Non-cognitivism is the meta-ethical view that moral utterances lack truth-value and do not assert propositions. A noncognitivist denies the cognitivist claim that "moral judgments are capable of being objectively true, because they describe some feature of the world."[1] If moral statements cannot be true, and if one cannot know something that is not true, noncognitivism implies that moral knowledge is impossible.[1]

While the bare term non-cognitivism usually refers to ethics, it can also refer to "theological noncognitivism;" this position argues for agnosticism or atheism by challenging the ontological and epistemological assumptions of theism.


The epistemological assumptions of non-cognitivism such as the verifiability principle of the meaningfulness of words preclude discourses other than semantic and syntactical analyses of ethical language. Some criticize non-cognitivism as empty, for an oversimplified understanding of ethical, spiritual, and religious knowledge, and irrelevance to real ethical discourses in human and social life.

Varieties of non-cognitivism

Emotivism, prescriptivism, and expressivism

Emotivism, associated with A.J. Ayer, the Vienna Circle, and C.L. Stevenson, suggests that ethical sentences are primarily emotional expressions of one's own attitudes and are intended to influence the actions of the listener. Under this view, "Killing is wrong" is translated as "I disapprove of killing; you should do so as well."

A close cousin of emotivism, developed by R.M. Hare, is called prescriptivism. Prescriptivists interpret ethical statements as being universal imperatives, prescribing behavior for all to follow. "Killing is wrong" under prescriptivism becomes, "Do not murder."

Expressivism (encapsulating emotivism and prescriptivism) including Simon Blackburn's quasi-realism and Allan Gibbard's norm-expressivism, entails that non-cognitive attitudes underlie moral discourse and this discourse therefore consists of non-declarative speech acts, although accepting that its surface features may consistently and efficiently work as if moral discourse were cognitive. The point of interpreting moral claims as non-declarative speech acts is to explain why moral claims are neither true nor false. Utterances like "Boo to killing!" and "Don't kill" are not candidates for truth or falsity.

Theological noncognitivism

Theological noncognitivism is the argument that religious language, and specifically words like "God" (capitalized), are not cognitively meaningful. Some thinkers propose it as a way to prove the nonexistence of anything named "God." It is sometimes considered to be synonymous with Ignosticism.

Theological noncognitivism can be argued in different ways, depending on one's theory of meaning. Michael Martin, writing from a verificationist perspective, concludes that religious language is meaningless because it is not verifiable.[2]

George H. Smith uses an attribute-based approach in an attempt to prove that there is no concept for the term "God:" He argues that there are no meaningful attributes, only negatively defined or relational attributes, making the term meaningless. Smith's position is that noncognitivism leads to the conclusion that "nothing named 'God' exists," proving strong atheism.[3]

Another way of expressing theological noncognitivism is, for any sentence S, S is cognitively meaningless if, and only if, S expresses an unthinkable proposition or S does not express a proposition.

The sentence, "X is a four-sided triangle that exists outside of space and time, cannot be seen or measured and it actively hates blue spheres," is an example of an unthinkable proposition. Although the sentence expresses an idea, that idea is incoherent and so cannot be entertained in thought. It is unthinkable and unverifiable.

Similarly, "Y is what it is," does not express a meaningful proposition. In this sense to claim to believe in X or Y is a meaningless assertion in the same way as, "I believe that colorless green ideas sleep furiously," is grammatically correct but without meaning.

Some theological noncognitivists assert that to be an atheist is to give credence to the concept of God because it assumes that there actually is something understandable to not believe in. This can be confusing because of the widespread belief in God and the common use of the series of letters G-o-d as if it is already understood that it has some cognitively understandable meaning. From this view atheists have made the mistaken assumption that the concept of God actually contains an expressible or thinkable proposition. However this depends on the specific definition of God being used.[4]

As with ignosticism, the consistent theological noncognitivist awaits a coherent definition of the word God (or of any other metaphysical utterance purported to be discussable) before being able to engage in arguments for or against God's existence.

Arguments in favor of non-cognitivism

Argument from queerness

As with other non-objectivist models of morality, non-cognitivism is largely supported by the "argument from queerness." "The Argument from Queerness" is a term first developed by J.L. Mackie in his book, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong(1977).

Mackie argues against the view that there can be objective ethical values, and he uses the term to describe a certain sort of reductio ad absurdum which belief in such values implies. He states that:

If there were objective values, then they would be entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe (J. L. Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, 1977, 38).

Hence Mackie argues that this in itself is sufficient reason for doubting their existence. Ethical properties, if they existed, would be different from any other thing in the universe, since they have no observable effect on the world. People generally have a negative attitude towards murder—calling it a disgust. This sentiment presumably keeps most of us from murdering. But does the actual wrongness of murder play an independent role? Is there any evidence that there is a property of wrongness that some types of acts have? Some people might think that the strong feelings others have when they see or consider a murder provide evidence of murder's wrongness. But it is not difficult to explain these feelings without saying that wrongness was their cause. Thus there is no way of discerning which, if any, ethical properties exist; by Ockham's razor, the simplest assumption is that none do. The non-cognitivist then asserts that, since a proposition about an ethical property would have no referent, ethical statements must be something else.


