By Sam Adams
In this essay, I start by making a moral claim and then examine how that claim would be interpreted by proponents of the diametrically-opposed schools of thought of cognitivism and non-cognitivism. We will see that not all cognitivists are moral realists, but all moral realists are necessarily moral cognitivists. Broadly speaking these are considered meta-ethical standpoints because they aim not to judge morals as being objectively either right or wrong, but rather to determine whether such judgments are truth-apt. Simply put, cognitivists believe moral statements are truth-apt and non-cognitivists believe that moral statements are not truth-apt. I further explore how these meta-ethical standpoints relate to action guiding ethics. For the purpose of this essay, I have chosen an intentionally uncontentious moral claim which is as follows: “Such-and-such is good.”
For a moral realist like Richard N. Boyd,  this statement would imply that such-and-such has some real properties or meets some conditions that warrant the assertion that it is good. By extension, it would be possible to examine such-and-such to determine whether or not it did possess those properties and/or meet those conditions. Boyd would say that I am expressing my belief that such-and-such does indeed possess those properties and/or meet those conditions. And that I am describing or attempting to describe such-and-such, and hence my claim about the nature of such-and-such is truth-apt. Boyd, therefore is a moral cognitivist. Since what is good is identifiable, even if this is not always straightforward, it follows that our actions might be guided by what is good.
For Alfred Jules Ayer,  the presence of an ethical symbol (in this case “good”) in a proposition adds nothing to its factual content, that is to say that it is a fundamentally different type of statement to a non-moral assertion e.g. “Such-and-such is blue”. In the non-moral statement, I have told you something about an inherent quality of such-and-such, whereas in the moral assertion I have not. He claims I am doing nothing more than expressing my approval of such-and-such and might as well have said, “Hurrah for such-and-such”. This standpoint is called emotivism and has several implications. Firstly, because all I am doing is expressing my approval of such-and-such, I am not describing anything about such-and-such itself and am therefore not adding anything to the literal meaning of the sentence. For Ayer, it is clear I have not said anything which can be true or false. However, this is not to say that Ayer thinks that moral statements are useless, for not only do they express feeling but can also be used to invoke feeling and can therefore be viewed as commands.
Another non-cognitivist is Richard Mervyn Hare. Hare also believes I am not making a truth-apt statement, however rather than being primarily emotive he believes the statement is primarily prescriptive. That is to say that I am making an ‘ought’ statement about such-and-such, for example, “You ought to do such-and-such”. So for Hare, as well as for Ayer, even though moral statements are not truth-apt, they are still useful in terms of guiding our actions in the real world.
Both Ayer and Hare are moral non-cognitivists and at the same time moral anti-realists, but these two stances do not necessarily entail each other. For example, J.L. Mackie is a moral cognitivist, that is, he believes moral statements are truth-apt, but at the same time he is a moral anti-realist. Mackie is a proponent of error theory, that is, he believes that a belief in objective values is built into ordinary moral thought and language, but holds that this ingrained belief is false. So for Mackie, my statement that “Such-and-such is good” indicates that I genuinely believe that to be the case, however I am mistaken in my belief; not in the sense that such-and-such is not good, but in the sense that there is no objective qualifier of what that might mean. Mackie’s error theory takes two main forms: the argument from relativity and the argument from queerness. Mackie, like Hare and Ayer, simultaneously dismisses the notion of any objective moral truth and identifies the need for a practical framework to help guide our actions.
I have shown that moral cognitivists classify moral assertions as truth-apt statements and that moral non-cognitivists classify moral assertions as non- truth-apt statements. I have also demonstrated that all moral realists are cognitivists, but not all cognitivists are moral anti-realists; while non-cognitivism necessarily implies that moral knowledge is impossible. For those who do not attest to the existence of objective moral truth, it becomes necessary to turn to an ethical framework—such as we might see in the form of imperatives or a theory of justice.
Sam is currently in their second year of study for a Bachelor of Arts with majors in Philosophy and English Literature. Before coming to the University of Queensland, they tried various vocations including working in construction and early childhood education.
George Edward Moore, Principia Ethica, (London: Cambridge University Press 1929) 6; Richard N. Boyd, “How to Be a Moral Realist,” in Essays on Moral Realism,ed. Geoffrey Sayre-McCord, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988), 203
Ayer, Alfred Jules. 1946. Language, Truth and Logic. New York: Dover Publications.
Boyd, Richard N. 1988. “How to Be a Moral Realist.” In Essays on Moral Realism, by Geoffrey Sayre-McCord, 181-228. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Fisher, Andrew. 2014. Metaethics An Introduction. London: Routledge.
Hare, R.M. 1952. The Language of Morals. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Mackie, J. L. 1977. Ethics Inventing Right and Wrong. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Moore, George Edward. 1929. Principia Ethica. London: Cambridge University Press.
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