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Non-Cognitivism in Ethics

A non-cognitivist theory of ethics implies that ethical sentences are neither true nor false, that is,
they lack truth-values. What this means will be investigated by giving a brief logical-linguistic
analysis explaining the different illocutionary senses of normative sentences. The analysis will
make sense of how normative sentences play their proper role even though they lack truth
values, a fact which is hidden by the ambiguous use of those sentences in our language. The
main body of the article explores various non-cognitivist logics of norms from the early attempts
by Hare and Stevenson to the more recent ones by A. Gibbard and S. Blackburn. Jorgensens
Dilemma and the Frege-Geach Problem are two important aspects of this logic of norms.
Jorgensens Dilemma is the problem in the philosophy of law of inferring normative sentences
from normative sentences, which is an apparent problem because inferences are typically
understood as involving sentences with truth values. The Frege-Geach Problem is a problem in
moral philosophy involving inferences in embedded contexts or in illocutionary mixed
sentences. The article ends with a taxonomy of non-cognitivist theories. See also Ethical

Table of Contents
1. Metaethical assumptions
1. Different illocutionary acts
2. Difference between language and metalanguage
3. Ambiguity of normative sentences
4. Definitions of ethical non-cognitivism
2. The problem of a logic of norms
1. Jorgensens dilemma: its importance for non-cognitivism
3. From earlier non-cognitivism to the new norm-expressivism
1. C. L. Stevenson and the role of persuasion
2. R. M. Hare and the dictive indifference of logic
3. The new norm-expressivism
4. The Frege-Geach Problem
1. Blackburn solutions to the Frege-Geach Problem
2. Gibbard solution to the Frege-Geach Problem
5. The significance of the Geach-Frege Problem and Jorgensens Dilemma for noncognitivism
6. A Taxonomy of Ethics
7. References and Further Reading

1. Metaethical assumptions
In this section, we will introduce some preliminary linguistic notions that will allow us to give a
better account of the cognitivism vs. non-cognitivism divide.
Canonically, forms of language are mainly divided in two species: cognitive sentences (cognitive
use of language) and non-cognitive sentences (instrumental use of language). Cognitive
sentences are fact-dependent or bear truth-values, while non-cognitive sentences are, on the
contrary, fact independent and do not bear truth-values.
Cognitive sentences typically describe states of affairs, such as The earth is square or
Schwarzenegger won the last California election; such sentences are verifiable and can be
either true or false. On the other hand, sentences such as You shall not steal,, You ought to pay
your taxes, and Dont shut the door, please, do not describe states of affairs nor can be

understood as carrying falsehood or truth, but they rather have a different kind of illocutionary

a. Different illocutionary acts

Before introducing the notion of illocutionary force, we need to say more about language and its
usage. The basic part of a language carrying meaning is called a sentence, such as The actual
king of France is bald or Close that door, please! Thereby, a speakers actual empirical
performance (here and now) of an actual linguistic expression is not mentioned. We are rather
referring to a class including all the possible empirical performances made by a possible speaker
in any language and in any occurrence of that determined expression. On the other hand,
propositions are the meaning of sentences: they are true or false, they can be known, believed or
doubted and, finally, they are kept constant in respect of their translation from a language to
another (Lyons, 1995, p. 141).
The same proposition may be used in different occurrences for doing different things. In other
words, the same proposition can be used for asserting, questioning, asking, demanding and so
on. A sentence, therefore, can be understood as an illocutionary act. The general form of
illocutionary acts, according to Searle, is:
where F stands for any indicator of illocutionary force, and p takes expressions for
propositions. In this way, we can symbolize different kinds of illocutionary acts such as

such as in You are going to shut the door


such as in Shut the door!

or questions:

such as in Are you going to shut the door?

According to Reichenbach (1947, p. 337), illocutionary acts are not true or false. They are
indeed instruments constructed with the help of propositions, and therefore they belong to
language; this is what distinguishes them from other instruments devised to reach a certain aim.
We can distinguish two not necessarily separated - elements within an illocutionary act,
namely the propositional indicator (p) and the indicator of illocutionary force (F). What is called
propositional content (or proposition, or radical-proposition) is symbolized with p and it is the
invariant ingredient in an illocutionary act (in our example above is: your going to shut the
door or the possible state of affair you are going to shut the door). Indeed, it describes the
descriptive content of a sentence; or, in other words, it stands for a possible state of affair
containing meaning and, consequently, having truth-values.
On the contrary, illocutionary acts show the way a proposition is used or what illocutionary force
the sentence belongs to. Therefore, illocutionary force has no semantic meaning whatsoever and
so it does not form part, for example, of the conceptual amount of a norm sentence. Importantly,
illocutionary forces are not alethic modalities-like (such as is necessary that); they are not like
intensional operators and therefore they cannot be used for creating propositions starting from

propositions. For this reason Freges Rule states signs of illocutionary force cannot (a) being
iterated and (b) fall under the range of propositional connectives.
Finally, the illocutionary dimension has a perlocutionary element attached. According to
Levinson (1983, p. 237), a perlocutionary act is specific to the circumstances of issuance and is
therefore not conventionally achieved just by uttering that particular utterance, and includes all
those effects, intended or unintended, often indeterminate, that some particular utterance in a
particular situation may cause. The main difference between a perlocutionary act and an
illocutionary act stands on the fact that the former has a conventional nature, as it can be
represented in explicit form using the performative formula; this conventional nature does not
apply to perlocutionary act. In the following, we will see the importance of perlocutionary acts
within the emotive theories of ethics, which represent a kind of non-cognitivist theory.

