The Emotive Meaning of Ethical Terms  

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"I refer to “emotive” meaning (in a sense roughly like that employed by Ogden and Richards).4 The emotive meaning of a word is a tendency of a word, arising through the history of its usage, to produce (result from) affective responses in people. It is the immediate aura of feeling which hovers about a word. Such tendencies to produce affective responses cling to words vory tenaciously. It would be difficult, for instance, to express merriment by using the interjection “alas.” Because of the persistence of such affective tendencies (among other reasons) it becomes feasible to classify them as “meanings.”

Just what is the relation between emotive meaning and the dynamic use of words? Let us take an example. Suppose that a man is talking with a group of people which includes Miss Jones, aged 59. He refers to her, without thinking, as an “old maid.” Now even if his purposes are perfectly innocent — even if he is using the words purely descriptively — Miss Jones won’t think so. She will think he is encouraging the others to have contempt for her, and will draw in her skirts, defensively. The man might have done better if instead of saying “old maid” he had said “elderly spinster.” The latter words could have been put to the same descriptive use, and would not so readily have caused suspicions about the dynamic use.

“Old maid” and “elderly spinster” differ, to be sure, only in emotive meaning. From the example it will be clear that certain words, because of their emotive meaning, are suited to a certain kind of dynamic use — so well suited, in fact, that the hearer is likely to be misled when we use them in any other way. The more pronounced a word’s emotive meaning is, the less likely people are to use it purely descriptively. Some words are suited to encourage people, some to discourage them, some to quiet them, and so on."

4. See The Meaning of Meaning, by C. K. Ogden and I. A, Richards. on p. 125, second edition, there is a passage on ethics which was the source of the ideas embodied in this paper.

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"The Emotive Meaning of Ethical Terms" (1937) is a paper by Charles Stevenson.

Full text[1]

The Emotive Meaning

of Ethical Terms

BY C. L. STEVENSON


I

Ethical questions first arise in the form “Is so and sc good?” or ‘Is this alternative better than that?” These questions are difficult partly because we don’t quite know what we are seeking. We are asking, “Is there a needle in that haystack?” without even knowing just what a needle is. So the first thing to do is to examine the ques- tions themselves. We must tiy^ to make them clearer, either by de- fining the terms in w^hich they are expressed, or by any other method that is available.

The present paper is concerned wholly with this preliminar}^ step of making ethical questions clear. In order to help answer the ques- tion ‘Ts X good?” we must subsutute for it a question which is free from ambiguity and confusion.

It is obvious that in substituting a clearer question we must not introduce some utterly different land of question. It won’t do (to take an extreme instance of a prevalent fallacy) to substitute for ‘Ts X good?” the question “Is X pink with yellow trimmings?” and then point out how^ easy the question really is. This would beg the original question, not help answer it. On the other hand, we must not expect the substituted question to be strictly “identical” with the original one. The original question may embody hypostatization, anthropomorphism, vagueness, and all the other ills to which our ordinary discourse is subject. If our substituted question is to be clearer, it must remove these ills. The questions wiU be identical only in the sense that a child is identical with the man he later becomes. Hence we must not demand that the substitution strike us, on imme- diate introspection, as making no change in meaning.

This article first appeared in Mind, 1937. It is reprinted with tiie kind perxoission of Professor Stevenson and the editor of Mind.


[ 264 ]


Emotive Meaning of Ethical Terms . [ 265 ]

• Just how, then, must the substituted question be related to the original? Let us assume (inaccurately) that it must result from re- placing “good” by some set of terms which define it. The question then resolves itself to this: How must the defined meaning of “good” ■'he related to its original meaning?

I answer that it must be relevant. A defined meaning will be called “relevant” to the original meaning under these circumstances: Those who have understood the definition must be able to say all that they then want to say by using the term in the defined way. They must never have occasion to use the term in the old, unclear sense. (If a person did have to go on using the word in the old sense, then to this extent his meaning would not be clarified, and the philosophical task w^ould not be completed.) It frequently happens that a word is used so confusedly and ambiguously that we must give it several defined meanings, rather than one. In this case only the whole set of defined meanings will be called “relevant,” and any one of them will be called “partially relevant.” This is not a rigorous treatment of relevance, by any means; but it will strvQ for the present purposes.

Let us now turn to our particular task — that of giving a relevant definition of “good.” Let us first examine some of the ways in which others have attempted to do this.

The word “good” has often been denned in terms of approval, or similar psychological attimdes. We may take as typical examples: “good” means desired by me (Hobbes); and “good” means ap- proved by most people (Hume, in effect).* It will be convenient to refer to definitions of this sort as “interest theories,” following Mr. R. B. Perry, although neither “interest” nor “theory” is used in the most usual way.

