1. Emotivism marks the farthest swing of the pendulum in making moral judgment the expression of feeling. To be sure Hume had made it so in a sense; ‘reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions’. But this was less radical than it sounded. Hume believed that in judging an action we should invoke the aid of reason in inferring consequences; he believed that a judgment of right was an attempt at knowledge, and was true or false. It either was or was not the fact that people generally, observing a certain action in the light of its consequences, felt a favouring feeling towards it. If they did, the judgment was true; if not, it was false. Westermarck carried the subjectivist swing one stage farther. He agreed with Hume that moral judgment was a report on feeling, but the report now was not on how people generally felt, but on how the agent felt. Emotivism carries the movement one stage farther still. It holds that the function of moral judgment is not to report emotion, but to express it. A moral judgment says nothing at all, in the sense of asserting or affirming. Perhaps the clearest, as well as the most familiar statement of the theory is that of Professor Ayer:
‘The presence of an ethical symbol in a proposition adds nothing to its factual content. Thus if I say to someone, “You acted wrongly in stealing that money,” I am not stating anything more than if I had simply said, “You stole that money.” In adding that this action is wrong I am not making any further statement about it. I am simply evincing my moral disapproval of it. It is as if I had said, “You stole that money,” in a peculiar tone of horror, or written it with the addition of some special exclamation marks. The tone, or the exclamation marks, adds nothing to the literal meaning of the sentence. It merely serves to show that the expression of it is attended by certain feelings in the speaker.’1
What are called moral judgments are thus really exclamations. The judgment that a thing or a man is good or an action right, is the expression of a warm or approving feeling about the object, and is roughly equivalent to ‘Cheers!’ or ‘Good for you!’ The judgment that anything is bad, or that an action is wrong, is the expression of repulsion or abhorrence, and is roughly equivalent to ‘Boo!’ or ‘Shame!’ The theory has therefore been christened—presumably by way of booing it—‘the Boo-Hurrah theory of ethics’.
So stated, it is attractively simple. But we must be careful not to oversimplify it. When it is said that value statements express only feeling, the words ‘only’ and ‘feeling’ need comment. The emotivist would not say that nothing but feeling is being expressed in such statements as ‘that was a courageous speech’, ‘that is sheer thievery’, ‘that is a bare-faced lie’. All of them, indeed, state facts: ‘courageous’ suggests that danger was being firmly faced; ‘thievery’ says that what, under the law, belongs to someone else has been taken; ‘lie’ indicates that a false impression was deliberately given. Here are unquestionably moral judgments stating unquestionably empirical facts. But the emotivist has a reasonable answer. These statements, he would say, are hybrids, combining both fact and value statements. So far as they are value statements, they do merely express emotions—of admiration for courage, and of disapproval for lying and thieving.
Again, when these latter are said to express only feeling, the term must be taken with some latitude. If the theory implied that the only feelings expressed were simple liking and disliking, it could be overthrown by a moment's introspection. But these feelings are of enormous variety. Indeed the whole great spectrum of qualities that value judgments seem to take as inhering in objects—‘comic’, ‘charming’, ‘wicked’, ‘noble’, ‘horrid’, and the rest—are withdrawn from the object only to turn up in another guise as qualitatively different feelings that may be felt toward it. Furthermore, some emotivists, like the linguistic analysts who are their successors, would include among the ‘feelings’ expressed much that, in the technical sense, is not feeling at all. Carnap takes the distinctively ethical element as a command; ‘truthfulness is good’ means ‘tell the truth’; Stevenson would say that this statement, at least in many instances could be translated into ‘I approve of truthfulness; do so too’, in which the ethical note is sounded in the exhortation at the end; and he would recognize also a wide variety of ‘affective-conative attitudes’ which are not so much emotions as recurrent desires or dispositions of will. The emotive theory may thus be regarded as a protest against intellectualizing judgments of value, made on behalf of our non-intellectual self as a whole.
2. The theory when offered in Mr Ayer's provocative version of 1936 produced a minor storm among moralists. It was repudiated as making morals a matter of taste or even of caprice, and implying that nothing was really better or worse than anything else. We shall have to look into these charges. Meanwhile it is worth noting that emotivism is not itself a rootless or merely capricious theory. In our study of the dialectic of British thought, we saw that one important current of that thought had been setting in this direction for three hundred years. Beginning with the recognition by Shaftesbury and Hutcheson of the close affinity of the moral judgment and the aesthetic, it runs on through Hume and Westermarck with a force that renders the emergence of an emotivist conclusion all but inevitable.
This historical pressure, however, seems to have had little to do with the appearance of the theory in Britain in the middle thirties. The theory was proposed by the logical positivists, whose roots were not in Britain but in Vienna; and it seems to have been adopted less because of an independent study of moral judgment than because of the exigencies of their theory of knowledge. The positivists had committed themselves to the view that every statement that is cognitive, that is, capable of being true or false, must be one or other of two kinds. It must be either empirical, and then it was a statement of fact that could, at least in theory, be verified in perception, or else it was an a priori statement, and then it was true analytically, that is, it would be self-contradictory to deny it. Having satisfied themselves that this dichotomy was exclusive and exhaustive, the positivists, who were not primarily interested in ethical questions, were confronted with the problem what to do with judgments of good and right. Where, in their table of judgments were they to put the statement, for example, that pleasure is good? Goodness is not a sensible quality whose inherence in pleasure can be observed, like the spots on a leopard. Nor is it an a priori judgment, positivists would say, for when people have denied that pleasure was good—and, oddly enough, there have been such people—they were not merely contradicting themselves. The statement that pleasure is good, then, seems to be neither a statement of fact nor a statement of analytic necessity. It follows, if one accepts the positivist classification of statements, that it is not a statement at all. But if it has no cognitive meaning, what can it express?, for it is not meaningless utterly. There seems to be only one thing left for it to express, namely emotive meaning. It must be an exclamation or interjection, expressing, not a proposition that is true or false, but the speaker's feeling or attitude.
3. The emotivist analysis, then, was a by-product of the positivist account of knowledge. But it was more than that. When the positivists turned to the closer study of moral judgments, they found a mass of facts that added immensely to the plausibility of their theory. Even a casual inspection of such judgment reveals that feeling plays an exceptionally intimate and important part in them, a part that non-emotivists themselves cannot but acknowledge. We shall be better prepared to do justice to the theory if we mention the chief roles that, by general admission, feeling plays in moral judgments.
(1) Feeling accompanies such judgments in a peculiarly regular and intimate way. When we say something is bad, we normally feel some repulsion for it; when we call an act wrong or a man wicked, we do it with a stirring of indignation; one does not call another a scoundrel to the accompaniment of an affectionate smile. So invariably do feelings of approval and disapproval attend expressions of right and wrong that the terms ‘approval’ and ‘disapproval’ are as naturally used of the feelings as of the alleged assertions.
(2) Again, moral ‘judgments’, unlike most others, are matters of degree, and vary with the intensity of the emotions felt. Approval passes over by degrees into admiration and reverence; condemnation is not a flat denial of Tightness or goodness, but something felt with all degree of force from gentle distaste to blazing and implacable anger. Where the ‘judgment’ thus varies with the feeling, it is not unnatural to take the one as really expressing the other,
(3) Moral ‘judgments’ are under the influence of feeling in a way that has no parallel among the judgments of science, empirical or mathematical. No one would attempt to alter a chemist's view of the constituents of sugar, or a geometer's view as to whether a circle touching all sides could be inscribed in any triangle, by working on his emotions. But that is notoriously practicable in regard to moral estimates. If A detests B, it is almost impossible for him to regard B as other than detestable, though if he comes to know and like him, his estimate of him will probably follow suit. How likely is it that a judge, however masterly his summing up, will convince the mother of a criminal that her son deserves the gallows? Fiction and real life are full of illustrations of how ‘judgments’ are fixed by attitudes, instinctive and acquired; if a sample item is wanted, one may take the infrequency with which, in American legal history, male juries have been willing to bring in capital verdicts on women offenders. Such facts do not prove, to be sure, that moral judgments are merely feelings. They do show that these veer with feeling in a way that renders their intellectual independence suspect.
(4) Philosophers from Plato down have been struck by the resemblance between moral judgments and aesthetic; to many, perhaps to most, the likeness of judgments of goodness to those of beauty has seemed much closer than to those of logic or mathematics. Now there is little difficulty, either for the philosopher or the plain man, in accepting aesthetic statements as expressions of feeling. It seems obvious that ‘comic’ and ‘sublime’, and plausible that ‘beautiful’ and ‘ugly’, report our own impressions rather than characters existing in things. And the aesthetic analogy suggests a like interpretation of moral judgments.
(5) In a very large number of statements that are commonly taken as moral, the emotive analysis would be accepted by almost everyone. Is it not plain enough that when we call a person irritating, or disagreeable, or repulsive, or attractive, or likeable, or admirable, or a hundred other things of the kind, we are hardly, even in appearance, giving a descriptive report of his qualities, but are telling rather how he strikes us, whether he ‘rubs us the right way’? It is hard to draw a line between such characterizations and such others as ‘noble’, ‘honourable’, and ‘good’, which would be taken as unequivocally moral. Hence the suggestion is strong that we should carry the analysis over to moral judgments generally.
4. It is time to turn from the reasons why the theory may have commended itself to the question of real moment, whether it is sound. Any assessor of it has to face one awkward difficulty at the outset. The emotive theory is supposed to give the correct use or meaning of statements like ‘this is good’, but is it what people actually mean that is being supplied, or what, if they were self-critical, they would or ought to mean, or something else? We get no clear and firm answer. Hence there is too much truth in Mr Mabbott's comment, ‘we slide from the statement that an analysis tells me what I mean to the view that it tells me what I would mean if I were clear on the matter; and thence to the view that it gives me what I would say I meant after a course of treatment aimed at “re-adjusting” my “psychological mechanisms”, and thence finally to the view that what I mean is what I would say if my errors were corrected and the view I held were true.’2 Perhaps the fairest course is to assume that the attempt is to give the plain man's meaning, as held not naively and crudely but self-critically, that is, with a desire at once to clarify what is actually meant and to fit it in consistently with our other meanings.
Now it seems to me clear that the theory, so conceived, will not do. There are many considerations that lead me to say this, but they all seem to belong to three general types of difficulty. (I) The theory makes goodness external to that which has it; (II) it leaves no basis in the object for either favouring or disfavouring; and (III) it makes reflection about values far more irrational than in fact it is.
5. (I) Consider, first, the way in which the theory makes the goodness of anything fall outside what is good. It tells us that when we say ‘x is good’, we are expressing not the character of the object but a feeling or attitude on our part. The object, then, has no goodness of its own; the only sense in which goodness attaches to it is that one or more persons are taking a favourable attitude toward it. This goodness is adventitious. It is, so to speak, conferred by the accident of someone's taking the attitude. Now there is one kind of value judgment of which this analysis is plausible, namely that passed upon a physical thing. When we taste a peach and say ‘this is good’, or, looking at the weather, say, ‘what a dreary day!’, we do not need much persuasion to agree that we are talking not about qualities these things would have if nobody were aware of them, but of experiences they induce in us. For my own part, I should agree that the abolition from the world of all forms of consciousness would abolish value also; I cannot enter into the thought of those who hold that in a world devoid of experience, the addition of a crater on the moon would add to the goodness of things, or its removal detract from this. I should agree, then, with the emotivists so far as to say that the goodness or badness of physical things lies not in the things themselves but in the experiences aroused by them. Only experience, or situations involving experience, can be intrinsically good. But to say this is not, of course, to grant the emotivist theory; it is only to narrow the issue down to the meaning of ‘this is good’, when applied to experience. And when so applied, I think the theory breaks down.
