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Non-cognitivism is the meta-ethical view that ethical statements (such as 'Killing is wrong') do not assert propositions; that is to say, they do not express factual claims or beliefs and therefore are neither true nor false (they are not truth-apt). This distinguishes it from moral realism, which holds that ethical statements are objectively and consistently true or false; ethical subjectivism, which proposes that ethical statements express personal preference; moral skepticism, which proposes that all ethical statements are false; and cognitivist irrealism , which asserts that ethical statements are true or false (this is cognitivism), although there are no worldly facts to make them true or false.

There are two major schools of thought among non-cognitivists as to what meaning ethical statements do have. Emotivists suggest that they are expressions of emotional response, in effect complex interjections: under this view, the statement "Killing is wrong," for example, can be paraphrased as "Boo on killing!" (This view is similar to schools of ethical subjectivism that would paraphrase the same sentence as "I dislike killing.") Prescriptivists, meanwhile, suggest that ethical statements are commands or prescriptions: "Killing is wrong," in this model, is equivalent to "Do not kill." (This is actually consistent with the belief among some religious philosophers that good consists solely of obeying a god or gods.)

Arguments in favor of non-cognitivism

The principal argument in favor of non-cognitivism is that ethical properties, if they exist, have no observable effect on the world. The amount of killing, for example, is not altered by its being wrong or right, but only by individual distaste for killing. Thus there is no way of discerning which, if any, ethical properties exist; by Occam's Razor, the simplest assumption is that none do. Non-cognitivists then assert that, since a proposition about an ethical property would have no referent, ethical statements must be something else. (Note that moral skeptics would say ethical statements are indeed propositions with no referent, and therefore false.)

A person stating that killing is wrong presumably has some negative emotional reaction when confronted with the concept of killing; the statement of its wrongness can thus be construed as a direct consequence of this reaction. From this observation, emotivists claim the statement is not distinct from the reaction itself. Likewise, a person telling another that killing is wrong probably does not want this other person to then go off and kill someone, and may be explicitly attempting to stop him from doing so. Thus the statement "Killing is wrong," calculated to prevent someone from killing, can be described as an exhortation not to do so.

Arguments against non-cognitivism

One argument against non-cognitivism is that it ignores the fact that there is some feature of a concept that causes people to form emotional or prescriptive reactions in the first place. For example, if a person says, "John is a good person," there is some feature of John that inspired that reaction. If John gives to the poor, takes care of his sick grandmother, and is friendly to others, and these are what inspire the speaker to think well of him, it is plausible to say, "John is a good person (i.e. well thought of) because he gives to the poor, takes care of his sick grandmother, and is friendly to others." If, in turn, the speaker responds positively to the idea of giving to the poor, some aspect of that idea inspired that response; it can be argued that that aspect is also the basis of its goodness.

Another argument is that the people who make ethical statements generally consider them distinct from emotional or prescriptive utterances. For example, it is plausible that a person would say, "You should not steal, because stealing is wrong," and would consider the latter an argument for the former rather than a restatement. Likewise, many people have calm, rational debates about the morality of actions that do not resemble emotional outbursts.

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