A Defence of Emotivism

5. Objections to Stevenson's Emotivism

5.1 Personal Moral Deliberation and Advice

Book cover: Ethical Theory by Richard B. Brandt

In the following discussion, I shall concentrate on the objections of three critics of Stevenson's analysis; R. B. Brandt, H. J. McCloskey and J. O. Urmson. Brandt is a multifunctionalist and his views on emotivism can be found in his Ethical Theory [1959: ch. 9]. McCloskey is an intuitionist. His criticisms are published in Meta-Ethics and Normative Ethics [1969: ch. 3], while Urmson, who holds a grading theory of ethical terms, published a book devoted to emotivism, The Emotive Theory of Ethics [1968]. I shall discuss their criticisms in order of importance, leaving aside their more peripheral objections for reasons of space.

The most telling and obvious objection to emotivism, for many people, is that it simply does not describe what we do when we are making up our mind on moral issues. According to this objection, deciding what we ought to do in a particular situation is different from asking ourselves what we want to do, sorting out our attitudes or engaging in self-persuasion. As Brandt [1959: 220] says, 'Very often we conclude, after moral reasoning, that what we most insistently want to do must simply be set aside (or at least that it ought to be).' McCloskey [1969: 61] makes the same objection.

In his earlier book, Ethics and Language, Stevenson saw self-persuasion as the psychological process we go through for overcoming the conflicts in our attitudes 'in almost all of our personal deliberations' [1976: 148]. I doubt whether this is true, and in his later analysis of personal deliberation, Stevenson [1963: 197–204] made no mention of self-persuasion. I do not, therefore, care to defend this aspect of his earlier view. But I do think that his general view that moral indecision reflects uncertainty over what attitude to adopt or is a manifestation of conflict of attitudes is correct.[8]

A simple psychological point now needs to be made, and it is a point that has been duly emphasized by Stevenson [1963: 200–2] in his later work and developed at length by D. H. Monro, in his book Empiricism and Ethics [1967: ch. 17]. It is this. Most, if not all, of us have ideals; ideals about what kind of person we would most like to be and about what kind of world we would most like to see. These ideals are the result of reflective thinking and are relatively permanent. They are readily contrasted with our more impermanent and less reflective preferences. We have, then, differing levels of attitudes, ranging from the highest-level to the lowest-level. Morality is concerned with these highest-level, long-lasting and most reflective attitudes.

The second point that I wish to make is that, in ordinary language, different terms are ascribed to different preferences, depending on their level. Our highest-level preferences are labelled 'values', while our lowest-level preferences are labelled 'wants'. Some terms, such as 'desire', are somewhat ambiguous, sometimes being applied to low-level preferences and sometimes to high-level preferences. Once this clarification has been made, it becomes clear why moral decision making is not especially concerned with determining 'wants' or low-level 'desires'.

McCloskey, in Meta-Ethics and Normative Ethics [1969: 60f], draws the example of the person who discovers 'on reflection that he really does think members of other races are inferior, and that he has been treating them as such all his life' and suggests that Stevenson is committed to saying that this person has 'the problem of harmonising this newly discovered attitude with his other known attitudes' and not of 'suppressing it and cultivating it out of existence'. This is inferred, McCloskey presumes, from Stevenson's [1976: 132] talk of 'systematising one's actual and latent attitudes in a way which gives them definite direction'.

However, McCloskey has here seriously misconstrued Stevenson's position. McCloskey [1969: 60] has mistakenly taken Stevenson's view to be that personal deliberation is the 'discovering and developing one's latent attitudes' [italics mine]. But on the very same page from which McCloskey quotes Stevenson, Stevenson [1976: 132] illustrates the example of the conscript who, upon discovering his latent attitude of 'fear of being killed', decides to 'inhibit it out of shame'. So, there is nothing to stop, in my view, the latent racist in McCloskey's example above deciding to suppress his racist attitude. Stevenson writes in the same place of 'modification of one of the conflicting attitudes' [1976: 131] and the causing of 'one set of attitudes to predominate over the other' [1976: 132] in personal deliberation. He further elaborates this analysis in his later work [1963: 199–202].

McCloskey [1969: 63] further objects to Stevenson's view that to adopt a moral position is to adopt an attitude on the grounds that we can cultivate new non-moral attitudes but we cannot cultivate new moral beliefs. He uses the example of cultivating a liking to English beer when living in England and accustomed to German beer.

Book cover: Reasons and Persons by Derek Parfit

But are moral attitudes on par with attitudes to beer? According to Stevenson's emotivism, they are not. They are concerned with our most permanent and reflective attitudes, and these we do not choose any more than we choose our beliefs. We no more choose to have a pro-attitude towards sexual equality than we choose to believe that Ottawa is the capital city of Canada. In fact, for any non-cultivatable moral belief that McCloskey cares to point out, the emotivist will point out a non-cultivatable moral attitude. If McCloskey wants to say that all attitudes are cultivatable, then he must be in the position of saying that there are no such things as moral attitudes. But it is not unusual to ask of someone, 'What is your attitude to war? or euthanasia? or in vitro fertilisation?'

So, not all attitudes are cultivatable, and moral attitudes are included in this sub-class. McCloskey may be granting this point, but arguing that moral positions cannot be identified with particular attitudes because some attitudes are cultivatable, and moral positions are non-cultivatable. However, to argue that two classes A and B are not identical because class A has a characteristic that some members of the larger class to which class B belongs lacks is logically invalid. McCloskey's argument, if this latter interpretation is correct, has the same formal structure as this invalid argument: Laughing bipeds cannot be identified with humans because laughing bipeds have teeth and humans are animals, some of which do not have teeth.

