Moral Cognitivism

Moral Cognitivism (Concepts & Beliefs)

Several philosophical concepts and beliefs shape our understanding of ethics and morality. One such concept is Moral Cognitivism, which explores the existence of moral truths and values. This school of thought argues that moral statements can express beliefs that can be either true or false. It stands in contrast to non-cognitivism, which denies the existence of moral facts and views moral statements as expressions of non-cognitive attitudes.

Moral Cognitivism is often associated with moral realism, a position that posits objective moral properties and facts that exist independently of human opinions. It is also a significant component of metaethics, a branch of philosophy that examines the nature and justification of moral judgments. Additionally, it delves into the domains of moral reasoning and cognitive moral development, shedding light on how individuals reason about and comprehend moral issues.

Key Takeaways:

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  • Moral Cognitivism explores the existence of moral truths and values.
  • It asserts that moral statements can express beliefs that can be true or false.
  • Moral Cognitivism is associated with moral realism and metaethics.
  • It sheds light on moral reasoning and cognitive moral development.
  • Understanding Moral Cognitivism contributes to a comprehensive understanding of ethics and morality.

The Two Negative Non-Cognitivist Claims

Non-cognitivism, a form of irrealism in ethics, challenges the existence of moral properties and facts. While non-cognitivists agree with error theorists that objective moral truths are nonexistent, they approach the problem from different perspectives.

Semantic nonfactualism asserts that moral statements neither express propositions nor have substantial truth conditions. In other words, moral predicates do not denote or express properties, and moral sentences do not predicate properties. Semantic nonfactualism separates moral statements from the realm of propositional truth, suggesting that their nature is fundamentally different.

Psychological non-cognitivism focuses on the states of mind expressed by moral utterances. It rejects the notion that these states are beliefs or cognitive states. Instead, non-cognitivists argue that moral statements primarily function as a means to express non-cognitive attitudes, such as desires, approval, or disapproval. By emphasizing the non-cognitive nature of moral statements, psychological non-cognitivism offers a contrasting view to traditional beliefs about moral reasoning and cognitive engagement.

All in all, non-cognitivism challenges the traditional understanding of moral properties, moral facts, and the cognitive nature of moral statements. It opens up new avenues for exploring the psychological and semantic dimensions of moral attitudes.

Non-Cognitivist Claim Key Points
Semantic Nonfactualism Moral statements do not express propositions or have substantial truth conditions. Moral predicates do not denote or express properties, and moral sentences do not predicate properties.
Psychological Non-Cognitivism The states of mind expressed by moral utterances are not beliefs or cognitive states. Moral statements primarily express non-cognitive attitudes such as desires, approval, or disapproval.

Principal Varieties of Non-Cognitivism

Non-cognitivism encompasses various different theories that propose positive explanations for the meanings of moral expressions and the mental states expressed by those who utter them. These theories explore the complex landscape of moral philosophy, offering unique perspectives on the nature of moral judgments and values.


Emotivism suggests that moral terms in assertive utterances primarily express or evoke emotions. It emphasizes the role of emotions in shaping moral attitudes and judgments.


Prescriptivism views moral sentences as a form of prescription or command. It asserts that moral statements are not descriptive but instead express rules or principles to guide behavior.

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Universal Prescriptivism

Universal prescriptivism posits that moral judgments are universalizable prescriptions. It argues that moral statements carry a universal prescriptive force, applicable to all rational persons.


Quasi-realism presents moral statements as non-cognitive expressions of attitudes while maintaining a realistic stance towards moral value. It asserts that moral judgments have an emotive or expressive function rather than stating objective facts.


Expressivism argues that moral sentences express non-cognitive attitudes or states of mind. It suggests that moral statements are a reflection of individual beliefs, emotions, or desires rather than expressing objective truths.


Norm-expressivism suggests that moral sentences express attitudes of acceptance of various norms or rules. It focuses on the role of moral judgments in endorsing or accepting social norms or moral principles.