b. Difference between language and metalanguage

Another fundamental notion to understand is considering the difference between cognitivism and
non-cognitivism concerns a linguistic difference between language and meta-language. This
distinction makes clear another problematic feature intrinsic to the ordinary use of natural
languages such as the ambiguity of normative sentences and prescriptions. Often non-cognitivist
positions are confused with relativistic positions because of the shift from the object language
into the meta-language. When we say, Hitler was a bad leader, we are uttering a normative
sentence. When we say, Winston said Hitler was a bad leader we are not uttering a normative
although relativistic sentence. Rather we are moving from the object-language (that is the
sentence Hitler was a bad leader) to a meta-linguistic one (that is Winston said Hitler was a
bad leader) which is typically a descriptive sentence (taken as a whole) talking about a
normative sentence (that is: Hitler was a bad leader). There is no room for relativism here: the
latter is not a moral sentence but simply a descriptive sentence (or, following Max Weber, a
sociological sentence), which, according to B. Russell (1935, p. 214-215), belongs to psychology
or biography. An important feature of descriptive sentences holds that The descriptive
sentences of obligation and permission are relative in a sense in which the prescriptive sentences
are not; they always refer to the utterer/authority of that sentence (that in our case is Winston):
conceptually, the reference to the authority is necessary to identify the normative proposition
[that is Hitler was a bad leader] expressed by a normative sentence used in a descriptive way
(Alchourrn, 1993)

c. Ambiguity of normative sentences

Notice that normative sentences are ambiguous; they can be uttered both in descriptive and in
normative ways at the level of common language. In other words, the same normative sentence
can be used either to perform prescriptions as well as to describe that a particular norm exists.
Jeremy Bentham (1970, p. 104; Bentham, 1789, chap. XVII, XXIX n.1; see Alchourron and
Bulygin, 1989 and Bulygin, 1982) was intuitively aware of ambiguity in normative sentences. In
fact, this semantical shift is due to a peculiar capacity of natural languages to mix up the
language level with meta-language level to the extent in which we cannot appreciate any
difference between them when using ordinary language. According to Bentham, on the contrary,
such a linguistic difference should be clear; in fact he pointed out that The property and very
essence of law, it may be said, is to command; the language of the law then should be the
language of command. For expressing commands there is in all languages a particular mood,
which is styled the imperative (Bentham, 1970, p. 105). Bentham also argues that There is still
enough that serves, and that as effectually as in the other case, to distinguish the imperative from
the ordinary didactic, narrative, informative or assertive style: the language of the will from the
language of the understanding (ibid.). This distinction is very important in the practice of law
and in the field of ethics because What is been termed a declaratory law, so far as it stands

distinguished from either a coercive or a discoercive law, is not properly speaking a law. It is not
the expression of an act of will exercised at the time: it is a mere notification of the existence of a
law, either of the coercive or the discoercive kind, as already subsisting; of the existence of some
document expressive of some act of will, exercised, not at the time, but at some former period
(Bentham, 1789, p.).
More recently, von Wright made that intuition more precise, explaining, Tokens of the same
sentences are used, sometimes to enunciate a prescription (that is, to enjoin, permit, or prohibit a
certain action), sometimes again to express a proposition to the effect that there is a prescription
enjoining, or permitting or prohibiting a certain action. Such propositions are called normpropositions [or descriptive sentences of norms] (von Wright, 1963, p. viii). Norms should be
carefully distinguished from normative propositions, i.e. descriptive propositions stating that
p is obligatory (forbidden or permitted) according to some unspecified norm or set of norms.
Normative propositions - which can be regarded as propositions about sets (systems) of norms also contain normative terms like obligatory, prohibited, etc. but these have a purely
descriptive meaning (Alchourrn e Bulygin, 1981).
The most influential analysis on the nature of normative sentences (especially in the field of
philosophy of law) was carried out by Hans Kelsen (especially in Kelsen, 1941).