Are definitions of this sort relevant?

It is idle to deny their partial relevance. The most superficial inquiry wiH reveal that “good” is exceedingly ambiguous. To main- tain that “good” is never used in Hobbes’s sense, and never in Hume’s, is only to manifest an insensitirity to the complexities of language. We must recognize, perhaps, not only these senses, but a variety of similar ones, differing both with regard to the kind of interest in question, and with regard to the people who are said to have the interest.

  • [The author has requested that the following note be added here: For a more

adequate treatment of Hume’s views see my Ethics and Language (Yale University Press, 1944), Chap. XII, Sect. 5. In the present paper the references to Hume are to be taken as references to the general family of definitions of which Hume’s is typical; but Hume’s own definition is somewhat different from any that is here specifically stared. Perhaps the same should be said of Hobbes.]


[ 266 ]

„ . C. L. STEVENSON

Z ^ Tlie essential question is not whether

GmISd Briefly :

teS^ of SSreT^ ^ relevantly be defined L

SO defined? w relevantly

  • 1! qSm “l5 y ”j?“°”f = " ““i" it”' *‘>"”'1

thfc ^ good?” SO difficult, they have been graspin-^ for

terms orinterest°Tf"^°°^’”- relevantly defined in

Srani anl. r? °° “^ood” in terns of inter-

3 ^ nswer the question when thus interpreted we mav be

entirely. Of course this oSer sense of “gLd^ TmS Sv" ■' ""i' ** “ “■*-=; bu. .ha.

Now many have maintained that interest theories are inr fmm being completely relevant. They have arid SfsS SeSe^

neglech the very sense of “good” which is iSost vital And^certainlv their apments are not without plausibility. certainly,

“vital” sense of “good”? The answers

scarcely detfnJnT’

whether' LmethiS'is “'ojd”"' ■ni."' •' lisagres about

de^Mou. For cf„siher".r

cTmS:‘“'r,3re'li?; SS”. *?, HobbL.ViTbt

aesire tins. ihat isn t so, xor / don't” Th^ sd^^Wq J not contraaicting one another, and think thev are, oniv becaute

“Jood” pronouns. The definition,

cfuld neonw”^ Community, is also excluded, for how

could people from different communities disasree?i

In the second place, “goodness” must have so to sneal-

a?™- ^ recognizes X to be “good” mist )pso

facto acquire a stronger tendency to act in its favor than he other-

Foi accordin^To^HuiT^^t the Humian type of definition,

^imnixr tr. ^ Tccognize that something is “good” is

Tv if I*' ““’'’"‘y “PP"”' ”P ■'• 6'arly: a mrS

may see ri iat Uie majonq- approve of X wittiout haviug, iLself, a

L See G. E. Moore’s Philosophical Studies, pp. 332 - 334 .


Xke Emotive Meaning of Ethical Terms [267]

Stronger tendency to favor it. This requirement excludes any attempt "to define “good” in terms of the interest of people other than the speaker.^

In the third place, the “goodness” of anything must not be verifi- able solely by use of the scientific method. “Ethics must not be psychology.” This restriction rules out all of the traditional interest theories, without exception. It is so sweeping a restriction that we must examine its plausibility. What are the methodological implica- tions of interest theories which are here rejected?

According to Hobbes’s definition, a person can prove Ms ethical judgments, with finality, by showing that he is not making an intro- spective error about Ms desires. According to Hume’s definition, one may prove ethical judgments (roughly speaking) by taking a vote. This use of the empirical method, at any rate, seems Mghly remote from what we usually accept as proof, and refiects on the complete relevance of the definitions which imply it.

But aren’t there more complicated interest theories which are immune from such methodological implications? No, for the same factors appear; they are only put off for a wmle. Consider, for ex- ample, the definition: “X is good” means most people would approve of X if they knew its nature and consequences. How, according to this definition, could prove that a certain X was good? We should first have to find out, empirically, just what X w^as like, and what its consequences would be. To tMs extent the empirical method, as required by the definition, seems beyond inteliigent objection. But what remains? We should next have to discover w^hether most people would approve of the sort of thing we had discovered X to be. TMs couldn’t be determined by popular vote — ^but only because it would be too difficult to explain to the voters, beforehand, w^hat the nature and consequences of X really w^ere. Apart from this, voting would be a pertinent method. We are again reduced to counting noses, as a perfectly final appeal.