Plan-expressivism takes a similar approach to norm-expressivism but focuses on specific plans of action. It highlights the connection between moral judgments and the intention to act in accordance with certain plans or courses of action.

Borderline Cases and Hybrid Theories

Borderline cases and hybrid theories attempt to address moral judgments that fall in between traditional categorizations. These theories combine elements of different non-cognitive theories to provide a comprehensive framework for understanding the complexities of moral language and judgments.

In the next section, we will explore the motivations for non-cognitivism and the challenges it faces in addressing moral philosophy and metaethics.

Motivations for Non-Cognitivism

Non-cognitivism in ethics is driven by various arguments and considerations that challenge traditional approaches to moral philosophy. These motivations shed light on the complex nature of moral judgments and the limitations of cognitivist perspectives. Let’s explore some key factors that contribute to the appeal of non-cognitivism.

The Open Question Argument

The open question argument is a prominent motivation for non-cognitivism. It raises doubts about the ability to reduce moral properties to natural or descriptive properties. By highlighting the difficulty of answering the question “What is the meaning of goodness?” in a way that equates it to natural properties, this argument emphasizes the unique nature of moral properties and challenges their reducibility.

Naturalism and the Gap Between Descriptive and Prescriptive Language

Naturalism is a rival position to non-cognitivism that seeks to ground moral truths in natural facts. However, naturalism faces challenges in bridging the gap between descriptive language (how things are) and prescriptive language (how things ought to be). The distinct nature of moral language and its implications for normativity make it difficult to simply derive moral principles from descriptive facts.

Motivational Internalism and the Action-guiding Character of Moral Judgments

Motivational internalism argues that moral judgments are intrinsically connected to motivation and emotions. According to this view, moral judgments not only express beliefs but also possess an action-guiding character. This means that moral judgments have a motivational impact, influencing the behavior of individuals. Non-cognitivism aligns with this perspective by emphasizing the role of emotions and motivations in moral decision-making.

Supervenience and the Relationship Between Moral and Natural Properties

Supervenience addresses the relationship between moral properties and natural properties. In non-cognitivism, moral properties depend on and are determined by natural properties. This suggests that moral judgments are supervenient on natural facts and cannot be reduced to them. The distinction between moral and natural properties adds to the complexity of understanding morality from a cognitivist standpoint.

Moral Disagreement and the Lack of Objective Basis

Moral disagreement is another compelling factor that motivates non-cognitivism. The existence of conflicting moral views suggests that there is no objective basis for resolving these disagreements. Non-cognitivism acknowledges the subjectivity and variability of moral judgments, highlighting the challenge of establishing a universally acceptable moral framework.

Cognitivism Non-Cognitivism
Believes in the existence of objective moral truths Denies the existence of objective moral truths
Views moral judgments as cognitive beliefs Views moral judgments as non-cognitive expressions of attitudes
Attempts to reduce moral properties to natural properties Highlights the distinctiveness of moral properties
Brings descriptive and prescriptive language closer Emphasizes the gap between descriptive and prescriptive language

Problems, Objections, and Response Strategies

Non-cognitivism faces several challenges and objections that require careful consideration and response strategies. These issues raise important questions about the viability and limitations of non-cognitivist metaethics.

The Embedding Problem

The embedding problem is a key challenge for non-cognitivism, questioning how moral language can be effectively embedded in larger linguistic contexts if moral statements do not possess truth conditions. This problem challenges non-cognitivists to explain how moral statements can coherently interact with other semantic components, such as modals, conditionals, and quantifiers.

The Wishful Thinking Objection

Another objection raised against non-cognitivism is the wishful thinking objection. Critics argue that non-cognitivism allows for wishful thinking rather than rational moral reasoning. They claim that non-cognitivism fails to provide a solid foundation for moral judgments based on objective reasoning and evidence.