d. Definitions of ethical non-cognitivism

Ethical non-cognitivism claims that prescriptions have a different nature than descriptive
sentences; they have no truth-values, they are not describing anything, and they have a different
illocutionary role. That is to say, they do not express factual claims or beliefs and therefore are
neither true nor false (they are not truth-apt); they belong to a different illocutionary force, the
prescriptive mood.
These theories, as opposed to cognitivist theories, are not holding that ethical sentences are
objectively and consistently true or false, neither even presupposing new entities platonic-like
(in the way naturalistic theories do), and therefore they do not need to explain the way in which
we can epistemically access these theories (see Blackburn, 1984, p. 169 and Hale, 1993). In
other words, non-cognitivism claims that the principal feature of normative sentences (their
lacking of truth values) is a consequence of the illocutionary role of such sentences. In fact, these
sentences are not bearing any cognitive meaning (such as assertions or descriptions), but they are
just used to utter prescriptions.
Therefore, cognitivist theories reject three traditional theses: (1) Humes Law (that is the claims
that a moral conclusion cannot be validly inferred from non-moral premises), as some cognitivist
theories suppress the distinction between cognitive and normative sentences; (2) Ockhams
Razor, because some of cognitivist theories do multiply entities without necessity, as they
presuppose a (platonic) realm of norms; and (3) Jorgensens Dilemma (see below).
Non-cognitivist theories do not infringe Ockhams Razor as they are not implying any platonic
entity (we saw the difference between normative sentences and descriptive sentences is just at
the illocutionary level) and they accept the challenge of Humes Law.
We can find two main theories within noncognitivism: emotivism and prescriptivism. These two
theories, often confused, need to be carefully distinguished. Indeed emotivism and
prescriptivism are different for two main reasons; for emotivists a normative sentence is
basically a sentence which expresses a speakers feeling (such as Gasp!). For prescriptivists a
normative sentence is used for uttering overriding universalizable prescriptions (such us: You
shalt not steal!). Another difference between those two theories is about the possibility of a
genuine logic of norms. Emotivists, at least in classical formulations (from Ayer to Stevenson)

claim a logic of norms is very problematic or even impossible to build: while for prescriptivists
(in particular in Hares theory or in von Wrights works) the possibility for a logic of norms is
open, although problematic.

2. The problem of a logic of norms

The main challenge non-cognitivist theories face is about the possibility of a logic of norms.
Cognitivist theories are not facing this dilemma as they claim there is no difference between
normative and descriptive sentences; therefore the classic logic based on truth-values is
sufficient for normative reasoning. What about norms lacking truth-values?
The problem of a logic of norms is a vexata quaestio that dates back, in modern times, to
Language, Truth and Logic by A.J. Ayer (1936). Ayer claimed that ethical sentences are pseudo
concepts aimed at expressing emotions or commands having no real meaning. The only purpose
of ethical sentences is to persuade the listener to act in a certain way. In other words, ethical
sentences have only a perlocutory function. Therefore it is no possible to talk about
disagreement and unsoundness in ethics; neither is it possible to speak about ethical reasoning
because ethical sentences such as parsimony is a virtue and parsimony is a vice are not
expressing propositions (that is are not true or false). Thus they cant be incompatible. On the
other hand, Ayer acknowledged that people do discuss about questions regarding values, but
they are not actually ethical dilemmas involving values but factual questions. In fact, people,
according to Ayer, reason about empirical facts on which state of affairs to perform and not
about agreeing on an ethical belief.
According to M. Warnock (1978) Ayers is a negative theory of ethics because it lacks of
meaning and scientific basis. The last word in ethics is rather ideological, that is to state the
superiority of a moral system over another. Ayers skeptical conclusion is a consequence of the
linguistic model he adopted (that is basically Wittgensteins Tractatus picture-theory, 1922). In
fact, Ayer is not able (at least in Language Truth and Logic) to distinguish in normative
sentences between an emotive (perlocutionary) part and a descriptive (meaning) part. The
distinction is necessary to give ethics its full significance back.
Two years after Ayers Language, Truth and Logic, another author dealt with the problem of the
foundation of a logic of norms. Jorgen Jorgensen (in Imperativer og Logik, 1937-38) claimed
that any imperative sentences may be considered as containing two factors which I may call the
imperative factor and the indicative factor, the first indicating that some thing is commanded or
wished and the latter describing what it is that is commanded or wished. In an actual sentence it
is not possible to distinguish between those two factors because a command void of content is
impossible; but the indicative factor can be kept apart from the imperative mood and it can be
used to express indicative sentences describing the action, changes or state of affairs which can
be ordered or wished. For example, in the imperative Close the door! somebody is ordering
that a door be closed. The order is that the proposition the door once open is now closed be
true. Methodologically, Jorgensen was in line with the modern distinction in sentences between
illocutionary force and propositional content (see i.e. Searle, 1969).
Jorgensen concluded, it seems to be a syntactical rule that from an imperative sentence of the
form Do so and so, an indicative sentence of the form This is so and so may be derived. In
other words, Jorgensen claimed imperative sentences can be transformed in indicative sentences
in two ways: (1) the imperative factor is put outside the brackets much as the assertion sign in
the ordinary logic and the logical operations are only performed within the brackets; or (2) for
each imperative sentences there is an equivalent indicative sentence which is derived from the
former. This derived indicative sentence applies to the rules of classical logic and thereby

indirectly applies the rules of logic to the imperative sentences so that entailments of the latter
may be made explicit.
Jorgensens first solution acknowledges the application of logic only within the propositional
content (or indicative factor) without using the normative (or imperative) constituent. This
solution is very similar to R.M. Hares dictive indifference of logic (Hare, 1949 and 1952) in
which, we will see, logic is valid only at the phrastics level. Jorgensens second solution, on the
other hand, seems to propose that normative sentences and descriptive sentences are linked
through an isomorphic relation; that is prescriptions hold as the same logical rules as their
descriptive counterparts. G.H. von Wright (1963) will successively explore this solution.
Therefore Jorgensen, differently from Ayer, moved to an idea of ethics, which is called
moderate emotivism close to Stevensons (1944) and Hares (1949). In fact, Jorgensen
acknowledges a descriptive component within prescriptive sentences and also he thinks that it is
possible to apply logic to norms.

