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Ethics » Meta ethics » Relativism

Among those who take issue with Kant's claims are those known as emotivists, such as AJ Ayer, who believe that moral statements are not objective but merely express the speaker's feelings. At the beginning of the twentieth century, developments in the philosophy of language led philosophers to class all statements which were not physically, empirically verifiable as essentially meaningless. This approach assumes that the only consistent point of reference for language is sensory experience and that any statement that does not refer to it can only be relative to the opinions or ideas of an individual.

This relativist approach cuts away the possibility of value judgements. Ethics, for the relativist, begins with meta ethics and then becomes simply an anthropological study, describing how people do behave, almost with a sense of incredulity, rather than trying to build logical foundations for judgements or prescribing how people should behave.

Emotivists would dispute Kant's idea that the principle of goodness may be known on the basis of experience - and therefore the rest of his ethics becomes redundant. Ayer does not just dispute the foundations for Kant's ethics; he disputes the foundations of any statement which contains claims about "emotive" terms such as good, bad, right or wrong.

A common absolutism

The relativist labels many other approaches to ethics "absolutist", a term which seems pejorative and carries connotations of being bigoted, refusing to engage with the facts, inflexible and not interested in individual people or situations. Natural law and Kantian ethics are often called "absolutist" but in reality the same sort of reasoning underpins rule utilitarianism and virtue ethics. Any system which defines terms such as "good" and "right" and which claims a common point of reference for these terms will have a consistent attitude to actions such as murder and theft, classing them as wrong for everybody in most situations (except possibly when they are the lesser of two evils). This contrasts with the relativist approach, which would see that any action could be right or wrong for some individuals or in some situations, there being nothing fundamentally good or bad about the action, only a general sense of approbation or disapprobation.