6. (1) The plain man, i.e. one's ordinary self, sits at the table and says, ‘This peach is delicious’. The goodness of the peach lies not in the peach, we agree, but in the man's enjoyment of it. Very well; his enjoyment is good. When we say that, what do we mean? The emotivist tells us that we are saying nothing about his enjoyment; we are only expressing our own favouring attitude toward that enjoyment. The only goodness involved in the case, so far as our statement is concerned, lies in our experience, not in his; it came into being with our expression, and lapses when we turn our attention away. As a report of our meaning, this is absurd. Whatever the goodness of an experience may consist in, it is something that belongs to the experience itself, and attaches to it in virtue of what it is; to say that when we call an experience intrinsically good, we are expressing only something that attaches to it as externally and accidentally as the attitude of some chance observer, is plainly at odds with our intention.
It may be replied that the goodness of the man's enjoyment lies in an attitude taken by himself. If this means that the goodness of the peach lies in his response to it, or someone else's, we have agreed that this is true. If it means that his enjoyment of the peach is itself an attitude the experience of which is intrinsically good, we agree again, though with some demur about calling enjoyment an ‘attitude’. But of course neither of these things is what the emotivists are saying. That the man's enjoyment can be good in itself is precisely what they deny. To call it good is not to ascribe goodness to it, but to express an attitude that occurs in one's self. Yes, yes, they may say, but whatever attitude other people may take toward the man's enjoyment, it is clear that he himself takes a favourable attitude toward it, and thus it does in a sense have a goodness that is independent of what others may feel. But consider what this means. It means that the man's enjoyment is in no sense good until he becomes self-conscious about it and makes it the object of a further response. To say that there was any goodness in his enjoyment while he was merely surrendered to it would be to talk metaphysics, to ascribe a non-sensible property to it. The enjoyment becomes good, in the sole legitimate sense, only when he comes to contemplate it and take up toward it a favouring attitude; then, and only then, would a statement that it was good express anything at all. This is an extraordinary view, whether as analysis or as psychology. As analysis, it is incorrect, since a man who says, ‘What a good time I am having!’, means to say how much enjoyment he is having, not—primarily at any rate—to express a secondary attitude he is taking up to his own enjoyment. As psychology, it is myopic, because the point at which the enjoyment becomes good, in the only sense the theory will allow, is the very point at which such a statement begins to lose its applicability, since, when enjoyment becomes self-conscious, it begins to go.
7. (2) Consider, again, the case in which we are calling good or bad something that happened in the past.3 The positivist view (a) forbids us to hold that if our statement had not been made, there would have been anything good or bad in the event when it occurred, and (b) requires us to hold that if the event had not occurred, all the good or evil that our judgment expresses would have come into being anyhow, by reason of our attitude. Both these implications conflict flagrantly with the intention of such judgment.
Let us take a slightly out-of-the-way example which, though selected to bring out the point, could be duplicated a thousand times over in the thought of ordinary life. You are taking a trip at sea, and you come out on deck some morning to find that in the course of the night the ship has struck a whale whose body is found across the prow. It has evidently made a violent struggle to disengage itself, but was too deeply wounded, and failed. A reflective and compassionate man might naturally remark that such intense suffering on the part of an innocent creature was a great evil, or a very bad thing. According to the emotivists, when we say this we are ascribing no badness to the whale's past suffering; we are only expressing our present feeling. Is this interpretation plausible?
(a) Suppose first that our remark had not occurred; would that have made any difference to the badness of the animal's past suffering? The plain man would be bewildered by such a suggestion. How could the accident of someone's coming to know and remark about that suffering after it was over affect the character of the suffering when it occurred. What if nobody had learned of the incident at all; would the animal's suffering then not have been bad, or indeed one whit the less bad? To most of us it would seem absurd to say so. If suffering is really bad, it must be bad when and where it occurs, not at some later time when it has ceased to exist, and in some other mind that is not suffering at all. Yet this last is, in effect, what emotivism tells us. It says that apart from the accident of someone's coming on deck and finding the whale's body, it would be meaningless to say that anything evil occurred. Whatever may be the force of this theory, it is certainly not implied in what the plain man means to say. When he says that the suffering was bad, he means to say something about the past misery of the beast, something that characterized it while it was going on. This is evident, I think, from the most casual inspection of our meaning. But there are also indirect ways of showing it. Consider the mystification we should feel if anyone replied to the remark about the badness of the suffering as follows: ‘There was nothing bad in the suffering; still, now that you mention it, there is’; or ‘It was touch and go whether the suffering should be bad or not, for it was the merest accident that the body was discovered’; or ‘The suffering in the case occurred about 2.00 a.m.; but there was nothing bad about it till five hours later’. We should think any of these replies idiotic; why? Because they all assume that what is expressed by ‘bad’ can be separated from the suffering by an interval of time. Yet the emotive theory does in effect say this, since it insists that what we are saying about the suffering is exhausted by our present attitude.
(b) We have tried an ideal experiment, namely removing the value judgment made about a past event and asking whether we should recognize on reflection that this removed also what we meant when we said the event was bad. Clearly we should not. Let us now try the experiment the other way about. Let us remove the event and keep the statement. When I came on deck this morning, the second mate, not averse to widening the eyes of landlubbers with his inventions, tells me about the whale with every appearance of truthfulness. I remark, as before, that it was a sorry thing for the poor beast to suffer so. The remark is made, of course, under a complete misapprehension. No whale was struck; no struggle ensued; no suffering occurred. And since there was no suffering, there was none of the badness that attends such suffering. So at least the plain man would say. But not the emotivist. He must hold that there is precisely as much evil in the case if the suffering did not occur as if it did, provided only I make my remark about it. There was nothing bad in the suffering itself; what ‘bad’ expresses is my present feeling exclusively; hence if that feeling exists, the only badness the case admits of is still there in its entirety.
Once more, this seems to me absurd. There is no sort of analysis that can extract it from what the plain man actually means. The best way of settling this is to ask whether, when he discovered that the event had never happened, he would recognize that in saying something bad had occurred, he had been in error. If the emotivist is right, he would not. Since he had not meant that anything bad had happened, no discovery that an event had not happened would call for a revision of what he had meant. His remarks merely reported present feeling, which is equally real, whether the past event happened or not. He would certainly not swallow such an account. He would say, ‘If what I thought bad never happened, then of course I was mistaken; the badness cannot remain when there is nothing left to be bad; you can no more take away the suffering and leave its badness than you can take away the cat and leave the grin.’ He would be clear that, following a wrong lead, he had made a mistake, whereas the emotivist would say that, since he had not judged at all, this was impossible. To be sure, the emotivist would admit an implied mistake, a purely factual one, to the effect that suffering occurred when it did not. Is this enough? No. For the plain man is saying not merely that suffering occurred, but that something bad occurred, and he is quite clear that if nothing bad occurred, he was mistaken in supposing it did. If on this point there is no conflict between his judgment and the fact, how account for his relief when he discovers that the incident never took place? Why rejoice in the non-occurrence of something if there was nothing bad about it?
8. Troubled by the paradox of placing the value of an experience at a time when the experience no longer exists, the emotivist may take a different line. He may say that the suffering was evil at its own time and place, but only in the sense that the suffering animal took up a disfavouring or disapproving attitude toward its own suffering; hence what it would have expressed in the words ‘this is horrible’, if it had been able to speak, did in fact exist. But this will not do either, (i) Though it puts the evil, in a sense, in the animal's experience, it still makes it adventitious to that in the experience which alone we recognize as evil. The evil lies in the suffering, not in some process of mind external to it. (ii) As an excursion in animal psychology, the suggestion that a line can be drawn between the creature's suffering and its attitude toward this seems speculative, unverifiable, and improbable, (iii) In any case, when we say the suffering was bad, we certainly do not mean to speak about one section of the animal's mind, more especially not about a process distinct from the suffering. And (iv) even if the animal was capable of conferring badness in this way upon its own experiences, the theory would prevent our saying so. As soon as we came to the word ‘bad’, it would stick in our throats. We could not, if we tried, make it mean anything whatever about the misery that went on there in the past; its sole use is to express a feeling in our own mind. Thus goodness and badness are effectively dispossessed from the only place where, according to ordinary thought, they can be located.
The emotivist may try another tack. He may suggest that when we say such suffering was bad, we mean that it was potentially bad, in the sense that if it were to act causally on someone capable of a disfavouring attitude, it would produce such an attitude. But, once more, this is no part of our meaning, nor even consistent with it. It takes as only potential evils that we undoubtedly mean as actual. Consider one bit of evidence. Even the very plain man now knows that human history on the earth has been limited, and that strange ‘dragons of the prime tore each other in their slime’ for aeons before the first man appeared. He knows that a wholesale destruction of life and an enormous mass of misery attended the slow emergence of the race, and he has no doubt that it was evil; the occurrence of such masses of gratuitous evil is one of his stock difficulties when he starts thinking about theism. Would it make sense to him to say that all this evil was potential merely, that in all this misery there was nothing actually bad, but only something that had the power of producing a disfavouring reaction in human nature when, after the lapse of some millions of years, men achieved the power of contemplating their racial past? As an exegesis of current meaning, this is fantastic.
I have taken animal suffering deliberately because, while we are clear that it is intrinsically bad, that badness can hardly be constituted by the beast's own attitude toward its suffering, and hence must fall, on the emotivist theory, at a distance from this in space and time. The paradox of dislocated value is thus brought out with especial clearness. But it is needless to resort to the animal mind if anyone feels that it is too treacherous a territory. For the emotivist is cut off by his theory from admitting that there has been anything good or evil in the past, either animal or human. There have been Black Deaths, to be sure, and wars and rumours of war; there have been the burning of countless women as witches, and the massacre in the Katyn forest, and Oswiecim, and Dachau, and an unbearable procession of horrors; but one cannot meaningfully say that anything evil has ever happened. The people who suffered from these things did indeed take up attitudes of revulsion toward them; we can now judge that they took them; but in such judgments we are not saying that anything evil occurred. We are not saying so because, under the theory, that is impossible; if we supposed we were saying so, we should be mistaking emotive meaning for cognitive, and trying to convert a statement expressive of feeling into the characterization of fact. That we are forbidden to do. This prohibition presents us with a clear alternative. Which of these two things is the more certain: that the emotivist analysis of value propositions is correct, or that some things in the past have been bad? Most of us would say the latter. But if the latter statement is true, if it is even capable of being true, then the emotivist analysis is false. That analysis, when first presented, has some plausibility. But when this is balanced against the implied unplausibility of setting down as meaningless every suggestion that good or evil events have ever occurred, it is outweighed enormously.
9. For the above line of argument I have been taken to task by an able writer whose own theory is somewhat different from emotivism and more plausible. When offering essentially the present argument some years ago, I took in illustration a rabbit which, after struggling vainly, had died in a trap, and supposed a compassionate person to have remarked on discovering it that it was a bad thing that the little animal should have suffered so. And I argued, as in the present case, that such a remark must be taken as attributing badness to the pain when and as it occurred. Professor Edwards finds several confusions in the argument.