Now we need not scorn voting entirely. A man w^ho rejected interest theories as irrelevant might readily make the follo\ring state- ment: “If I believed that X would be approved by the majority, when they knew all about it, I should be strongly led to say that X was good.” But he would continue: "'Need I say that X w^as good, under the circumstances? Wouldn’t my acceptance of the alleged ""final proof result simply from my being democratic? What about the more aristocratic people? They would simply say that the ap- proval of most people, even when they knew^ aU about the object


2. See G. C. Field’s Moral Theory, pp. 52, 56-57.


I : C 268 ]

of their approval simnlv t.- ^'^'^^enson

^ything, and they woiJld probX’^df of

low state of people’s iotereL ’’ Jt the

^nsiderations, that the definhion w JS? h these

^p^sed democratic ideals from the stnrf ^-ri? has pre-

theories and others may method, as implied by interest

different way. Mr. G. E ^ “S

question is chiefly pertinent the open

scientifically knowable properties a thfnl*^’ ®^tter what set of m effect), you will find, on carrful im ° hfoore,

question to ask whether anwhin^ hf “ ts an open

It IS difficult to believe that 'thic ^ properties is good

fused one, or that it seems fpen o Jv hi " totally^cot

good. Rather, we must be usmcr ^ ■'^uuse of the ambiguity of not definable, relevantly in term^ which is

able_ That is, the scientifc method ? know-

These, then are th^ ° sufficient for ethics s

mteffigent disagreement; (2) fl'inusi jl 7"'® a topic for

-s. ao, ^ u;zzt

II

I^me prLem my'posiS dogmrnfcSy judgments. First

vary irom tradition. aticallj, showing to what extent I

fZVTlZToi ^^ven above, are perfectly l£ ^^^^rements; and that no traditinl satisfies all

£™ J' S "°‘ topl/lha “Cf.rt”

a Platonic Idea, or of a Cntf> ^ • ^ust be explained in

unique, unanalyxable property On th Imperative, or of an

ments cap be me. by ““ -I*”

prauppostuon xhich all the traditionaUm^' ‘a “P

Traditional interest theories hold rh f rlieor/ei’ have made scnpuve of the existing s^afo of statements are de-

information about Wesr (mU sL

!!!i7 what the state of ffiS?’- Judgments



The Emotive Meaning of Ethical Terms [ 269 ]

or to indicate what the state of interests would be under specified circnmstaBces.) It is this emphasis on description, on informatioji^ which leads to their incomplete relevance. Doubtless there is al- ways some element of description in ethical judgments, but this is by "no means aH. 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 the interest already exists.

For instance: When you tell a man that he oughtn’t to steal, your object isn’t "merely to let him know that people disapprove of stealing. You are attempting, rather, to get him to disapprove of it. Your ethical judgment has a quasi-imperative force which, operating through suggestion, and intensified by your tone of voice, readily permits you to begin to influence ^ to modify^ his interests. If in the end you do not succeed in getting him to disapprove of stealing, you will feel that you’ve failed to convince him that stealing is wrong. You will continue to feel this, even though he fully acknowledges that you disapprove of it, and that almost everv^one else does. V/hen you point out to him the consequences of his actions — consequences which you suspect he already disapproves of — these reasons w^hich support your ethical judgment are simply a means of facilitaticg your infiuence. If you think you can change his inieresis by maldng vivid to him how' others wiU disapprove of him, you will do so: otherwise not. So the consideration about other people’s interest is just an additional means you may employ, in order to move him, and is not a part of the ethical judgment itself. Your ethical judg- ment doesn’t merely describe interests to him. it directs his very interests. The difference between the traditional interest theories and my view’ is like the difference between describing a desert and irrigating it.

Another example: A munition maker declares that w’ar is a good thing. If he merely meant that he approved of it, he would not have to insist so strongly, nor grow so excited in his argument. People would be quite easily convinced that he approved of it. If he merely meant that most people approved of war, or that most people would approve of it if they knew the consequences, he w^ould have to yield his point if it were proved that this wasn’t so. But he wouldn’t do this, nor does consistency require it. He is not describing the state of people’s approval; he is trying to change it by his influ- ence. If he found that few people approved of war, he might insist all the more strongly that it wms good, for there would be more changing to be done.


