Credo in Unum Deum

I Believe in One God

C. L. Stevenson on “The Emotive Meaning of Ethical Terms”— a Review and Critique

The first point that I would like to make is a preliminary point and not vital to the discussion of Stevenson’s metaethical theory. I think it is important to note however. There is a deafening silence by Stevenson on what anybody before Hobbes had to contribute to anything philosophical. There are fleeting references to Plato but usually with some sort of disdain; and when the disdain is absent there seems to be little appreciation of him. But I have looked for in vain even a veiled reference to Sts. Augustine, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure, Bl. John Duns Scotus, etc. It seems that although one may reject metaphysics completely, there could still be something to be gleaned by these tremendous thinkers. I believe that the lack of reference to their philosophical adversaries prove that they have not in fact read these philosophers, or if they have, it was only the brief sections their philosophy professors had them read (as I did in undergraduate work in a Philosophy of Religion class where the professor assigned the class certain bits from Anselm and Thomas Aquinas on arguments for God’s existence but did not give a fair treatment of either philosopher’s position). So much for my preliminary remark.

My objective in these first two paragraphs was only to bring out in the open the overt disdain for the past which accompanies the Modern Eschatology which asserts that Man has finally come of age and thrown off the shackles of Divine Religion and now Reason may rule supreme and finally we will be able to answer all the questions we have been unable to answer because religious superstition often impeded if not totally blocked scientific progress (See Carnap and his buddies). It seems no little surprise that ethics suffered at the hand of these (ir)Rational Messiahs no less than metaphysics and epistemology did. But now to summarize and evaluate Stevenson’s view that ethical terms have only an emotive meaning.

Stevenson starts by wondering how we can discover the meaning behind ethical questions. ‘Is X good?’ is a difficult question because, he says, we do not know quite what we are looking for. He suggests that we should engage in an experiment of substitution. But this substitution must be relevant to the question we are asking. For example, he says that ‘Is X pink with yellow trimmings?’ cannot be substituted for ‘Is X good?’ So what have been the ways which previous philosophers have attempted to give a relevant definition of “good”? (Here we see the disdain for what has been said so much more thoroughly in the past.)
‘The word “good” has often been defined in terms of approval, or similar psychological attitudes. We may take as typical examples: “good” means desired by me (Hobbes); and “good” means approved by most people (Hume, if effect). It will be convenient to refer to definitions of this sort as “interest theories”… Are definitions of this sort relevant?’

He claims that these definitions are only partially relevant. There seems to be something lacking in the definitions; namely, they overlook the ‘“vital” sense of “good”.’ But what then constitutes the “vital” sense of good? Well, although this is a very tricky question, but he says that there are a few requirements that have come to be expected of the term.

1 ‘We must be able to disagree intelligently about whether [X] is “good”.’ With Hobbes’ definition, it is impossible to for us to disagree. Let us put forth a statement and then apply substitution to see why this is so. I say ‘X is good’ and you reply, ‘That’s not so, X is not good”; I say, ‘I desire X’ and you reply ‘That’s not so, I do not desire X’. It is easy to see that we cannot disagree in our reporting of our subjective desires. There is no contradiction involved here.

2 ‘[The] “goodness” [of X] must have, so to speak, a magnetism.’ That is to say, if I see that X really is good, the “goodness” of X should “move” me to act in the direction that X is pointing me to act. This ability to move me in the direction that X points should be stronger that it was before I believed that X is good. This excludes Hume’s definition, for I may recognize that the majority of folks think that, let’s say, contraception is good. However, there is nothing that prevents me from disagreeing with that and in fact having a stronger “moving” to not contracept.

3 ‘The “goodness” of anything must not be verifiable solely by the use of the scientific method. “Ethics must not be psychology.” This rules out all of the traditional interest theories, without exception.’ This is an extreme claim, at least in its exclusionary powers. Stevenson says that we need to ‘examine its plausibility.’ If accept Hobbes’ definition, I can prove my judgment by showing that I am not mistaken about my desires. If Hume, I may take a vote to show that the majority do in fact believe that X is good. Thus, this third principle rules out the traditional interest theories entirely.

