A Critique of the Emotive Theory of Ethical Terms

Journal of Philosophy, Inc.
A Critique of the Emotive Theory of Ethical Terms
Author(s): E. M. Adams
Source: The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 46, No. 17 (Aug. 18, 1949), pp. 549-553
Published by: Journal of Philosophy, Inc.
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2019446
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heavens above you!"
"Never," said Hume, and went back to
The emotivetheoryof ethical termshas two quite distinctvariations; one being representedby A. J. Ayer 1 and the other by
C. L. Stevenson.2 While both are concernedwith emotivemeanings and moral approval and disapproval, Ayer holds that the
meaning of an ethical term is the evincing or expressingof the
approval or disapproval of the speaker and Stevensonmaintains
that the distinctiveethical meaning of an ethical word consistsin
the dispositionof the word to evoke the approval or disapproval
of the hearer. However,there is this similaritybetween the two
positions. Ayer recognizesthat the expression of the speaker's
approval or disapprovaltendsto evokethe approval or disapproval
of the speaker and Stevenson includes the speaker's approval or
disapproval in the non-ethicaldescriptiveor suggested meaning
,ofan ethicalterm.
In practice,if ethical words were used consistentlyto express
the approval or disapproval of the speaker, they would, in time,
come to mean descriptivelythe speaker's approval or disapproval.
Also, if they were used to evoke the hearer's approval or disapproval,theywould come to mean descriptivelythe speaker's desire
for the hearer to approve or disapprove. Hence, consideringthe
lengthof timeethicaltermshave been in use, Ayer's versionof the
emotivetheoryof moraltermsreducesto an ego-centricapprobative
theory. According to it, "X is right" means descriptively,not
merelyevincesthe attitude,that the speaker approves of X. And
Stevenson's versionreduces to an ego-centricoptativeapprobative
theory,according to which "X is right" means that the speaker
wishes or desiresthat the hearer approve of X.
Our reductionof the emotivetheoryto formsof an approbative
if accepted,for both Ayer and Steventheorywould be sufficient,
son to reject it because it would then be seen that it commits
Moore's naturalistic fallacy. But even if one should refuse to
accept our reductionor should deny, as the present author does,
that the "naturalistic fallacy" is a fallacy, there would still be
the problemof approbationintimatelyconnectedwith the original
-versionsof both Ayer and Stevenson.
1 Language, Truth and Logic (1936), Ch. VI.
2 Language and Ethics (1944).
NeitherStevensonnor Ayer gives an analysis of moral approbation.3 Throughout their discussions often they seem to equate
"I approve of X" and "I like X." This mightbe due to a failure
to distinguishmoral good fromgenericgood. However,Stevenson
does in one place 4 distinguishbetweenliking and morallyapproving and dislikingand morallydisapproving.
Suppose that a man morally disapproves of a certain kind of conduct. If
he observes this conduct in others, he may then feel indignant, mortified,or
shocked; and if he finds himself given to it, he may feel guilty or consciencestricken. But suppose that he dislikes this conduct, as distinct from morally
disapproving of it. He may then be simply displeased when he observes it in
others,and simply annoyed with himself when he finds that he is given to it.
Similarly, if he morally approves of something, he may feel a particularly
heightened sense of security when it prospers; whereas if he merely likes it,
he may feel only an ordinary sort of pleasure.
The distinctionbetweenthese two kinds of responsesis certainly
important,especially for an approbative theory. However, it receives little attentionfromMr. Stevenson. He indicates that he
considersthe only differencebetween the two to be genetic,that
is, the moral response is a highly conditionedresponse in which
reward and punishmentplay a great part.
The failure to analyze approbation and disapprobation is a
fatal weaknessin Stevenson'sand Ayer's treatmentsand whatever
plausibilitytheirpositionsmay have springsfromthe ignoringof
such an analysis. Failure to analyze approbation enables them
to employit, for the most part, as if it meant the same thing as
liking, or at least did not differfrom it in essentials, the only
being in the kind of emotiveresponse. With
this the onlyrecognizeddifference
betweenthe two,the plausibility
that X is good (in the genericsense) means that the speaker likes
X accrues to the theorythat X is rightmeans that the speaker approves of X or likes othersto approve of it. There are difficulties
in this ego-centricinteresttheoryof value, to be sure, whichhave
been recognizedsince Hobbes firstproposed it in modern times.
However,for the presentwe shall not pause to become engaged in
of general value theory. We merelywish to questhe difficulties
tion whetherthe plausibilityof such a value theorycan be transferred to an ego-centricapprobative or ego-centricoptative approbativetheoryof moral predicates. An answeris to be foundin
an analysis of approbationand disapprobation,whichwe shall now
No attitudeis merelyemotive. There is a cognitiveaspect, a
We shall consider disapprobation by implication only.
Language and Ethics, p. 90.
judgment,whichmediatesthe attitudeand gives it direction. Take
away the mediating judgment and the attitude vanishes or subsides into an undirectedgeneral emotionalstate. Approbation is
a peculiar kind of attitude. No doubt the particular emotiveresponse,in the case of moral approbationor disapprobation,is considerablydeterminedby the conditioningof the individual. Howbetweenmoral approbation and merelyliking,
ever, the difference
or having a positive motor-effective
attitude,is not to be found
exclusivelyin the emotiveresponse. There is a fundamentaldifferencein the cognitiveaspect. The mediatingjudgment is of a
peculiar kind. In the case of merelyliking,the mediatingjudgment is that X has properties1, m, n, and this knowledgeevokes
the favorable response. Stevenson would have us believe, according to his second pattern of analysis, that the only way that
a moral approbation differsfromthis is in the kind of response
evoked by the judgmentthat X has properties1, m, n. However,
in the case of any approbation,moral or otherwise,the cognitive
aspect which evokes and mediates the response is more complex.
