A Defence of Emotivism

5. Objections to Stevenson's Emotivism

5.3 Reasons in Ethical Argument

Two pegged notes displaying Rational and Emotional

The next objection that I wish to address is that Stevenson's analysis of reasons in ethical argument is inadequate. McCloskey and Urmson have devoted significant attention to developing this criticism. Unfortunately, much of it is based on a misunderstanding of Stevenson's views. I shall here concentrate on McCloskey's criticisms.

For Stevenson [1976: 115–29], a 'reason' in moral argument is a statement that expresses a belief intended to influence the moral attitudes of an opponent by means of altering his beliefs. He lists four categories of reasons and gives illustrations of each.[11] In his Meta-Ethics and Normative Ethics [1969: 57f], McCloskey claims that because the reasons cited in the third and fourth categories are 'reasons which influence behaviour' and 'are directed at terminating the conflict but not the disagreement nor the divergence of attitude', then, for Stevenson's list to have been complete, it should have included such 'reasons' as 'threats and torture (where this takes the form of statements, e.g. that one's wife and children have been or are being cruelly killed'. Clearly, McCloskey concludes, threats and torture are not moral reasons.

Is it true that Stevenson had confused influencing attitudes with influencing behaviour? I see no reason to believe that the types of reasons given in Stevenson's [1976: 121–6] third category (examples 8–12) are not primarily directed to influencing attitudes. And McCloskey neglects to say why he thinks otherwise. Stevenson [1976: 127–9] prefaces his fourth category (examples 15–18) with the statement that the motives behind the reasons in this category are 'less concerned with resolving disagreement in attitude than with temporarily evading the force of a disconcerting influence, or altering the means by which it is exerted'. I think that Stevenson had underestimated the importance of redirecting attitudes in the examples that he gave. Never the less, he would have maintained that the reasons in this category are ethical reasons only in so far as they serve to redirect moral attitudes. Once again, McCloskey has not given us his reasons for believing that they do not serve to redirect attitudes at all. To demonstrate here that the reasons in these examples do in fact serve this function would unnecessarily extend the scope of this essay. I shall leave it to the reader to examine these examples for themself.

McCloskey [1969: 57f] makes a second point and it is this. Stevenson's list of reasons that influence attitudes is 'seriously incomplete, as it should include as group (vi) "reasons" such as brainwashing, subliminal influencing (if through the use of statements) and the like'. Clearly, McCloskey concludes again, these are not moral reasons. Strictly speaking, 'brainwashing' and 'subliminal influencing' are not 'reasons', even if they do make use of 'statements'. These means are more properly regarded as methods of influence. They are not themselves 'statements of belief', which is what, for Stevenson, reasons are.

More importantly, Stevenson would have agreed whole-heartedly with McCloskey that brainwashing and subliminal influencing are not rational; that is, that they are not 'reason-using'[12] methods. Stevenson [1976: 139f] lists some of these non-rational methods: 'rhetorical cadence, apt metaphor, stentorian, stimulating, or pleading tones of voice, dramatic gestures, care in establishing rapport with the hearer or audience' . . . 'use of material rewards and punishments, and also (for instance) the various forms of public demonstration and display.' In fact, any method that goes beyond a dispassionate statement of beliefs is to that extent considered, by Stevenson, to be non-rational. He goes on to devote a whole chapter to the consideration of such methods in Ethics and Language [ch. IV]. Brainwashing and subliminal influencing indisputably fall within this category of non-rational methods. Emotivists such as Stevenson, therefore, are in agreement here with McCloskey.[13]

McCloskey devotes considerable space to his next point:

Stevenson is committed to identifying a valid, adequate reason, i.e. a good reason, with a successful, influencing factor which is in the form of a statement. The test for him is whether it leads to agreement in attitude . . . Whether a consideration successfully influences belief or attitude is not the factor which determines whether it is a relevant or a good reason.