Arguments for emotivism focus on what normative statements express when uttered by a speaker. A person who says that killing is wrong certainly expresses her disapproval of killing. The Emotivist claims this is all she does, and that "Killing is wrong" is not a truth-apt declaration. The burden of evidence is on the cognitivists who want to show that in addition to expressing disapproval, the claim "Killing is wrong" is also true. Is there really evidence that killing is wrong? There is evidence that Jupiter has a magnetic field and that birds are oviparous, but as of yet, no one has found evidence of moral properties, such as "goodness." Without such evidence, why should one think there is such a property? Ethical Intuitionists think the evidence comes not from science but from one's own feelings: Good deeds make one feel a certain way and bad deeds make one feel very differently. But is this enough to show that there are genuinely good and bad deeds? The Emotivists think not. One does not need to postulate the existence of moral "badness" or "wrongness" to explain why considering certain deeds makes us feel disapproval. All one really observes when one is introspective are feelings of disapproval, so why not adopt the simple explanation and say that this is all there is? Why insist that a genuine "badness" (of murder, for example) must be causing feelings, when a simpler explanation is available?


Arguments for prescriptivism, by contrast, focus on the function of normative statements. A person telling another that killing is wrong probably does not want this other person to then go off and kill someone, and may be explicitly attempting to stop him from doing so. Thus, the statement "Killing is wrong," calculated to prevent someone from killing, can be described as an exhortation not to do so.

Arguments against non-cognitivism

Arguments from external causes

One argument against non-cognitivism is that it ignores the external causes of emotional and prescriptive reactions. If someone says, "John is a good person," something about John must have inspired that reaction. If John gives to the poor, takes care of his sick grandmother, and is friendly to others, and these are what inspire the speaker to think well of him, it is plausible to say, "John is a good person (that is, well thought of) because he gives to the poor, takes care of his sick grandmother, and is friendly to others." If, in turn, the speaker responds positively to the idea of giving to the poor, then some aspect of that idea must have inspired a positive response; one could argue that that aspect is also the basis of its goodness.

Embedding problem argument

Another argument is the "embedding problem." Consider the following statements one can make:

  • Eating meat is not wrong.
  • Is eating meat wrong?
  • I think that eating meat is wrong.
  • Mike doesn't think that eating meat is wrong.
  • I once thought that eating meat was wrong.
  • She does not realize that eating meat is wrong.

Attempts to translate these complex sentences, which we often use, in an emotivist framework seem to fail. Non-cognitivists need to give adequate accounts for such complex sentences or judgments. Even the act of forming such a construction indicates some sort of cognition in the process.

Since the embedding problem was formulated by Gottlob Frege and Peter Geach, it is also called the Frege-Geach problem. They developed a more precise argument on the issue.

Argument from quasi-objectivism

A similar argument against non-cognitivism is that of ethical argument. A common argument might be, "If killing an innocent human is always wrong, and all fetuses are innocent humans, then killing a fetus is always wrong." Most people would consider such an utterance to represent an analytic proposition which is true a priori. However, if ethical statements do not represent cognitions, it seems odd to use them as premises in an argument, and even odder to assume they follow the same rules of syllogism as true propositions.

Many objections to non-cognitivism based on the linguistic characteristics of what purport to be moral judgments were originally raised by Peter Glassen in "The Cognitivity of Moral Judgments," published in Mind in January 1959, and in Glassen's follow-up article in the January 1963 issue of the same journal.[5]

External criticism

Beside the above internal criticisms, those who are outside of non-cognitivism who criticize the epistemological presuppositions of non-cognitivism such as the verifiability principle which undermine the real meaning and significance of moral issues in human life. Non-cogntivism seems to offer not more than semantic and syntactical analyses of ethical languages. Those critics also criticize their theory of truth and the oversimplification of religious and ethical knowledge, which are the consequences of the verificationist epistemology.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Richard T. Garner, and Bernard Rosen, Moral Philosophy: A Systematic Introduction to Normative Ethics and Meta-ethics (New York: MacMillan, 1967, ISBN 0023405805).
  2. Michael Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (1990).
  3. George Smith, Atheism: The Case Against God (1975).
  4. Steven J. Conifer, Theological Noncognitivism Examined. Retrieved September 6, 2008.
  5. P. Glassen, "The Cognitivity of Moral Judgments," Mind 68:57-72 (1959).


  • Alm, David. 2007. "Non-Cognitivism and Validity." Theoria 73 (2): 121.
  • Dewey, Robert E., and Robert H. Hurlbutt. 1977. An Introduction to Ethics. New York: Macmillan. ISBN 9780023294808.
  • Garner, Richard T. and Bernard Rosen, 1967. Moral Philosophy: A Systematic Introduction to Normative Ethics and Meta-ethics. New York: Macmillan. ISBN 0023405805.
  • Glassen, P. 1959. "The Cognitivity of Moral Judgments." Mind 68: 57-72.
  • Glassen, P. 1963. "The Cognitivity of Moral Judgments: A Rejoinder to Miss Schuster." Mind 72:137-140.
  • Mackie, J. L. 1977. Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. Harmondsworth: Penguin. ISBN 9780140219579.
  • Martin, Michael. 1990. Atheism: A Philosophical Justification. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. ISBN 9780877226420.
  • Smith, George H. 1974. Atheism: The Case Against God. Los Angeles: Nash. ISBN 9780840211156.
  • Steven J. Conifer. Theological Noncognitivism Examined. Retrieved September 6, 2008.

External links

All links retrieved January 22, 2015.

General Philosophy Sources


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