In judging that X has properties1, m, n, X is subsumed under
some accepted rule. This is the case in the approval of a solution
to a mathematicalproblem,the approval of the constructionof a
's approval of the medical student's
building, or the instructor
performanceof a surgical operation. The fundamentaldistinction betweenthese different
kinds of approval concernsthe different kinds of rules functioningin the differentapprobations.
Moral approbationis so named because the rule involvedis a moral
rule of the form:For all X, or formostX, if X has properties1,m,
n, X is morallyright. Withoutthisthereis no basis for calling the
responsemoral. Moral codes are constitutedby such rules. The
meaning of the moral predicate right is still a furtherproblem.
But the point withwhichwe are concernedat presentis that there
is no moral emotiveresponse withoutthe mediationof the moral
judgmentthat X is right. If one should be for X for any other
reason than that it was judged to be morallyright,the being for
would not constitutea moral approbation.
There are many problemsinvolvedwhichneed furtheranalysis.
However, if the fundamentalaspects of our analysis of approbation be granted, Ayer's ego-centricapprobative theory certainly
mustbe rejected. As soon as one grasps the fact that the attitude
of favoringX contained in a moral approbation is mediated by
the judgmentthat X is right,one sees that "X is right" does not,
and indeed can not, mean that I (the speaker) approve of X.
Such a positionbegs the question. Accordingto it, "X is right"
meansthat I approve of X, but the approval containsthe judgment
that X is right. To furtherreveal its absurdity,let us substitute
"I approve of X" for "X is right." Then our analysis of approbationwould become: My favorable attitudeto X is mediated
by the judgmentthat I approve of X and the fact corresponding
to this judgment, assuming it to be true (which is required)
containswithinit still anotherjudgmentthat I approve of X, and
so on ad infinitum.
Stevenson's ego-centricoptative approbativetheoryencounters
similar difficulties.For him,it will be recalled that the approval
of the speaker is part of the descriptiveor suggestedmeaning of
the ethical "judgment," but the ethical meaning,the meaning of
"right," is the speaker's desire that the hearer approve of X. In
the light of our analysis of approbation,it now becomes obvious
that the approval of the speaker,in Stevenson's system,would be
a favorableattitudetowardsX mediatedby the judgmentthat the
speaker himselfdesired that the hearer approve of X. I believe
that this will be seen to be palpably false by anyone who reflects
upon his own approbations. It mightseem plausible to say that
the speaker's desire for the hearer to approve is mediatedby the
judgmentthat he himselfapproves,but not vice versa.
A similar difficulty
occurs in regard to the evoked approval of
the hearer. This approval, too, would be mediated by the judgment that X is right, which could only mean, on Stevenson's
analysis,that the hearerhas now judged that he desiresthat someone else approve of X, etc.
This positionmighthave an apparent plausibility in the light
of some instances. It might be that Jones desires that others
approve of act X and because of this desire he mighthimselfcome
to approve of X. But why would he desire others to approve
before he approved himself? The only explanation seems to be
that he desired X but did not approve of X, but the approval of
others would be an importantmeans towards X's becoming an
actuality or towards the achievementof some other end. However, I thinkthat we would all conclude,upon reflection,that in
such a case eitherJones would never really approve of X or else
he would allow himself to be self-deluded. Perhaps he would
approve of X1 because he judged that he desiredothersto approve
of X,2 which he already approved of. But even here one would
question the genuinenessof the approval.
We conclude that Ayer and Stevensonhave completelybegged
the question and hence have not touched the ethical problem at
all. This is the case even if it is true that everyonewho says "X
is right" does in fact approve of X or desires that othersapprove
of it. However, it is highly questionable whetherthe judgment
that X is rightdoes in fact evoke a favorableresponsefromeveryone so judging, which would be required for it to be true that
everyonewho judges that X is rightshould actually approve of it.
Approbationrequires the judgmentthat X is right,but the judgment that X is right does not necessarilyevoke the favorable response which combined with the judgment would constitutean
We have not solved any problemin ethical theory. We have
only indicated the nature of the subject-matterof ethical inquiry.
The basic subject-matterwe have found to be moral approbations
and disapprobations. This subject-mattermay be studied by
sociologistswith regard to the kinds of thingsapproved by people
in a given society and the social conditioninginvolved. It may
be studied by the psychologist,not so much as social events,but
as psychological occurrences. Also the meaning of "moral approbation" may be logically analyzed. It is this that constitutes
the fundamentaltask of philosophicalethics. We have only begun the task of analysis. Any completeanalysis would have to
reveal the nature of the code-rulesunder which acts are subsumed
when they are judged to be right or wrong and the methodology
required for their confirmation.Furthermore,the meaning of
the moral predicates functioningin the code-ruleswould have to
be analyzed. Our analysis has gone only far enough to reveal
that there are such rules and such moral predicates presupposed
by or involved in moral approbation and disapprobation. This,
however,is sufficientto disprove Ayer's ego-centricapprobative
theoryand Stevenson's ego-centricoptative approbativetheoryor
any exclusivelyemotivetheoryof moral predicates.
The defenseof the contentionthat beauty is one kind of goodness and, thus,that beautiful objects mustbe reckonedamong our
goods is obviouslyan importantphilosophicaltask. But, although
many writersin estheticsregard beauty as identical with positive
estheticvalue, it is oftenthe case that no defenseof this identification is offered,and that the definitionof beauty whichis proposed
is not such as to make an equivalent definitionin termsof value
possible. Either, then, such definitionsof beauty are false, or
I An abridged version of the paper read at the tenth annual meeting of the
SouthwesternPhilosophical Conference,December 20, 1948, at Norman, Oklahoma.