(i) He says: ‘Only a philosopher writing in a vacuum, could ever suppose that anybody would really in this situation say, “It is a bad thing that the little animal should suffer so.”’ What one would really say is, ‘This is terrible’ or ‘Something dreadful happened here’ or ‘The poor animal!’ or maybe ‘What wicked traps these people put up!’4 Now I attach no great importance to the verbal form in which the remark is cast, and should be quite ready to argue the case with one of Mr Edwards’ alternatives. But why does he find the form I used so objectionable? Apparently because he thinks this leaves it obscure whether one is making a value statement such as ‘intense pain is evil’ or a statement of moral condemnation such as ‘whoever set this trap is wicked’. But the form of words I selected was chosen, in part, precisely to exclude the latter interpretation. To say that animal suffering is a bad thing is not necessarily to say that some one is wicked, and to charge the statement with the possibility of obscurely meaning this is not very convincing. Nor do I think that the kind of judgment here made is at all unusual. The person who, looking back on the course of nature and history, says of such things as the Lisbon earthquake, or Indian famines, or the deaths of Keats or Chatterton, or the senility of Kant, that they were great evils is making a perfectly natural remark, which does not on the face of it blame anybody.
10. (ii) Suppose we have got it clear that the judgment made is that an experience of intense pain was intrinsically bad, not a judgment of moral condemnation. The question now is, What is asserted in it? Mr Edwards says,
‘The occurrence of this intense and prolonged suffering is what we primarily wish to assert by means of this sentence. To be quite accurate, it is not the complete referent. We also assert, I believe, that the pain suffered by the rabbit was pointless or unnecessary. By this I mean that either the killing of the rabbit did not have any useful results such as helping to rid the neighbourhood farmers of a nuisance or that, it if did, the same results could easily have been achieved without subjecting the little animal to such extreme agonies.’5
This introduction of Heedlessness or pointlessness as part of what we mean by calling the pain bad betrays a confusion of the two kinds of judgment which I had myself just been charged with confusing, on somewhat slender grounds. Intense pain is bad in itself; it is not the less bad because it may produce good results, or worse because it is needless. What we have in mind when we speak about its needlessness is the moral character of the person who inflicts it. When we say that the pain of the rabbit was needless, we are criticizing the action of the farmer, who could have reached his end by other means; when we say the Lisbon earthquake was needless, we probably mean that it was needless on the part of a Deity who had the power to prevent it. But it is confusion of instrumental with intrinsic value to say that part of what we mean by the goodness of pleasure is its serving some end beyond itself, or by the intrinsic evil of pain the failure to serve such an end. Such failure may be part of what we mean by instrumental badness; it has nothing whatever to do with making something intrinsically bad.
11. (iii) The passage we have just quoted from Mr Edwards begins by saying regarding the judgment that an intense pain was bad, ‘The occurrence of this intense and prolonged suffering is what we primarily wish to assert by means of this sentence.’ This seems to me questionable. No doubt our statement implies that the pain occurred, just as the statement that Brutus's killing of Caesar was wrong implies that Brutus did kill Caesar. But it would be a mistake to say that ‘what we primarily wish to assert’ by ‘Brutus's killing of Caesar was wrong’ is that the event occurred, and it is similarly mistaken to say that ‘what we primarily wish to assert’ by ‘the suffering of intense pain was an evil’ is ‘such pain occurred’. The emotivist tells us that when we make these value judgments about the past, we are asserting nothing but descriptive characters. In view of the alliance between positivism and emotivism, it may not be unfair to recall how unstable the positivist theory about judgments of the past has been. Leading positivists once held that a judgment of the past was really about the future events that would ‘verify’ it. This they soon abandoned. But they clung for some time to the view that in talking about another's pain, past or present, we are talking exclusively about his bodily behaviour, his gestures, groans, and grimaces. This too they abandoned. They would now hold, I take it, that it is significant to talk of another's pain, though not of the badness of his pain, to talk of Chatterton's and Keats’ having had certain powers and dispositions which were in fact terminated by their deaths at the age of seventeen and twenty-five respectively, though it is not significant to say that in this there was anything evil.
Now if their theory attempts to set out our actual meaning, they may as well abandon this too; for it is plain that our judgments of the past do mean to assert goodness and badness of past persons and events. Is it seriously suggested that when we call St Francis a good man, we do not mean that he was good during his lifetime? The plain fact is that we do mean that, and that if the emotivists tell us we cannot mean it, there is something wrong with their analysis. When we say that the Black Death was a great evil, would the meaning we wish to assert be adequately conveyed by a statistical or sociological survey, the size of several Britannicas, but containing no suggestion that anything good or bad had occurred? However difficult it may be to say what ‘bad’ means, we surely do not mean to express by it merely something that is happening in us now; we mean to say something true about what happened then.
Mr Edwards sees that this conclusion is unavoidable, but tries to protect emotivism by offering an amended version. He says that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are not expressive of feeling simply, but perform a double function; they are both descriptive of fact and expressive of feeling. The term ‘good’, as applied to a man, means (i.e. has as its ‘referent’) his being truthful, gentle, loving, free from envy and pleasure in another's pain, etc., and these are observable facts. At the same time it is a vehicle for expressing a feeling of approval for these traits. To say, then, that St Francis was good is in fact a descriptive judgment ascribing to St Francis certain factual traits and also expressing our feeling about them. The judgment ‘St Francis was good’ would thus state a proposition about the past which is as objectively true as any proposition about an eclipse or a tidal wave.
This theory is certainly nearer our actual meaning than is pure emotivism. Whether it reports our actual intention will depend on where the line is drawn between the descriptive and emotive components in the judgment. Mr Edwards says that being truthful, gentle, and loving are to be included among the purely descriptive characters. But are they really such? They seem to me already tinged or tinctured with positive value. Suppose that these and the other qualities included in the meaning of ‘good’ were denuded altogether of such value suggestions, and we were then asked whether the aggregate of them gave what we meant in saying that St Francis was good. We should know that when, on a certain occasion, he made a statement, the statement bore such and such a relation to fact, that when he saw a man wearing garments fewer by so many than the average and differing in their texture in such and such ways, he felt an emotion of a certain kind and intensity, and placed certain of his garments in the hands of the object of his emotion. Mr Edwards seems to me right that when we call St Francis good we do assert or at least imply that he did things of this kind. But that is not all we mean to assert. Plain men confronted by such a summary would probably say, ‘Yes, this is all true enough, but we meant to say also that Francis was a good man, and you seem to have left this out.’ And if they were told that this sort of catalogue exhausted all that was true about Francis when he lived and all we could say about him now, that whatever in our judgment went beyond this expressed nothing but the glow of our own feeling, they would, I think, rebel.
They would rebel too, I suspect, against the interpretation placed on their judgment that intense pain in the past was evil. To be sure, pain and pleasure are not easy to analyse, and it is hard, perhaps impossible, to draw a line within them between the aspects of fact and value. But that the aspects are different aspects and that both are there seem clear. Every experience is an event that has a describable character, has causes and effects, and lasts for such and such a time. Jones, on looking out the window at 10 a.m., has a sensation of green of such and such an intensity which lasted for thirty seconds. That is a purely descriptive statement. A rabbit, caught in a trap at 10 a.m., had a sensation of pain of so many degrees of intensity, lasting with fluctuations till at 7 p.m. the organism ceased functioning. That again is a descriptive statement. Would this, or any extension of it in like terms, supply what we mean to say when we speak of the rabbit's suffering as terrible? I cannot think so. Was this aspect of it which we denote by ‘terrible’ actually there in the past experience? We clearly mean to say so, and cannot doubt that it is true. That is why we object to people's causing such experiences, why we shudder at them now, and why we seek to prevent their repetition in future.
Does Mr Edwards deny this? Instead of giving a mere yes or no, he answers with a distinction. The pain as a describable event did occur in the past; but no value or disvalue attached to it, for in the verbal ascription of such values we are only expressing present feeling. The immediate protest that such a view arouses he would meet by including among the descriptive attributes the ‘extreme agonies’ of the animal. Now it is obvious that ‘extreme agony’ is not a merely descriptive term; it means horrible suffering, and is therefore heavily value-charged. Mr Edwards is thus in a dilemma. If he says that we can ascribe such a character to the animal's experience, and say that it was really there whether we are aware of it or not, he has abandoned emotivism. On the other hand if he divests the descriptive characters of every trace of value, and tries to make us say that the suffering when it occurred was entirely neutral, since any mention of value is merely expressive of present feeling, his interpretation is a misinterpretation; it destroys the main point of what we are saying. One cannot save emotivism by compromises of this sort; for the conflict only breaks out again in one's new middle ground.
12. (iv) Mr Edwards charges my argument with a further confusion. I said, it will be recalled, that if emotivism is right, no badness would come on the scene till some observer made a remark expressing his feeling about the past pain, and that this dislocation of value from what it belongs to is absurd. I will quote what I take to be the essential part of Mr Edwards’ criticism.
‘… on certain occasions people make such fundamental moral judgments as that stealing or convicting an innocent man is wrong… Now is it not preposterous to maintain that in such cases the goodness or badness, the Tightness or wrongness depend on the existence of the approval or disapproval in a human being?… Here again the reply is… that the position which Blanshard attacks does not have the alleged consequences. The two positions which he now confuses are as follows:
P1—when a person makes a fundamental moral judgment of the form “x is good” he feels approval towards x; and this approval (i) produces the quality of goodness in x, and (ii) is a necessary condition for its continued existence so that when the approval ceases the goodness disappears with it.
P2—when a person makes a fundamental moral judgment of the form “x is good” he expresses his pro-attitude towards x. The position here advocated and the position of the logical positivist is P2 and not P1. I do not know of anybody who has ever held P1. It is a bad dream dreamt up by Blanshard. He so strongly believes, it seems, that “x is good” always asserts that x has a feature of some kind that he cannot, in stating the views he attacks, conceive that anybody else does not accept this.’6
Now I did not say that P1 was the position consciously advocated by emotivists. I said that this was what their position amounts to when interpreted by one who believes that we are saying something significant in referring to past evils. This I should like to repeat, and I am grateful to Mr Edwards for the stimulus to make it clearer.
I hold that if people call Henry VIII a bad man or say that something in the past was an evil, they mean what they say, namely that the man or experience was bad when it occurred. The emotivists deny this. They do not deny it, to be sure, in the form of saying that the character of badness attaches to the present act of retrospect. They do not deny it in that form because they regard that form as meaningless; they hold that there is nothing good or bad in people or events at all. But the plain man thinks there is; we have been driving that home with tiresome iteration. When he hears the emotivist say that to call anything bad is only to express one's feeling about it, he wants to know what that implies for his own way of thinking on these matters. He sees that if the term ‘bad’ denotes nothing, and merely expresses a feeling, then past acts and experiences were not bad at all in the sense in which he thought they were. This is a perfectly straightforward inference. But if there is no badness in things or persons, what has become of it? Has it simply evaporated out of the universe? ‘Not quite’, answers the emotivist; ‘the term “bad” still has meaning, but emotive meaning only; that is, it expresses a feeling existing in me here and now.’ ‘But doesn't that imply’, asks the plain man, ‘that the only badness the theory admits of is a badness depending on my feeling, coming into existence with it, and passing away with it?’ Again, that is a legitimate deduction, and the answer is Yes. The emotivist may at once protest, as Mr Edwards does, that this language is incorrect, since it assumes that there is such a thing as badness that comes into existence and passes away, and the emotivist is not saying that; what comes and goes is not a character denoted by ‘bad’, but the emotion expressed by it. This of course is true, but as an answer to the plain man's point, it is trifling and evasive. The issue he is interested in is whether something he calls good or bad really is so, in the sense of being so independently of how he thinks and feels. The answer emotivism gives to this question is an unequivocal No. If he then says, ‘I see; you are putting the goodness and badness in the attitude rather than the object’, it does seem to me a wilful missing of his point to say ‘Oh no, not at all; we are not putting goodness and badness in the attitude because there has never been any goodness or badness to put anywhere.’ He is surely entitled to reply, ‘but you are putting these qualities in the attitude in the only sense in which the question has any importance for me, and in the only sense in which you allow my words to have any meaning’. That is what the plain man is trying to say, and he is right in saying it. His language is obviously exceptionable in the sense that his use of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ to denote anything is outlawed by the theory he is criticizing. But note (a) that in my own statement of his criticism care was taken to make even the language unexceptionable; I made it clear by repetition that I was speaking of ‘badness in the only sense in which it was involved at all’. And (b) the very fact that it is so difficult to state the theory in ordinary language without violating it is an additional witness against it. If it were really in accord with ordinary meaning, the emotivist would not have to cry out in protest when others put it in the language most natural to them.
