Philosophical Ethics: From G.E. Moore’s Non-Naturalism To C.L. Stevenson’s Emotivism

In a series of posts this semester, I am going to blog all (or almost all) the lecture topics for the two Philosophical Ethics classes I am teaching this semester.  Each of these posts will primarily explicate the reading or a theme that dominated class discussion in a way that should be accessible to novices (such as my students are).  I will also offer some degree of analysis of the ideas considered and then pose suggested discussion questions.  These posts will usually feature more speculation than argumentation from me as I try to stimulate your thinking rather than stake out my own positions.  Some of my students will be responding to these short discussion primers in a private forum through the university.  I’ve told the students they are free to discuss the blog post versions of these discussion primers as well, so they might show up here.  The first topic I covered with the second class was the relationship and contrast between G.E. Moore’s non-naturalism and C.L. Stevenson’s emotivism.  This lecture served as background for discussing their first two readings which were an essay by J.L. Mackie which draws on both non-naturalism and emotivism and then an essay challenging Mackie.

G.E. Moore argued that there are moral facts that we can and must grasp with moral intuition alone.  He thought that when we refer to something being “good” that we refer to a non-natural property of goodness that can not be defined by reference to other properties.  This defining goodness different from defining horseness.  A horse can be defined by a set of properties that make a horse.  There is no set of properties that make goodness goodness, it is a simple intuition, irreducible to a description in terms of a set of parts.  We either understand it by intuition of the idea of goodness itself or we do not grasp it at all but only something else (like pleasure or desiredness or usefulness).

Moore illustrates the claim that goodness is a simple property by comparing our grasp of it to our perception of colors, such as our qualitative grasp of the phenomenal property “yellow.”  Though we come to have experiences of yellow through only through a natural process of waves reflecting off of objects and being interpreted by our eyes’ rods and cones, the qualitative experience of “yellow” is distinguishable from these things which create it.  Similarly, “goodness” is distinguishable from the experience of pleasantness, usefulness, or desiredness, amidst which we might intuit some goodness.

C.L. Stevenson was an emotivist who agreed with Moore that goodness cannot be identical with something’s being desired or pleasant or useful.  Yet, he also did not think that when we make statements about goodness we are describing anything factual about the world outside of our own feelings.  We are neither intuiting nor intending to refer to any fact about the thing which we call good.  Rather, what we are doing is declaring our emotionally positive disposition to that which we honor with the word “good” or declaring our emotionally negative disposition to that which we dishonor with the word “bad.”  So, all of our statements that “x is good” can be translated as something like “I like x.”

Stevenson then makes a crucial further qualification to that definition.  Saying “x is good” is not precisely like saying “I like x.”  The reason for this is that people often argue with each other over whether a given x is good and those disputes do not seem to be challenges to whether or not they happen to like those x’s.  For example, if you say that downloading music illegally is good then, if “x is good” means “I like x,” we would have to translate your statement to be “I like downloading music illegally.”  Now so far that’s plausible enough.  But if I say “You’re wrong, downloading music illegally is not good” then that sentence would have to translate to mean that I am saying to you, “You’re wrong, you don’t like downloading music illegally.”  But surely when I tell you that downloading music illegally is not good I am not trying to convince you about your own psychology and its preferences.

I am also not simply just offering my feeling that I do not like illegally downloading music when I say that to do so is not good.  That’s certainly not the way you would take it.  Consider how differently you feel when someone tells you they do not like to do compared to with when they tell you that what you like to do is bad.  If you tell me about your illegal music downloading habits and I say that I don’t like to do that myself, you probably will not feel especially uncomfortable or defensive at all.  But if I tell you describe your illegal music downloading and I tell you it is bad or wrong you will feel like I have done more than simply offer up an indifferent contrast of my preferences with your own.  You will feel like I have tried to influence you to change your behavior.  You will likely feel criticized, judged badly, and like I am less likely to esteem you highly now that I know you do what you’re doing.  These and other sorts of connotations mean that when I say that x is good or bad, I do much more than simply state my preference for or against x.  I open up the possibility of having certain effects on others.

To cash out what is going on here, Stevenson distinguishes between two kinds of statements we can make and a hybrid case that incorporates both.  The first kind of statements are Descriptive Statements.  These only purport to describe facts about the world (including facts about our feelings).  Most ordinary statements of facts fit this form.  “I am sitting on my bed.” “I am tired.”  “I am in the Bronx.”  “Water is 2 parts hydrogen, 1 part oxygen.”  “There is the door.”  “Barack Obama is the president of the United States.”  On and on, we could make statements that purport to describe the world.  Even if they turn out to be false, they are descriptive statements in terms of their form, irrespective of their false content.

The other primary kind of statement Stevenson distinguishes is the Dynamic Statement.   A purely dynamic statement makes no description of the world but is purely a speech act, purely an attempt to use words to perform an action.  A purely dynamic statement describes nothing about the world.  When I say “Leave the room” I do not describe anything about the world but rather I simply give you an order.  “I apologize” describes nothing about the world but rather is in its sincere utterance itself the action of taking responsibility for wrongdoing, acknowledging it as wrongdoing, and conceding these things directly to the one(s) you have wronged.  “I forgive you” is in its sincere utterance itself the action of absolving someone of the penalties for a wrongdoing against you.  “Yippee!” describes nothing about the world but dynamically expresses our enthusiasm through an exclamation.

