Stevenson: "The Emotive Meaning of Ethical Terms"

PHIL 4150: Analytic Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
October 22, 2014
[5.4.] C. L. Stevenson’s Emotivism.
C. L. Stevenson (1908-1979)
• An American who studied at Cambridge under G. E. Moore and Wittgenstein and was influenced by
each of them.
• Professor of philosophy at Yale University (1939-46) and the University of Michigan (1946-77)
• Primary works: Ethics and Language (1944) and Facts and Values (a collection of essays, 1963).
• Our reading: “The Emotive Meaning of Ethical Terms,” Mind, 1937.1
Recall that logical positivists like A. J. Ayer held that moral judgments (“murder is wrong,” “abortion is
morally permissible,” etc.) had no cognitive meaning: on this view, they are neither logically
meaningful (analytic and a priori) nor empirically meaningful (synthetic and a posteriori).
But not all of the logical positivists stopped there in their account of moral judgments. Some went further
to give a more detailed account of the nature of moral judgments.
Two of them, Stevenson and A. J. Ayer, defended a view of moral judgments called emotivism. We will
examine Stevenson’s version of the theory.
[5.4.1.] Three Restrictions on Definitions of “Good.”
Stevenson’s work belongs to the area of ethics called…
meta-ethics (df.): the branch of ethics that tries to answer questions about the nature of morality
itself. It doesn’t ask or make judgments about what types of action are moral and immoral; rather, it
asks questions like:
• Does morality depend on what we believe about it, or is it independent of our beliefs?
• Does morality depend on what God commands?
• Are moral judgments (statements attributing morality or immorality to a given act, e.g. “Murder
is immoral”; “Charity is morally good”) capable of being true or false? or are they simply
expressions of emotion? or something else?
• How can we justify moral claims? How should we justify them?
• What is the meaning of words like “good,” “bad,” “moral,” “evil,” etc.?
He wants to know what it means to ask “Is x good?”
But he believes that, to do this, we have to “substitute” this question with one that “is free from
ambiguity and confusion.” (450)
For more on Stevenson, see Daniel R. Boisvert, “Charles Leslie Stevenson,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of
Zalta (ed.),
< >.
In particular, he believes that the word “good” is ambiguous (i.e., that it is used in more than one way /
has more than one meaning).
He identifies one group of meanings of the word “good” as interest theories of goodness; these define
“good” in terms of the approval of human beings, e.g.:
“good” = desired by me (Thomas Hobbes, 1588-1679); this view is sometimes called
simple subjectivism (df.): “When a person says that something is morally good or bad, this
means that he or she approves of that thing, or disapproves of it, and nothing more.”2
“good” = approved by most people (David Hume, 1711-1776).
But he notes that many philosophers have rejected such definitions as not being relevant to the most
“vital” sense of the word “good.”
He lists three restrictions that any adequate definition of “good” (in this most vital sense) must
meet. On Stevenson’s view, no interest theory meets all three restrictions:
Restriction #1: “[W]e must be able sensibly to disagree about whether something is good.” (451)
This rules out definitions of “good” as simply being that which is desired by the speaker (e.g.,
Hobbes’ definition.) Here’s why:
If “good” just means “desired by me,” then there is no longer any such thing as disagreement in
moral judgment. Suppose Smith says “Same-sex marriage is good” and Jones says “Same-sex
marriage is not good.” It seems like there is a disagreement here. But if good means “desired by me,”
then Smith is really saying “Same-sex marriage is desired by me (i.e., by Smith)” and Jones is really
saying “Same-sex marriage is not desired by me (i.e., by Jones).” Smith is saying something about
himself (that he approves of same-sex marriage), and Jones would agree about that. Further, Jones is
saying something about himself (that he approves of same-sex marriage), and Smith would agree
about that. So the view that “good” means “desired by me” rules out the possibility that there is
ever really any disagreement about morality.
Stevenson’s point is that there is disagreement about morality, so simple subjectivism cannot be
a complete account of the meaning of “good”. There is some other sense of “good” in which people
can disagree about whether something is good.
Restriction #2: “[G]oodness must have ... a magnetism. A person who recognizes X to be ‘good’
must ipso facto acquire a stronger tendency to act in its favour than he otherwise would have had.” (451)
In other words, if you genuinely recognize some action as good, then you must be more motivated to
perform the action, or to encourage other people to perform the action, than you would be were you
not to recognize it as good.
James Rachels, Elements of Moral Philosophy, 5th ed. by Stuart Rachels, McGraw-Hill, 2006, p.37. Ayer also
rejected simple subjectivism (LTL p.104).
This rules out definitions of “good” according to which goodness is nothing but the approval of
people in general (e.g., Hume’s definition). Here’s why:
Someone can recognize that people in general approve of X without at the same time being
motivated to do X or to promote X herself.
For example, an atheist can recognize that most people approve of going to church without herself
being motivated to go to church. On Hume’s view, when spoken by an atheist, “Going to church is
good” is supposed to mean the same thing as “People in general approve of going to church”—
but the atheist is not motivated to go to church himself, so this account does not meet Stevenson’s
second restriction.
Restriction #3: “[T]he ‘goodness’ of anything must not be discoverable solely through the scientific
method.” (451)
In other words, we must not commit the Naturalistic Fallacy: the mistake of identifying good
with a natural property, including psychological properties like being desired by someone or
being approved by someone.
Stevenson approvingly cites G. E. Moore’s open question argument:
Mr. G. E. Moore’s familiar objection about the open question is chiefly pertinent in this regard.
No matter what set of scientifically knowable properties a thing may have (says Moore, in effect),
you will find, on careful introspection, that it is an open question to ask whether anything having
these properties is good. It is difficult to believe that this recurrent question is a totally confused
one, or that it seems open only because of the ambiguity of “good.” Rather, we must be using
some sense of “good” which is not definable, relevantly, in terms of anything scientifically
knowable. That is, the scientific method is not sufficient for ethics. (452)
Moore’s famous argument can be put as follows:
(D) “X is good” = “X has property P” (where P is any natural property, i.e., any property that can
be studied by the natural sciences)
(A) X has P, but is X good? (are things that have P good?)
(B) X has P, but does it have P? (do things that have P have P?)
1. If (D) is true, then (A) and (B) have the same meaning.
2. But (A) and (B) do not have the same meaning. (A) is an significant question, which might
be answered by a substantial piece of information. (B) is not a real question. (A) is an open
question, and (B) is not, so (A) and (B) do not mean the same thing.
3. Therefore, (D) is not true.3
Stevenon’s third restriction rules out all interest theories, whether they define goodness in
terms of personal desire or in terms of general approval. This is because any interest theory
identifies goodness with someone’s approval, and we can always find out whether someone
approves of something using naturalistic (scientific) means.
Moore puts forward this argument in his Principia Ethica (1903). See chapter 39 of your textbook, especially page
Stevenson summarizes the three restrictions as follows:
“(1) goodness must be a topic for intelligent disagreement;
(2) it must be ‘magnetic’; and
(3) it must not be discoverable solely through the scientific method.” (452)
Stopping point for Wednesday October 22. For next time, finish reading the article by Stevenson
(secs. IV - VI, pp.455-460).