13. (v) Mr Edwards seems to suppose that if one holds to an objective goodness or badness, these characters must be conceived as ‘non-natural qualities’. There is no good reason for this. To be sure, Moore, Ross, and Ewing have held that goodness is a quality of this kind. What they have meant by this is that it is not a quality like square or rough, which can be sensibly apprehended, and would be included in a list of qualities constitutive of the object's ‘nature’. I too think that goodness and badness, as commonly thought of, cannot be analysed as a sensible property that can be seen with the eye or pointed at with the finger. It has become fashionable of late to take those who hold such views as harbouring dubious loyalties to an antiquated metaphysic, if not of doing secret obeisance to the supernatural in some form. ‘Most of us would agree’, said F. P. Ramsey, ‘that the objectivity of good was a thing we had settled and dismissed with the existence of God. Theology and Absolute Ethics are two famous subjects which we have realized to have no real objects.’ Just like that! Unfortunately I do not find these matters so simple. I think that there is an objective goodness. I think that this goodness must be analysed in naturalistic terms, though not in the naively dogmatic and restricted terms alone permitted by positivism. There is nothing novel about such a position. The goodness talked about by Aristotle, Butler, Sidgwick, and even Green is a natural goodness, even if it cannot be seen or touched; to speak of an experience as good, for example, in the degree to which it is a fulfilment of human faculty is perfectly legitimate, whether the notion goes beyond sense or not.
As soon as one realizes that goodness may be at once objective and naturalistic, Mr Edwards’ polemic loses much of its force. For he thinks of objectivism as linked to non-naturalism and this again to a bigoted supernaturalism. ‘Intuitionism and, more generally, all forms of non-naturalism in ethics from Plato to Ross, have fundamentally had one and only one purpose: to help support the morality of self-denial and sin.… I do plead guilty to the charge of undermining morality in the sense of undermining the moralities of the fuddyduddies and the sour-pusses.’ I do not wish to say that there is nothing in this whatever. But as applied, for example, to the chief defender of non-natural qualities among recent moralists, G. E. Moore, one can hardly imagine anything wider of the mark. Nor is it, I would add, a fair example of Mr Edwards’ standard of controversy.
14. (3) The charge I have elaborated at such length is that emotivism dislocates values from the place where they belong. If what we have said is true, a very curious consequence follows: emotivism would afford the perfect justification for ‘the perfect crime’. Jones, let us say, is a wealthy old bachelor, and I am his veteran manservant. It would be a simple matter for me to alter his will so that it should leave me the bulk of his fortune, and almost as simple to deposit that in his cup which would send him painlessly off into the sleep that knows no waking. I am an expert in these things; I am universally trusted; and I am confident that I can cover every trail that might lead to my detection. I carry the plan through with triumphant cunning. In the present theory, what is my status? The answer must be that I have committed no crime at all; I have done no wrong; I have produced nothing bad. Of course my victim would have had much to say along these lines if he had been accorded an opportunity, but he was not; his feelings toward me, so long as he entertained any, were entirely benignant, as everyone else's continue to be. As for his murder—but no; after all, no murder was committed. That is a harsh word expressing disapproval, which no one feels toward me. The one person who knows of the act, namely myself, regards it, on the contrary, as an act of far seeing strategy, causing no pain to anyone, consummate in its expertness, and rich in the fertility of its benefits. To say that in the absence of all unfavourable attitudes my act was wrong, or my own resolution wicked, or my benefactor's death an evil, or my gains ill-gotten ones, would be meaningless; for the only use of these words is to express attitudes, and the attitudes do not exist. It is literally senseless, then, to say that an undetected wrong is a wrong at all. Needless to say, I am not attributing to the emotivists, who are harmless and kindly persons, any exceptional leaning toward the more recherché branches of crime. I am saying that if, like the rest of us, they called such conduct wrong, even though it was never discovered, they would have no ground for doing so. For any ground on which they might justify it would admit that evils exist apart from our attitudes, and that emotivism denies.
15. (II) In thus denying that there is any goodness or badness in objects apart from our attitudes toward them, it also denies by implication that an attitude of favouring is ever more appropriate than its opposite; and this again conflicts with universal convictions. We think that approval is appropriate to what is good and disapproval to what is bad; but if the only goodness and badness involved depend on these attitudes, if they have no existence or meaning until these attitudes are taken up, then there is nothing in the object itself that could justify either, or could make one more appropriate than the other.
Consider a case. There is a well-known painting called Vae Victis, which represents the end of a gladiatorial combat in a Roman arena. The victor stands with upraised sword, his foot on his prostrate opponent, who is mutely appealing to the spectators for mercy. It was the custom of those days to let the spectators decide the fate of the vanquished; if they wanted mercy shown him, they turned thumbs up; if they preferred to see him killed, they turned them down. In the picture a group of elegant Roman ladies, with languid amusement, are turning their thumbs down. It is a grim scene. Why does it so jar the spectator? I suppose because of the incongruity between the horror of what was going on in the arena and the attitude of the onlookers. Bored amusement, languid approval, is hardly the fitting attitude with which to greet the bloody and painful extinction of a life.
This, I think, is the natural explanation of the picture's jarring us. And the difficulty with emotivism is that it cuts the ground from under such explanations. It holds strictly and technically that there is nothing bad in death and pain, and nothing wrong in inflicting either on anyone. Nothing answering to these value words enters the scene until someone assumes an attitude, and even then it enters only as an emotional response that happened to be aroused by these events. But if this is true, why is either attitude more fitting than the other? As far as value is concerned, the object is neutral; it is mere naked fact, as little good or bad as the law of gravitation. As such, there is nothing in it that would justify either approval or disapproval. If an attitude of favouring, or the reverse, is to be appropriate, there must obviously be something in the object to make it so, and if, independently of the attitude, the object is wholly valueless, what is there left to favour or condemn? On the emotivist theory, nothing. Hence both attitudes are arbitrary, and equally arbitrary.
We may go further. On this theory, why should the gentle spectators not have their little amusement? Their attitude may be unfitting, but it is at least no more so than its opposite, for there is nothing bad in itself in suffering, death, or the infliction of either; and they can actually make these things good, in the only sense in which anything is good, if only they take a favouring attitude. And if they can supply the materials of optimism thus cheaply, it seems silly not to do so. Indeed to the wistful reformer an alluring programme opens up for making the world over, a programme which has much in common with that of Mrs Eddy. If all that we mean by the goodness of things lies in our attitude toward them, we need only take that attitude in hand to make all well. We had supposed that suffering and death were evil; they are not; they will become positive goods in the only legitimate sense if we can get ourselves to feel and to ejaculate how splendid they are. Now there is no doubt some truth in this doctrine. Cheerfulness and courage do mitigate evils. But the suggestion that they place in our hands a magic wand with which we can wave out of existence evils which mankind have always found as stubborn as granite boulders seems to me irresponsible. A man does not exorcize all the evil of his own insanity, for example, by developing euphoria about it; indeed such cackling incomprehension may make the tragedy worse.
We may be met by the reply that we have misunderstood how the emotivists would deal with our example. We have assumed them to hold that there is no evil in the fate of the vanquished gladiator apart from the attitude of the spectators, and this assumption may be repudiated. For after all, that fate is repugnant to him, and thus to him still evil, regardless of what the spectators feel. But such a defence is inadequate. For, first, if the evils he is facing are made so by his own attitude, he may uproot them by changing it; let him greet his own death with a cheer, and there will be nothing evil about it. This is silly. Secondly, even if his attitude persists unchanged, and his situation still seems intolerably evil to him, this gives no ground to the spectators for calling it evil. If they apply this word to his fate, they find that all it expresses is their own feeling about that fate; they cannot concede or understand that, apart from this feeling, there was the smallest evil in it. If this is offered as a statement of what plain men mean at any level of intelligence or self-criticism, it seems to me grotesque.
16. (III) Emotivism involves a further consequence that, from our particular point of view, is even more important than those we have considered: it takes ethics out of the sphere of the rational. Moral judgments have always been supposed to be judgments. As such they have been included in the general province of knowledge and reason. They were either true or false; one could pertinently call them clear, or precise, or vague, or confused; they were either consistent or not with themselves and with other ethical beliefs; one could argue for them by producing relevant evidence; one could say that in accepting a belief about the wrongness of national aggression, or the duty of paying one's taxes, one was taking a reasonable view, and that if one differed from another about such things, there was a truth to be found, which formed the ultimate court of appeal. Common sense has no hesitation about all this. Indeed the wisdom that it has traditionally ascribed to the philosopher is primarily ethical wisdom, not so much a knowledge of the ways of nature as an insight, gained by much reflection, into the relative value of things and the true ends of living. The right and the good have been thought to be most clearly seen by the man who views them reflectively and dispassionately. To wrong another is to treat him unreasonably; and although the temper of the saint is not that of the rationalist, most men would be reluctant to think that the selfless heroism of a Francis Xavier or a John Woolman was really out of harmony with reason. The plain man may be said to be a rationalist in morals without being an intellectualist; that is, he believes that the good life is in accordance with reason and defensible by it, though not, for the most part, consciously directed by it. The main tradition of western philosophy takes the same view, but with a stronger intellectualist leaning. The three great Greeks held that reason displayed itself as truly in the choice of ends as in adoption of means, and went so far as to maintain, with some minor differences, that virtue is knowledge. Though most of their successors went less far, still all the elements of rationality that we just noted in common-sense ethics would be accepted by Aquinas and Descartes, by Locke and Butler, by Kant and Hegel, by Green, Sidgwick, and Spencer.
The crux of the issue is whether when we call something right or good, we are saying anything at all, in the sense of making any sort of assertion. To most persons it will seem curious to hear that we are not. And if the emotivist proposal is put forward as an account of what we ordinarily intend, it hardly merits discussion. It is really useless to tell us that when we pronounce a judicial decision unjust or the return of a lost article right, we are saying nothing that we mean to be true. On the question whether it is true, we may be ready to listen to discussion. On the question whether we mean to say something true, we may reasonably claim to be in a position of some advantage, and we cannot hesitate for a moment. If when we said returning the lost article was the right thing to do, someone asked whether we meant to say it was true that this was the right thing to do, we should regard the question as so strange that we should wonder how it could be asked. True? Why of course we mean that it is true. But the emotivist is not satisfied. He holds that we may be mistaken about our own meaning through assimilating it to what is really unlike it. If we start with the notion that Tightness or goodness is a quality like squareness, which can really belong to things, we shall naturally suppose that in moral judgments we are ascribing this quality. But suppose that no such quality exists or can be conceived, and that all we have a right to assert is that we feel in a certain way; then we must be deeply mistaken about what we mean. How is the emotivist to show that we are thus mistaken? He has two lines of argument. One is to show that the goodness we suppose ourselves to be asserting is strictly unthinkable, and that since we cannot assert the unthinkable, our ‘judgments’ of value are not assertions at all. The other is to show by psychological analysis that in such ‘judgments’ the ethical component is reducible to an expression of feeling.
