if we agree on the facts and disagree about moral value then we must abandon attempts to convince each other otherwise. As Ayer wrote, “It is because argument fails us when we come to deal with pure questions of value, as distinct from questions of fact, that we finally resort to mere abuse.” (This is strangely familiar when it comes to social media.) To illustrate using emojivism: we can debate the facts about eating meat – for example, do animals feel pain? Does eating meat provide health benefits? Is it bad for the environment? – but if we agree on all the facts and then end up with:

Eating meat 😁

Eating meat 🙁

then that’s the end of the matter.

In summary, Ayer’s theory of ethical terms as symbols adding nothing to the content of the facts to which they are attached fits well with the idea of emojis as ethical terms. This leaves us with the somewhat troubling conclusion that ‘wrong’ is no more than 🙁. But I think Ayer would be 🙂 with that.

© Sally Latham 2019

Sally Latham is a Philosophy lecturer at Birmingham Metropolitan College A Level Centre. She would like to dedicate this article to her students there, past and present.

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