A Defence of Emotivism

2. Stevenson's Emotivism

Book cover: The Language of Morals by R. M. Hare

Stevenson's views were the result of dissatisfaction with both restricted naturalist[1] and intuitionist accounts of ethical discourse. These theories, he claimed, which render the meanings of ethical words purely in terms of natural and non-natural properties and relations (hence they are termed 'descriptivist' theories), are unable to provide an adequate motivating reason for promoting 'good', doing what is 'right', and so on. By drawing attention solely to the cognitive function of ethical language, a bridge was placed between ethical properties and relations and the immediacy and intimacy of personal decision and action.

Stevenson's emotive theory sought to correct this inadequacy of descriptivist accounts by pointing to an even more important function of ethical language. Such words not only serve to convey factual information; their primary function is to express the attitude of the speaker and to invite-so-to-speak[2] the hearer to share the speaker's attitude. These two aspects of ethical terms, expressing the speaker's attitude and inviting-so-to-speak a similar attitude in the hearer, constitute their emotive meaning.

Ethical disagreement, then, is often characterized by a disagreement in belief. But more fundamentally, it is a disagreement in attitude. It is only with the concurrence of attitudes that an ethical dispute is resolved, even though there may remain a divergence of related beliefs.

The second major criticism that Stevenson had of descriptivist theories was their disregard for the vagueness and ambiguities of ordinary language. The complexities, he argued, are such that the cognitive meanings of ethical terms cannot be forced to fit a single descriptivist mould and do justice to common language. Many such analyses of the 'real' meaning of ethical words are covert uses of their emotive power to persuade the hearer of the speaker's normative views. These 'persuasive definitions', as Stevenson called them, are attempts to prove the speaker's normative convictions to be true by definition.

To accommodate the wide variety of descriptive meanings of ethical terms, Stevenson characterized their meaning in schematic form. To take 'good' as an example, and including its emotive senses for the sake of completeness, Stevenson's revised schema is as follows:[3]

'This is good' has the meaning of 'This has qualities or relations X, Y, Z . . . ,' except that 'good' has as well a laudatory emotive meaning which permits it to express the speaker's approval and invite-so-to-speak the approval of the hearer.

The analyses of the other ethical terms, such as 'right', 'ought', 'duty' and 'obligation', are similar to that proposed for 'good'. Stevenson simply noted their differing ranges of applications and emotive emphases.

In contrast to earlier emotive theories, Stevenson recognized that reason has an important role to play in ethical debate. He had noted the complex psychological connections between our beliefs and our attitudes. Reason, he argued, is used to change beliefs with the intention of causing a corresponding shift in attitude. But there is no strict logical connection between facts and moral values. Two people can agree on the relevant facts and yet neither be logically compelled to adopt the other person's moral judgement. In this respect, Stevenson's thesis is sharply opposed to cognitive theories.


  1. [1] It is important to note the difference between restricted naturalism and broad naturalism. Restricted naturalism offers a logical reductionist account of ethical words, giving their meanings strictly in terms of empirical phenomena. Broad naturalism explains ethical discourse in terms of empirical phenomena, such as human desires. The former implies the latter, but not vice versa. So, emotivism is a form of broad naturalism, but not a form of the restricted sort.
  2. [2] In his [1976], Stevenson wrote of ethical terms tending to 'evoke' the hearer's attitude. He later came to accept J. O. Urmson's point that to talk of 'inviting' was semantically more correct and coined the term 'invites-so-to-speak' in order to allow for the variability of the strength of the speaker's intention to influence the hearer's attitude (see Stevenson [1963: 208–10).
  3. [3] This is a revised version of the definition given in Stevenson [1976: 207]. It should be noted that the first pattern of analysis offered in Stevenson [1976] was later rescinded in Stevenson [1963: 210–13].

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