Theorist of ethics

Charles Leslie Stevenson, American philosopher (1908-1979), professor at the University of Michigan.

Father of emotivism

Stevenson developed emotivism, a metha-ethical theory presented in his work “Ethics and Language” (1944). Emotivism rejects the idea of ethical absolutes and analyzes moral arguments in terms of the emotive uses of language. The reasoning may be summarized as follows:

Statements that express a person’s moral judgment of whether something is morally good or bad, don’t actually express anything but the speaker’s personal liking or disliking of the matter. They are intended to persuade the audience to adopt the attitude of the speaker. Moral expressions are, due to their strong emotive content, particularly well suited for such persuasion.

So-called moral argumentation is hence, according to Stevenson, merely a cover for the attempts by the parties to persuade each other into adopting a particular normative attitude. Stevenson maintains that the meaning of moral language is exhausted when it expresses, evokes, or endorses powerful human feelings. For example, saying "pre-marital sex is wrong," is just an especially strong way of stating that I disapprove of pre-marital sex, which evokes similar disapproval from others. It thereby attempts to influence the future conduct of both me and the others. The origins of emotivism may in a sense be traced back to the non-cognitivist morality of David Hume.

Persuasive definitions

Stevenson also introduced the well-known term “persuasive definition” as a description of a frequently encountered phenomenon in ethical argumentation (in Mind, vol 47, 1938). The phenomenon appears in connection with expressions that have two particular characteristics:

(1) having emotive overtones/meanings (positive or negative)
(2) being vague in their descriptive content

Some examples are democracy, freedom, repression, and terrorism. The outcome of the discussion may well depend on which of the parties will succeed in connecting a positive expression to the “definition” of his cause, and a negative one to the opponent’s. The persuasive definition utilizes the inherent vagueness of the terms, which gives room for many possible definitions, facilitating clever use of emotively charged expressions.


Stephen Satris: Ethical Emotivism (Martinus Nijhoff, 1987)< br> Charles L. Stevenson: Ethics and Language (Yale, 1944)< br> J. O. Urmson: The Emotive Theory of Ethics (London, 1968)