a. Jorgensens dilemma: its importance for non-cognitivism

More importantly, Jorgensen proposed the so-called Jorgensens Dilemma, which is the first
attempt to analyze the problem of the inference of norms (prescriptive sentences) from norms
(prescriptive sentences) moving from the point that norms (prescriptive sentences) are lacking of
truth-values. In fact, Jorgensen analyzes this problem moving from the so-called Poincares
argument (a variant of Humes Law) in which is studied the role of logical inference into
prescriptive contexts (that are lacking of truth-values). Jorgensen still thinks logical inference is
a concept linked to a classical idea of logic, where an inference is when we get true conclusions
starting from true premises. However Jorgensen noticed that in ordinary normative reasoning we
perform inferences can be accepted as true; such as:
1.Keep your promises
2.This is a promise of yours
Therefore, keep this promise
Where at least one of the premises (in our case the premise 1.) is prescriptive. Hence, Jorgensen
finds himself in front of the following puzzle:
According to a generally accepted definition of logical inferences only sentences which are
capable of being true or false can function as premises or conclusion in a inference; nevertheless
it seems evident that a conclusion in the imperative mood may be drawn from two premises one
of which or both of which are in the imperative mood (Jorgensen, 1937-38).
There are two ways to explain this phenomenon: widening the notion of logic inference beyond
the "mere" sphere of truth, or bypassing this distinction by using descriptive sentences
equivalent to prescriptive sentences and applying them to the classical notion of logic inference.
Otherwise it is not possible to apply the notion of logical inference to norms: any normative
discourse turns to be illogical (as Ayer claimed).
The essence of the challenge of non-cognitivism is therefore expressed: how is possible to apply
the notion of logical inference whatsoever to the realm of sentences lacking of truth-values?

3. From earlier non-cognitivism to the new normexpressivism

If we believe norms are lacking of truth-values but a logic of norms is possible, we are thinking
about an objectivist and non-cognitivist theory of norms, such as Hares; while if we believe that
logical inference cannot be applied to sentences lacking of truth-values, therefore we have a noncognitivist and subjectivist theory of norms, such as Ayers.

a. C. L. Stevenson and the role of persuasion

C. L. Stevenson (1944) developed another non-cognitivist and subjectivist theory of norms.
Stevenson acknowledges that in moral sentences there is a descriptive component, which has no
cognitive function but rather a quasi-imperative force which, operating through suggestion and
intensified by your tone of voice, readily permits you to begin to influence or to modify another
persons behavior. Therefore, according to Stevenson, ethical terms are instruments used in a
cooperative enterprise that leads to a mutual readjustment of human interest. So, when using
ethical sentences, we are not using logical inference, but, actually, we are using methods of
persuasion. According to Hare (1987), Stevenson treated what were perlocutionary features of
moral language as if they were constitutive of its meaning, and as a result became an
irrationalist, because perlocutionary acts are not subject to logical rules.

b. R. M. Hare and the dictive indifference of logic

According to Hare, normative sentences are characterized by three ingredients: prescriptivity,
universalizability and overridingness/supervenience; these three ingredients are logical
characteristics of normative sentences by virtue of their meaning (Hare, 1989).
According to Hare, moral sentences are prescriptions that are sentences used for guiding an
action or to reply at the question: What shall I do? (Hare, 1952). In other words, an indicative
(or descriptive) sentence is used for telling someone that something is the case; an imperative is
not about that it is used for telling someone to make something the case (ibid.). Differently
from emotive theories (such as Stevensons), Hare claims that telling someone to make
something the case implies a persuasive process from the speaker to the listener. Emotive
theories, according to Hare, judge the success of imperative solely by their effects, that is, by
whether the person believes or does what we are trying to get him or her to believe or do. It does
not matter whether the means used to persuade him are fair or foul, so long as they persuade
him/her. Persuasions imply a lack of rationality by moral theories; therefore using persuasion
does not mean rationally replying to the question What shall I do?, but rather it is an attempt to
answer the question in a particular way.
Universalizability is a feature moral sentences share with descriptions, but, according to Hare
still is a logic component of neustics (Hares term for descriptive component of a sentence).
Roughly speaking it means that terms like ought and must are similar to words like all
rather than red or blue. In other words, normative concepts have to be compared to logical
operators (such as all or some or It is necessary that) and not to predicates (see Hare, 1963
and 1967). Moreover, the rules that define their logical behavior make them universalizable.
Another interpretation of the thesis of Universalizability claims that Universalizability is not
about the way moral terms function, but it is a principle (axiom) which is part of any possible
normative system as such (see Hare, 1982). In other words, Universalizability is similar to the
Golden Rule (Treat others only in a way that youre willing to be treated in the same
situation) or to impartiality, rather than an actual formal axiom in a ethical system. This thesis
has been attacked by several authors such as A. MacIntyre (1957), B. Williams (1985) and M.
Singer (1985). All those scholars agree that actually there are several levels of universalizability
which Hares monolithical formulation would melt. Particularly, MacIntyre argues that Hare
does not make clear between generality (that is general principles) and universality
(universal principles).

