At first, I believe the statements like "Pete is wrong" and "Mike acts in a bad way" have some cognitive value. At first glance, this puts me to ethical cognitivism.

But at the same time I think the sentence like "Pete is morally wrong" is a combination of proposition "Pete is wrong" and exclamation involving morality, that has no propositional meaning. In my view anyone who involves the notion of morality in their speech tries to appeal to emotions. According to these views, the sentence like "Mike is immoral" is equal to the sentence "Mike is bad, boo on Mike". While the sentence "Mike is bad" itself does not necessarily imply "boo on Mike".

One can see analogy with mathematics. Suppose, someone got wrong answer in his task. Then he is wrong. We can say he is mathematically wrong. But this word is obsolete there and will not have any effect except emotional one. E.g. it can be equal to "He is wrong, he is bad at mathematics". While there exists mathematics, there can exist morals, but mentioning that word in judgements always will be appeal to emotions.

But where does such way of thought places me among all categories of meta-ethical theories?

  • Your view would seem to place you among philosophers who deny that there is an objective basis for ethics. In the West you'd have a lot of philosophers for company. You have reduced ethics to emotions. This would line you up with the Materialists, Nihilists, Moral Relativists, Logical Positivists, Dialethists and others, so you'll not be lonely. ,
    – user20253
    Jun 13, 2018 at 9:52
  • @PeterJ, serial killers are bad, because they are elememts of society whom I consider dangerous. And this is not merely emotivist sentence. But that'a exactly the reason why I don't say serial killers are immoral. They are just bad for society and measures should be taken towards them.
    – rus9384
    Jun 13, 2018 at 13:39
  • The view that ethical sentences do not express propositions but emotional attitudes is called emotivism, it was popular with positivists, most notably Ayer. Contemporary moral psychologists, like Haidt and Greene, try to show that moral judgments are rooted in emotional reactions empirically, see Waldmann et al. review.
    – Conifold
    Jun 13, 2018 at 17:26
  • @Conifold, while I say that emotions take a role sometimes in sentences, I reject that all of them do it. This does not put me to emotivist camp. At the same time I reject that all sentences regarding values of actions or persons are propositions. Some are, all - not. I would be somewhere between cognitivist and non-cognitivist, but why is there no established camp between them?
    – rus9384
    Jun 13, 2018 at 18:28
  • 1
    As long as some are propositions this is just plain cognitivism, not even Kant believed that all of them are devoid of emotions. Sentimentalism is generally compatible with cognitivism, one can believe that propositional moral truths are discovered through emotional responses.
    – Conifold
    Jun 13, 2018 at 18:52

1 Answer 1


Statenents can have meaning without embodying knowledge. 'That was a delicious pie' has a clear meaning (if not very precise) but it is unlikely to express knowledge. I doubt if one can know that a pie is delicious because this is not a matter of (objective) truth or falsity, though one can and others may also find it delicious.

You appear to hold a version of what used to be called the emotive theory of ethics but is now referred to as 'expressivism' :

In search of a satisfactory account of moral thought and practice, ethical expressivists encourage us to ask not about the nature of ethical value but rather about the nature of ethical evaluations. Their answer to the latter question typically claims some interesting disanalogy between ethical evaluations and descriptions of the world. We might call this change in question and the subsequent answer by disanalogy the core expressivist maneuver. For example, Gibbard writes, "The expressivists' strategy is to change the question. Don't ask directly how to define 'good'...[rather] shift the question to focus on judgments: ask, say, what judging that [something] is good consists in" (2003, p. 6). In early crude forms, the core expressivist maneuver involved the idea that ethical evaluations are expressions of our noncognitive sentiments rather than our cognitive representations of things in the world. In later more refined versions, expressivists have argued that ethical evaluations are expressions of a special kind of belief whose role in our cognitive economy is importantly practical rather than representational. (J. Adam Carter and Matthew Chrisman, 'Is epistemic expressivism incompatible with inquiry?', Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition, Vol. 159, No. 3 (July 2012), pp. 323-339 : 324.)

In other words, for an expressivist a moral judgement is not representational; it does not represent or describe how things objectively are the world (unlike, say, 'The USA is larger in area than the United Kingdom' or 'Sodium is a chemical element'). Rather, a moral judgement expresses an attitude towards persons, actions, character-traits, objects, states of affairs, &c. An attitude (to put it crudely) of approval or disapproval, though a wider and subtler range of moral attitudes can be expressed.

The 'practical' aspect of expressivism is that expressive moral judgements are prescriptive. Not only do they express our own attitudes; they aim to elicit the same attitudes in others. When I say, 'That was a dishonest thing to do', I don't merely express my own attitude to dishonesty, I seek to alter the dishonest attitude of the person concerned or if that's not possible (perhaps they're unknown or have made themselves scarce) to induce or reinforce an attitude of disapproval of dishonesty in others generally.


Gibbard, A. 1990. Wise Choices, Apt Feelings: A Theory of Normative Judgement. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gibbard, A. 2003. Thinking How to Live. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kalderon, M. 2005. Moral Fictionalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • But I say that it is possible to have some cognitive values: "It is a good strategy" and "He is a good man". I say that when someone says "He killed Jane. He is a bad person" differs from "He killed Jane. He is an immoral person" only on emotivist grounds, while first statement is not completely emotivist.
    – rus9384
    Jun 13, 2018 at 9:37
  • 'At first glance, this puts me to ethical cognitivism.' You only say 'at first glance'. I don't equate with this 'It is possible to have some cognitive values'. There is no link between cognitivismand meaning such that if a statement has meaning it has cognitive value - i.e. can be true and known to be true. But I think we are fated to disagree on every issue you raise - I will leave my answer as it is. It may be of use to somebody ;)- Best - Geoff
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Jun 13, 2018 at 12:04
  • Well, cognitivist expressivism states that people utter sentences like "X is wrong/right" in order to change others' behaviour. But it states that people are never saying it just in order to share their thoughts about it, which seems awkward to me. Indeed, any action will change others' behaviour, but then such theory becomes obsolete. So, is there a position between cognitivism and non-cognitivism, where both are (distinctively) sometimes true?
    – rus9384
    Jun 13, 2018 at 17:00
  • 1
    'But it states that people are never saying it just in order to share their thoughts about it, which seems awkward to me.' Yes, I see your point. There's logical space for an intermediate position. I'll need to do a bit of research. Best - Geoff
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Jun 13, 2018 at 17:28

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