Stevenson, Charles L. (1908–1979)

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Charles L. Stevenson authored the first thorough emotivist, or noncognitivist, account of ethical language. Traditionally the study of ethics had involved a quest for the truth about what is good and right, but Stevenson abandoned that search and set out to investigate the practical use of ethical language to shape attitudes. In a series of articles, and in his 1944 book Ethics and Language, he proposed answers to classical philosophical questions about meaning and justification that set the agenda for the next several generations of moral philosophers.

Stevenson earned degrees at Yale and Cambridge before receiving his doctorate from Harvard in 1935. He then taught at Harvard and Yale, where his original and challenging ideas about ethics were not popular. In 1946 he joined the philosophy department at the University of Michigan, where he remained till his retirement.

By the time Ethics and Language appeared, a form of emotivism had been sketched by A. J. Ayer, who claimed that ethical utterances are disguised commands and exclamations. Other students of ethics and language had introduced behavioral accounts of meaning, drawing attention to the actual use of moral language and questioning the place of reason in ethics. Stevenson's contribution was to integrate these ideas into a coherent theory and to emphasize the complexity and importance of the expressive function and the dynamic power of ethical language.

Disagreements in ethics, according to Stevenson, involve "an opposition of purposes, aspirations, wants, preferences, desires, and so on" (Stevenson 1944, p. 3). He called such disagreements "disagreements in attitude" and contrasted them with "disagreements in belief." Ethical disagreements can be resolved by rational argument when they can be traced to disagreements in belief, but when disagreements in attitude remain after agreement about the facts has been reached, rational means will be of no use. When rational means fail, Stevenson noted, and even when they do not, we resort to a variety of non-rational methods. Non-rational persuasion exploits language that carries what Stevenson called "emotive meaning." Emotive meaning "is the power that a word acquires, on account of its history in emotional situations, to evoke or directly express attitudes, as distinct from describing or designating them" (Stevenson, 1944, p. 33). Stevenson explored the many ways in which words with positive or negative emotive meaning can be used by speakers aiming to persuade others (or themselves) to alter (or preserve) some attitude.

Turning to the question of meaning, Stevenson argued that we can explain the meaning of an utterance such as X is good if we can find a relevant, similar expression that is free from ambiguity and confusion, and that allows us to do and say everything we can do and say with the original expression. By leaving out any mention of emotive meaning, a "subjectivist" definition such as X is good = I approve of X fails because it distorts the nature of ethical disagreement, which is fundamentally a clash of attitudes. Stevenson's suggestion, which he characterized as his "first pattern of analysis," was that any adequate analysis of X is good will satisfy the following pattern:
X is good = I approve of X, do so as well. The first element (I approve of X ) gives a subjectivist descriptive meaning and is but one example from a long list of candidates. The second (Do so as well ) represents the emotive meaning and indicates that exposure to utterances like X is good tends to bring about approval for X.

According to a first-pattern analysis, one persuades by making a straightforward ethical judgment, counting on the emotive meaning of the key terms to influence the attitudes of the audience. A second method of persuasion is illustrated by a "second pattern of analysis." Many words carry strong emotive meaning, and just as we can influence attitudes by an explicit ethical judgment, so we can operate more subtly by exploiting what Stevenson called a "persuasive definition." When we give or use a persuasive definition, we attach a new descriptive meaning to a term like courage or justice while keeping the emotive meaning unchanged. The point of doing this is to change the direction of peoples' interests. As Stevenson says, "Words are prizes which each man seeks to bestow on the qualities of his own choice" (Stevenson 1944, p. 213) If we can redefine courage to cover our strategic retreat, then we too can be called courageous. "True courage," we might say, "is knowing when to run."

Stevenson observed that when our persuasion fits the first pattern, "attitudes are altered by ethical judgments," and when it fits the second pattern, attitudes "are altered not only by judgments but by definitions" (Stevenson 1944, p. 210). The two patterns turn out to be equivalent in the sense that "for every second pattern definition there is a first pattern judgment, the latter being the persuasive counterpart of the former" (Stevenson 1944, p. 229).

Stevenson's analysis of meaning had consequences for his view of another metaethical issue, the question of justification. When disagreement in attitude is not rooted in disagreement in belief, then the notion of a "reason" expands to include "any statement about any matter of fact which any speaker considers likely to alter attitudes" (Stevenson 1944, p. 114). This claim led some critics to accuse Stevenson of wanting to replace ethical reasoning with propaganda, but actually he claimed only that rational methods have limits and that persuasion is in play even when rational methods are used and even when we are trying to change or preserve our own attitudes. The choice of methods, he pointed out, is always a normative one, but he consistently identified his own study as a descriptive analytical one and refused to moralize about the ways of moralists.

In addition to his landmark works on metaethics, Stevenson wrote on aesthetics, music, and verse. He was a serious amateur musician, frequently performing chamber music with his friends and family.

See also Ayer, Alfred Jules; Emotive Theory of Ethics; Ethical Subjectivism; Metaethics; Noncognitivism.


works by stevenson

"The Emotive Meaning of Ethical Terms." Mind 46 (1937): 1431.

Ethics and Language. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1944.

Facts and Values. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1963.

"Persuasive Definitions." Mind 47 (1938): 331350.

works on stevenson

Ayer, A. J. Language, Truth and Logic. London: Golancz, 1936.

Goldman, Alvin I. and Jaegwon Kim, eds. Value and Morals: Essays in Honor of William Frankena, Charles Stevenson, and Richard Brandt. Dordrecht; Boston: D. Reidel, 1978.

Urmson, J. O. The Emotive Theory of Ethics. London: Hutchinson, 1968.

Richard T. Garner (1996, 2005)

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