Cognitivism refers to the view that moral statements, such as the statement “giving to the poor is good,” are either true or false. Cognitivism holds that it is possible to confirm or deny the truth of this statement by reference to knowable properties of the universe. It is possible to either empirically determine whether giving to the poor is good (under a naturalist view) or determine by some means such as intuition or a priori reason whether giving to the poor is good (under a non-naturalist view).
Non-cognitivism refers to the opposite view, i.e., that moral statements such as the statement “giving to the poor is good” are neither true nor false and simply express emotions (emotivism), prescriptions or commands by the person making the statement (prescriptivism), or another thing which it is incoherent to claim is true or false.
Whether a moral statement is cognitive or non-cognitive depends on the intentions of the person making the statement. If the person intends words such as “good” and “bad” to refer to discernible properties of the universe, then the statement is cognitive. My view, the moral nihilist view, is that all moral statements intended to convey facts about the universe, that is, all cognitive moral statements, are false without exception because there are no moral laws or objective moral truths. The belief that there are moral laws or objective moral truths is mistaken because it is not grounded in any reliable evidence.
However, if the person making a moral statement intends words such as “good” and “bad” to represent his or her own emotional preferences or as commands he or she is issuing, then the statement is non-cognitive. In such a situation, my approach, and the moral nihilist approach in general, is not to challenge the assertion (how does one challenge an assertion that is neither true nor false?), but to point out that (1) this is not how the words “good” and “bad” are (or at any rate seem to be) used by most people in most everyday situations, as most of the time they are (or at least seem to be) intended to describe objective facts or truths; and (2) because such a moral proposition is not binding, there is no duty to abide by it, and any view to the contrary is erroneous.
I value truth and self-honesty, not because I am required to do so, but because those are what I choose to value based on my own arbitrary desires and preferences. Because I value these things, I seek to avoid confusion and self-deception. In seeking to avoid confusion and self-deception, I point out that moral statements intended to convey sentiments and emotional preferences are not binding and that any view that they are binding is mistaken. I hope that pointing this out will help prevent people (including myself) from mistaking non-cognitive statements for cognitive statements, which in this case would mean treating statements of emotional preference or sentiment (or prescriptive or other non-cognitive statements) as though they express real facts about the universe.