Supervenience is a feature moral sentences share with descriptions too. This issue is discussed
also in the philosophy of mind. In moral philosophy, the issue of supervenience concerns the
relationship which is said to hold between moral properties and natural or non-moral properties.
Alternatively, it is put forward as a claim about a certain feature of moral terms or moral
predicates. When it is said of trust that it is, say, good, trust is good because or in virtue of
some subjacent or underlying property of it. Generally, it is held that these subjacent properties
are natural properties of trust.
For Hare overridingness is a feature, not just of evaluative words, properties, or judgments, but
of the wider class of judgments which have to have, at least in some minimal sense, reasons or
grounds of explanations (Hare, 1989). Basically, Hare believes that overridingness and
universalizability are similar concepts in that both involve a universal premise such as in the
Golden Rule.
From a logical-linguistic point of view, Hare distinguishes in a sentence between a phrastic and
a neustic:
I shall call the part of the sentence that is common to [assertive and imperative] moods () the
phrastic; and the part different in the case of commands and sentences () the neustic (Hare,
Roughly speaking, a phrastic is that component in the sentence we called the descriptive
component above, and a neustic is the illocutionary part in a sentence. According to Hare,
logical connectives are part of phrastics; combinations of those connectives are able to create,
are valid in the case we deal with normative sentences as well as we deal with descriptive
sentences. It is, indeed, the proper function of these connectives to establish relations between
sentences; in other words, the validity of a reasoning depends upon the logical links subsisting
among phrastics. Hares thesis is called dictive indifference of logic: we shall see () that
these connectives are all descriptive and not dictive. In fact, it is the descriptive part of sentences
with which formal logicians are almost exclusively concerned; and this means that what they say
applied as much to imperatives as to indicatives; for to any descriptor (or phrastic) we can add
either kind of dictor (or neustic), and get a sentence (Hare, 1949). Therefore no difference will
subsist between a logic of imperatives and a logic of assertions: The method of reasoning used
in () [imperative] inferences is, of course, exactly which is used in indicative logic: these
considerations in no way support that there can be a separate Logic of Imperatives, but only
that imperatives are logical in the same way as indicatives (Ibid.). Phrastics, indeed, are the
same in imperatives and assertions, and we can assert that any formula of formal logic which is
capable of an indicative interpretation is capable also of an imperative one, that is, we can
substitute an indicative neustic with an imperative one, leaving the phrastic unchanged (Ibid.).

c. The new norm-expressivism

Starting from the 80s there was a renewal of analysis of morals in an emotivist key. These
analyses were made by Simon Blackburn and by Allan Gibbard. In their work the emotive
theory of morals is revised and enriched even accepting room for a logic of norms (in opposition
to what happened in the earlier emotive theories, such as Stevensons).
Blackburns quasi-realism (1984) moves from the actual practice in the ordinary language to
express itself in a realistic way even when uttering moral sentences. Blackburn claims that
practice is to be, so to speak, the way we made projections of our attitudes onto the world; in
Blackburns own words, we say we project an attitude or habit, or other commitment which is
not descriptive onto the world, when we speak and think as though there were a property of
things which our saying describe, which we can reason about, know about, be wrong about and
so on (Blackburn, ibid.).

Blackburn, on one hand, rehabilitates emotive theories of morals and, on the other hand, says
contrary to Mackies error theory our use of realist terminology is respectable and not in
contract with its projective origin. We will see in the next section how Blackburn can make
room for a logic of norms.
Gibbards (1990) central concept is the idea that calling something rational is to express ones
acceptance of norms that permits it. It applies to the rationality of actions, and it applied to the
rationality of beliefs and feelings (ibid.). For Gibbard, cognitive analyses fail to recognize that
judging a behavior as rational means to endorse it; even classical non-cognitivist analyses fails
this point as they admit that moral judgment are not feelings, but judgments of what moral
feelings it is rational to have. Feelings we think, can be apt or not, moral judgments are
judgments of when guilt and resentment are apt.
The primary function of norms (which Gibbard justifies on evolutionary basis) is to facilitate the
social cooperation, and while true factual sentences are coupled with world representations,
normative ones have the function of making social cooperation stable, and not linked to
environmental and social changes. Gibbards theory is a non-cognitivist but naturalistic one,
which is necessary to give an account of rationality in terms of accepting a norm which is, in its
turn, a standard for rationality of actions; on the contrary it would turn in a vicious circle.
Norms rule everybodys feelings and actions and they are the main component of a moral
judgment; to judging an action as wrong, in Gibbards terms, it means that an actors feelings of
guilt and judging peoples anger are apt feelings. Of course, these will be changing from culture
to culture. Finally, Gibbard suggests that normative judgments because their social function
commit us to adopt higher level norms to encourage social cooperation.
Gibbards key concept is accepting a norm which is to justify on a psychological theory of
meaning in a similar way to Stevensons theory. For Gibbard, a norm is a significant kind of a
psychological state of the mind, which is not fully understandable for us. Therefore, Gibbards
theory rests on an ambiguity; on one hand, value judgments are lacking of truth-values, but on
the other hand, they express the existence of someones mental states.