So much for interest theories. What does Stevenson have to offer as an alternative to the traditional interest theories?

There is, according to Stevenson, a presuppositional fault with the traditional interest theories which he sets out to remedy with his own kind of interest theory.

‘Traditional interest theories hold that ethical statements are descriptive of the existing state of interests—that they simply give information about interests. (More accurately, ethical judgments are said to describe what the state of interests is, was, or will be, or to indicate what the state of interests would be under specified circumstances.) 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. There major use is not to indicate facts, but to create an influence. Instead of merely describing people’s interests, the change or intensify them. They recommend an interest in an object, rather than state that the interest already exists.‘ (my emphasis)
We can by way of example render more clear what Stevenson has just pointed out.

In the traditional interest theories when I say that X is good, what I am doing is saying either (Hobbes) that I desire X or (Hume) that The majority of people approve of X. I am merely describing a fact, the “state of interest”. (I suppose I could be wrong that the majority approves of X when in fact the majority abhor X, but let us assume for the sake of argument that the majority does approve of X.) Let’s remove the variable and insert a specific term. Let X = humility. Thus we have (Hobbes) I desire humility or (Hume) The majority of people approve of humility. Now Stevenson wants to say that this an inadequate way to define “good”. While these definitions may very well describe the state of interest, it is missing a key component. Quite often, when we make ethical statements, we are trying to get others to agree with us that X is really good (desirable) and maybe that Y (let’s say murder) is not good (undesirable). We are trying to change or intensify their current desires or approvals. When I tell you that ‘Humility is good,’ I am trying to persuade you to believe, or believe more fervently, that humility is a good which you ought to be earnestly seeking (in addition to the fact that I desire humility and most people approve of humility). When I tell you that ‘Murder is not good,’ I am trying to persuade you to believe, or believe more fervently, that murder is not good but bad (in addition to the fact that I do not desire murder and most people do not approve of murder).

Now in order to convince you that humility is good or murder is not good, I may engage in a series of rational arguments supporting my belief. I may share with you examples of the sublime happiness enjoyed by various people throughout history and contemporaneous with us that exemplify the “virtue” of humility. I may encourage you by telling you that most people do in fact encourage humility of character. Also, humble persons are much more well liked than the prideful. I may share, on the negative side, the pain caused by murder to so many people. I might point to the genocides Hitler and Stalin, the mass murderers in our own country and the emotional, physical, societal and financial strain that murder causes. Then there is the fact that most people disapprove of murder.

So I may point to the descriptive facts that not only I, but the majority of people desire or approve of humility and do not desire or do not approve of murder as reasons that you too should believe as I do. I am describing the interests of most people in order to direct your interests—I am attempting to exert influence over you. But what if Y = contraception? Then Y is bad would be rendered I do not desire contraception or Most people do not approve or contraception. But the second example is manifestly false, at least in the United States. Therefore, I would not be appealing to they way the states of interests are, I would be trying to change the states of interests for the majority of the people. I would have to give reasons why I think you and the rest of society ought to agree that contraception is not good. But it must be noted that in either case (X is good or Y is not good) an inducement to change or intensification ‘is not part of the ethical judgment itself.’ Stevenson continues, ‘Your ethical judgment… directs his very interests. The difference between the traditional interest theories and my view is like the difference between describing a desert and irrigating it.’

Stevenson then wonders about the meaning of ethical terms. He asks how ‘an ethical sentence acquire[s] its power of influencing people—why is it suited to suggestion?’ He answers that ethical terms are emotive; that is, they ‘produce… affective responses in people. It is an immediate aura of feeling which hovers about a word. Such tendencies to produce affective responses cling to words very tenaciously. It would be difficult, for instance, to express merriment by using the interjection “alas”. Because of the persistence of such affective tendencies (among other reasons) it becomes feasible to classify them as “meanings”.’ He also draws a distinction between descriptive words (whereby we ‘record, clarify, and communicate beliefs‘) and dynamic words (whereby we ‘give vent to our feelings…, or create moods…, or incite people to actions or attitudes…’) which are completely dependent on the intent or purpose of the one using the words. When I communicate to you the proposition that Red is a primary color, I am using descriptive language. My purpose may be either to get you to believe this or believe that I believe it at the very least. When I (to use Stevenson’s example) cut myself and yell ‘Damn’, my intent was to vent to my feelings, and maybe even incite you to not come anywhere near me because I may get abusive to others when I am in pain. But chances are I was not recording, clarifying or communicating a belief, therefore I engaged in dynamic language.

