Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Metaethics 0002: C. L. Stevenson - Emotivism

In the beginning, I was told that "emotivism" is a non-cognitivist moral theory. This means that it does not allow for the possibility of moral facts. As such, I dismissed it. Any theory that implies that there are no moral facts is flawed (since there are moral facts) and must be rejected.

I have learned that this first impression is mistaken. I do not claim to be mistaken in thinking that there are no moral facts - there certainly are. My mistake is in thinking that the existence of moral facts was not compatible with emotivism. Many of the things Stevenson argued for are true. The claim that it is incompatible with the existence of moral facts is not true.

Something Stevenson Gets Right: Moral Claims Seek to Cause Influence

Moral statements are not only used to report facts, but to alter the behavior of others. He describes this fact particularly in contrast to theories that state that value claims report interests - of the form "I like X". When we make a value claim - particularly a moral claim - a part of our objective is to get other people to have the same attitude.

Their major use is not to indicate facts, but to create an influence. Instead of merely describing people's interests, they change or intensify them. They recommend an interest in an object, rather than state that interest already exists.

Desirism fully agrees with this. The moral terms "right" and "wrong" are, in part, statements of praise and condemnation. Insofar as this is true, they offer rewards and punishments in the psychological sense. The reason to offer rewards and punishments in this sense is to trigger the reward systems of others into forming motivational rules, encoded in the brain. These rules (desires and aversions) dispose agents to repeat that which is praised and avoid that which is condemned.

This story of influence is not exactly what Moore had in mind. Moore wrote about a more direct and immediate type of influence - to touch upon the hearer's sympathies, likes, and dislikes. He talks about two agents having a dispute over whether to go to a movie or a concert, each bringing up facts that touch upon the other's sentiments in such a way as to dispose them to accept the activity that the other proposed. In another case, Stevenson wrote:

A, for instance, may try to change the temperament of his opponent. He may pour out his enthusiasms in such a moving way-present the sufferings of the poor with such appeal that he will lead his opponent to see life through different eyes. He may build up, by the contagion of his feelings, an influence which will modify B's temperament, and create in him a sympathy for the poor which didn't previously exist.

There is nothing in desirism that disputes this. Stephenson may be right, as far as this analysis goes. Desirism would simply add that Stephenson has not gone as far as he should on this matter. He is ignoring the ways in which a society-wide disposition to praise those who perform certain types of actions and condemn those who do not are meant to have effects beyond or outside of the scope of immediate persuasion. The effects are larger and systematic.

Something Stephenson Gets Wrong: Motivational Judgment Internalism

One of the main things that Stephenson gets wrong is his endorsement of motivational judgment internalism. Effectively, this states that a person can only talk about relationships between objects of evaluation and their own desires. Talking about relationships between objects of evaluation and desires other than his own is, if not impossible, at least not done. Phrased as I have put it here, this motivational judgment internalism seems absurd. And I find it to be absurd. Nonetheless, it is a very popular belief.

Let me present it in a less derogatory way. Typically, when a person says that something is good it is because he is, in some way, motivated to bring it about. If he says that it is bad then he is motivated to avoid it. This is because the agent's motivation is built into the judgment that something is good or bad. A person who uses the term "good" to refer to something he is not motivated to bring about does not understand the meaning of the term - is not using the term correctly. The same is true of somebody who uses the term "bad" to refer to something he is indifferent towards. Indeed, we would consider it quite odd to hear a person say that he agrees with us with respect to our judgment, but does not agree with us in terms of motivational inclination.

One of my arguments against this has to do with the type of reasons that people accept when disputing a moral statement. If "X is wrong" implies "I am motivated to prevent X" is true, then we can prove the moral claim to be false by proving that the conclusion is false. For example, if "slavery is wrong" implies "I am motivated to put an end to slavery," then "I am not motivated to put an end to slavery" would imply "slavery is not wrong." Yet, we do not involve evidence of an agent's lack of motivation as proof that what he wants to do is permissible.

This becomes a matter for desirism since desirism holds that the moral evaluation of action concerns relationship between acts of that type and what a person with good desires and lacking bad desires will do in those circumstances. These are things that an agent can know, assert, and argue about. Yet there is no necessary connection between, "Action1 is that which a person with good desires and lacking bad desires would do," and "The person making the assertion has the relevant good desires and lacks the relevant bad desires." Consequently, there is no necessary connection between the rightness of an act and the motivational state of the agent.

Something to Discuss: The Relationship between the Descriptive and Prescriptive

Stephenson is considered a non-cognitivist. Desirism is a cognitivist moral theory - there are objectively true and false moral facts. Consequently, there must be another point of disagreement between the two somewhere.

Stephenson seems to assume that descriptive statements and emotive-causal statements are mutually exclusive. Desirism denies this - and holds that both elements can exist in the same statement. Assume that somebody picks up your computer and begins to walk away with it. You may shout at him, "Hey! That's my computer!" In tone, you condemn that person. However, the statement that you utter is a proposition capable of being true or false. It has a fact value. So, here, you have a descriptive statement and an emotive causal statement wrapped up in the same utterance. More importantly, the two features are related. If your the agent can refute the factual component, one of the implications is that he has undermined the justification for the condemnation.

We want to know how people can have a moral disagreement. This is one way. Where praise and condemnation are wrapped up in fact-bearing propositions in such a way that the truth of the proposition is a necessary condition for justifying the praise or condemnation, two agents can dispute the justification for the attitude by disputing the truth of the proposition.

The most direct way to link the two - the praise or condemnation with the factual component of the proposition - is to allow the relevant fact to be, "people generally have reasons to praise/condemn those who perform the type of act that you performed." Now, if you can disprove the factual claim, you can show that there is no reason for the praise or condemnation that the speaker had mixed into the accusation. "What you did was wrong" becomes "What you did is something that people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn." From this, "It is not the case that people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn what I did" implies "What I did was not wrong."

However, note that this analysis is at odds with the motivational judgment internalism mentioned in the previous section.


For the reasons mentioned here, I have gone from thinking that Stevenson's non-cognitivist emotivist theory was completely mistaken to thinking that he made a significant contribution. The non-cognitivism was wrong. However, his thesis that moral claims are used for more than to report facts was accurate. Moral claims are used to cause changes. We now know - more precisely than Stevenson did - how they cause changes. Praise offers rewards and condemnation offers punishments that act on the reward system to encode dispositions of behavior that makes it more likely that the agent will do that which was praised and avoid doing that which was condemned. Stevenson was wrong to claim that we can only use moral terms to talk about how things relate to our own motivation. He was also wrong for his failure to recognize that factual statements can have emotive-causal content whose justification depends on the factual statement being true. But he was right (or mostly right) on the reason people make moral claims.

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