17. The first of these arguments will not detain us long, for we have considered it in another connection.7 It is the argument drawn from the verifiability theory of meaning. Logical empiricists as we saw, developed a theory about all propositions outside the sphere of logic and mathematics to the effect that their meaning consisted in their mode of verification. When we asserted anything, we were referring to the experience that would attest the assertion as true. And when we examined the sort of experience that would supply the attestation, we always found it to be sense experience. We could say then that only assertions that referred to actual or possible sense experience had meaning. And it seemed clear that when we called the return of a lost article right or obligatory, or the achievement of understanding good, the terms, ‘right’ and ‘good’ did not refer to any sort of sense experience. They must, therefore, refer to nothing; they are meaningless.
This neat and expeditious way of disposing of everything in metaphysics, theology, and ethics, that does not fit into one particular philosophy of science no longer carries weight with us. We found that the theory was compelled to dismiss as meaningless whole classes of propositions whose significance was far more certain than the truth of the theory that would impeach them. If we can refer to nothing but sense experience, all assertions about time, causality, number, and degree, all such statements as ‘I believe X’ or ‘I remember Y’, or ‘I don't understand Z’, all statements of scientific law, all contrary-to-fact hypotheticals, even the statement itself that all unverifiable propositions are meaningless, must be held devoid of meaning. The theory is both dogmatic and naive. If anyone proposes to carry it over into ethics and use it as a measuring-rod for ethical judgments, we need ask only one question. Was the theory framed with ethical propositions in mind? If not, then to apply it in Procrustes fashion is quite foreign to the empirical spirit. If the theory did include ethical judgments in its review, then its claim must be that independent examination will show them to be asserting nothing. This is the second line of argument. Is it more successful than the first?
18. I cannot think so. But we must be careful to see what it is exactly that the emotivist is denying. He does not deny that ethical statements are assertions in any sense. Indeed, as Mr Stevenson showed in his Ethics and Language, every ethical statement, when taken in context, is charged with a mass of both descriptive and emotive meanings. When I say ‘I ought to return that article I found’, I am obviously implying a variety of factual judgments about my having found something, about its being a material article, about the possibility of my returning it, and so on; and the words ‘I ought’ may express sarcasm, fear of criticism or of the police, desire to gain approval or to make the loser happy, or many other things. Mr Stevenson did useful work in patiently running down many kinds of descriptive and emotive meaning that ethical judgments may involve, in singling out the emotive elements from the factual or descriptive, and, among emotive meanings, in distinguishing the ethical from the non-ethical. Such a review is most helpful if taken as preparing for, rather than settling, the crucial question. That question is, Is the distinctively ethical part of the statement—for example ‘I ought’ in the statement above—simply an expression of feeling, or is it also an assertion? The emotivist says it is the former; it is essentially an interjection which, as expressive of feeling only, is neither true nor false.
I do not believe this. But one cannot contentedly stop with mere disagreement. What is philosophy for if not to help toward agreement on questions of this kind? It is hardly believable that intelligent persons, brought up in the same culture, and applying such terms as ‘good’ and ‘right’ apparently in the same way to the same things, should yet be using them in senses poles apart. If they think they are, it seems probable that at least one of them has mistaken what he means.
19. But then how is he to be shown that he is mistaken? If a man insists that whenever he calls another man good, he means that the man should be put in jail, is there any way of proving that he is wrong? None, I fear. He is asserting a fact to which he has access and we have not, and, for all our arguments, the last word must lie with him. But if candour exists on both sides, and agreement that one may be mistaken even about one's own meaning, there is hope. For in these circumstances there is an effective method for dealing with disagreement. It is the method used in disagreement on other fundamental questions such as the nature of truth. If A says that the truth of a belief means for him its good consequences, and B says it lies for him in its correspondence with fact, it would seem at first that the difference was hopeless, since any arguments A might bring for his position would be offered as true only in a sense that B must regard as question-begging and irrelevant, and so of B's arguments in the eyes of A. What are they to do? They might, of course, turn on their heels and walk away. But if they are sensible, they will be more patient. They will run over a set of propositions that both accept as true, and see if there are not some among them that would exclude one interpretation of truth, while consonant with the other. This method has, in fact, convinced nearly all philosophers that the pragmatic definition of truth is a mistake. Ask a candid man whether he believes it true that Samuel Pepys, as recorded in his diary, took a walk on a certain afternoon. He will say yes. Then ask him where the practical consequences are in which the truth of his belief consists, and if heaven has been kind to him in respect of native endowment, his pragmatism will begin to wane. Of course it may not be possible to find any case that is absolutely decisive, and as long as any loophole exists, some men will go on insisting that Shakespeare was Bacon. But if one conception of truth fits in with ordinary meaning and usage while another can be made to fit only by trimming and squeezing, the first should have the preference. Similarly, if it appears that an objectivist interpretation of ‘right’ and ‘good’ does fit with ordinary meaning, and an emotivist interpretation subjects it to continual strain, then our vote should go to some form of objectivism. I think this is the state of the case.
We have seen some of these strains already. The implication of the emotive view that the ‘goodness’ of an experience falls outside the experience itself in a reaction of the contemplator is unplausible in the extreme, particularly when the experience is past and the reaction present; and its further implication that no attitude of favouring or disfavouring is more fitting to an object than its opposite is likewise at odds with general belief. But we have to do now with its ability to explain, or explain away, our stubborn and inveterate conviction that moral judgments may be rational, that is, that they are assertions which may be assented to, disagreed about, argued for, and perhaps proved. Let us look at a number of points at which the theory impinges on this conviction.
20. (1) The theory implies that no statement of right or good is ever true. Suppose I say ‘the discovery of anaesthetics had very good results’. Of course this statement has various descriptive or cognitive meanings, which it is admitted on both sides may be true. But we are talking about the statement that the results were good. Regarding this statement the emotivist says that it does not state anything at all about the results in question. If that is correct, then, as we have noticed in another connection, what we said would not be rendered untrue if no such results had occurred. But we can see that it would be rendered untrue, and therefore that we must have been making an assertion capable of truth or falsity. It may be replied that what would be rendered untrue is not the statement that the results were good, but the implied factual statement that certain results did occur. I agree that this statement would be thus rendered untrue. I do not agree that the value statement would not also be rendered untrue. That this is a distinct statement is shown by the fact that the two may be falsified independently. If the results we had in mind did not in fact occur, but others we should call equally good, we should say that the factual statement was in error while the value statement was not. If the results we had in mind did occur, but further examination convinced us that they did not have the value we supposed, we should say that the factual statement was true, but the value statement mistaken. It is thus not one component only that can be confirmed and falsified, but both; and since judgments alone can be confirmed of falsified, both must be set down as judgments. It may be replied, again, that if I discover that no ‘good’ results occurred, I do not say that my judgment of good was untrue, but only that my feeling was inappropriate. I do not accept this, but let us see where it leads. Why would the feeling of approval be then called inappropriate? The rational answer is, ‘because, whereas I had assumed the results to be good, I now see that they were not’. ‘Inappropriate’ here means inappropriate to the character of the object. Hence the feeling could not be seen to be inappropriate unless the character of the object were first known. The approval is seen to be inappropriate because the object is seen not to be good.
21. (2) The theory implies, again, that no two persons ever use the word ‘right’ or ‘good’ in the same sense and that no one of us ever uses it in the same sense twice. This is hard to believe. Suppose two persons of good will devote themselves to setting up a home for old people. They are asked independently why they do it. A answers ‘Because I think it a very good thing that these people should be freed from anxiety.’ B gives the same sort of answer. The emotive theory implies that when the two men call this freedom from anxiety good, they are not using the term in the same sense, that there is no one character that they mean to ascribe to the experience they both refer to, and therefore that on the side of value they have no common end. The reason why they cannot be using the term in the same sense is that they are not using it in any sense at all, if this means some ascribable character. The only meaning with which they are using ‘good’ is an emotive meaning, and that differs in the two cases. For A it is an exclamation expressing his liking or approval; for B it is an exclamation expressing his; their emotions are different, and since their emotions are their meanings, their meanings must be different too. Now, granting that people can use the word in this way, it seems to me clear that in cases like this they do not. A and B mean to say something about freedom from anxiety; if you asked them, they would certainly say they meant the same thing, and were seeking the same result in the way of good; and I do not think that any semantic mauling can destroy this identity. Suppose that when they had got their institution under way, and the inmates were enjoying the freedom secured for them, both of these founders died. It would surely be legitimate to say that the good they meant and sought was living after them. If they could be brought back to look at their work, and found a numerous group of old people enjoying this freedom from anxiety, they would say, ‘Yes, it is because we thought this state of things would be good that we worked as we did; it was precisely this good that we were both trying to bring into being.’ On the emotivist theory, this account would be unintelligible. All that either of them meant by the goodness of such freedom died with him, for the meaning was exhausted in his own emotion, and of course his emotions ceased when he did.
22. (3) On the emotivist theory, no two of us ever agree in ethical belief. The only agreement possible in matters of good or bad will be agreement in attitude. This point is close to the one just made, but is worth separate notice. To see how an emotivist argues, we shall do well to cite a passage—it must be a rather long one—from Mr Stevenson.
‘In the example,
A: X is good.
B: Yes, that's true.
we should not be likely to take B as saying the equivalent of,
(a) “Yes, when you uttered ‘X is good’ you really did approve of X”… We should be more likely to take B as saying the equivalent of,
(b) “Yes, X is good.”
In other words, B may use “That's true” in order to repeat A's words after him, as it were, to signify agreement—but where the agreement would be in attitude, rather than (as it would be for usage (a)) in belief.’
Mr Stevenson thinks that agreement here means something quite different from what it means in a parallel case in science.
‘A: Crows are always black.
B: That's true.
Here B's reply is equivalent to a repetition of A's words—equivalent to B's having asserted, “Yes, crows are always black”—and one does not feel that “true” is being used in any unnatural sense. The ethical usage, as previously illustrated, is unusual only in that it is tantamount to repeating a man's words after him in a particular way—a way that changes their descriptive meaning and retains their emotive effect. When B uses “true” with the effect of repeating A's remark, “X is good”, he is not talking about A's approval, as A was, but rather about his own; so their respective utterances of the words have different descriptive meanings. And B may use “true” in this context in a way that keeps some of the emotive effects of “good”. This usage, being possible only when the rather colloquial indicator terms are used, is not found in science; and indeed, it is of no use unless agreement in attitude (or some analogue of it) is in question.’8
Let us see what this strange passage comes to. Suppose I say ‘crows are always black’, and you say ‘that's true’. In this case you are agreeing to the truth of what I said. Suppose now I say, ‘cultivation of mind is good’, and again you say ‘that's true’. In this case, the one thing you must not do, Mr Stevenson tells us in effect, is to take ‘true’ as meaning what in the other case you have just taken it to mean. When you say ‘that's true’, you may mean any one of three things, the first two stressing descriptive meaning, and the third emotive meaning. (a) You may interpret my statement descriptively, understanding that when I say ‘cultivation of mind is good’, what I mean is ‘I approve of cultivation of mind’; and then in saying ‘Yes, that's true’, you are telling me that you think I have correctly reported my own state of mind. Mr Stevenson's remark that this meaning is not likely is, I should say, an understatement. Our real choice, he thinks, is between the two remaining possibilities. (2) You may, when you say ‘that's true’, mean to report that you too, like me, are experiencing an emotion of approval when you contemplate cultivation of mind. This too is a factual statement, reporting your own emotion. But (3) you may not be reporting or stating anything at all; you may be merely expressing through a virtual exclamation your feeling of approval.
