I don't get it? "Cognitive" usually refers to do with the mind, mental processes, thinking, or the brain. In ethics, it refers to whether or not something is a "statement" or can be "true or false".

Another possible definition I've seen is whether or not ethical propositions express "beliefs"? How are these connected? 'Beliefs' can be true/false but knowledge can't? Or what's there point?

So I guess I have two questions.

1.) Why the lable cognitivism?

2.) How are the various definitions connected:(they are true/false vs they are beliefs).

  • Cognitivus means "known" in Latin. Moral cognitivism is so called because it supports the idea of moral knowledge, and in particular, of moral statements capable of being true or false which are subject to belief. See Do philosophers think beliefs are bearers of truth-value? for a discussion of interrelations of statements, truth and beliefs. In contrast, non-cognitivists consider morality to be a conceptual expression of emotional reactions, or something similar, which are not subject to statements with truth conditions forming knowledge.
    – Conifold
    Commented Mar 9, 2020 at 22:34

3 Answers 3


'Cognitivism' here relates to knowledge (cf.'cognition'). If moral cognitivism holds, then there are at least some moral truths that can be and are known. Here's how the concept of moral cognitivism can be built up:

Suppose one concedes that moral judgments may be true or false. Does it follow that he commits himself to moral cognitivism? No, for the obvious, almost supercilious, reason that propositions and judgments may be true or false though no one knows them to be so. Suppose, however, one concedes that moral judgments may be true or false and that we are quite competent to determine that they are. Does it then follow that he commits himself to moral cognitivism? Still no, because moral cognitivism is a theory about our competence to know the truth of moral judgments, not merely the admission that we are cognitively competent in moral matters. (J. Margolis, 'Moral Cognitivism', Ethics, Vol. 85, No. 2 (Jan., 1975), pp. 136-141: 136.)

To point the contrast: moral non-cognitivism is the view that there are no moral truths, hence that there can be no knowledge of them. Expressivism is one form of non-cognitivism. For the expressivist moral judgements are not truth-apt - they are not true or false. They are sentences used not to make true or false assertions but rather to express certain attitudes - pro-attitudes of desires or feelings of approval or con-attitudes of aversion or disapproval. (For the record, expressivism developed from the emotive theory of ethics, the idea that moral judgements are not truth-apt but function merely to express or elicit emotions. Attitudes include but encompass more than emotions.)

I think this explanation answers your question 1) and removes your first definition. Hope this helps.


I too found 'cognitivism' a confusing term when I studied ethics. It does make you think of mental processes rather than truth and falsity. I think the point is that if you are thinking about something (also called intentionality) then you are considering if that state of affairs is true or not.

Beliefs can be true and false. You can hold true or false beliefs about a situation, and knowledge is usually defined as 'justified true belief', so both belief and knowledge are relevant to a cognitivist position.

So a cognitivist ethical position is holding that a moral belief (e.g. killing is wrong) is true or false, so justifiably holding that true belief would constitute knowledge that killing is wrong. Non-cognitivists hold that moral positions can't be true or false. You can disapprove of killing, there are plenty of reasons to do so, but you cannot claim it has the property of being wrong.

  • You're right, a poorly worded sentence which contradicts my later claim that knowledge is justified true belief.
    – Simon K
    Commented Mar 9, 2020 at 18:13
  • 1
    No problem - you've made the right changes. Best - Geoff
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Mar 9, 2020 at 18:28

The choice of the word "cognitivism" turns on the similarity between beliefs and cognitions as propositional. A finessed account could be the acceptance of why-questions for imperatives instead of just straight imperative doubt, i.e. "Why do this?" vs. "Do this?" The cognitivist believes in at least formal answers to the first question, whereas noncognitivists only accept replies to the second (or to emotive inquiry like, "Hooray!?").

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