4. The Frege-Geach Problem

The Frege-Geach problem (also known as the embedding problem) is used as the main test
to understand rationality in non-cognitivist theories. The problem was posed in P. Geachs
article Assertion (Geach, 1964), but the discussion starts back from Geachs article
Imperatives and Deontic Logic (Geach, 1958). In particular, Geach used his own test to attack
non-cognitivist claims; in fact, if we find a positive solution to the Geach-Frege Problem we are
de facto giving significance to non-cognitivist moral reasoning. On the contrary, if no solution to
the problem is provided, the only option left open to moral reasoning is cognitivism or excluding
ethics into the realm of rationality (likewise radical forms of emotivism such as Ayer).
Briefly, the Frege-Geach problem is that sentences that express moral judgments can form part
of semantically complex sentences in a way that an expressivist cannot easily explain. According
to Geach, the sentence Telling the lies is wrong has the same meaning regardless of whether it
occurs on its own or as the antecedent of If telling the lies is wrong, then getting your little
brother to tell lies is also wrong. This must be so, since we may derive Telling your little
brother to tell lies is wrong from them and both by modus ponens without any fallacy of
equivocation. Yet nothing is expressed (in the relevant sense) by Telling lies is wrong when it
forms the antecedent of the conditional, since the antecedent is not itself the same illocutionary
force as the premise, and so its meaning (regardless of where it occurs) apparently cannot be

explained by an expressivist analysis. Analogous problems within other kinds of embedded

contexts (Unwin, 1999).
However, Geach recommends attention to Freges distinction between assertion and predication,
or in other words, between illocutionary force and propositional content, respectively. In fact, if
we assume the role of the illocutionary force, there would be a slight change in the meaning of
the word wrong in the antecedent of the conditional If telling the lies is wrong, then getting
your little brother to tell lies is also wrong and in its occurrence as consequence in the same
conditional sentence. This problem is even clearer using modus ponens:
1. If tormenting the cat is wrong, then getting your little brother to torment the cat is also wrong
2. Tormenting the cat is wrong
Therefore, getting your little brother to torment the cat is wrong.
In the case above it is difficult to say that the occurrence of wrong as antecedent of the 1st
conditional (which appears to be descriptive) has exactly the same meaning as wrong in the
2nd sentence (which appears to be normative).
We saw non-cognitivism is characterized by the assumption that norms lack truth-values. Yet,
the contexts introduced by ordinary logic operators such as and, not, or, if then, and
the quantifiers, together with predication itself, are normally explicated in terms of the more
basic semantic concepts of truth. Therefore, it seems that this option is not available to noncognitivists, in general, and in particular to expressivists.

a. Blackburn solutions to the Frege-Geach Problem

S. Blackburn (1984) redefines the Frege-Geach Problem in terms of whether expressive theories
can cope with unasserted contexts in such a way as to allow sentences the same meaning within
them, as they have when they are asserted. According to Blackburn, we use evaluative sentences
as if they were not different from assertions (because of our projective attitude), and, therefore,
we intuitively treat them as if they were bearing truth-values and linked to descriptive sentences.
The problem will be about the interpretation of connectives to be used to build up more complex
commitments having in their own several illocutionary characteristics (such as in a conditional).
Blackburn suggests commitments are used to create more complex sentences which is accepted
only if all its parts are accepted, according to the following solution: the notion of commitment
is then capacious enough to include both ordinary beliefs, and these other attitudes, habits and
prescriptions (Blackburn, ibid., p. 192). Therefore a conditional will express someones
endorsement to an attitude (which is an expression of a moral standpoint, too) preceded by a
belief. In other words, it expresses a higher-order attitude, that is, an expression of disapproval
or approval toward a combination of attitudes (such as of lying). Conditionals, as they are used
in ordinary language, show the way we express an endorsement over involvement of
commitments which is expression of a moral standpoint. In other words, we can see that using
conditional forms (in normative contexts) is a higher level form (compared to simple sentences
like its wrong telling lies) which serves to express ones attitudes on attitudes, or metaattitudes.
Blackburn introduces these kinds of sentences formally in the following way:
(a) H! (B!p B!q)
Where H! stands for the Hooray operator (expressive counterpart of the deontic operator O for obligation), B! is the Booh operator (expressive equivalent to the deontic F - for