Now it will be noted that no one of these three interpretations suggests that what I mean by ‘that's true’ may be simply ‘that's true’, that what I intend by it is to express my assent to a judgment you have just made, that ‘cultivation of mind is good’. This interpretation, so conspicuous by its absence, is surely the most natural one of all. Let any reader ask himself whether it is not the only one that gives, in straightforward fashion and without twisting his sense, what he would normally mean. Certainly it seems so to me. Indeed this interpretation seems so much the most natural as to raise one's suspicion of any technique that excludes it. If the result of rigorous linguistic analysis is to offer the plain man a choice between a number of meanings no one of which he can recognize as his own, and to tell him he must mean what it is quite obvious to him that he does not mean, then I think the verdict must be not that the plain man is excessively dim-witted, but that semantic technique would profit by an infusion of common sense. Of course if what the semanticist wants to show is that there is and can be no such character as good in the world, we should listen with interest to a metaphysical argument designed to show it. And if his aim is to discover what people actually mean, the study of the language they use is undoubtedly helpful. What is distinctly unhelpful is analysis in the service of metaphysics, or in that of the denial of metaphysics—it is the same thing. And it is hard to see how the most obvious of the plain man's meanings could in the present case be passed over unless such preconceptions were unconsciously at work.
23. (4) We have seen that on the emotivist theory no two persons can ever agree in an ethical belief. It is also true that in this respect they can never disagree. This is a further violent paradox which reflects its incredibility on the theory unless a very strong case is made for it. What kind of case is offered? It consists in holding that where disagreements in belief occur, they concern matters of fact, and that ethical disagreements are all disagreements in attitude. Now that some disagreements which would ordinarily be called ethical are really differences in attitude does seem to be true. If two persons are motoring together and, whenever A drives, he is reluctant to break the speed limit, while B does so without hesitation, they are differing in their ethical attitude. But are all ethical disagreements of this kind? Clearly they are not. In disagreements of this kind the attitudes differ without contradicting each other. A's reluctance to exceed the speed limit is simply a different fact coexisting with B's readiness to exceed it; they are in no way logically incompatible with each other. But in many ethical disagreements we do plainly intend to deny what other people are saying, and such disagreement, therefore, involves a genuine conflict of belief. Two friends, A and B, receive a call from their government into the armed services. Both receive it reflectively, and they discuss with each other the pros and cons of what they ought to do as exhaustively as they can. A ends by going into service, B by refusing ‘on conscientious grounds’. No doubt they are differing in their ethical attitude. But is there no difference of ethical belief? The emotivist would say there is none. He holds that when A says that armed service is right and B that it is wrong, ‘there is no logical contradiction. The opposition is in attitude, not in belief. What A is trying to do is not to question the truth of what B has said about his attitudes, but rather, as we have repeatedly seen, to redirect B's attitudes.’9 That an attempt at redirection is here being made is probably true, though it is surely not always true; witness judgments of the past. But to reduce the ethical element to an expression and redirection of feeling seems to me to take inadmissible liberties with what the disputants would say they meant. Neither would have the slightest question in their minds that they did differ in their conclusions, and on a specifically ethical point. And they would undoubtedly express their difference in the verbal form of conflicting propositions: ‘the armed service of one's country is right’; ‘such service is wrong’. The semantic technique that would go behind both this explicit profession and its linguistic form and tell the men that they did not differ and never meant to differ, in moral belief, must be very ‘powerful’ indeed. Where does its persuasiveness lie?
It lies in the curiously seductive plausibility of saying that statements which are normally accompanied by a certain feeling and normally understood to express it, do nothing but express it. The man who says that armed service is wrong does say so with a feeling of disapproval, and his critic who says it is right says so with some feeling of positive moral approval. Can we not on closer inspection resolve their apparent conflict of belief into this difference of feeling towards a practice which, on the factual side, they seem to conceive in the same way? ‘Armed service—cheers!’ ‘Armed service—horrible!’ Many readers of emotivist literature are inclined to comment, ‘Well, they are saying that, aren't they?’, and score a point for emotivism. But it is such a point only if the objectivist cannot say it too, and he does say it. If the emotivist is really to score, he must show that neither disputant really intends to deny what the other man has said. And I do not think that any semantic manipulation can conjure that intention away. The difference between the two persons is not parallel to that of two persons who taste an orange and say, one of them, ‘I like it’, and the other, ‘I don't’. One man's liking it is perfectly compatible with the other's disliking it. But if, when A says, ‘the armed service of one's country is right’, B says, ‘no, it is wrong’, he surely means to differ in a manner other than this. He means to say ‘I differ with you in such a way that if what I am saying is true, then what you are saying is not’. When he says that armed service is wrong, he means that it is wrong in a sense exclusive of its being right; the suggestion that when he calls it wrong, he does it in some sense that would allow it also to be right, would seem to him bewildering and absurd. What he says and what his critic says are not merely different; they are incompatible; they are understood as such by both parties; and they are expressly offered as contradicting each other.
24. (5) Again, if the theory is true, no one ever makes a mistake on a moral question. In the disagreement about entering the service, neither man was mistaken, though each thought he was contradicting the other. If the man who started by calling it wrong changes his mind and comes to accept it as right, neither what he said before nor what he says now is mistaken. When communists said on June 6, 1941, that Britain was engaged in a wicked war of imperialistic aggression, and, the next day, after the invasion of Russia, that she was fighting nobly and defensively on behalf of democracy, neither statement, so far as it contained any ethical strictures or approvals, was in error. Indeed, regarding a thoroughgoing emotivism we must go farther. A Sicilian bandit is no more likely to be in error on moral matters than the Pope, or a child than his father. The emotivist may protest against such examples. He may point out that, though what they attribute to him is strictly true, an unwary reader might assume that the emotivist did recognize a scale of objective values and that his own values were low on that scale. Such an imputation would, of course, be unjust and is not at all what is intended. If the emotivist says that the child is no more likely to be mistaken than the father, it is because he holds that on moral matters there is no objective better and worse to be mistaken about, and no assertions to be mistaken. But while that explains why moral judgments are supposed never to be mistaken, it does not remove the paradox of this belief. Most persons are clear that in growing from childhood to maturity they have corrected earlier misconceptions of what is fair in sport, of what honesty calls for in money matters, and of where over-riding of parents’ wishes may be justified. Indeed we could all mention particular cases of having found ourselves out in error. Who does not have lurking in his memory the sort of occasion on which he said, too late, ‘I thought I was paying that porter plenty, but I certainly should have given him more.’ If someone objected, ‘What you now say is no nearer the truth than what you said then; you made no mistake before, and you are correcting nothing now; you have merely changed your feeling about one of your past actions’, one might well reply, ‘To me, who after all did the thinking and feeling in this case, it does not look that way at all. I remember calculating carefully how much I ought to pay that porter in view of his time and effort. I simply got it wrong. My feeling about paying him what I did has changed; yes. But my feeling about it has changed because of seeing the mistake I made.’ Probably an analyst could show that the change of view was closely dependent on new items of a factual kind that reflection had brought to light. That would be interesting but not relevant to the present point. For the moral judgment that concludes the reflection is not a noting of one more such item. It is the judgment that, in the light of these new items, my earlier judgment of right was mistaken. As Carritt says, ‘feeling is incorrigible except by habituation, but moral judgments are corrected by thought’.10
25. (6) The belief that we can correct, and continue to correct, mistaken notions in morals implies that progress is possible, that the moral ideas and practices achieved by one age in individual or communal life may be better than those of an earlier age. Emotivism implies that such judgments are without objective meaning. A grown person may look back regretfully on many snap judgments and impulsive actions of his youth and say he has put away childish things, but he is not seeing that these earlier responses were wrong or mistaken; he is only expressing his present feeling about them. And there is nothing in the fact that one feeling comes later than another in time to make its object better than that of another, or to give it special authority. Nothing is really better than anything else, if that means independently of how one feels about it. What is called progress would as justly be called retrogression if our feelings about past and present were reversed. The suggestion that the later attitude has achieved a higher level of moral discernment or response is itself an emotive expression, voicing the feeling of the time but with no authority over feelings that went before or might come after. This is certainly in conflict with our belief about the possibility of moral advance. So far as this belief is to the effect that progress is inevitable, and that what comes later is necessarily better than what went before, it is entitled to very little respect, because it is based on very little knowledge. But so far as it is a belief that progress is possible, the case is otherwise. Most of us think we have actually known some progress. We are confident that in certain fields we have not only achieved truer conceptions of what is right and good than we once had, but that by conforming our practice to these conceptions we have made this also really better. And by ‘really better’ we mean not merely that we have a stronger emotion of approval toward it, but that it is such as to justify that approval to any impartial eye.
Emotivists have sometimes sought to provide for judgments of progress by making some emotional responses more significant than others. They point out that the response made by a mature, well-unified, and thoughtful personality is likely to be more stable and lead to less frustration and conflict than that of some brash adolescent. This is true. But it obviously implies that stability, and the absence of frustration and conflict, are in some sense better than their opposites. Or they suggest, as Westermarck did, that ordered knowledge, impartial judgment, and the mastery of nature are better than the absence of these things. Would they be willing, as Westermarck professed to be, to admit that all they were saying in calling one culture higher than another was that it was their own? A statement of betterness, made by an emotivist, would not be an assertion that anything was better, but an expression of a value preference. And why should that preference be given priority over another and opposite preference? To say that one liking or approval is a better, or more exalted, or more precious feeling than others, would be merely to express a feeling about a feeling, and this, the emotivists hold, tells us nothing about the object. To say that it reveals the object as better, as a nearer approach to what is really right in conduct or really good in experience, would admit into ethical judgment that element of insight which emotivists and positivists want above all things to exclude,
26. (7) Another and most important Implication of the emotive theory is that one can never give relevant reasons for or against an ethical judgment. Here is a criticism that has often been repudiated, and must be made with care. Since moral judgments commonly have both emotive and descriptive meanings, and the descriptive component is a statement of fact for which it may quite well be possible to give reasons, emotivists have sometimes protested against saying that their theory excludes reasoning about such judgments. Verbally the protest is justified; in substance it is not. What it amounts to is that one can argue for the factual component of such a judgment, which no one questions, but not for the ethical component, which substantially admits what we have just been saying. Let us see how the theory differs from ordinary belief on this head.
Modern man would claim some advance over ancient Assyria in respect to the treatment of prisoners of war. Suppose that he could catch an ancient Assyrian by the beard and expostulate with him about the practice of torturing prisoners for his own pleasure. How would he go about it? Could he offer any relevant arguments to show that the Assyrian practice was wrong? He would have no doubt that he could. He could say that to act in this way was to produce gratuitous pain, or at least pain that was far greater than any pleasure it produced, and that this was wrong; he could also show that it was to indulge one's impulses to hatred and to satisfaction in others’ misery, and that this too was wrong. If then asked why these should be called wrong, could he continue the argument? Yes. He would say that to produce intense pain gratuitously was wrong because such pain was evil, and that to take satisfaction in inflicting it was wrong because this sort of satisfaction was evil. If he were asked to give reasons for these judgments again, he would probably be nonplussed. He has arrived here at judgments that he would be content to regard as self-evident. But at any rate he has offered an ethical argument. He has produced relevant evidence for a judgment of right by showing its connection with other judgments of right and ultimately with what he would take as self-evident judgments of good.