rp, - , C. L. STEVENSON

oto.T“ M iXS r- f “ “y

MMicmg pe<2k bS^ "S “* “S^i” I ™ oo^

times goes o? S 4e ^

influence is bad ^that is if the h ^ naunition maker’s

disapproval of the man, ’and^o people’s

actions — ^I should ai- arinths.,- +• u ^ disapprove of his own

taking. But this is not the preS

ter^, but am indicating how they are Sd^^S v“° in his use of “good ” niustratL mumtion maker,

just as weh as" does

each of us a desire for thf-hc^ * to encourage in

good is peLe " that the sup?em“

interplay and readj ™mem^ of^ complicated

plainly from more gS oL^Z T

arated communities have d T °°f ‘ sep-

extent because IZl otn

Now clearly this influence doesn’t onp t° influences,

alone; words play a great oart PpS ^^ through sticks and stones courage certaiS ihnSSs'^ a^d bS

others. Those of forceful D-r^nnfr?^ anotner, to discourage

people, for complicated hTstm^f commands which weaker

obey, quite auart from fears rn dificult to. dis-

brought to bear by w-riters and influence is

erted, to an enormous ext^ bvT^^^^^

pbysical force or material rewa^rcT Th^ nothing to do with

influence. Being suited for use in’ facilitate such

which men’s attitudesinay bSTed^^nif ^ bv

that we find a greater then,

munity than in those of different attitudes of one com-

JHdgments propagate themselves

t^ may influence the arrival of ?nn^ S°°d”;

the same ethical judgment whirh ^ person, who then makes son, and so on. In C L L Per-

r"r-“ ~

ow does an ethical sentence acquire its


The Emotive Meaning of Ethical Terms [ 271 ]

l^wer of mflnencmg people — why is it suited to suggestion? Again, what has this influence to do with the meaning of ethical terms? And finally, do these considerations really lead ns to a sense of “good” which meets the requirements mentioned in the preceding ■ section?

Let ns deal first with the question about meaning. This is far from an easy question, so we must enter into a preliminary inquiry about meaning in general. Althou^ a seeming digression, this will prove indispensable.

m

Broadly speaking, there are two different purposes which lead us to use language. On the one hand we use words (as in science) to record, clarify, and communicate beliefs. On the other hand we use words to give vent to our feelings (interjections), or to create moods (poetry), or to incite people to actions or attitudes (oratory).

The first use of words I shall call “descriptive”; the second, “dynamic.” Note that the distinction depends solely upon the pur- pose of the speaker.

When a person says “Hydrogen is the lightest known gas,” his purpose may be simply to lead the hearer to believe this, or to be- lieve that the speaker believes it. In that case the words are used descriptively. W^en a person cuts himself and says “Damn,” his purpose is not ordinarily to record, clarify, or communicate any belief. The word ig used dynamically. The two ways of using words, however, are by no means mutuaiiy exclusive. This is obvious from the fact that our purposes are often complex. Thus when one says ‘T want you to close the door,” part of his purpose, ordinarily, is to lead the hearer to believe that he has this want. To that extent the words are used descriptively. But the major part of one’s purpose is to lead the hearer to satisfy the want. To that extent the w^ords are used d3mamicaiiy.

It very frequently happens that the same sentence may have a dynamic use on one occasion, and may not have a dynamic use on another; and that it may have different dynamic uses on different occasions. For instance: A man says to a visiting neighbor, “I am loaded down with work.” His purpose may be to let the neighbor know how life is going with him. This would not be a dynamic use^ of words. He may make the remark, however, in order to drop a hint. This would be dynamic usage (as well as descriptive). Again, he may make the remark to arouse the neighbor’s sympathy. This would be a different dynamic usage from that of hinting.


C, L. STEVBNSON


Or agaiii, when we say to a man, “Of course you won’t make those mistakes any more,” we may simply be making a prediction. But we are more likely to be using “suggestion,” in order to en- courage Mm and hence keep Mm from making mistakes. The first use would be descriptive; the second, mainly dynamic.

From these examples it will be clear that we can’t determine whether words are used dynamically or not, merely by reading the dictionary — even assuming that everyone is faithful to dictionary meanings. Indeed, to know whether a person is using a word dynamically, we must note Ms tone of voice, Ms gestures, the gen- eral circumstances under which he is speaking, and so on.

We must now proceed to an important question: What has the dynamic use of words to do with their meaning? One thing is clear — ^we must not define “meaning” in a way that would make meaning vary with dynamic usage. If we did, we should have no use for the term. All that we could say about such “meaning” would be that it is very complicated, and subject to constant change. So we must certainly distinguish between the dynamic use of words and their meaning.