[McCloskey 1969: 58]

We may agree with McCloskey's view that the relevance and goodness of a reason is not determined by whether it is in fact successful. However, to attribute a divergent view to Stevenson, as McCloskey does, is to seriously misconstrue his position. In support of his argument, McCloskey [1969: 57] quoted Stevenson's [1976: 114f] statement that 'Whether this reason will in fact support or oppose the judgement will depend on whether the hearer believes it, and upon whether, if he does, it will actually make a difference to his attitudes . . .' This quote may appear to coincide with the view that McCloskey attributes to him. However, for Stevenson to say that a reason 'supports' a judgement is no more to imply that the reason is 'good' or 'relevant' than it is for McCloskey to say that a reason is 'successful' in altering a judgement. In fact, this is all that Stevenson meant by saying that a reason 'supports' a judgement. Whether a reason is 'good', 'adequate' or 'relevant' is an entirely different question for Stevenson, requiring a normative judgement.

That this is Stevenson's view is clear from his forceful and extensive treatment of this issue. He had devoted a complete chapter in Ethics and Language [ch. VII] to the task of demonstrating that meta-ethical inquiry could not distinguish 'valid' from 'invalid' reasons, because any attempt to do so was a normative judgement.[14] His analysis was continued with respect to the term 'justified' in a later essay:

A methodological inquiry, when it attempts to find the R's [factual reasons] that will justify a given E [evaluative conclusion], does not stand apart from an evaluative inquiry but simply continues it, yielding ordinary value judgements that are expressed in a different terminology.

[Stevenson 1963: 89]

Book cover: Theories of Ethics by P. Foot

Stevenson believed that to judge reasons as being 'good', 'relevant', 'adequate', and so on, was to morally evaluate them, and not to describe them as being successful or effective. In his meta-ethical inquiry, Stevenson [1976: 113, 159f] had continually sought to distance himself from such evaluations. He not only did not hold the view that evaluations of reasons followed from his descriptive methodology, and which McCloskey erroneously attributed to him, he also explicitly warned against it. As Stevenson [1976: 165] had said, 'It has been explained that "validity" introduces nothing novel into ethics, and that no chaotic implications (such as "One method is as good as another, so long as it impresses people") need be feared from this conclusion.'[15]

It is curious that following more than one full page of criticism on this misguided point, McCloskey gives an accurate representation of Stevenson's view on reasons in ethics. McCloskey [1969: 59] writes, 'Equally serious is the suggestion implicit here that 'relevant', 'irrelevant', 'adequate', 'inadequate', 'genuine', 'pseudo', 'good' and 'bad' are emotive words which admit of arbitrary persuasive definition in the moral sphere . . .' Leaving aside the point that McCloskey's use of the word 'arbitrary' is an unnecessarily harsh representation of Stevenson's view, I make the point again that this view of Stevenson's that McCloskey now recognizes is most explicit in Stevenson's writings.

What is equally perplexing is that McCloskey can find this view 'implicit' in his incorrect interpretation of Stevenson's position when the two views appear to be logically contradictory. The view that McCloskey initially falsely attributes to Stevenson is a descriptivist, relativist theory; that 'X is a good reason' means 'X is considered a good reason by person Y' or 'X is effective in influencing person Y's attitudes'. The view that McCloskey now correctly attributes to Stevenson is that 'X is a good reason' means 'X has qualities or relations A, B, C . . .' along with its emotive components of expressing and inviting-so-to-speak certain attitudes. I know of no way of reconciling these two views.

McCloskey's [1969: 60f] next points to Stevenson's view that 'disagreements about reasons and methods of argument are simply second order disputes of the same general character as first order normative disputes, with the same sorts of reasons available to resolve them'. McCloskey contends that Stevenson is wrong here and offers the following argument in support:

'The person who refuses to accept as a good reason for judging A to be good, that it is identical with B, which he does judge to be good, is fully as absurd as the person who denies that he has been offered a good reason for not crossing the road now that a truck is speeding around the corner at him. For Stevenson, the former is a good reason only if we have a pro attitude towards consistency; if we have a con attitude, it is not a good reason. It is entirely up to us!'

