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C H A P T E R E I G H T Naturalism, Nihilism, and Perfectionism Stevenson, Williams, and Nietzsche in Twentieth-Century Moral Philosophy S T E P H E N M U L H A L L Naturalism as Pragmatism: Stevenson’s Inheritance of Dewey Can any moderately well-worked-out, general philosophical position ever be decisively refuted? Consider emotivism, for example, and more particularly that highly influential variant of it propounded in Charles L. Stevenson ’s Ethics and Language.1 Perhaps only its equal and opposite partner in crime, G.E. Moore’s intuitionism, is now so widely presumed to share the distinction of having been exhaustively and witheringly criticized to the point of retaining only historical interest (at least within the academy— the state of play beyond its walls is another matter entirely). And yet, when one examines the cogency of the most familiar of those lines of criticism, it can be hard to maintain one’s conviction in their capacity to deprive Stevenson of any words of defense, of any way of redescribing the nature and significance of that criticism in terms that render it not merely argumentatively null but also actually confirmatory of the truth of the emotivist analysis of moral discourse. Take, as an example, two of Stevenson’s most notorious claims, as articulated in the following passages: 200 Any statement about any matter of fact which any speaker considers likely to alter attitudes may be adduced as a reason for or against an ethical judgement. (EL, 114) When the terms are completely neutralized, one may say with tranquillity that all moralists are propagandists, or that all propagandists are moralists. Either statement can be made true by definition, without violence to the boundaries of conventional usage. (EL, 252) These two claims are plainly related: indeed, the latter might be seen as a concrete instantiation of the former, insofar as our grasp of the difference between morality and propaganda is very likely to turn on our sense of a difference between two familiar ways in which one might attempt to alter the moral judgments and orientation of one’s interlocutor. By the same token, however, our sense that the more general claim is obviously false ought therefore to be shaken insofar as we encounter difficulties in demonstrating the falsehood of its more specific counterpart. Stanley Cavell takes particular exception to Stevenson’s tranquil equation of the moralist and the propagandist. As he forcefully presents his counterview: “To propagandize under the name of morality is not immoral ; it denies morality altogether. And in sentimentalizing propaganda, it denies to propaganda its practical urgency and extreme utility, which are all that can justify it, when it is justified.”2 The burden of Cavell’s disgust is expressed here by his citation of Kate Croy in Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove: her interpretation of her project to attract a legacy from Millie Theale in ways that muddle and blunt Merton Densher’s perception of his guilt would make her (in Stevenson’s neutralized terminology) a spokesman for morality; whereas (in Cavell’s view) her willingness to use Densher’s love for her to entice him into a course of action that, if he properly comprehended it, would appall him, is not merely immoral but an evil of a different order altogether. Cavell regards Stevenson’s legitimation of such a reinterpretation of Kate Croy as indicating his refusal to acknowledge that “when a moralist confronts us he is recognizing us as persons about whom he cares, and to whom he acknowledges a commitment, . . . that he accepts . . . responsibility for the act of confronting us . . . [which is not] something he can have decided upon quite privately, and with no particular knowledge of Naturalism, Nihilism, and Perfectionism 201 our other cares and commitments.”3 For Cavell, to address oneself to one’s interlocutor as one moral being to another is to do so in a way that acknowledges both parties as possessed of cares and commitments whose nature and reality condition both the considerations that can have a bearing on the matter at hand and the mode of our presentation of them. One might think of this as a specification of a nonmanipulative mode of intercourse with another human being; Kant would have regarded it as partly constitutive of treating that other as an end. By implicit contrast, the propagandist discounts any such constraints, speaking from a position that takes account of his hearers’ position...


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