PHIL 4150: Analytic Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Tuesday October 23, 2012



[5.4.] C. L. Stevenson’s Emotivism.


C. L. Stevenson (1908-1979)

·         An American who studied at Cambridge under 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).[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: they were held to be 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, as presented in “The Emotive Meaning of Ethical Terms” (published in the journal Mind in 1937—this is the reading that is in your textbook), along with some material from his book Ethics and Language (1944).



[5.4.1.] Three Restrictions on Definitions of “Good.”


Like Moore in the first chapter of Principia Ethica, Stevenson is engaged in meta-ethics rather than in normative ethics.


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)


In particular, he believes that the word “good” is ambiguous (that it is used in more than one way).


He identifies one group of meanings of the word “good” as interest theories of goodness; these define “good” in terms of the interests of human beings, e.g.,

·         “good” = desired by me (Thomas Hobbes, 1588-1679);

·         “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 Hobbes’ interest theory, despite appearances, rule out the possibility that there is ever really any disagreement about morality.


Stevenson’s point is that there is disagreement about morality, so this sort of definition of “good” cannot be complete. There is some other sense of “good” in which people can disagree about whether something is good.


This restriction rules out simple subjectivism as an adequate theory of meta-ethics...


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]



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.


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, “People in general approve of going to church” is supposed to mean the same thing as “Going to church is good”—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 and identify good with any natural property, including psychological properties like being desired by someone or being approved by someone. Stevenson approvingly cites 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)


This 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.



[5.4.2.] Moral Judgments are not Just Descriptive.


Stevenson maintains that there is a single sense of “good” that meets all three of these constraints.


But he also thinks that Moore was wrong to say that “good” refers to a simple, unanalyzable property.


And he thinks that the correct theory of goodness is something very much like an interest theory.


The key is to give up a presupposition made by previous ethical theories, that


ethical statements are descriptive of the existing state of interests—that they simply give information about interests. ... It is this emphasis on description, on information, which leads to their incomplete relevance. Doubtless there is always some element of description in ethical judgments, but this is by no means all. Their major use is not to indicate facts, but to create an influence. Instead of merely describing people’s interests, they change or intensify them. They recommend an interest in an object, rather than state that the interest already exists.

For instance: When you tell a man that he oughtn’t to steal, your object isn’t merely to let him know that people disapprove of stealing. You are attempting, rather, to get him to disapprove of it. (452-453)


In other words ethical statements such as “x is right” and “x is wrong” do not simply describe the world. They do something else that is more important: they influence the moral opinions or feelings of listeners.


When a weapons maker insists that war is a good thing, he is not merely saying that he approves of war, or that most people approve of war, or that most people would approve of war if only they were fully informed: “He is not describing the state of people’s approval; he is trying to change it by his influence. If he found that few people approved of war, he might insist all the more strongly that it was good, for there would be more changing to be done.” (453)


Stevenson views ethical terms as instruments used in the complicated interplay and readjustment of human interests.” (453)[3]


But how is it that ethical statements do this work? How is it that they perform this function?



Stopping point for Tuesday October 23. For next time, finish reading the article by Stevenson: secs. IV - VI, pp.455-460).





[1] For more on Stevenson, see Daniel R. Boisvert, “Charles Leslie Stevenson,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

[2] James Rachels, Elements of Moral Philosophy, 5th ed. by Stuart Rachels, McGraw-Hill, 2006, p.37. Ayer also rejected simple subjectivism (LTL p.104).


[3] As we will see, this idea of language as instrument or tool reflects the influence of the later Wittgenstein.

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