How would the emotivist comment on this apparently ethical reasoning? He would criticize it, I think, at three points. He would say (a) that none of these judgments, so far as genuinely moral, are assertions at all. We have discussed this contention already and will not now return to it. Further, and in consequence of (a), he would hold (b) that no moral ‘judgment’ ever implies or entails another, e.g. that it is not true that one can deduce the wrongness of torturing prisoners from the wrongness of gratuitously producing pain, and (c) that no factual judgment ever entails an ethical one, e.g. the fact that an experience is intensely painful does not entail its being bad.
27. Now in both these last respects emotivism is in conflict with assumptions universally made in ethical thinking. Take the first step in the argument offered above for the wrongness of torturing prisoners. Put formally, it is a syllogism: any act which gratuitously produces intense pain is wrong; the torturing of prisoners does this, therefore such torturing is wrong. The major premise here, however reached, is an ethical statement if anything is. From this major, together with a factual minor, the ethical conclusion seems to follow necessarily, and so far as I know, everyone but an emotivist would take this as a case of supporting an ethical conclusion by an ethical reason. Indeed ethical propositions seem so plainly to entail and be entailed by other ethical propositions that, if this is to be denied, an extremely convincing substitute account of what is going on here will have to be provided. The next step in the above argument offers a new feature. When one is asked why the gratuitous causing of intense pain is wrong, the natural answer is, ‘because such pain is evil’. Here again is an ethical reason for an ethical assertion. But the character of the premise is now different. What sort of assertion is one making in saying that intense pain is intrinsically evil? It does not seem like an empirical assertion; we do not say that it is only highly probable that an intense pain will be intrinsically evil, as we do that the next swan we see will be white. Such pain is evil by reason of its nature; we can see from what it is that it must be bad, as we cannot see from anything we know of swans that they must be white. The proposition is, therefore, necessary. But it is not a vain repetition either. It is not as if we had said merely ‘pain is pain’, for evil is not identical with pain; it may appear where pain is not. The relation most naturally suggested is that of genus and species; pain is one form of evil. And the relation of genus and species is a necessary one. The implication is that characters commonly taken as factual or descriptive, such as that of intense pain, may entail a value character such as goodness and badness. Thus, in some cases at least, we seem able to argue for ethical judgments with complete rational cogency.
28. What sort of substitute does the emotivist offer for this account? Essentially it is one in which psychological ‘conditioning’ takes the place of rational connection. If two parties differ over the legitimacy of torturing prisoners, neither party is making a judgment to begin with, and since it is only judgments that can be supported or refuted by evidence, reasoning about the moral issue is strictly out of the question. What passes for reasoning here is really a process of calling up varying aspects of the conduct discussed, or its causes or results, which themselves, when thought of, awake emotional responses, and thus of fortifying or nullifying the original attitudes by the play of these associated feelings. Suppose, however improbably, that someone did actually maintain that the torture of prisoners was legitimate, and you set out to dislodge him by argument. You might say (I do not suggest that this is the only argument available): ‘Don't you admit that such an act would cause far more misery to the victims than pleasure to the torturers?’ ‘Yes’, he would say if he were candid, ‘I do admit that’. And if he were so bereft of imagination as never to have thought of that aspect of the matter, and had been conditioned to dislike the causing of pain, he might be won over. But if he were, says the emotivist, it would not be reasoning that did it. There may, to be sure, be some inference of a non-necessary sort in seeing that torture would cause more pain to victims than pleasure to imposers, but the vital step, in which it is claimed that such conduct is wrong, contains no reasoning or insight at all. If your opponent has been conditioned to feel antipathy for such conduct, he will feel it, but simply and solely because of this conditioning, which might have been otherwise, and not by virtue of any sort of rational process. As a firm old sceptic, Santayana, puts it, ‘these strange and irrational pronouncements of spirit, calling events good and evil, are… grounded on nothing but on a creeping or shrinking of the flesh’.11 Suppose one had been conditioned to feel, not this ‘creeping or shrinking’, but attraction instead; what sense could your claim that this conduct was necessarily wrong conceivably bear for him? None whatever. You might, of course, say, ‘But you surely wouldn't feel favourably toward the inflicting of intense pain on yourself, would you? ‘No.’ ‘Then it is inconsistent, isn't it, to favour it when inflicted on others?’ ‘Not in the least’, comes the reply; ‘liking and disliking are emotions, not judgments, and are therefore inconsistent neither with each other nor with anything else.’ ‘But surely’, you persist, ‘even if you find no inconsistency in liking the infliction of pain on others, you can see that it is wrong, because of the badness of what you are inflicting.’ ‘Sheer confusion’, comes the answer; ‘what you are trying to connect here as ground and consequent are really two psychological facts which, as they are not judgments at all, have no kind of logical linkage; and your apparently self-evident ground, namely that intense pain is evil, since it is only an exclamation of antipathy, has no necessity either.’ As a last despairing shot, you try: ‘But this antipathy to pain is not an accident, is it? It is not something that might have been otherwise if people had been conditioned differently; it is something that men, being what they are, must feel in the nature of the case. So, after all, pain to us is necessarily evil.’ ‘More confusion’ is the reply. ‘When you say “pain to us is necessarily evil”, all that means is that we do generally feel aversion for it. If this is a result of conditioning, it obviously might have been different. If it is a result of our original nature, it still might have been different, for causal laws are de facto conjunctions only; there is no necessity in them; men in Mars may, for all we know, be at this moment rejoicing in the intensest kind of pain. So if you mean by reason the grasp of intelligible necessity, there is no trace of reason in your argument from beginning to end.’
It follows from all this that when the emotivist argues an ethical case, he is doing something extremely different from what other people suppose they are doing. Instead of arguing for a conclusion, he is trying to work on another person's emotions. Since ‘the supporting reasons’, as Mr Stevenson says, ‘have no sort of logical compulsion’ and are ‘related to the judgment psychologically rather than logically’,12 moral reasoning becomes psychological strategy. Santayana puts it baldly. If you want to prove to another man that knowledge is good, you ask him whether he would like to be an oyster, with pleasure but no ideas. This, says Santayana, is not a reason but an argumentum ad hominem, but unfortunately ‘there can be no other kind of argument in ethics’.13 But then is there no difference between being rationally convinced of the rightness of a course of conduct and being emotionally persuaded about it? Are we to say that the closeness, range, and accuracy of thought with which a moralist like Sidgwick supports an ethical conclusion are simply irrelevant to that conclusion and add nothing to its weight? If so, what is the difference between a reflective moralist and a mere propagandist?
Mr Stevenson is creditably troubled by this question and devotes a chapter to it. His conclusion is that ‘when the terms are completely neutralized, we may say with tranquillity that all moralists are propagandists, or that all propagandists are moralists’.14 Both, objectively seen, are urging conclusions that are equally non-rational and equally incapable of rational support. To be sure, Mr Stevenson protests repeatedly against the natural enough notion that this is a cynical view; ‘the practical problem is not to avoid all persuasions’, he says, ‘but to decide which to avoid and which to accept’.15 ‘Persuasion is unquestionably a tool of the “propagandist” and soap-box orator; but it is also the tool of every altruistic reformer that the world has ever known. We must not banish all doctors to rid the world of quacks.’16 True. But there is, then, a distinction between doctors and quacks, moralists and propagandists, though, looked at ‘neutrally’, there appears to be none. What is this distinction? I have been unable to discover what it is, unless it is perhaps that the doctors and moralists are those whose attitude agrees with one's own. They are not, of course, men whose ethical views are more rational, or better grounded, or in better accord with nature, or with the sentiments of mankind, for none of these things is relevant evidence that what such men regard as better is really better; indeed to talk of the ‘really better’ is held to be nonsense. But if so, is not every quack a doctor, and no doctor better than any other? Mr Stevenson says that the practical problem is to decide which persuasion to avoid and which to accept. Admirable. And just how does one decide? The Ku Klux prophet offers one counsel; the humanitarian offers another. What can a decision between these counsels mean if, before the decision, they are both neutral, and, after it, whatever one happens to have favoured is made right by that very fact? If anything can be rendered right, in the only permitted sense of right, by one's favouring it, what ground has an emotivist for talking about quacks at all? The Ku Klux clansman favours his own morals as warmly as the saint or the philosopher does his. On the emotivist theory no decision between them is possible, if this means a decision on grounds; for in the end the verdict of right given by the philosophic moralist is, and must be, as truly the reaction of non-rational feeling as that of the fanatic. It is admitted that the philosopher takes into his account a wider area of facts. But his decisions are in no logical sense based upon those facts, and no way of feeling about them is more just or right or rational than any other.
On this all-important point of the support of moral judgment by argument, emotivism and common sense—even self-critical common sense—are on opposite sides of a very wide chasm. Can the emotivist afford to brush this fact aside by saying ‘so much the worse for common sense’? No, he cannot. The meaning in men's actual judgments is what we are discussing; in the end it is the only compass in ethics. If this compass is thrown overboard and one is allowed an arbitrary choice in defining ethical terms and contriving ethical systems, one finds oneself on an open sea without moorings or bearings, and going nowhere. To his credit the emotivist has seen this. He does not want to be arbitrary. What he professes to offer is an account of the actual meaning of self-critical minds in talking about moral problems. Hence his divergence from such minds must be for him a serious matter.
29. (8) Implicit in much that we have been saying is a further implication of emotivism which many would regard as the most obvious and important of all. It allows no objective court of appeal to which ethical disputes may be carried. If this were merely an argument from unfortunate practical consequences, it would hardly be worth stating, for one does not prove an analysis to be incorrect by showing that its acceptance would be inconvenient. But that is not what the present argument says. It says that there is a general conviction in men's minds about the possibility of settling disputes with which the emotivist view is inconsistent, and hence that, as an analysis of their meaning, it is incorrect.
Let us try to be clear about this. Of course, even science has no actual court of appeal in the sense of a group of experts whose judgment is everywhere accepted. Russian and American biologists, for example, differ widely, and with no recognized body to arbitrate between them. But no biologist on either side would take the thought seriously that there is really no common court of appeal, in this or any other science. That court is simply the nature of things as revealed to men's inquiring reason. The notion would not enter their heads that if a biologist in Petrograd said one thing and a biologist at Woods Hole said another and contradictory thing, they could both be right, or that in this conflict there was no truth to be ascertained. Obviously there is and must be such a truth. Furthermore, the principles of logic, mathematics, and scientific method are not transmuted when one crosses national frontiers. If truth is everywhere one, so also in general is the method of finding it. Hence if there is a difference of opinion, the procedure for settling it Is plain enough; it is for the people on both sides to apply more rigorously the method accepted in common as the means of arriving at common truth. Thus scientists would continue to travel the same road if they never met at all. They know that where they differ they may have recourse to a court whose jurisdiction is universal and whose authority is absolute.
If the emotivist is right, the situation in ethics is the opposite of this. Even if moralists did meet in regular convention, even if there were a recognized world court of morals, there would be no principles on which it could proceed. The essence of justice is impartiality, and unless there are principles that can be applied without respect to persons and are valid independently of personal likes and dislikes, a court of justice is impossible. That there are such rules is assumed by those who administer courts or make use of them. Even those who are condemned by them do not, in general, question these rules. The man indicted for murder or forgery does not bring in a plea that these acts are right, but only that the facts of the case do not admit the classification of what he did under these heads. The parties before a court agree that there are principles standing over against their individual feelings and actions by which their conduct may be judged; it is the impersonality of these rules that is their protection; if a judge showed himself not bound by them and gave decisions on personal impulse or feeling, he would come to be regarded as a feather in the wind, or, like Jeffreys, as a capricious ogre. Indeed the very notion of adjudicating moral claims without objective principles of right and wrong is as unthinkable as the notion of judging a debate if there are no rules of evidence or laws of logic. Now the disquieting thing about emotivism is that it cannot recognize such principles.