It doesn’t follow, however, that we must define “meaning” in some non-psychological fashion. We must simply restrict the psy- chological field. Instead of identifying meaning with all the psycho- logical causes and effects that attend a word’s utterance, we must identify it with those that it has a tendency (causal property, dis- positional property) to be connected with. The tend^enc}’^ must be of a particular kind, moreover. It must exist for all who speak the language; it must be persistent; and must be realizable more or less independently of determinate circumstances attending the word’s utterance- There will be further restrictions dealing with the inter- relation of words in different contexts. Moreover, we must include, under the psychological responses which the words tend to produce, not only immediately introspectabie experiences, but dispositions to react in a given way with appropriate stimuli. I hope to go into these matters in a subsequent paper. Suffice it now to say that I think “meaning” may be thus defined in a way to include “propositional” meaning as an important kind. Now a word may tend to have causal relations which in fact it sometimes doesn’t; and it may sometimes have causal relations which it doesn't tend to have. And since the tendency of words which constitutes their meaning must be of a particular kind, and may include, as responses, dispositions to reac- tions, of which any of several immediate experiences may be a sign, then there is nothing surprising in the fact that words have a per-


/The Emotive Meaning of Ethical Terms [ 273 ]

-laaiieBt meaning, in spite of the fact that the immediately intro- spectable experiences which attend their usage are so highly varied.

When “meaning” is defined in this way, meaning will not include dynamic use. For although words are sometimes accompanied by dynamic purposes, they do not tend to be accompanied by them in the way above mentioned. E.g., there is no tendency realizable inde- pendently of the determinate circumstances under which the words are uttered.

There will be a kind of meaning, however, in the sense above defined, which has an intimate relation to dynamic usage. I refer to “emotive” meaning (in a sense roughly like that employed by Ogden and Richards).^ The emotive meaning of a word is a tendency of a word, arising through the history of its usage, to produce (result from) affective responses in people. It is the immediate aura of feeling which hovers about a word. Such tendencies to pro- duce affective responses cling to words vory tenaciously. It would be difficult, for instance, to express merriment by using the inter- jection “alas.” Because of the persistence of such afiective tenden- cies (among other reasons) it becomes feasible to classify them as “meanings.”

Just what is the relation between emotive meaning and the dynamic nse of words? Let us take an example. Suppose that a man is talking with a group of people which includes Miss Jones, aged 59. He refers to her, without thinking, as an “old maid.” Now even if his purposes are perfectly innocent — even if he is using the words purely descriptively — Miss Jones won’t think so. She will think he is encouraging the others to have contempt for her, and wiU draw in her skirts, defensively. Tne man might have dons better if instead of saying “old maid” he had said “elderly spinster.” The latter words could have been put to the same descriptive use, and would not so readily have caused suspicions about the dynamic use.

“Old maid” and “elderly spinster” differ, to be sure, only in emotive meaning. From the example it will be clear that certain words, because of their emotive meaning, are suited to a certain kind of dynamic use — so well suited, in fact, that the hearer is likely to be misled when we use them in any other way. The more pro- nounced a word’s emotive meaning is, the less likely people are to use it purely descriptively. Some words are suited to encourage people, some to discourage them, some to quiet them, and so on.

4. See The Meaning of Meaning, by C. K. Ogden and I. A, Ricimrda. Offl p. 125, second edition, there is a passage on ethics which was the source of the ideas embodied in this paper.


[ 274 ]

. C. L. STEVENSON

to dynamic purposes are not

piuSriut fhli “ persistently than do the dynamic

5.H / “ contingent relation between emo-

W^nrvx -f ^ dynamic purpose: the former assists the latter th?. 7® terms in a way tharneieS

SliSfc°S S!T^’ we are likely to be confusing. L /eod pfople thJy te dynamically less often tLn


(•‘W=- incW« tt?hetro”‘h“ei“ ^■

s!tpM tofind If used, we should

see. to cast d^uht

that - ‘W™*!"??,' '’“T"’ ““ •" “ assuming

take the place of “This is crnnrf’^ ^

not purelv descriotivelv Juft ^ former sentence must be used

be used to promL a very « must

question, a veiw easily resisted! kiifrf'^ non-moral sense in

that “we” refers to th- ^ ^ 'Po the extent

tial to suggestion o?Ie2S\e

rather than merely to believe it AnH f 2 ^

to the speaker thl sentenr^ i t k °

of indicatin^bSef ?£°f 7“^^ descriptive use

inteijecto^'dSaSc fank-?' Q^usi-

interest. (This immediate exnreQs° direct expression to the

of sugsestion It is difficuit^tn Poolings assists in the process

enthuS'asm.) disapprove in the face of another’s

For an example of a case where “We like this” is used in the


■ The Emotive Mecming of Ethical Terms [ 275 ]

dynamic way that “This is good” is used, consider the case of a ^ mother who says to her several children, “One thing is certain, we Ml like to be neat/' If she really believed this, she wouldn’t bother to say so. But she is not using the words descriptively. She is en- couraging the children to like neatness. By telling them that they like neatness, she will lead them to make her statement true, so to speak. If, instead of saying “We all like to be neat” in this way, she had said “It’s a good thing to be neat,” the effect would have been approximately the same.

