Simple Subjectivism: An Analysis

 © 2010 by Jensen dG. Mañebog
THE SIMPLEST VERSION of the theory in Ethics named Subjectivism states that when a person says that something is morally good, this means that he approves of that thing, and nothing more. Philosophy professor at University of Alabama at Birmingham James Rachels (1941-2003) simplified the theory this way:

            “X is morally acceptable”   
            “X is right”                                  
            “X is good”                                  
            “X ought to be done”
            These all mean: “I (the speaker)approve of X.”

And similarly:
            “X is morally unacceptable
            “X is wrong”                                  
            “X is bad”                                       
            “X ought not to be done”
            These all mean: “I (the speaker)disapprove of X.”

            Having implications that are contrary to what we know about the nature of moral evaluation, this version of the theory called Simple Subjectivism by Rachels is open to several objections. In his book The Elements of Moral Philosophy(3rd Edition, USA: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 1999) Rachels mentions two of the objections.
1. None of us is infallible—we are sometimes wrong in our evaluation. Whereas Simple Subjectivism implies that each of us is infallible.
            In the theory, assuming that one is speaking sincerely—that he really disapproves of something (e.g. death penalty) when he says it is immoral—then it follows that what he says is true. Thus Rachels argues against it:
(1)   If Simple Subjectivism is correct, then each of us is infallible in our moral judgments, at least so long as we are speaking sincerely.
(2)   However, we are not infallible. We may be mistaken, even when we are speaking sincerely.
(3)   Therefore, Simple Subjectivism cannot be correct.

2. Simple Subjectivism cannot account for the fact of disagreement in ethics.
Case: While Jerry Falwell, a priest, declares that “Homosexuality is immoral”, former director of the US Legal Services Administration Dan Bradley insists that homosexuality was not immoral.
          In Simple Subjectivism, when Bradley said his stand, he was merely making a statement about his attitude—he was saying that he, Bradley, approved of homosexuality. Now, assuming that Bradley is speaking sincerely, how could Falwell disagree with that Bradley approved of homosexuality?  Thus, Simple Subjectivism entails that there is no disagreement between them while they clearly do disagree about whether or not homosexuality is immoral.
            Rachels summarized the argument, thus:
(1)   When one person says “X is morally acceptable” and someone else says, “X is morally unacceptable,” they are disagreeing.
(2)   However, if Simple Subjectivism were correct, there would be no disagreement between them.
(3)   Therefore, Simple Subjectivism cannot be correct. (Ibid. p. 41).

Simple Subjectivism therefore is a flawed theory and cannot be maintained. In the face of such arguments, some thinkers have chosen to reject the whole idea of Ethical Subjectivism.

          Comprehensive discussion on the various forms of Ethical Subjectivism was done in the article/s “Subjectivism: Another Challenge in Ethics” (which can be found by searching the title through’s own search engine).
* The lists of summaries of lectures in Ethics are available at Facebook page.

* You, too, can have your articles published here. Contributions [essays, poems, blogs, lectures, researches, notes, etc.] are sent through e-mail to For comments, queries, and suggestions, kindly visit our Facebook Page and  Facebook accounts.

How to cite this article:
“Simple Subjectivism: An Analysis (Notes in Ethics)” @
© 2010 All rights reserved.



Sponsored Links