Meta-Ethics, Part II: Simple Subjectivism

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This is part II in a series on meta-ethics begun here. See that post for more details.

Subjectivism is a thesis about the nature of moral claims and moral views. It's the view that moral statements and attitudes are not about some subject matter independent of our perspective. These statements have to do with our own moral framework, and what makes them legitimate to say and to believe will be entirely based on the individual person. People generally want to be subjectivists because they think it's the tolerant view. I think it will become clear that that's both right and wrong, and it's actually at odds with many views held by those who want to be tolerant.

The view is sometimes called moral relativism. This is a topic that I've seen discussed in many Christian apologetics textbooks, usually on a very simplistic level. I think those discussions are helpful to those who will never encounter a philosopher, but they make Christians look stupid when they pull those one-liners out in the presence of someone who has spent any time reading more careful subjectivists. That's one reason I thought it would be good to turn this into a series of posts, since I have a number of readers interested in exactly that sort of book.

It's incredibly hard to define subjectivism as a whole, but I'm going to examine two varieties that get to the heart of the issues. The first, and the subject of this post (as a glance at the title reveals), is the view James Rachels calls simple subjectivism.

On this first version of subjectivism, moral truths do exist, and they�re about something � about our feelings and attitudes. Statements like "It's bad to steal" really just mean "I disapprove of stealing". The statements are absolutely equivalent and can be substituted for each other, retaining the same meaning.

This view has two problems. First, it means we can't disagree. If my statement that terrorism is wrong is merely about my attitude toward terrorism, and Usama bin Laden�s statement that terrorism is ok is about his attitude, then we still might agree. I agree that he does believe terrorism is ok. He agrees that I don't. Since each statement expresses a view about our own attitudes but not about the action itself, we're not really disagreeing. If I'm only talking about myself, and he's only talking about him, then our statements have completely different content. We're not even talking about the same thing. We're just talking past each other. It would be like one person saying that the bank has money in it because she's talking about a financial institution and someone else insisting that there isn't any money in the bank, when he's talking about the bank of a river.

It isn't some independent subject of morality that people are talking about when they make moral claims, according to subjectivism. It's just our attitudes that we're talking about, and when I act as if I'm disagreeing with bin Laden's claim that terrorism is justified, I really don't understand what he said. If all he said is that his view allows terrorism, then I should agree with him. Most philosophers recognize that the fact that we ordinarily don't take such statements that way shows that that's not what people mean when they make moral claims. We do seem to be disagreeing, so this just can't be what's going on with our moral speech.

Second, the view makes us infallible, so long as we know what our beliefs are. If George Bush knows that he disagrees with abortion, then he knows it's wrong. If John Kerry knows that he thinks it's ok, then he knows it's ok. But surely Hitler was wrong in thinking it was ok to commit genocide against the Jews! Subjectivism doesn�t allow for humility about our moral beliefs. That's not exactly going to endender tolerance, since it doesn't matter what you believe about others. You can hate them, and you'd be automatically right to do so.

Another problem with this sort of view is that we often think something is wrong but do it anyway. For instance, how many people believe sex before marriage is wrong but still do it? How many people cheat on taxes but say they know it's wrong? This shows that we at least think morality is about something more than what we happen to believe.

The next post will cover a more sophisticted version of subjectivism, and I'll save my primary argument against subjectivism as a whole for that post.

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One of the commenters on my post on whether we're abandoning science pointed out this post, which talks about a battle between science and religion. I won't comment on most of the post, but there's one part that reminded me... Read More

4 Comments

There's room for disagreement and error outside of the realm of truth/falsity, isn't there? You and your wife are going to re-paint the kitchen, and you like blue, and she likes yellow. You disagree, even though neither of you thinks the other's preference is *false*.

RE: infallibility: I can, for the most part, reliably identify the things I desire. But that doesn't mean it's good for me to desire them. I desire to drink the bucket of paint, and I say, "I should drink the bucket of paint." Literally true, I guess, according to this version of subjectivism, but reflective of an important error on my part.

Right, but moral disagreement seems to be more than mere preference, from within anyway. If this view is correct, our internal sense that moral statements are not just about ourselves but about some content that we disagree on is just wrong. That's the trouble. Maybe it is wrong, but that's the bullet the simple subjectivist has to bite.

Besides, there really are statements that we make all the time that indicate that we don't think of moral statements this way. For instance, consider the following conversation:

Jen: Do you think the Iraq war was wrong?
Jim: It was morally justified.
Jen: No, it wasn't.

In this example, Jim and Jen disagree on what seems to be a substantive issue. Each denies a statement the other makes. If it turns out that "The Iraq war was morally justified" is equivalent to "I disapprove of the Iraq war", then an answer of "No, it wasn't" seems to me to be equivalent to "No, you don't believe that", which of course isn't what is being said.

What is the error in the paint example? If all there is to what's good for you is what subjectivism says, then you should drink the bucket. There's no independent notion of what's good for you, because the meaning of 'good' is what subjectivism is trying to get at. I think the example you gave is just a counterexample to simple subjectivism.

The problem with morals as preferences is that you have no means of navigating the social sea if nothing transcends the shifting waves beneath you. There is no north, south, east, or west so in effect while you may be going somewhere, you don't know where you are headed or where you come from, much less where you are.

Our whole existence and ability to move within it uses absolute references, the simplest being up and down, based on gavity and our ability to see what is around us based on light and darkness. While this is simplistic, and we can understand that technology can control gravity and light making it somewhat relative in expression, it cannot remove its absoluteness from existence. Gravity is, even if technologically altered. Light and darkness is, even if technologically manipulated.

Something in us longs for that sort of finality in our understanding of right and wrong, in our inner moral sense.

anyone can answer me these questions?

>What theory that considers each individual to be the sole judge of his/her ethical satandar?

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