A Defence of Emotivism

5. Objections to Stevenson's Emotivism

5.2 Expressing and Directing Attitudes

The next objection that I wish to consider is that ethical statements do not always express the attitude of the speaker. In his book, Ethical Theory [1959], Brandt illustrates this criticism with two examples. The first is this.

Suppose someone, whom you meet by chance on a train, asks your advice about the selection of a college for his daughter. You may give careful thought to his description of the problem, and conclude by saying, 'I think she ought to apply at Pembroke College, at least among other places.' But do you really care where she goes? Or does your hearer suppose you care?

[Brandt 1959: 229f]

I think that a more instructive question to ask is, Is this an ethical statement? This example seems on par with the case of the person who asks me how to get to the nearest phone box and I answer, 'You ought to turn left at the next corner'. These uses of 'ought' do not seem to be ethical, but instead indicate a causal relationship between a course of action and an intended outcome. Their meaning appears to be: 'For your daughter to succeed, send her to Pembroke College or a similar college.' and 'To get to the nearest phone box, take the next turn left.'

Brandt's next example is more troublesome. It is this.

Suppose a fundamentalist is reading the Biblical account of the—apparently pointless—execution of someone (say, all men, women, and children among the Amalekites) at the behest, allegedly, of God. He says to himself, 'That's strange. But it must have been right; otherwise God would not have ordered it.' This use of 'right' appears to be a normal one.

[Brandt 1959: 230]

Book cover: Ethical Theory by Richard B. Brandt

In this case, Brandt claims, the function of the statement is not to express the person's attitude but to direct it. Brandt may be correct in naming the directive function of the statement in this case. However, this does not automatically preclude it from also having an expressive function. Consider, for a moment, a parallel case. An amateur admirer of science is reading a popular account on relativity and comes across the view that the mass and length of a body are dependent on its velocity. He says to himself, 'That's strange. But it must be true; otherwise physicists would not accept it.' Now, it may be the case that the statement serves to direct his belief, but I see no reason to deny that when he says, 'But it must be true', he is also expressing his belief.

Similarly, when I tell my friend, 'There's ants in your pants!!', my statement serves to direct his attention and to command (to take off his pants). However, it also serves to express my belief. So, the one statement may have more than one illocutionary force. Brandt does not say why he thinks the fundamentalist in his example cannot also be expressing an attitude at the same time. I conclude that neither of Brandt's examples succeed in showing that ethical statements sometimes do not express attitudes.

Brandt [1959: 227] also makes the claim that ethical statements do not always function to direct the attitudes of the hearer. (I shall take it that 'inviting-so-to-speak' is a form of directing.) Two of the examples that he gives are particularly instructive, so I shall examine these first. The examples are; 'If the policy is morally wrong, then that settles the matter.' and 'It must be right or wrong—so let's think it through and find out which.' It is certainly true that neither of these statements have the illocutionary force of commending their relative ethical subject matters. But neither do they serve to express the speaker's attitudes to them. In fact, these two examples would have better served the point that Brandt had wished to make in his previous criticism.

Does the fact that some ethical statements do not have the illocutionary forces of expressing attitudes and commending[9] debilitate Stevenson's theory of emotive meaning? I do not think so. Urmson's work, in his The Emotive Theory of Ethics [1968: ch.11], on the relevance of illocutionary forces to the meanings of words is particularly instructive. His analysis, briefly, is this. (Note that the examples given here are mine and not Urmson's.)

Although the sentences in which a particular word appears vary widely in their illocutionary forces, knowledge of certain illocutionary forces in some paradigm uses of the word is essential to understanding that word's meaning. Those illocutionary forces that are essential to understanding a word's meaning are termed 'central illocutionary forces'. In many cases of the use of a word, these central illocutionary forces will not be present.

Let us take an example. Young Robert is at primary school and overhears his peers calling his friend Samuel a 'nigger'. Robert, believing the term to be simply a reference to Samuel's African origin, adopts the term himself in referring to his friend. He has failed to understand the meaning of 'nigger' because he does not realize that to say, 'You're a nigger', is to have the illocutionary force of derogation. This illocutionary force is a central one.

Robert begins to have doubts concerning his understanding after hearing his peers mock Samuel. He asks his father, 'Is Samuel a nigger?' Here, the central illocutionary force of derogation is not present at all; the function of the sentence is to ask a question.

One more example should suffice. Suppose a space traveller from a more technically advanced planet arrived on earth and is in the process of mastering our language. He informs us that our theory of relativity is seriously deficient and, after speaking to a physicist, proclaims, 'Einstein's theory is true, but I do not believe it'. Let us further suppose that we have good independent reasons for believing that the first part of his statement is merely mimicking what he had heard from the physicist, and so we duly inform our extra-terrestrial friend that he has committed a semantic error. We explain to him that to say sincerely, 'X is true', is, by linguistic convention, to express a belief.

Until he has recognized this central illocutionary force, he has not fully understood the meaning of the word 'true'. The knowledge of this central illocutionary force is semantically essential, even though all sentences of the form, 'If A is true, then B', do not express a belief that 'A'. What I think these examples show is that the fact that not all uses of ethical terms have the illocutionary forces of commending and expressing is not detrimental to the theory that knowledge of these forces is essential to the linguistic analysis of these terms.

