Consider the following statements

  1. I feel lying is wrong.
  2. I prohibit lying.
  3. I dislike lying.
  4. I think lying is bad.

Are these statements moral statements ? I think they only express a certain attitude or a state of mind towards lying. They can only be assigned a truth value if we take them to be descriptive statements, not moral statements. The content upon which the truth or falsity of the numbered statements depends on is a description. If l am not wrong, moral non cognitivist philosophers claim that people mean to express one of the four or more similar statements when they say " lying is wrong " . So there should be an equivalence between descriptive statements and non descriptive statements, this sounds paradoxical and wrong. Is it even possible to write a non descriptive statement in a language. If one writes, "sad" on a piece of paper. It would be meaningless. It's impossible to write about an attitude/command in a language without having a subject. However, this causes another problem, we do not use "lying is wrong" to ONLY express an attitude/command but to state a fact. Do we try to get the meaning of a statement by its use or by analysis of composite statements.

  • It depends on the definition of "moral": "Mill (1861) defines morality as the rules and precepts for human conduct, by the observance of which [a happy existence] might be, to the greatest extent possible, secured." If so, a moral statement is a statement expressing a rule or precept for human conduct. Aug 26, 2020 at 12:35
  • @Mauro ALLEGRANZA What does expressing a rule mean, can the rule be assigned truth values, is it descriptive or emotive. This definition of moral statements doesn't answer fundamental questions. It has to be more comprehensive and even if we cannot define everything to the nth degree , a weak definition is clearly ambiguous, open to any interpretation. Aug 26, 2020 at 12:42
  • It is very possible to express command in a language without naming the commander, "do not lie". However, commands do not have truth values, so they have to be converted into a declarative to get one, e.g. "lying is bad" is true whenever the corresponding command is deemed valid, for whatever reason. Your sentences are propositional attitudes, and their truth values are quite distinct from truth values of propositions they flank. And non-cognitivists believe that flanked moral statements have no truth values at all. They express no facts despite the surface grammar that we are misled by.
    – Conifold
    Aug 26, 2020 at 13:46
  • @Conifold But the statement "do not lie" can only be understood/have meaning if one understands " X should not lie about any Y" . For the statement "do not lie" to be meaningful, it has to depend on a corresponding descriptive statement and as you mentioned, we can then assign truth value to descriptive statements. According to non cognitivism, we can express statements that are only commands/feelings but it's almost as if they are hiding or not showing the extended statement that is always present. I think we do not need the embedding problem to point out flaws in non cognitivism. Aug 26, 2020 at 14:58
  • @Conifold They also claim that moral statements are simply commands and attitudes but once we change them into propositional attitudes, they lose the sense of being a normative statement. Does this show that the implication or relation they draw between propositional attitudes and propositions ( moral statement ) is false or not accurate at best ? Thanks for the response Aug 26, 2020 at 14:59

2 Answers 2


Moral statements are prescriptive statements uttered within an interpersonal context. If they are descriptive of anything, they are descriptive of socially defined norms or ideals.

I mean, consider a man trapped alone on a desert island. For that man, 'lying' is neither moral nor immoral; it serves no end and has no purpose. He might lie to himself, I suppose, but that's more in the nature of comfortable wishful thinking than malicious prevarication.

A cognitivist statement of the form "I think lying is bad" is a reference to a social fact. It's best translated as a truth assignment: e.g., "I hold the assertion 'lying is bad' to be true". Durkheim established that there are 'social facts' — statements that describe the internal structures of a social unity — but they are harder to conceptualize than simple material facts.

I'm not sure if this answers your question, because I'm not certain exactly what your question is. But it's a start...

  • My question is a bit too broad. If l understood you correctly, moral statements are essentially embedded in a descriptive statement / propositional attitude etc . Well your desert example is really good. It shows how moral statements lose meaning when you take away the descriptive foundation beneath them. Do you think that the divide between cognitive and non cognitive ethic theory isn't really clear. I think it fails to see the dependance of supposedly non truth apt statement on truth apt proposition. Aug 26, 2020 at 18:33

As self-reports, all except 2 are simply true, assuming accurately reported (and you aren't lying.) But not "moral statements" at all. And 2 is a moral statement only in the unlikely case that you are God or some other presiding moral authority.

In a deontic sense, at least, moral statements should be univeralizable or at least general, so cannot be qualified as attitudes. Only the categorical statement "lying is wrong" is a moral statement, and it is "true" if you accept Kant's CI demonstration that it is imperative to any coherent idea of moral statements to begin with.

But it could be that I'm missing your point here, which seems to be that value judgments and moral propositions are not facts or that all statements must be permanently affixed to bodies.

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