But these remarks are stiH misleading. Even when “We like it” is used for suggestion, it isn’t quite like “This is good.” The latter is more subtle. With such a sentence as “This is a good book,” for example, it would be practically impossible to use instead “We like this book.” When the latter is used, it must be accompanied by so exaggerated an intonation, to prevent its becoming confused with a descriptive statement, that the force of suggestion becomes stronger, and ludicrously more overt, than when “good” is used.

The definition is inadequate, further, in that the definiens has been restricted to dynamic usage. Having said that dynamic usage was different from meaning, I should not have to mention it in giv- ing the meaning of “good.”

It is in connection with this last point that we must return to emotive meaning. The word “good” has a pleasing emotive meaning which fits it especially for the dynamic use of suggesting favorable interest. But the sentence “We like it” has no such emotive mean- ing. Hence my definition has neglected emotive meaning entirely. Now to neglect emotive meaning is likely to lead to endless con- fusions, as we shall presently see; so I have sought to make up for the inadequacy of the definition by letting the restriction about dy- namic usage take the place of emotive meaning. What I should do, of course, is to find a definiens whose emotive meaning, like that of “good,” simply does lead to dynamic usage.

Why didn’t I do this? I answer that it isn’t possible, if the definition is to afford us increased clarity. No two words, in the first place, have quite the same emotive meaning. The most we can hope for is a rough approximation. But if we seek for such an ap- proximation for “good,” we shall find nothing more than synonyms, such as “desirable” or “valuable”; and these are profitless because they do not clear up the connection between “good” and favorable interest. If we reject such synonyms, in favor of non-ethical terms, we shall be highly misleading. For instance: “This is good” has something like the meaning of “I do like this; do so as well.” But



f 276 ]

J c. L. STEVENSON

this is certainly not accurate. For the imperative makes an appeal to the consdous efforts of the hearer. Of course he can’t Uke some- tog just by tiymg. He must be led to like it through suggestion. Hence an ethical sentence differs from an imperative in that it en- ables one to make changes in a much more subtle, less fully con- scious way. Note that the ethical sentence centers the hearer’s attention not on his interests, but on the object of interest, and thereby facilitates suggestion. Because of its subtlety, moreover, an ethical sentence readily permits counter-suggestion, and leads to the

^e and take situation which is so characteristic of arguments about values.

Strictly sf^aking, then, it is impossible to deffne “good” in terms of favorable interest if emotive meaning is not to be distorted. Yet It IS possiole to say that “This is good” is about the favorable interest of tne speaker and the hearer or hearers, and that it has a pleas- meaning which fits the words for use in suggestion. Tms is^a rough description of meanine. not a definition. "But it seiwes the same clarifying function that a definition ordinarily does: and that, after all, is enough.

added about the moral use of “aood.” This differs from the above in that it is about a different kind" of interest, nstead of being about what the hearer and sneaker lik^, it is about a stronger sort of approval. When a person likes something, he is pleased wnen it prospers, and disappointed when it doesn’t When a person morally approves of something, he experiences a rich feel- mg or_ security when it prospers, and is indignant, or “shocked” w en It doesn’t.^ These are rough and inaccurate examples of the many factors ivhich one would have to mention in distineuishina tne two^itmds^or interest. In the moral usage, as well as in the non- morm, good” has an emotive meaning which adapts it to suggestion.

And now, are these considerations of anv * importance? Why do I stress emotive meanings in this fashion? Does the omission of them really lead people into errors? I think, indeed, that the errors resulting from such omissions are enormous. In order to see this however, we must return to the restrictions, mentioned in section I,’ with which the ‘vital” sense of “good” has been expected to comply.


The first restriction, it will be remembered, had to do with dis- agreement. Now there is clearly some sense in which people disagree on ethical points; but we must not rashly assume that all disagree-


'The Emotive Meaning of Ethical Terms [ 277 ]

meiit is modelled after the sort that occurs in the natural sciences. We must distinguish between “disagreement in belief’ (typical of the' sciences) and “disagreement in interest.” Disagreement in belief occurs when A believes p and B disbelieves it. Disagreement in interest occurs when A has a. favorable interest in X, when B has an unfavorable one in it, and when neither is content to let the other’s interest remain unchanged.