Brandt [1959: 227f] follows his examples with a criticism using, as an illustration, a mother reproving her child. His remarks here are more appropriately directed to Hare's prescriptivist theory, for Stevenson disdained 'imperativist' analyses and did not believe that the function of ethical language was to directly influence behaviour. In fact, Brandt [1959: 228] appears to be conflating the two theories. He necessarily connects the 'intent to influence the attitudes of hearers' with the use of imperatives. In another place [1959: 226], he claims that to have 'special directive influence on the feelings and attitudes of others' is to tend 'to make a person behave much as he would if he were obeying the order "Don't do x!"'. It is certainly true that Stevenson's view in Ethics and Language was that an attitude is a disposition to behave in certain ways [1976: 60], but it was not his view that in ethics we act as if we were obeying imperatives [1976: 32f].

Brandt [1959: 218f] has another argument against the view that ethical statements serve to direct the attitudes of the hearer. He puts it thus. We must distinguish, he claims, between what a person thinks he ought to do and what he wants to do. The two are not always congruous. Similarly, he says, we must also distinguish between two types of argument: that a person ought to do something and that he do something. Ethical argument is the former but not the latter type. We may persuade a person that he ought to do something, and thus succeed in our ethical argument, but he may not want to do it. For Brandt, our subsequent attempt to redirect his attitude so that he wants to do what he ought to do is no longer within the bounds of ethical argument.

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

The distinctions that Brandt draws here are correct. However, his argument does not prove what he intended it to prove; that ethical argument does not function to redirect attitudes. This is because he uses the term 'attitude' to refer exclusively to 'wants'. We have already seen in §5.1 above that 'wants' are not the particular concern of ethical argument, and here Brandt is right. However, it is simply not the case that all attitudes are 'wants' in this ordinary low-level sense. Ethical language concerns our highest-level attitudes—our ideals—and it is these that come into play in our ethical disputes.[10] We have persuaded a person that he ought to do X when he agrees with us that doing X is consonant with his highest-level pro attitudes, either by changing his beliefs about X or by changing his highest-level attitudes, or a combination of both.

Once again, Brandt appears to have reduced all emotivist theories to one form or another of Hare's imperativist theory, in which Hare postulated a direct relationship between the acceptance of an ethical position and voluntary behaviour. For Hare, to have convinced a person that he ought to do X logically entails that the person is convinced to want to do X. Stevenson agreed with Brandt that this is not the case; that to say, 'I ought to do X but I do not want to' is not necessarily to use 'ought' in a non-ethical sense. Stevenson would have accepted Brandt's argument here as a point against Hare's prescriptivism.

In places, emotivists such as Stevenson [1963: 199–202] and Monro [1967: ch. 17] explain the fact that a person does not always want to act in a way that he thinks he ought to act by referring to the person's different levels of attitudes. If, for example, he thinks he ought to mow his invalid neighbour's lawn, but decides not to from laziness, he has a low-level con attitude to mowing his neighbour's lawn. But he has also a high-level pro attitude to helping invalid people. So, we may say, he has a high-level con attitude to his low-level con attitude to mowing his neighbour's lawn. This psychological incongruity between the two levels of attitudes will manifest itself as feelings of guilt. We may conclude, then, that Brandt's argument is not applicable to emotivist views that provide a logical gap between ethical language and voluntary behaviour, such as that of Stevenson's.

We are now in a position to distinguish between moral and non-moral attitudes. It is important to note that I am not here distinguishing between moral and immoral attitudes, which is a normative judgement, but between those attitudes that are in the domain of morality and those that are not. The latter separation of attitudes is a formal meta-ethical distinction.

A moral attitude, then, is either a highest-level attitude concerned with character or 'state of the world' ideals, or is a lower-level attitude that is the object of one or more of these highest-level attitudes, or is the object of an intermediate-level attitude that is itself the object of one or more highest-level attitudes. A lower-level moral attitude will either be in conformity or in conflict with highest-level attitudes, either directly or via intermediate-level attitudes. A lower-level attitude, on this view, may be called 'bad', 'wrong' or 'immoral' by its holder, and yet be a pro attitude, because it is incongruous with his highest-level attitudes, as our lawn-mowing example above illustrates. Attitudes that are considered to be neither in conformity nor in conflict with highest-level attitudes are non-moral. For example, for many people in our society, a person's preference for either white wine or red wine, or for wine at all, is considered to be outside the domain of morality.

Whether a particular attitude expressed is a moral attitude or a non-moral attitude will depend on the person who expressed it. For example, an Australian abattoir owner who says, 'Slaughter sheep facing Mecca' (in order to obtain export contracts from Islamic countries), is expressing a non-moral attitude if he considers such means of increasing his profits to be morally irrelevant. On the other hand, for an Arabic Moslem to say, 'Slaughter sheep facing Mecca' (in order to please Allah), is to express a moral attitude. Whether an attitude to something, such as facing sheep towards Mecca before slaughtering or a taste for alcoholic beverages, 'ought' to be a moral attitude is sometimes itself the subject of ethical debate. The solution to such arguments, of course, requires normative judgement, which is outside the purposes of this essay.


  1. [9] I shall henceforth use the term 'commending' in place of Stevenson's 'inviting-so-to-speak similar attitudes in the hearer' for the sake of readability. For those readers that do not consider the two terms equivalent, please substitute the latter for the former wherever it appears.
  2. [10] In his argument, which has been simplified here, Brandt has also treated the term 'motivation' as referring solely to short-term motivations to do a particular act. The fact that 'motivation' may also refer to long-term, reflective intentions is ignored by him. This lack of distinction leads Brandt to equate all emotivist theories with the view that a direct function of ethical language is to guide low-level, short-term, unreflective motives.

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