The third kind of statement C.L. Stevenson distinguishes is the hybrid one whereby someone uses a Descriptive Statement as a Dynamic Statement.  Frequently in life we will state a fact without merely intending to describe the world but in order to convey an order or an attitude to others.  When I say, “there is the door” while giving a tour of a house this is merely a factual statement.  When you and I are in an argument and point at the door and shout at you, “There’s the door!”  I am not merely mapping the room for you but giving you a command to leave the room.  In that context, “There’s the door” is a descriptive statement said dynamically.  If I tell you, “I am sorry that I lost my temper with a friend yesterday,” I am just describing my feelings of sorrow and this is only a descriptive statement.  But when I say, “I am sorry that I lost my temper with you yesterday,” I am both describing my feelings of sorrow and performing the action of apologizing to you, which makes my statement both descriptive and dynamic in character.

Stevenson accounts for the interactive and disputable nature of statements about goodness by reference to this account of descriptive statements capable of dynamic use.  Stevenson reasons that “x is good” does not mean the strictly descriptive statement that “I like x” but rather it is an emotive word by which I both describe and express my like for x.  So, when I say “x is good” I both describe my affection for x and express it emotionally.  If I want to dispassionately describe my feelings I can simply say, “I like x” and be purely descriptive.  If I want to say “I like x” dynamically I can do that too.  If I want to say “I like x” in such a way as to try to infect you with my affection such that you come to like it too then I might say “I like x” extremely enthusiastically.  And saying “x is good” is a way of doing this same thing.  It is a way of saying “I like x” in such a manner as to express my emotional attachment to x and in such a manner as to try to influence you to feel the same way that I do about it.  And to say “x is bad” is to do the opposite—it is to say “I do not like x” in such a way as to try to infect you with my dislike for x, to make you feel it too.

On Stevenson’s view, therefore, arguments about morality (and aesthetics) boil down to emotional attempts to persuade each other to share our feelings towards things.  When I say “genocide is evil,” this statement means only that I really hate genocide and strongly desire that you share my hatred for it.  When I say “charity is great,” this statement means only that I really like charity and strongly desire that you share my enthusiasm for it.  The only possible objectivity we can have in ethics is when we dispute about the means to ends we both share.  If both of us happen to hate genocide then I can persuade you to call the Nazis bad by demonstrating to you that they committed genocide.  Since you already hate genocide, you will be persuaded to share my hatred of Nazis when you find out the facts about their promotion of genocide.  But if you are emotionally indifferent to genocide then simply telling you that the Nazis committed a genocide will not persuade you to hate Nazism.  And so if I am to make you hate genocide and to hate Nazism I must try to affect your emotions and create in you a sympathy for victims of genocide, for innocent human lives, for principles of non-violence, etc.  I must infect you with my affections.  I must get you to share my feelings through emotionally influential appeals that go beyond factual considerations.

On Stevenson’s view then all of our moral opinions ultimately stem from emotional influence.  We have been influenced by our parents, friends, educators, colleagues, acquaintances, political leaders, media, culture to have the sets of feelings we have and it is in terms of these feelings that we come to like or dislike and to say good and bad as means of passing on our emotions to those around us.  Our heated moral disagreements neither stem from, nor can be resolved by, considerations of facts but emerge out of differences of feelings.  When we use words like good and bad and right and wrong we do not even mean to refer to any facts but only to express our feelings and to affect others’ feelings.  They are words through which we emote and emotively try to persuade.  We persuade emotionally by nagging, cajoling, emotionally blackmailing, being enthusiastic, crying, laughing, threatening, talking in urgent or somber tones, etc.  The word “good” itself is such a technique of trying to affect another’s emotions, and nothing more.  It is like crying or showing enthusiasm and not like describing facts about the world, except the fact of your own personal liking.  Rather than appealing to our reason, our moral arguments are irrational attempt to persuade where reason is supposed to be irrelevant as, according to Stevenson there is no rational reason we must like or not like in any one way and not in another.

What do you think?  When we say things are good and bad are we necessarily always just emoting?  Is it what we really mean to do, as Stevenson thinks?  Do you think that all moral persuasion is or must necessarily be as fundamentally irrationalistic as this?  Do you think that there are any bases for moral objectivity of which Stevenson takes inadequate account?  Do you think that all of our senses of the word good are exhausted by Stevenson’s account?  Do you think that if we consciously thought about moral arguments as being the way Stevenson characterizes them that it would change their dynamics?  And if so, how so?  If Stevenson is correct about the nature and origins of statements about goodness and badness and rightness and wrongness, would this undermine our sense that it is fair to punish people who break laws or to hold negative feelings towards those we consider immoral or to admire some people or things more than others?  Could the emotions form a justifiable basis for morality or if our emotions are the seat of our moral judgments does that mean that they lack all genuine authority?  Where would authority about morality or what is good even come from theoretically such that we could judge whether emotions are a good or bad source of it?   How would we know that emotions can or cannot ground authority unless authority is itself a concept that is not merely an expression of emotion but has some other basis?  Alasdiar MacIntyre argued in his book After Virtue that G.E. Moore’s intuitionism which had people appealing to their “intuitions of good” against each other with no clear criteria for how to adjudicate their disagreements in intuitions is historically responsible for the rise of emotivists who figured that all morality is is people asserting their irrational prejudices against each other.  Do you think it’s true that Moore’s account of good as something we simply intuit necessarily leads to an indecidability of disagreements or might we be able to both intuit goodness as a simple property and develop means of deciding between competing intuitions?  Can we say that some people intuit correctly and some do not?  How would we adjudicate such disputes?  And if we can adjudicate such disputes through a separate means what use would appeal to simple intuitions serve at all?  Why would we use them if we had independent means for deciding disputes available instead?

Please consider any of these questions and possible challenges I have brainstormed here or feel free to generate your own based on the ideas here presented.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

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