Take a case. A certain nation, A, brings a charge against another, B, of unprovoked aggression. It does so on the assumption that such aggression is wrong, that rational persons and civilized governments will perceive that it is wrong, and that in theory at least it is possible for an international court to settle the matter by bringing home the wrong-doing to one party rather than the other. Unfortunately, if emotivism is correct, no such assumptions are warranted. There is no objective right or wrong in the case at all. There are no common moral principles, such as the wrongness of aggression, that can be brought to bear in its settlement. A says that what B has done is wrong, and if A feels as he does about it the action is wrong, in the only admissible sense. B says the action was an admirable example of rational foresight in caring for an expanding population, and if B feels that way about it, the action is right in the only admissible sense. And, regardless of the facts of the case or the feelings of the litigants, any verdict the court may please to give as to the rights and wrongs of the case will be unexceptionable, since there is nothing objective to check it by, and it expresses faithfully what the court feels. In a moral world of this kind, the very notion of impartial justice is without meaning. There can be no verdict in accordance with deserts because there are no deserts. There is no real guilt, no real innocence. This seems to me ethical anarchy.
30. Mr Eliot remarks that ‘the most important question that we can ask is whether there is any permanent standard by which we can compare our civilization with another, and by which we can make some guess at the improvement or decline of our own’.17 There are emotivists who would agree, and who do not like the dusty answer that their philosophy requires them to give to this question. Bertrand Russell is one of these. He sees no way of escape from emotivism. When he comes in his History of Western Philosophy to the famous debate between Socrates and Thrasymachus, he finds himself, in principle, on Thrasymachus’ side.
‘Plato thinks he can prove that his ideal Republic is good; a democrat who accepts the objectivity of ethics may think that he can prove the Republic bad; but anyone who agrees with Thrasymachus will say: “There is no question of proving or disproving; the only question is whether you like the kind of State that Plato desires. If you do, it is good for you; if you do not, it is bad for you. If many do and many do not, the decision cannot be made by reason, but only by force, actual or concealed”.’18
Is this, then, the conclusion to which we are compelled? Russell thinks it is.
‘Nietzsche's hero differs from a Christian saint, yet both are impersonally admired, the one by Nietzscheans, the other by Christians. How are we to decide between the two except by means of our own desires? Yet, if there is nothing further, an ethical disagreement can only be decided by emotional appeals, or by force—in the ultimate resort, by war. In questions of fact, we can appeal to science and scientific methods of observation; but on ultimate questions of ethics there seems to be nothing analogous. Yet, if this is really the case, ethical disputes resolve themselves into contests for power—including propaganda power.’19
On this view it is hard to see how an international law or ‘obligation’ could have any binding force. I do not wish to overstate the case. I do not think the view would rule out international laws and courts and governments altogether; it would rather change their basis in a Hobbesian manner. Hobbes was an early emotivist who held that ‘whatsoever a man desireth, that for his part he calleth good’. In a state of nature, therefore, he had no obligation to do anything he did not want to do, for an action was made right by the fact that he wanted to do it. But since all men are egoists, Hobbes held, they will all want to exploit each other for their own ends. Since this tended to make the life of each ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’, they concluded, each for his own advantage, to set up a power with jurisdiction over them all, and give it their joint obedience. Here then we have a pattern for a court and government possessing great power (Hobbes made it absolute), and yet with no recognition of objective right or wrong anywhere in the system. Why is this not a valid pattern now? One must agree that it would be better than nothing. But any structure that cuts the connection between morality and law, as this does, is likely to be unstable. The members who agree to obey are bound by nothing but self-interest to keep their word. If they can exploit others to their own satisfaction without being detected and punished, there is no reason, legal or moral, why they should not. If they are powerful enough to defy the government, national or international, there is no ground on which they can be validly criticized for doing so; they have no obligation if they do not feel that they have. Nor does the government. Once in power, it can do no wrong. Its obligation is identical with its preference. A policy ordered on these principles would, as we have suggested, probably be better than chaos. But if it has nothing better to base itself on than moral anarchy, it will gravitate toward political anarchy as well.
31. We have argued that the emotive theory does not give an accurate account of our actual moral beliefs. It is worth pointing out that it does not give a true account of what emotivists themselves believe when they are off their guard. When Russell, for example, is deploring a supernaturally grounded morality, he has no hesitation in ascribing to value judgments a high degree of certainty: ‘the evil of being burnt alive is more certain’, he says, ‘than any proposition of theology’.20 Is this not a curious opinion for one who holds that value statements, being exclamations, are not capable of certainty at all? Russell is one of the most effective defenders of the appeal to reason in human affairs, and the force of his defence is enhanced by a noble record of courage. There is at times a stirring ring in his words that reminds one of that ‘saint of rationalism’, John Stuart Mill, who happens to have been his godfather. ‘The power of reason is thought small in these days’, he writes, ‘but I remain an unrepentant rationalist. Reason may be a small force, but it is constant, and works always in one direction, while the forces of unreason destroy one another in futile strife. Therefore every orgy of unreason in the end strengthens the friends of reason, and shows afresh that they are the only true friends of humanity.’21 ‘We have a right to hopes that are rational… If we allow ourselves to be robbed of these hopes for the sake of irrational dreams, we shall be traitors to the human race.’22 Again, ‘Whatever sexual ethic may ultimately be accepted must be free from superstition and must have recognizable and demonstrable grounds in its favour.’23 Admirable, all of it. But how can the same voice tell us that regarding the ends of life and the great issues of right and wrong, reason has nothing to say? Russell's main plea as a social and political reformer has been that reason should be heard against the irrational promptings of prejudice and sentiment. Russell's main argument as a moralist is that in the ultimate decision of these issues reason is impotent and the verdict must be given by sentiment. Russell the moralist describes the plea made by Russell the reformer as nonsense.24 He is in need of defence against himself.
Other emotivists have had similar trouble with consistency. ‘Thus they employ their supposed discovery that no moral judgment is really anything more than the expression of a bias of the person who utters it as a basis for the claim that no moralist has a “right” to impose his own biases on others, and vigorously condemn those who violate this maxim of their moral doctrine.’25 They may reply, of course, that in protesting against one man's imposing his prejudices on others, they are only expressing their own dislike of such conduct and are not suggesting that there is anything wrong with his attitude in any other sense; indeed he has a perfect ‘right’ to impose his biases on others, in the only admissible sense of ‘right’, if he feels in a certain way about it. This is consistent, but one wonders if there is not some rationalization in it. Indeed one finds all too many occasions for such wonder in the writing of emotivists. In commenting on the work of one of them, Professor Paton says: ‘I fail to understand why he consistently assumes agreement in attitude to be good. He even assumes that “enlightened” argument is better than argument which is not enlightened. In so doing he seems either to be assuming unconsciously some objective standard of goodness or else to be introducing personal preferences into a “neutral” analysis in which they should have no place.’26 Of course an attitude arrived at as a result of enlightened argument is more likely to be ‘rooted in fact’, but then for any thoroughgoing emotivist ‘rooted in fact’ means neither necessitated by fact nor appropriate to fact; indeed such an attitude is no better than any other, except in the sense that I happen—for no reasons at all—to be drawn to it. Emotivists do not like the criticism that their theory places on a level the moral response of the reflective judge and that of the man of impulse; it is perfectly possible, they say, to consider the former better, in the sense of being ethically more weighty. If this means what everyone else would mean by it, namely that the judge achieves a fuller and more objective appraisal of the values involved, they are no longer emotivists. If it means what they say it does, it expresses nothing but another non-rational preference.
32. Are these lapses into inconsistency mere inadvertencies, or is there something incoherent in emotivism as such? I think that as it is actually maintained, there always is this latter kind of inconsistency. The theory is put forward as true, and as the only theory that will do justice to the facts of moral experience. In inquiring into these facts, in seeking a theory that will comport with them, in defending this theory by argument, is not the emotivist assuming that it is better to know than not to know? He may answer, of course, that he happens to like knowing, but is not assuming that, apart from this liking, it is any better than ignorance. But is that true? He acts very much as if he thought it better for others too, regardless of what they may happen to feel. He is certainly not content to leave others in their ignorance. Why is he so eager to put his argument before them, to expose the errors of alternative theories, and to get people to see the truth of his own account? He may reply that it is because he thinks that if others come to know the truth, they will respond to it emotionally as he does. But why should he want them to do so? Is it because their doing so would be good? If he says yes, meaning what most people would mean by this, namely that their knowledge would have a worth of its own, regardless of what he might feel about it, then he has deserted his theory again. If he says no, then what is the point of his efforts? He is trying to induce in others an experience that he does not admit to have in itself any value at all, and his effort to induce it is the product of a non-rational whim. He may reply that it gratifies his love of power to exert this influence over other minds. But he would take no satisfaction in convincing them of what was not true, even if the delusion were pleasant to them; his satisfaction depends on thinking that he is doing them some good, that it is better for them to know the truth. If he found them insisting that they would rather remain in ignorance and error, what would he say? Would he say that since they happened to like that state, ignorance and error were their good? I think not. He would more probably expostulate with them on the ground that it could not be anyone's good to remain in such a state, and that if they were not interested in the truth, they ought to be. That is good sense, but it is not emotivism.
Let us be clear what we are saying. There is no necessary contradiction, so far as I see, between affirming the emotivist theory as true and denying that knowledge has, as such, any value. There is a contradiction between what the emotivist is asserting and what is normally implied in his act of asserting it. The logic of the case is rather like that of the Cartesian cogito ergo sum. The real force of Descartes's argument lies in the contradiction that would be involved in denying that one's own thinking existed. But there is no self-contradiction in the content of this assertion; the proposition ‘no thought exists’, taken by itself, is unexceptionable. But taken together with the fact that it is actually being asserted, there is a contradiction; it cannot be true at once that no thought exists and that I am actually thinking that no thought exists; in making one's assertion, one is doing something which, when recognized for what it is, cuts the ground from under the proposition asserted. The emotive paradox is similar. In urging upon myself and others the knowledge that knowledge in itself is valueless, I am implying that it does have a value denied in my assertion about it. The position, to take another example, is a little like that of the psychological hedonist, who may protest that when he talks and acts as if the happiness of his family were important, he is interested in nothing but his own happiness; he holds that his scheming and sacrificing for their advantage show no desire for this advantage, but only a tendency on his part to find his own satisfaction in acting as if he had a desire for it. This is clearly a logical possibility. But most philosophers who have considered it have thought that, whatever its holder may profess, he was really belying his theory daily. He would not find his own happiness in promoting that of others unless he really did desire theirs as well as his own. In like fashion I think that emotivists are deceiving themselves about their meanings. Both in seeking the truth and trying to make it prevail, they attach an importance to knowing which belies their profession that they regard such knowledge as intrinsically worthless. A distinguished logician has written: ‘those who deny the character of cognition and the possibility of truth to value-apprehensions must find themselves, ultimately, in the position of Epimenides the Cretan who said that all Cretans are liars. Either their thesis must be false or it is not worth believing or discussing… whoever says what is incompatible with his own presumptive attitude in saying it must either be joking or he reduces himself to absurdity’.27 Professor Lewis is surely right.