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A Defence of Emotivism

3. The Role of Meta-Ethical Analysis

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Before I go on to examine the major objections to Stevenson's thesis, it will be instructive to digress for a moment to reflect on the particular concerns of meta-ethical inquiry and to see how Stevenson's emotivism fits into this scheme. In this way, the criticisms of Stevenson's theory will be better understood. If meta-ethics is not to be revisionary, then its first major task is to elucidate the meanings of moral terms as used in ordinary discourse. Let us call this function, 'linguistic analysis'.

Secondly, it is to give some account of the psychological and social functions of ethics. Moral discourse may be seen in terms of social contracts, as with Hobbes and Rawls, or the analysis may be brought down to a more personal level. Intuitionists, such as Ross and Bradley, see ethics in terms of the individual directly apprehending certain synthetic a priori truths. I shall call this aspect of meta-ethics, the 'extra-linguistic analysis'.

The third function is to explore the epistemological status of normative utterances and the logical relations between them and non-moral statements. It is this aspect that is probably most peculiarly philosophical in its methods and I shall call this function, 'epistemological analysis'.

It seems easy enough to define these three functions and see how they differ from each other. The problem arises when we attempt to delimit them in practice, for in any particular meta-ethical theory we care to examine, we shall find complex interconnections between the three. An answer to one of these three problems invariably affects the answers to the other two. Furthermore, to answer one of these questions adequately and competently, we must first draw on the knowledge gained in answering the other two. All in all, a competent meta-ethical theory is not built up by answering one problem at a time in isolation from the others, but is a gradual refinement of a world-view that sees these three aspects of ethical discourse, the linguistic, extra-linguistic and epistemological, as an integrated whole.

Book cover: Right and Wrong by Charles Fried

Looking at Stevenson's theory, we can readily see this if we consider, for example, his contention that emotive meaning is a fundamental part of the meaning of ethical terms. This, of course, is a linguistic analysis. But it also has repercussions for the other parts of the theory. The extra-linguistic analysis could not neglect to point out that the social function of ethical discourse is to influence attitudes and not only beliefs. Furthermore, this dependence of extra-linguistic analysis on linguistic analysis also operates in reverse. As with any 'ordinary language' analysis, Stevenson's linguistic theory depends on a careful observation of the social functions of ethical language.

Much work needs to be done in making clear these complex interconnections, not only in Stevenson's meta-ethic, but in all those that we wish to consider seriously. Unfortunately, to do this with Stevenson's thesis, or any other meta-ethic, is well beyond the scope of this essay, but it is sorely needed to overcome some of the misconceptions of his analysis. Some major objections to his theory have rested on an inattention to this three-fold division of labour within his analysis. So, I shall rest content to roughly categorize it according to its three major functions, stressing once again that there is much overlap between the divisions.

In a nutshell, Stevenson's linguistic analysis comprises his theory of emotive and varying descriptive meanings of ethical terms. The extra-linguistic aspect is the stress on attitudinal disagreement as being fundamental to ethical discourse, while the epistemological analysis rests on the mostly causative psychological function of reasons in ethics.

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