Philosophy Word of the Day – Moral Cognitivism vs. Non-Cognitivism

Non-cognitivism is a variety of irrealism about ethics with a number of influential variants. Non-cognitivists agree with error theorists that there are no moral properties or moral facts. But rather than thinking that this makes moral statements false, noncognitivists claim that moral statements are not in the business of predicating properties or making statements which could be true or false in any substantial sense. Roughly put, noncognitivists think that moral statements have no truth conditions. Furthermore, according to non-cognitivists, when people utter moral sentences they are not typically expressing states of mind which are beliefs or which are cognitive in the way that beliefs are. Rather they are expressing non-cognitive attitudes more similar to desires, approval or disapproval.

Cognitivism is the denial of non-cognitivism. Thus it holds that moral statements do express beliefs and that they are apt for truth and falsity. But cognitivism need not be a species of realism since a cognitivist can be an error theorist and think all moral statements false. Still, moral realists are cognitivists insofar as they think moral statements are apt for truth and falsity and that many of them are in fact true.

(Via Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

My view is that on metaphysical naturalism, moral noncognitivism is the most reasonable view.  On this view, it seems at the most foundational level, morality could only be social convention, or perhaps some kind of evolutionary instinct.  But in either case, you’re left with no objective foundation for morality (objective meaning true or false regardless of what anyone happens to think about it).

But since I do believe in objective morality, and real moral duties, and that some acts are inherently immoral, those are all reasons I don’t believe in metaphysical naturalism.

Any thoughts along these lines?

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3 thoughts on “Philosophy Word of the Day – Moral Cognitivism vs. Non-Cognitivism

  1. What do you think about Thomistic natural law, which Nicholas Wolterstorff has used to prove intrinsic inherent human rights as the ground for justice — the moral duty for one party to another?
    Can we prove moral noncognitivism in lieu of metaphysical naturalism? Are you with moral noncognitivism after all?

    • Hi Joice,

      Thanks for those good questions. It must be interesting studying Nicholas Wolterstorff. I hope to read some of his works one of these days. I do believe in natural law, based on the fact that we are made in God’s image and have His moral law written on our hearts, but it seems to me that the cognitivism vs. noncognitivism debate ultimately hinges on the metaphysical issue of whether or not right and wrong actually exist. On theism, we do have a metaphysical foundation for right and wrong (namely, God’s nature), but I don’t believe there is one on naturalism, since all that exists is purposeless matter and energy, and their interactions. Also, since I’m a moral realist, I do believe in moral cognitivism.

      Thanks for those insights,

      • Interesting, Chris. It’d be great if you could spare a moment to read a few chapters of Nick’s “Justice: Rights and Wrongs” and see how he traverses strict boundaries of conventional concepts to find new grounds. It’s especially intriguing to see how O’Donovan (another Augustinian) denies the possibility of human rights which is not individualistic nor asocial, as Nick claims (recent J. of Religious Ethics). I don’t think moral non-cognitivism as posted above is the correct description of moral claims. And yet moral cognitivism, in conventional sense, has somehow overemphasized the role of cognitive aspect in moral statements, or philosophical propositions in general. It is one thing to believe in the ultimate source of morals (ie God), quite another to see anything else as purposeless matter and energy, and their interactions. Nick tries to prove the intrinsic inherent worth of human beings as having been conferred by God. I hope his forthcoming “Love and Justice” (final draft ready in Sept) will make his ideas more complete.

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