McCloskey here again misunderstood Stevenson. Stevenson had allowed exceptions to his rule that reasons in first order and second order disputes are psychologically and not logically related to ethical judgements. On first order disputes, Stevenson [1976: 116] writes, 'In general, ethical statements, like all others that have some descriptive meaning, are amenable to the usual applications of formal logic.' Those cases in which formal logic is applied 'present exceptions to the rough but useful rule mentioned previously—the rule that ethical judgements are supported or attacked by reasons related to them psychologically, rather than logically' [1976: 115].

As with first order disputes, Stevenson made the same exception with second order disputes: 'To evaluate or recommend an ethical method (whenever validity can have no bearing on the case) is to moralize about the ways of moralists.'[16] So, to criticize or support an ethical method on the grounds of logical or inductive validity is not to engage in moral evaluation. Stevenson [1976: 158] had expressly stated his view that logical principles are not normative: 'Some may wish to contend that "validity" itself, even in the conventional sense that applies to logic and science, is a normative term; but the writer suspects that any such contention would involve a misleading use of either the term "validity" or the term "normative."'

So, to consider the person in McCloskey's example, if A and B are strictly empirically or logically identical,[17] Stevenson would have agreed that that person had a 'good reason' to judge A to be good irrespective of whether he or we (whoever 'we' are, McCloskey does not tell us) have a pro or con attitude to logical consistency. And this is for the simple reason that the 'good reason' given to him is a logical reason. Similarly, if that person refused this reason, he would be 'absurd' irrespective of our attitudes, simply because it is a logical absurdity that is being described here. As we have seen, for Stevenson, logical reasons are not dependent on normative judgements and so are independent of our attitudes.

In his book, The Emotive Theory of Ethics [1968], Urmson had also misconstrued Stevenson's view on the role of logic in ethical argument. It is Stevenson's contention, Urmson [1968: 71] urged, that 'no fact is logically more relevant to a disagreement in attitude than any other fact'.[18] Much of Urmson's critique of Stevenson's emotivism depends on this false understanding of his position. Without examining Urmson's views in detail here, I will simply note that my earlier clarification of Stevenson's position is equally relevant here.


  1. [11] McCloskey [1969: 57] attributes a fifth category of reason to Stevenson. In fact, this category is not a category of reason, but a category of non-rational persuasion (see Stevenson [1976: 139–47]).
  2. [12] The theoretical distinction between reason-using and non-reason-using methods is given in Stevenson [1976: 139f].
  3. [13] The comments offered here are also relevant to Brandt's similar objection he makes in his [1959: 219].
  4. [14] See especially Stevenson [1976: 170f].
  5. [15] The above clarification of Stevenson's views is also relevant to Brandt's similar objection in his [1959: 219]. McCloskey [1969: 58] claims that Stevenson's discussion in his [1963: 194–7] of the case of a father considering lying to his son, to influence his choice of a career, was explicitly designed to deal with the difficulty that Stevenson's analysis faced in implying that successful lies constitute 'good reasons'. Contra McCloskey, it is not the case that Stevenson felt compelled to deal with this difficulty because, as I think I have demonstrated, it was not a problem for his theory. Stevenson, in fact, used his 'father and son' example, along with another 'swinging voter' example, to deal with a quite unrelated problem for his theory: that it stressed uncertainty and disagreement in ethical discussions while neglecting other motivating factors. Stevenson had stated this purpose clearly and unambiguously.
  6. [16] Stevenson is here using the term 'validity' in its logical and inductive sense. See his [1976: 158] and f. n. 4 on same page.
  7. [17] If it was simply a matter of class identity, then there would be no logical contradiction involved in the person saying, 'A is not good and B is good, and A and B belong to the same class'.
  8. [18] See also Urmson [1968: 48, 64].

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