A Defence of Emotivism

5. Objections to Stevenson's Emotivism

5.4 Persuasive Definitions

Book cover: Ethics: A Very Short Introduction by Simon Blackburn

The final criticism that I wish to consider is McCloskey's [1969: 53] objection that Stevenson's second pattern of analysis elucidating the function of 'persuasive definitions' in moral discourse is inadequate because moral philosophers are not moral propagandists and do not act as such. This shows, McCloskey claims, that Stevenson's 'persuasive definition' theory 'bears on only one type of use—or abuse—of moral expressions'.

Behind this criticism, I think, lie two false assumptions. The first is that all definitions of moral terms are given by professional philosophers. If we grant, for the sake of argument, McCloskey's point that no moral philosopher defines moral terms persuasively, this does not show, ipso facto, that in those cases in ordinary discourse where moral terms are defined, their function is not frequently persuasive.

The second false assumption is that Stevenson had argued that all philosophical definitions are persuasive. McCloskey labours this point. As McCloskey [1969: 53] wrote, 'If all definitions of "good" really were the arbitrary definitions this [Stevenson's] theory represents them as being, the reactions to Moore's contentions are astonishing . . .' and so on. However, this is a misunderstanding of Stevenson's position. Here is what Stevenson had to say on the matter:

It must not be thought, of course, that all definitions of emotive terms are persuasive, or that they need always have an inadvertent persuasive effect. A speaker whose purposes are mainly descriptive can neutralize the effects of emotive meaning by intonation or explicit admonition. At times even this is unnecessary, for if the general situation is one which militates against persuasion, or if the speaker and hearer concur on the relevant evaluative matters, the actual emotive effects may be without practical bearing. The definition can then proceed as though the term were emotively neutral, and may serve a primarily descriptive purpose. It remains the case, however, that a great many definitions of emotive terms are persuasive, in intent and in effect.

[Stevenson 1976: 212]

From this, we can safely conclude that Stevenson regarded the dispassionate analyses of moral philosophers as lying outside the ambit of persuasive definitions.

Copyright © 2015

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