Moral Uncertainty

An additional concern within a non-cognitivist framework is the role of moral uncertainty. Critics question how non-cognitivism can adequately address and account for situations where individuals experience uncertainty or conflicting moral intuitions. They argue that non-cognitivism may struggle to provide a consistent and satisfying approach to navigating moral uncertainties.

Implications in Relativism

Non-cognitivism is often criticized for its potential implications in relativism. Relativism suggests that moral judgments are subjective and vary across individuals or cultures. Critics argue that non-cognitivism’s rejection of objective moral truths can lead to an overly subjective and relativistic understanding of morality, undermining the concept of moral objectivity.

Varieties of Normative Thought

An ongoing challenge for non-cognitivism involves capturing and accounting for the rich complexities of normative thought within its metaethic. Non-cognitivists must address the diverse array of normative theories and moral frameworks, finding ways to accommodate and incorporate various normative perspectives and moral evaluations.

Non-cognitivists respond to these objections by providing nuanced explanations and refining their theories. They aim to address concerns raised by critics and strengthen their position within the field of metaethics. By engaging in ongoing discourse with both supporters and opponents of non-cognitivism, scholars seek to develop a more robust understanding of moral reasoning and the nature of non-cognitive moral judgments.


Moral cognitivism plays a pivotal role in ethical theories and the field of metaethics. It provides a valuable perspective that recognizes the existence of moral truths and values, asserting that moral statements have the capacity to express beliefs that can be evaluated for their truth or falsity. This stands in contrast to non-cognitivism, which presents a different viewpoint on moral reasoning and the nature of morality.

Although non-cognitivism poses challenges and faces objections, it offers a distinct and thought-provoking approach to understanding moral judgments. By exploring the nuances of moral cognitivism and its various forms, one can gain a comprehensive understanding of moral philosophy and the intricate complexities surrounding moral values and judgment.

In the realm of ethical theories and metaethics, moral cognitivism holds its own as a significant and influential framework. Through its exploration, we deepen our understanding of the nature of moral truths, the complexities of moral reasoning, and the intricate tapestry of human morality.


What is moral cognitivism?

Moral cognitivism is a philosophical position that argues for the existence of moral truths and values.

How does moral cognitivism differ from non-cognitivism?

Moral cognitivism asserts that moral statements can express beliefs and can be true or false, while non-cognitivism denies the existence of moral properties or facts and sees moral statements as expressions of non-cognitive attitudes.

What is moral realism?

Moral realism is often associated with moral cognitivism and posits that moral properties and facts are objective and independent of human opinions.

How does moral cognitivism relate to metaethics?

Moral cognitivism is a key aspect of metaethics, which examines the nature and justification of moral judgments.

What is the relationship between moral cognitivism and moral reasoning?

Moral cognitivism explores moral reasoning and cognitive moral development, which focus on how individuals reason about and understand moral issues.

What is non-cognitivism?

Non-cognitivism is a form of irrealism in ethics that denies the existence of moral properties or facts.

What are the different theories within non-cognitivism?

Non-cognitivism encompasses various theories such as emotivism, prescriptivism, universal prescriptivism, quasi-realism, expressivism, norm-expressivism, plan-expressivism, borderline cases, and hybrid theories.

What are some arguments that motivate non-cognitivism?

Motivations for non-cognitivism include the open question argument, challenges in naturalism, motivational internalism, supervenience, and the distinctiveness of moral disagreement.

What challenges and objections does non-cognitivism face?

Non-cognitivism faces objections such as the embedding problem, wishful thinking objection, concerns about moral uncertainty and relativism, and difficulties in capturing the different varieties of normative thought.

How do non-cognitivists respond to these objections?

Non-cognitivists refine their theories and provide nuanced explanations to address these objections.

Why is moral cognitivism significant in ethical theories and metaethics?

Moral cognitivism offers a perspective that asserts the existence of moral truths and values and contributes to a comprehensive exploration of moral philosophy and the complexities of moral judgment and values.

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