A Defence of Emotivism

4. Objectivism in Moral Language

J. D. Mabbott's critique of emotivism in his An Introduction to Ethics [1977] is a clear example of the confusion that results from a lack of recognition of this multi-functional nature of a meta-ethical theory. Unfortunately, he also seriously misconstrues the basic tenets of emotivism, often equating it with 'introspective report' type subjectivism.[4] None the less, his confusions are instructive of what to avoid.

He maintains that emotivism, along with all other 'subjectivist' theories, could not possibly be true for the simple fact that 'normal users' of ethical language are objectivists.[5] 'Objectivist' is here used in the sense of a person who believes that moral language ascribes properties to things and events and that these properties are real independently of people's desires, approvals, and so on.

What Mabbott is doing here is falsely construing Stevenson's emotivism to be a purely linguistic theory and carrying the 'subjectivist' element of the extra-linguistic analysis, the emphasis on attitudinal disagreement, into Stevenson's linguistic analysis of ordinary language. Now, it seems that to define ethical words in terms of a descriptive component and the semantically necessary illocutionary forces[6] of expressing and inviting-so-to-speak attitudes is to be non-committal on the question of the objectivity or subjectivity of moral values.

Book cover: Ethics Since 1900 by Mary Warnock

A philosopher is still quite free to develop an objectivist meta-ethic while accepting this epistemologically harmless 'ordinary language' analysis. The varying descriptive component of Stevenson's schemata allows ample room for this. Our philosopher need only argue that an attitude is objective if and only if it conforms to the particular descriptive meaning of ethical terms that he considers satisfies the requirements of objectivity. 'Value' would be objective in the sense that it is independent of the attitudes of particular people. The emotivist would certainly deny that such undertakings have been or will be successful, but it is certainly not ruled out a priori by Stevenson's 'ordinary language' analysis of the meanings of ethical terms.

A parallel situation can be found in theories of truth. If we surveyed the general population, we would find many descriptive definitions of truth, including pragmatic, foundationalist, positivist, and so on, with most people holding some type or other objectivist view. As linguists, it is clear that to say 'X is true' is to commit the illocutionary act of expressing a belief that 'X', and even possibly to invite-so-to-speak the similar belief of others. Suppose we decide that these illocutionary forces are a semantically necessary component of the meaning of 'true'. Now, no-one would seriously suggest that just because beliefs are private, that this linguistic analysis would commit us to a subjectivist or relativist theory of truth. A philosopher need only argue that a belief is objective if and only if it conforms to the particular descriptive meaning of epistemological terms that he considers satisfies the requirements of objectivity. 'Truth' would be objective in the sense that it is independent of the beliefs of particular people.

So, Stevenson's linguistic analysis is similarly non-committal. From the perspective of his comprehensive theory, and not just from its linguistic component, it is clear why so many ordinary people are objectivists. They are only aware of the descriptive aspect of ethical terms and do not notice that it is differences of attitude that are fundamental in ethical disputes.

That a significant minority of ordinary people are relativists or subjectivists in ethics, and the number is probably increasing, is not sufficiently appreciated by objectivist ethical philosophers. Mabbott's[7] contention that all 'normal users' of ethical language are objectivists is a case in point. That there are just as many differences amongst objectivists as between objectivists and subjectivists seems to have been ignored. The problem for Mabbot here is to pick out just which objectivist view is the paradigm of 'normality'. It seems we may, with equal ease, pick out some popular characteristic that is common to subjectivists and many objectivists (say, for example, the belief that ethics is independent of religion) and brand all other uses of ethical language as 'abnormal'. It is all too easy to label difficult people as 'abnormal' compared with taking serious account of them in one's linguistic theory.

This ends my preliminary remarks. I have tried to show, using Mabbott's example, that to take a too simple view of the function of Stevenson's theory will inevitably lead to misunderstanding it. We may now progress to a consideration of Stevenson's more sophisticated critics, bearing in mind the lessons we have learned.


  1. [4] See, for example, J. D. Mabbott [1977: 76f, 78].
  2. [5] J. D. Mabbott [1977: 95–9]
  3. [6] The illocutionary force of a speech act is what the speaker is doing when making that utterance; for example, commanding, questioning, promising and so on.
  4. [7] J. D. Mabbott [1977: 96]

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