Let me give an example of disagreement in interest. A. “Let’s go to a cinema to-night.” B. “I don’t want to do that. Let’s go to the symphony.” A continues to insist on the cinema, B on the sym- phony. This is disagreement in a perfectly conventional sense, lliey can’t agree on where they want to go, and each is trying to redirect the others interest. (Note that imperatives are used in the example.)

It is disagreement in interest which takes places in ethics. When C says “This is good,” and D says “No, it’s bad,” we have a case of suggestion and counter-suggestion. Each man is trying to redirect the other’s interest. There obviously need be no domineering, since each may be willing to give ear to the other’s influence; but each is trying to move the other nonetheless. It is in this sense that they disagree. Those who argue that certain interest theories make no provision for disagreement have been misled, I believe, simply because the traditional theories, in lea\ing out emotive meaning, give the impression that ethical judgments are used descriptively only; and of course when judgments are used purely descriptively, the only disagreement that can arise is disagreement in belief. Such disagreement may be disagreement in belief about interests; but this is not the same as disagreement in interest. My definition doesn’t provide for disagreement in belief about interests, any more than, does Hobbes’s; but that is no matter, for there is no reason to be- lieve, at least on common-sense grounds, that this kind of disagree- ment exists. There is only disagreement in interest. (We shall see in a moment that disagreement in interest does not remove ethics from sober argument — that this land of disagreement may often be resolved through empirical means.)

The second restriction, about “magnetism,” or the connection between goodness and actions, requires only a word. This rules out only those interest theories which do not include the interest of the speaker, in defining “good,” My account does include the speaker’s interest; hence is immune.

The third restriction, about the empirical method, may be met in a way that springs naturally from the above account of disagree- ment. Let us put the question in this way: When two people dis-


C. L. STEVENSON


agree over an ethical matter, can they completely resolve the dis- agreement through empirical considerations, assuming that each applies the empirical method exhaustively, consistently, and with- out error?

I answer that sometimes they can, and sometimes they cannot; and that at any rate, even when they can, the relation between empirical knowledge and ethical judgments is quite different from the one which traditional interest theories seem to imply.

This can best be seen from an analogy. Let’s return to the ex- ample where A and B couldn’t agree on a cinema or a symphony. The example differed from an ethical argument in that imperatives were used, rather than ethical judgments; but was analogous to the extent that each person was endeavoring to modif}? the other’s interest. Now^ how would these people argue the case, assuming that they were too intelligent just to shout at one another?

Qearly, they would give “reasons” to support their imperatives.- A might say, “But you know*, Garbo is at the Bijou.” His hope is that B, who admires Garbo, will acquire a desire to go to the cinema when he knows what play will be there. B may counter, ‘"But Tos- canini is guest conductor tonight, in an all-Beethoven program.” And so on. Each supports his imperative C‘Lefs do so and so”) by reasons which may be empirically established.

To generalize from this: disagreement in interest mav be rooted in disagreement in belief. That is to say, people who disagree in interest would often cease to do so if they knew the precise nature and consequences of the object of their interest. To this extent disagreement in interest may be resolved by securing agreement m belief, which in turn may be secured empirically.

This generalization holds for ethics. If A and B. instead of using imperatives, had said, respectively, “It would be beirer lo go to the cinema,” and “It would be better to go to the svmphonv,” the reasons which they would advance would be roughly the same. They would each give a more thorough account of the object of interest, with the purpose of completing the redirection of interest wffich w^as began by the suggestive force of the ethical sentence. On the whole, of course, the suggestive force of the ethical statement merely exerts enough pressure to start such trains of reasons, since the reasons are much more essential in resolving disagreement in interest than the persuasive effect of the ethical judgment itself.

Thus the empirical method is relevant to ethics simply because our knowledge of the world is a determining factor to our interests. But note that empirical facts are not inductive grounds from w^hich


Jke Emotive Meaning of Ethical Terms [ 279 ]

  • iJie etMcal jiidgment problematically follows. (This is what traditional

interest theories imply.) If someone said ‘‘Qose the door,” and added the reason ‘"We’ll catch cold,” the latter would scarcely be called an inductive ground of the former. Now imperatives are related to

• the reasons which support them in the same way that ethical judg- "ments are related to reasons.

