Subjectivism: Another challenge in Ethics


Editors note: As in the discussion in the article, “CulturalRelativism: A challenge in Ethics,” this piece of writing is very much indebted to James Rachels, as this can be considered a paraphrased version of the Chapter “The Challenge of Subjectivism in Ethics” of his book “The Elements of Moral Philosophy”[3rd Edition, USA: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 1999])

 © 2010 by Jensen DG. Mañebog
ANOTHER ETHICAL THEORY which utterly runs contrary to the principle that there’s objectivity in morality is the Ethical Subjectivism. This is not a theory about what things are good and what things are bad—it does not tell men how they should live or what moral norms they should practice. Instead, it is a theory about the nature of moral judgments.
            Rachels took the case of gay rights to explain this theory further. The controversy about the “third sex’ has been vigorously debated in the United States in recent years. Jerry Falwell, the priest, spoke for many Americans when he said in a television interview: “Homosexuality is immoral. The so-called ‘gay rights’ are not rights at all, because immorality is not right. God hates homosexuality, and so do we. But we do not hate the homosexual; we want to help him by helping him overcome his sin.” The Republican Party, with the strong support of religious conservatives, has made opposition to gay rights a part of its national stance (Rachels: 1999, p.37).
            In other societies, we find a broad range of views. Agreeing with Falwell, the rulers of Iran were said to even take the view to an extreme: homosexuals in the country may be castrated or killed or both. In England, on the other hand, a more tolerant attitude is taken, and all legal penalties were removed four decades ago. (Ibid.)
            We too might either agree with Falwell and say that homosexuality is in fact immoral, or we might disagree and say that homosexuality is not immoral. But there is a third option. Some might say something like this: Falwell is expressing his own opinion, but where morality is concerned, there are no facts” and no one is “right.” He has his opinion; others have their opinions; and that’s the end of it.
            This is the basic thought behind Ethical Subjectivism. It is the idea that our moral opinions are based on our feelings, and nothing more. In this view, there is no such thing as “objective” right or wrong. It is a fact that some people are homosexual and some are heterosexual; but it is not a fact that one is good and the other bad. So when someone such as Falwell says that homosexuality is wrong, he is, according to the theory, not stating a fact about homosexuality but merely saying something about his feelings toward it.
            Applied to other ethical case, Ethical Subjectivism considers it a fact that Hitler and his henchmen exterminated millions of innocent people; but in expressing that their actions were evil, we are said to be not stating a fact about those actions; rather we are saying that we have negative feelings toward them.
            Ethical Subjectivism thus pronounces that no matter what moral judgments we make, we are only expressing our personal feeling, and nothing more. People who accept this theory will still have moral opinions, of course—they might be in favor of gay rights or opposed to them. But whichever stance they choose, they will not believe their choice represents the “truth”.
The Evolution of the Theory
The theory of Ethical Subjectivism began as a simple idea and later developed into something more sophisticated.

Simple Subjectivism
The simplest version of the theory states that: When a person says that something is morally good or bad, this means that he or she approves of that thing, or disapproves of it, and nothing more. Rachels 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”

            This version of the theory Rachels calls Simple Subjectivism expresses the basic idea of Ethical Subjectivism in a plain, uncomplicated form which is nevertheless open to several objections, because it has implications that are contrary to what we know (or at least, think we know) about the nature of moral evaluation. Rachels mentions two of the objections.
1. None of us is infallible. We are sometimes wrong in our evaluation, and when we discover that we are mistaken, we may want to change our judgments. But if Simple Subjectivism were correct, this would be impossible, because Simple Subjectivism implies that each of us is infallible.
            Taking Falwell’s stance as regards homosexuality, Simple Subjectivism would just state that what Falwell is saying is that he disapproves of homosexuality. Assuming that he is speaking sincerely—that he really does disapprove of it—then it follows in this ethical theory that what he says is true. As long as one is honestly representing his own feelings, he cannot be mistaken in Ethical Subjectivism. Thus Rachels offers the following argument against Simple Subjectivism:
  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.
          Dan Bradley, the former director of the United States Legal Services Administration clearly disagreed with Falwell on the issue of homosexuality. To “come out of the closet” Bradley resigned in 1982 and publicly acknowledge his homosexuality while insisting that homosexuality was not immoral (Ibid. p. 40). Let us see what Simple Subjectivism implies about this situation.
          Subscribing to Simple Subjectivism, one would say that when Bradley said that homosexuality was not immoral, he was merely making a statement about his attitude—he was saying that he, Bradley, did not disapprove of homosexuality. Falwell would not disagree with that. He would agree that Bradley did not disapprove of homosexuality just as we could not disagree that Falwell disapproves of homosexuality, if we were to believe Simple Subjectivism, when he says that homosexuality is immoral, Thus Simple Subjectivism entails that there is no disagreement between them—each should acknowledge the truth of what the other is saying. Clearly thus, this ethical theory errs, for Falwell and Bradley 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).
            These arguments, and others like them, show that Simple Subjectivism is a flawed theory: It cannot be maintained, at least not in such a crude form. In the face of such arguments, some thinkers have chosen to reject the whole idea of Ethical Subjectivism. Others, however, “have worked to produce a better version of the theory that would not be vulnerable to such objections.” (Ibid. p. 41)

The Second Stage: Emotivism
The improved version was a theory that came to be known as Emotivism. Developed chiefly by the American philosopher Charles L. Stevenson (1909-1979), Emotivism has been one of the most influential theories of ethics in the 20th century and it is far more subtle and sophisticated than Simple Subjectivism (Ibid. p. 42).
            Emotivism begins with the observation that language is used in a variety of ways. One of its principal uses is in stating facts, or at least in stating what we believe to be facts. Thus we may say:
            “Ferdinand Marcos was president of the Philippines.”
            “ I have an appointment at eight o’clock.”
            “ Gasoline costs Php 44 per liter.”
            “ Jose Rizal is the author of Noli Me Tangere.”