The interesting problem with dynamic language (a problem for clarity anyway) is that is can be quite confusing and unclear. I may say to you, ‘Man, what a day!’ My purpose may be to get you to rejoice with me if I had a record sales day at the office. That is one dynamic usage. But maybe I am trying to incite in you a feeling a sympathy because I had the lowest sales in the history of the company that day, in addition to spilling my plate of spaghetti on my boss at lunch. There we have a different dynamic usage. So we see that dynamic language has the tendency to produce certain responses in other people. Given this characteristic of dynamic language, we can easily see why emotive meaning ‘has an intimate relation to dynamic usage.’ We can also see why ethical terms are emotive for Stevenson. But what about the three requirements mentioned above? Does Stevenson fulfill these conditions? Let us take them in order.

The first condition required that genuine intellectual disagreement must be able to be had about an ethical claim. Something must be added here about the types of disagreements. There are “disagreements in belief” and “disagreements in interest”. A disagreement in belief occurs in the sciences when S1 believes p and S2 disbelieves p. A disagreement in interest occurs when S1 is favorable toward x and S2 in not favorable toward x. Disagreement in interest is what we are dealing with in ethics, according to Stevenson. When I say that humility is good and you say that humility is not good, we are attempting to redirect each others interests.

The second condition of “magnetism” is satisfied in the satisfaction of the first condition. I am trying to “move” you to action, namely acts of humility. You are trying to “move” me towards a tendency to, if not favor the arrogant, at least to not proclaim the virtues of humility.

The third condition is that the ethical claim ‘must not be discoverable solely through the scientific method.’ Now if ethical questions were rooted solely in disagreements in belief, then the only way to discover them would be through the scientific method. And it in fact seems that most of our arguments to support an ethical imperative can be controverted via disagreement in belief. But not all disagreements of interest are rooted in disagreements of belief. The temperaments of people often play a major role in what side they come down on ethical questions. For instance, a person who has a forgiving, and soft spoken temperament might oppose the death penalty. Another fellow, of a harsh and condemnatory temperament will almost certainly be in favor of the death penalty. Suppose further that there is no disagreement in belief over the matter, only a disagreement in interest. Can a disagreement in interest be resolved by the use of a certain method? asks Stevenson. ‘If one means by “method” a rational method, then there is no method.’ (emphasis mine) He is kind enough to allow a “way” for resolution. The soft-hearted fellow may seek to change the temperament of the mean-hearted fellow and pour out his heart in a torrent of emotion that overwhelms the hard man, thus giving him some pause and possibly even moving him to be more soft-hearted. Likewise, the hard man may try to persuade by appealing to emotion also, although it may be along the lines of intimidation. ‘This is often the only way to obtain ethical agreement, if there is any way at all. It is persuasive, not empirical or rational…’ (Stevenson, 363) Stevenson has therefore met all three requirements for the “vital” sense of “good”.

Now I will introduce are a few criticisms of Stevenson’s ethical theory. (1) ‘Moral language doesn’t always express emotions. Sometimes we are using this language to make truth claims, and even draw an inference from one moral judgment to another.’ (2) ‘Moral claims serve as exhortations as well as expressions of one’s personal feelings. They recommend actions to others. There’s a social dimension to moral talk that is not well captured by ejaculations alone.’

When I say that praying the Rosary daily is a right and holy thing to do, there may accompany with that statement feelings of devotion and love for our Blessed Mother. But I am really trying to communicate more than a report of my feelings, or an attempt at moving you to feel the same way. That belief I have about daily recitation of the Rosary is grounded in the fact that it actually is true that daily recitation is good and holy. Now I may go further and say that since we are called to holiness and righteousness, you ought yourself to recite the Rosary daily. So I have taken two ethical statements (A. It is a righteous act to recite daily; and B. “Be thou righteous”) and inferred a third moral judgment; namely, C. you ought recite the Rosary daily.