Is the empirical method sufficient for attaining ethical agree- \iiient? Qearly not. For empmcal knowledge resolves disagreement in interest only to the extent that such disagreement is rooted in disagreement in belief. Not all disagreement in interest is of this sort. For Instance: A is of a sympathetic nature, and B isn’t. They are arguing about whether a public dole would be good. Suppose that they discovered all the consequences of the dole. Isn’t it possible, even so, that A will say that it’s good, and B that it’s bad? The disagree- ment in interest may arise not from limited factual knowledge, but simply from A’s sympathy and B’s coldness. Or again, suppose, in the above argument, that A was poor and unemployed, and that B was rich. Here again the disagreement might not be due to different factual knowledge. It would be due to the different social positions of the men, together with their predominant self-interest.

When ethical disagreement is not rooted in disagreement in belief, is there any method by which it may be settled? If one means by “method” a rational method, then there is no method. But in any case there is a “way.” Let’s consider the above example, again, where disagreement was due to A’s sympathy and B’s coldness. Must they end by saying, “Well, it’s just a matter of our having different temperaments”? Not necessarUy. 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 inffuence which will modif}^ B’s temperament, and create in him a sympathy for the poor which didn’t previously exist. This is often the only way to obtain ethical agreement, if there is any way at aU. It is persuasive, not empirical or rational; but that is no reason for neglecting it. There is no reason to scorn it, either, for it is only by such means that our personalities are able to grow, through our contact with others.

The point I wish to stress, however, is simply that the empirical method is instrumental to ethical agreement only to the extent that disagreement in interest is rooted in disagreement in belief. There is Httle reason to believe that ail disagreement is of this sort. Hence


And now, have I really pointed out the ^‘vital” sense of “good’’? suppose that many will still say “No,” ciaimins that I have simply failed to set down enough requirements which this sense must meet, ana that my analysis, like all others given in terms of interest, is a way of begging the issue. They will say: “When we ask Is X good? we don’t want mere influence, mere advice. W^e decid- edly don’t want to be influenced through persuasion, nor are we fully content when the influence is supported by a wide scientific knowledge of X. The answer to our question will, of course, modify our interests. But this is only because an unique sort of iruth will be revealed to us — a truth v/hich must be apprehended a priori. We want our interests to be guided by this truth, and nothing else, io substitute for such a truth mere emotive meaninc and suasesiion is to conceal from us the very object of our search.’*

I can only answer that I do not understand. What is this truth to be about? For I recollect no Platonic Idea, nor do I know what to try to recollect. I find no indefinable property, nor do I know’ w^hat to look for. And the “self-evident” deliverances of reason, which so many philosophers have claimed, seem, on examination, to be de- liverances of their respective reasons only (if of anvone’s) and not of mine.

I strongly suspect, indeed, that any sense of “good” which is


t I C. L. STEVENSON

&e empirical method is not sufficient for ethics. In any case, ethics is not psychologjq since psychology doesn’t endeavor to direct our mterests;^ it discovers facts about the ways in which interests are or can be directed, but that’s quite another matter.

To summarize this section: my analysis of ethical judgments meets the three requirements for the “vital” sense of “good” that were mentioned in section 1. The traditional interest theories fail to meet these requirements simply because they neglect emotive mean- ing. This neglect leads them to neglect dynamic usage, and the sort of disagreement that results from such usage, together with the method of resohnng the disagreement. I may add that my analysis amwers Moore’s objection about the open question. Wliatever scientifically knowable properties a thing may have, it is alw’ays open to question whether a thing having these (enumerated) qualities is good. For to ask whether it is good is to ask for influence. And whatever I may know about an object, I can still ask, quire pertinently, to be influenced with regard to my interest in it. '


Tlie Emotive Meaning of Ethical Terms [

' expected both to unite itself in synthetic a priori fashion with other ■ concepts, and to influence interests as well, is really a great confusion. I extract from this meaning the power of influence alone, which I find the only intelligibie part. If the rest is confusion, however, then it certainly deserves more than the shrug of one’s shoulders. What I should like to do is to account for the confusion — ^to examine the psychological needs which have given rise to it, and to show how these needs may be satisfied in another way. This is the problem, if confusion is to be stopped at its source. But it is an enormous prob- lem, and my reflections on it, which are at present worked out only roughly, must be reserved until some later time.

I may add that if ‘‘X is good” is essentially a vehicle for sugges- tion, it is scarcely a statement which philosophers, any more than many other men, are called upon to make. To the extent that ethics predicates the ethical terms of anything, rather than explains their meaning, it ceases to be a reflective study. Ethical statements are social instruments. They are used in a co-operative enterprise in which we are mutually adjusting ourselves to the interests of others. Philosophers have a part in this, as do all men, but not the major part.

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