Jargon in Meta Ethics, Part Two

by Ben Ryding

In part one of this series, I briefly defined meta ethics and cognitivist views within. This post is dedicated to the other half of meta ethics: non-cognitivism. Non-cognitvism is appealing for  variety of reasons, but I think it ultimately fails (which I will discuss in greater length eventually).

Non-cognitivism is the view that moral statements do not have truth values; rather, they are mere expressions of desires or attitudes.  At first glance, this probably seems strange. For example, the sentence “Stealing is wrong” clearly has the structure of a proposition. It makes an assertion about some feature in the world and thus has a truth value out of necessity. But recall that meta-ethics is concerned with the language of ethics itself and aims to consider some of the underlying features or moral statements that people may or may not be aware of when they utter them. 

Emotivism/Expressivism is the view that moral statements are actually descriptions of emotional states or attitudes towards certain features in reality.  For example, when someone utters, “Stealing is wrong”, they are actually saying something like, “Boo, Stealing!” or “Stealing!” with a negative tone of voice.  The proposition, then, is merely a guise for an expression of a certain attitude, and is therefore not truth apt.

I’m mostly uninterested in other non-cognitivist accounts of morality.  I direct you to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy if you’re further interested. Expressivism and Error Theory will be more closely examined in coming posts now that the stage is properly set.