forbidden). What appears between slashes shows that our argument is an attitude or a belief,
which express a first order attitude (such as The playing for West Ham is wrong).
The main limit of Blackburns solution of the Frege-Geach problem concerns the nature of the
H! and B! operators, while iterated in a higher order sentence. Blackburns formulation does not
make clear the illocutionary role of the operator. If we interpret all the operators in the formula
(a) in an expressive (or prescriptive) way, (that is lacking of truth-values), the whole expression
will not make sense. According to Barcan Marcus (1966), iteration of normative operators looks
like stammering. Otherwise. if we interpret (according to Blackburn) the external operator H! in
an expressive (or prescriptive) way and those into the slashes as descriptive ones, we will have a
correct way of interpreting operators but no solution to the Frege-Geach problem. The formula
(a) above, indeed, is formally correct but does not solve the problem about the identity of
meaning for example between the antecedent of the 1st conditional in the Modus Ponens shown
above (which is descriptive) and its 2nd sentence (which is normative).

b. Gibbard solution to the Frege-Geach Problem

Gibbard tries to solve the Frege-Geach problem using a slightly modified version of possible
worlds semantics that he labeled as factual-normative worlds. Factual-normative worlds are an
ordered pair where w is a possible world (or a set of facts) and n is a complete system of
general norms. The pair constitutes a creedal-normative state completely opinionated (Gibbard,
1990, p. 95).
According to Gibbard, any particular normative judgment holds or not, as a matter of logic, in
the factual-normative world . That is, the pair is a set of sound and complete norms where, for
each possible human behavior, we can state the normative status (Forbidden, Obligatory or
Indifferent) associated with it. In this way each individual can understand the normative
qualification of his or her action.
Consider a human observer who is uncertain both factually and normatively. When the observer
will think about the rightness of a normative judgment, she or he will rule out any possible
action which is not included into a set constituted by all the factual elements and all the
normative elements in which that normative judgment is valid. Lets take for instance, the modus
ponens above:
1. If tormenting the cat is wrong, then getting your little brother to torment the cat is also wrong
2. Tormenting the cat is wrong
Therefore, getting your little brother to torment the cat is wrong.
The first premise rules out all the combinations in which it is not wrong to get your little brother
to tell lies. The second premise rules out the set of combination between norms and facts in
which is wrong to torment the cat. Therefore both premises together rules out the whole set of
norms and facts in which it is not wrong to get your little brother to torment the cat; including
any combination that the conclusion rules out.
What does it mean for a sentence to be valid in a particular factual-normative world? According
to Gibbard it means that for each sentence containing a normative predicate there is a ncorresponding descriptive version which makes a normative predicate (such as rational) refer
to a particular set of norms (that is rational according to the system n). Hence, Gibbard
concludes, for any logically complex sentence S containing normative predicates in embedded
contexts, we may construct the descriptive sentence Sn that arises from replacing all normative
predicates in S by their n-corresponding version. Therefore we can operate with embedded
contexts saying the sentence S holds in if and only if Sn holds in a possible world .

Actually Gibbards solution to the Geach-Frege problem is rather a bypass method to avoid the
problem because he explains the functioning of normative language by means of descriptive
language and semantical models. According to Sinnot-Armstrongs criticism (1993), Gibbards
analysis appears to be compatible with a realist view on norms because of his ambiguous use of
normative judgment (which is a state of mind) and his use of possible world semantics.

5. The significance of the Geach-Frege Problem and

Jorgensens Dilemma for non-cognitivism
The Geach-Frege problems and Jorgensens Dilemma are faces of the same coin. The first deals
with the problem of mixed, or embedded, contexts (normative and descriptive) and how it is
possible to deal with mixed sentences. The main problem here is the interpretation of
connectives and logical operators in contexts that are partially lacking truth-values.
Jorgensens Dilemma, on the other hand, deals with making inferences between norms, that is,
sentences that are lacking of truth-values, and to create a logical foundation that makes sense of
inferences between norms we actually find sound in the everyday discourse. The Jorgensens
Dilemma also tries to explain the very nature lying behind moral disagreements and the way we
can rationally deliberate on them.
Both are questions involving the different illocutionary role of normative/expressive sentences
and their solution represents a challenge to non-cognitivism. A positive solution to both
challenges would open a room to the rationality of non-cognitive discourse in ethics. On the
contrary, a negative one would show that the only option for rationalism in ethics is cognitivism
or -- in the worst case scenario -- to irrationality and ethical nihilism.
Finally it is worth notice that while both cover a similar perspective, the Frege-Geach problem is
more popular in moral philosophy, whereas Jorgensens Dilemma is more popular in the
philosophy of law. It is difficult to understand the reasons for that different interest. We can only
guess that it was because the analysis of sentences in terms of the Frege-Reichenbach model was
popular among moral philosophers while it was virtually unknown (until the works by
Alchourron and Bulygin, 1971) among philosophers of law.