When I say that abortion is a moral evil, there may be an accompanying displeasure, disgust, sickness and horror at the thought of a baby being murdered, but I wish to convey not my feelings in the matter only or just change your feelings about it (though that will happen if I convince you that I am right); I am making a claim that the ethical statement I just made about abortion is a proposition which may be true or false and I believe that it is true and you should too.

Also, I am not convinced of the authority supposedly possessed by the three requirements which is exercised on those of us who theorize about ethics. I am not sure that people can intelligibly disagree about certain moral principles found in the Natural Law. That is not to say that people don’t disagree (obviously). It is only to say that the disagreement on the part of those denying certain Natural Law principles is unintelligible. I am also a little skeptical about the innate “magnetism” of the “good”. For St. Paul says that the Gospel is the scent of life to those who are living and the scent of death to those who are dying. However, Boethius does claim in his Consolation of Philosophy that all men seek the good. The problem, he says, lies with the means they choose to use to achieve the good. But I think what we are talking about here primarily are the means. Lastly, I do not think that restricting what is rational to the empirical sciences is at all self-evident or empirically verifiable. One may from first principles derive a, while less than comprehensive list, quite impressive list of moral judgments. Of course, Divine Revelation supplies the missing judgments.

Finally, if Stevenson objects that I am too attached to the old way, the outdated metaphysics of the Catholic Church, I suppose I could just tell him that, ‘I don’t feel very appreciative of your scolding me. I just feel good about this attachment. Maybe you should give it a try and you’ll feel good too! But, come now! You can’t actually be saying that the old way is morally objectionable, can you? No, of course not. The old way is just an obstruction to the progress of science. But really, progress isn’t an objective good now is it? You just have certain feelings attached to it based on your temperament. That is all.’

Quotes are from Stevenson’s essay “The Emotive Meaning of Ethical Terms”


July 21, 2007 - Posted by | Philosophy

1 Comment »

  1. I like your essay — very nice summary of Stevenson.

    I suspect that in your objections to his position however, you might slightly misunderstand what he’s trying to do. You write

    “I am not sure that people can intelligibly disagree about certain moral principles found in the Natural Law. That is not to say that people don’t disagree (obviously). It is only to say that the disagreement on the part of those denying certain Natural Law principles is unintelligible.”

    -Certainly, this is a fair point. However, it seems to be a claim that we have to remain agnostic about unless (as hint at) we accept the epistemological legitimacy of revelation.

    Rather than argue with this position (which Stevenson can’t do if it is based on faith) I think that Stevenson is responding to a famous argument which supported objective moral validity that was made on precisely the grounds of the mystery of why moral statements can be intelligible (G.E. Moore’s open question argument).

    If (and only if) we remain unconvinced of the grounds for accepting revelatory claims as moral knowledge (and I currently am, though that’s a separate discussion, obviously), I think it’s fair to say that Stevenson’s account does a good job of explaining all the relevant evidence.

    Here’s a summary of Moore’s argument:

    “If goodness could be thought to entirely consist in the definitions which other philosophers have ascribed to it—roughly, “pleasure” in the case of Mill and Bentham—than Moore points out that the proposition “Pleasure is good” is a tautology; for all the proposition means if good is entirely synonymous with pleasure is the statement that “Pleasure is pleasure.” Moore feels that there is clearly something more at work in this statement than a mere tautology. Hence, he claims that all definitions of the form “Good is x” are subject to the open question—which Moore feels will necessarily always be open—“But is x really good?”

    Moore then concludes that

    “there is a simple, indefinable, unanalysable object of thought by reference to which it [good] must be defined” (354).

    His analysis above is perfectly correct (and that is why Stevenson attempts to respond to it). However, his final conclusion, Stevenson’s account has shown us (and this is why it’s valuable), is not necessarily true.

    Moral philosophical discussion on that facebook website if you’re interested — it’s on precisely the sort question that you bring up — my Habermasian perspective perhaps approaches a moral objection to Catholic metaphysics. Your comments would be welcome.



    Comment by Matt Flaherty | January 9, 2009

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