McCloskey further supports his criticism of Stevenson's view that personal deliberation concerns uncertainty or conflict in attitudes by appealing to what we do when we seek moral advice. According to McCloskey [1969: 48, 61f], when we seek such advice we are neither sorting out our attitudes nor engaging in self-persuasion, but are endeavouring to find objective moral truths.

I shall not attempt to defend the view that we seek advice for self-persuasion, although this may be true for a minority of cases. It seems to me that we seek advice in order to settle tensions between our attitudes or to alleviate uncertainty in what attitude to take to a particular issue. For the sake of clarity, I shall divide people that seek advice into two broad categories. In the first category are those that think they know in general terms what is good or what they ought to do, but do not know whether a particular thing is good or a particular act is what they ought to do. A clear example of this is the newly-wed woman who believes that she ought to act in accordance with God's will but is not sure if taking the contraceptive pill is against his fiat.

In the second category are those persons who are not sure what is good or obligatory in general terms and find themselves forced into making a moral decision. An example of this is the young father who must decide between placing his aged mother into a nursing home and caring for her himself. This is a vexed question for him as the latter option involves disruption to his own family. Here, he is unsure of the criteria for making the right choice.

That those people in the first category believe they are seeking facts is easily explained on Stevenson's second pattern of analysis. The newly-wed woman in the example above has descriptively defined 'ought' as referring to a constraint imposed by God's will. Her objective in seeking advice is to discover whether taking the contraceptive pill satisfies the requirement of the definition, thereby, in effect, alleviating her uncertainty in her attitude to this contraceptive method. Opponents of emotivism may object that in cases such as these, in which only purportedly factual information is being sought, it is not strictly correct to say that moral advice is being sought. However, to say of the woman's question to her pastor, 'Ought I refrain from taking the Pill?', that it is not a request for moral advice is surely to stretch the meaning of ordinary language.

This example also makes it clear why the woman's wishes do not seem relevant in the solution to her moral dilemma. She is settled in her highest-level attitude; that is, she most desires to do God's will. The advice she seeks is the answer to the question: What, in fact, is God's will? Her lower-level wants and desires are not relevant to the answering of this question, although, it should be noted, they may have sparked her dilemma. In this case, her desire for a safe and efficient contraceptive method to avoid pregnancy most probably necessitated a visit to her pastor.

Let us imagine that the woman's pastor now tells her that non-natural contraceptive methods are absolutely forbidden by God and that, for a while, she accepts this restraint. In time, however, she comes to realize that this ban causes needless suffering on a large scale. She may begin to doubt that God really forbids non-natural contraceptive methods and, after further inquiry, decides that her pastor was wrong. Alternatively, she may question whether God really does command what is right and, after further reflection, give up her belief that God exists on this count. If she now seeks advice for this reason, that she does not know what the proper criteria are for determining the morality of contraception, she has fallen into my second category.

She may, as with most people who seek advice on these grounds, believe the criteria in question to be objective; that is, that they are substantially or completely independent of human attitudes and desires. The sophisticated emotivist does not deny that most people believe this. But whatever criteria our newly-wed decides upon after seeking advice, whether it be a system of respect for innate rights, a system of prima facie obligations or a single criterion, such as maximising happiness, the emotivist is committed to saying that she has, fundamentally, settled her highest-level attitudes, even though she may not have realized this herself. This is part of Stevenson's extra-linguistic and epistemological analysis of ethics I referred to in §3 above. It is his attempt to explain what is happening in ethics from an empiricist viewpoint. At this level of analysis, McCloskey's objection that people seeking moral advice do not implicitly accept Stevenson's analysis is beside the point.

Book cover: Practical Ethics by Peter Singer

Let us, for a moment, consider a parallel case. Suppose an atheistic philosopher and sociologist provided us with a psycho-social explanation of theistic belief systems, showing their psychological origin in some basic human need, the means of social reinforcement of such beliefs and their dependence on the adoption of irrational criteria for theory choice. And suppose his general theory, with the addition of further details, explained the phenomenon of church attendance in these terms. Now, for a theist to object to this analysis of church attendance on the grounds that church attendees really do believe they are worshipping God at church, and so do not implicitly accept his theory, is to engage in irrelevance. What people think they are doing and what they are in actual fact doing are not necessarily identical.

McCloskey has here confused an account of the meaning of terms (in this case, ethical terms) with an analysis of their psycho-social function and epistemological import. He then proceeded to criticize the former on the grounds that ordinary people do not agree with the latter analysis. As we have seen in §3 above, there are complex interconnections between these three aspects of meta-ethical analysis. However, if McCloskey had wished to criticize Stevenson's linguistic analysis on the grounds that it is dependent on a faulty extra-linguistic analysis, this requires more work to be done than simply pointing out that ordinary people do not believe it.

My second point on this second category of advice is that not all the people that seek such advice are objectivists. That a significant minority of these people are subjectivists and relativists is little appreciated by objectivist moral philosophers. These people are usually defined out of existence. When such people seek advice, they explicitly aim to settle the tensions between their highest-level attitudes. By drawing to their attention new facts or re-emphasising familiar ones, they hope that they will see the situation in question in a new light. They anticipate that this will consequently bring to bear a psychological influence in reorientating their highest-level attitudes.

I think that requests for moral advice are more complex than the schemata here suggests. There will be borderline cases and cases that fall into both categories. None the less, I believe that I have satisfactorily answered McCloskey's objection. Stevenson's 'descriptive meaning' component in his second pattern of analysis accounts for the apparent fact-finding nature and lack of relevance of personal attitudes in the first category of moral advice. The second category of moral advice is accounted for by his extra-linguistic and epistemological theory of what moral uncertainty really is.


  1. [8] See Stevenson [1976: 130–2; 1963: 197–204] for a statement of his position.

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