6. A Taxonomy of Ethics
The following scheme is a development from R. M. Hares A Taxonomy of Ethical Theories
(Hare, 1997, p. 42)
Descriptivism: Meanings of moral sentences are wholly determined by syntax and truth
Naturalism: Truth conditions of moral sentences are non-moral properties.
Objectivistic naturalism: These properties are objective.
Subjective naturalism: These properties are subjective.
Intuitionism: Truth conditions of moral sentences are sui generis moral properties.
Non-descriptivism: Meanings of moral sentences are not wholly determined by syntax and truth

Emotivism: Moral sentences are not governed by logic.

Rationalistic non-descriptivism: Moral sentences are governed by logic.
Universal prescriptivism: The logic, which governs moral sentences, is the logic of universal
Expressivism: The moral sentences are about beliefs and/or commitments; their logic is different
from the logic of descriptive sentences.

7. References and Further Reading

Alchourrn, 1993: Philosophical Foundations of Deontic Logic and the Logic of

Defeasible Conditionals, in Meyer e Wieringa (1993), Deontic Logic in Computer
Science, Chichester, Wiley, pp.43-84.
Alchourrn, C. E. and Bulygin, E. (1981): The Expressive Conception of Norms, in
Hilpinen, H. (ed.) (1981), New Essays in Deontic Logic, Dordrecht, D. Reidel, pp. 95124
Alchourrn, C. E. and Bulygin, E. (1989): Limits of Logic and Legal Reasoning, in
Martino, A.A. (ed.) (1989), Deontic Logic, Computational Linguistics and Legal
Information Systems, Amsterdam, North-Holland, pp. 1-20.
Ayer, A. J. (1936): Language, Truth and Logic, London, Gollancz
Bentham, J. (1789): An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, eds.
Burns, J.H. and Hart, H.L.A., London, Athlone Press, 1970
Bentham, J. (1970): Of Laws in General, ed. Hart, H.L.A., London, Athlone Press, 1970.
Blackburn, S. (1984): Spreading the Word, Oxford, Clarendon.
Bulygin, E. (1982): Norms, normative propositions and legal statements, in Floistad,
G. (ed.), Contemporary Philosophy A New Survey, The Hague, M. Nijhoff, pp. 157-163;
rist. in Alchourron e Bulygin (1991), pp. 215-238.
Geach, P. T., (1958): "Imperative and Deontic Logic", Analysis, 18, 3, pp. 49-56.
Geach, P. (1964): "Assertion", Philosophical Review, 74, pp. 449-465
Gibbard, A. (1990): Wise Choices, Apt Feelings. A Theory of Normative Judgement,
Oxford, Clarendon Press
Hale, B., (1993): "Can There Be a Logic of Attitudes?", in Haldane, J., e Wright, C,
(eds.) (1995), pp. 337-363
Hare, R. M. (1949): Imperatives Sentences, in Mind, LVIII; in Hare (1971), pp.1-21.
Hare, R. M. (1952): The Language of Morals, Clarendon, Oxford.. Hare, R.M. (1963):
Freedom and Reason, Oxford, Oxford U.P.
Hare, R. M. (1967): Some Alleged Differences between Imperatives and Indicatives, in
Hare R. M. (1982): Moral Thinkings: Its Levels, Methods and Point, Oxford, Oxford U.P
Hare R. M. (1989): Essays in Ethical Theory, Oxford, Oxford U.P.
Hare R. M. (1997):Sorting Out Ethics, Oxford, O.U.P.
Jrgensen, J. (1937-38): Imperatives and Logic, in Erkenntnis, 7, pp. 288-296
Kelsen, H. (1941): The Pure Theory of Law and Analytical Jurisprudence, in Harvard
Law Review, 60, pp. 44-70
Levinson, S. C. (1983): Pragmatics. Cambridge, Cambridge U.P.
Lyons, J. (1995): Linguistic Semantics. An Introduction, Cambridge, Cambridge U.P.
MacIntyre, A. (1957): "What Morality is Not", Philosophia, XXXII (123), pp. 325-335.
Marcus, B. (1966): "Iterated Deontic Modalities", Mind, 75, pp. 580-582.
Reichenbach, H (1947): Elements of Symbolic Logic, New York, McMillan
Russell, B. (1935): Religion and Science, Oxford U.P.

Searle, J.R. (1969): Speech Acts. An Essay in the Philosophy of Language, London,
Singer, M. (1985): "The Generalization Principle", in Potter, N.T. e Simmons M. (eds.)
Morality and Universality, Boston, Dordrecht, pp. 47-73.
Sinnott-Armstrong, W. (1993): "Some problems for Gibbard's norm-expressivism",
Philosophical Studies, pp. 297-313.
Stevenson, C.L. (1944): Ethics and Language, New Haven, Yale U.P
Unwin, N. (1999): "Norms and Negation: A Problem for Gibbard's Logic", The
Philosophical Quarterly, 51(202), pp.60-75
von Wright, G. H. (1963): Norm and Action. A Logical Inquiry, London, Routledge &
Kegan Paul
Warnock, M. (1978): Ethics since 1900, Oxford, Oxford U.P.,
Williams, B. A. O. (1985): Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, Cambridge (Mass.),
Cambridge U.P.

Author Information
Antonio Marturano
University of Exeter
United Kingdom