What is Non-Cognitivism?


Non-Cognitivism is the meta-Ethical approach that holds that moral propositions lack truth-value – that is, statements about morality cannot be said to be either true or false. It follows from this assertion that, because statements about morality are neither true or false, it is not possible to have moral knowledge – there are no such things as moral truths precisely because the criteria for knowledge as ‘justified true belief’ is lacking.

In a strict sense, Non-Cognitivist theories deny that there are moral propositions insofar a proposition is considered to be derived through logic (i.e. can be said to be either true or false). In Epistemology, a proposition is an assertion – there is a declaration that can be tested and hypothesised upon as being either true or false. Ethical statements such as ‘Person X is good / bad’ thus bear truth values. It is possible to agree or disagree with the proposition Person X is good – one can say, that it is true that Person X is good or that it is false that Person X is bad. Bearing truth value does not preclude disagreement on the ethical proposition – the emphasis is on the ability to declare a something which can be said to be true or false. Non-cognitivism denies that there are ethical propositions as such; instead, it posits that knowledge about morality is impossible.

Non-Cognitivism is contrasted by Cognitivism, a view that holds that ethical propositions do exist and thus do have truth-value. Both Non-Cognitivism and Cognitivism are perhaps best understood as umbrella terms under which many ethical theories reside.

Arguments For and Against Non-Cognitivism

There are arguments for and against Non-Cognitivism. Supporters often rely on something called Argument from Queerness – that is, to speak of ethics or morality is to speak of something fundamentally different the world of objects. Even if one were to assert that there is such as thing a property assigned to ethics, that property would be fundamentally different from properties of objects, which can be observed and measured. It is therefore not possible to discern what an ethical property would be, even if it were to exist, as it is hard to find any evidence for their existence.

Non-Cognitivism considers ethics to be functional – there is a normative approach to ethical statements as expressions of approval or disapproval through which one could prescribe a particular behaviour. This is, of course, opposed to making assertions of whether an ethical statement is of itself true or false, as discussed above. The strength of argument for Non-Cognitivists is that they are able to displace the burden of proof from themselves onto Cognitivists who would have to satisfy additional criteria for ethical statements. In addition to expressing a prescriptive role, Cognitivists would have to satisfy how the descriptive role is fulfilled – i.e. how a particular ethical statement is also true or false.

On the opposite side, Cognitivists argue that Non-Cognitivism views itself as isolated from the world and does not account for external causes for ethical statements. Saying that ‘Person X is good / bad’ must account for an external aspect that prompts such a statement in the first place. Furthermore, Non-Cognitivism cannot account for the use of ethical statements in syllogisms. If ethical statements are not cognitive, it would not be possible to use these statements in logic, or more commonly in Aristotelian syllogisms. For example, ‘Beating children is wrong, Everyone under 12 years of age is a child. Beating under-12-year-olds is wrong.’ Non-Cognitivists cannot account for how these kind of syllogisms are possible if we are to think of ethical statements only as prescriptive.

Types of Non-Cognitivism

As pointed out about, Non-Cognitivism is best understood as an umbrella term under which many ethical theories fall. Below are a just a few mentioned and these should be seen as either complete or fully representative:

  • Emotivism – a view that holds that ethical sentences express emotions of approval or disapproval and lack further content. Judgments about ethics are part of an individual attitude towards others and society. This view was primarily put fowards by the mid-20th century British philosopher A.J. Ayer and the American philosopher C. L. Stevenson. Ayer was of the opinion that ethical statements are a kind of imperative as the person who utters them means to influence those he / she speaks to.
  • Prescriptivism – a view that holds that ethical statements are imperatives, just as above. However Prescriptivists also think that these statements can be made universal – that is to say, that ethical statements are more than individual attitudes and can be made applicable to all. The main proponent of this view was R. M. Hare.
  • Expressivism – a view that holds that the main function of ethical sentences is to express how one evaluates the world around them. They thus hold that ethical expressions do not assert any factual observations and remain in the domain of prescription rather than description.
  • Quasi-Realism – a view that holds that ethical sentences are linguistically similar to claims about the objective world and therefore can be said to have truth values. However, there are no actual ethical facts in the world. The main proponent of this view is Simon Blackburn, who claims that the field of ethics cannot be said to be realist (purely descriptive) because that would not be able to account for development of ethics over time or to account for cultures that have substantial differences between them.
  • Projectivism – a view that holds that while ethical properties are substantially different from objective properties, it is nevertheless possible to attribute these them. An object can thus be attributed certain properties and be thought of as if these properties truly belong to it. An early developer of Projectivism was David Hume (and more recently by Simon Blackburn); however, it is currently primarily associated with Moral Relativism and for that reason has become quite controversial.
  • Moral Fictionalism – a view that holds that ethical sentences do not hold truth values and are indeed fictitious. However, these fictions have proven to be useful and should therefore not be easily disregarded. Just as the Projectivism, Moral Fictionalism is associated with Moral Relativism and even insincerity of their proponents and for these reasons have become controversial.

Further Reading

Blackburn, S. (2009). Ethics: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Blackburn, S. (2003). Being Good: A Short Introduction to Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Miller, A. (2013). Contemporary Metaethics: An Introduction. Cambridge: Polity Press.

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