            In each case, we are saying something that is either true or false, and the purpose of our utterance is, typically, to convey information to the listener.
            However, we know that there are other purposes for which language may be used. Suppose one says, “Close the door!” This utterance is neither true nor false. It is not a statement of any kind; it is a command, which is something altogether different. Its purpose is not to convey information; rather, its purpose is to get one to do something. In giving you a command, I am not trying to alter your beliefs; instead I am trying to influence your conduct.
            Or consider utterances such as these, which are neither statements of fact nor commands:
            “Hurrah for Ferdinand Marcos!”
            “Would that gasoline did not cost so much!”
            “Alright Pepe!”

          These are perfectly familiar, common types of sentences that we understand easily enough. But none of them is “true” or “false.” (It would make no sense to say “It is true that hurrah for Abraham Lincoln” or “It is false that Alas.” Again, these sentences are not used to state facts. Instead, they are used to express the speaker’s attitudes.
            We need to note clearly the difference between reporting an attitude and expressing the same attitude. If I say “I like Marcos,” I am reporting the fact that I have a positive attitude toward him. The statement is a statement of fact, which is either true or false. On the other hand, if I shout “Hurrah for Marcos!” I am not stating any sort of fact, not even a fact about my attitudes. I am expressing an attitude, but I am not reporting that I have it.
            Now, with these points in mind, let us turn our attention to moral language. According to Emotivism, moral language “is not fact-stating language; it is not typically used to convey information.” Its purpose is entirely different. It is used, first, as a “means of influencing people’s behavior” (Ibid. p.43). If someone says “You ought not to do that,” he is accordingly trying to stop you from doing it. Thus the utterance is more like “a command than a statement of fact” (Ibid.); it is as though he had said “Don’t do that!”
            Second, moral language is used “to express (not report) one’s attitude.” (Ibid.) Saying “Marcos was a good man” is not like saying “I approve of Marcos,” but it is like saying “Hurrah for Marcos!”
            The difference between Emotivism and Simple Subjectivism should now be obvious. Simple Subjectivism interpreted ethical sentences as statements of fact, of a special kind—namely, as reports of the speaker’s attitude. According to Simple Subjectivism, when Falwell says “Homosexuality is immoral,” this means the same as “I (Falwell) disapprove of homosexuality”—a statement of fact about his attitude. Emotivism, on the other hand, denies that his utterance states any fact at all, even a fact about himself. Instead, Emotivism interprets his utterance as equivalent to something such as “Homosexuality—yecch!” or “Do not engage in homosexual acts!” or “Would that there were no homosexuality.”
Emotivism, Reason, and “Moral Facts”
A moral judgment—or for that matter, any kind of value judgment—must be supported by good reasons. If someone tells you that a certain action would be wrong, you may ask why it would be wrong, and if there is no satisfactory answer, you may reject that advice as unfounded. In this way, moral judgments are different from mere expressions of personal preference. If someone says, “I like coffee,” he does not need to have a reason; he may be making a statement about his personal taste and nothing more. But moral judgments require backing by reasons, and in the absence of such reasons, they are merely arbitrary.
            If the connection between moral judgments and reasons is necessary and important, then any adequate theory of the nature of moral judgment should be able to give some account of the connection. It is at just this point that Emotivism foundered.
            What did Emotivism imply about reasons? Remember that for the emotivist, a moral judgment is like a command—it is primarily a verbal means of trying to influence people’s attitudes and conduct. The view of reasons that naturally goes with this basic idea is that reasons are any considerations that will have the desired effect, that will influence attitudes and conduct in the desired ways. But consider what this means. Suppose I am trying to convince you that Osama is a bad man (I am trying to influence your attitude toward him) and you are resisting. Knowing you are American, I say: “Osama is anti-American!” That does the trick; your attitude toward him changes, and you agree that he is a scoundrel. It would seem that for the emotivist, then, the fact that Osama is anti-American is, at least in some contexts, a reason in support of the judgment that he is a bad man. In fact, Stevenson takes exactly this view. In his classic work Ethics and Language (1944), he says: “Any statement about any fact which any speaker considers likely to alter attitudes may be adduced as a reason for or against an ethical judgment.”
            Obviously, something had gone wrong. Not just any fact can count as a reason in support of just any judgment. For one thing, the fact must be relevant to the judgment, and psychological influence does not necessarily bring relevance with it. (Being anti-American is irrelevant to viciousness, regardless of the psychological connections in anyone’s mind.)

The importance of reason in ethics
Hume emphasized that if we examine wicked actions—“willful murder, for instance”—we will find no “matter of fact” corresponding to the wickedness. The universe, apart from our attitudes, contains no such facts… So a fundamental mistake, which many people fall into when they think about this subject, is to assume just two possibilities:
  1. There are moral facts, in the same way that there are facts about stars and planets; or
  2. Our “values” are nothing more than the expression of our subjective feelings.
            This is a mistake because it overlooks a crucial third possibility. People have not only feelings but reason, and that makes a big difference. It may be that:
3. To say one thing about moral truths, they are truths of reason; that is, a moral judgment is true if it is backed by better reasons than the alternatives.

          Thus, if we want to understand the nature of ethics, we must consider reasons. A truth of ethics is a conclusion that is backed by reasons: The “correct” answer to a moral question is simply the answer that has the weight of reason on its side. Such truths are objective in the sense that they are true independently of what we might want or think. We cannot make something good or bad just by wishing it to be so because we cannot merely will that the weight of reason be on its side or against it. And this also explains our infallibility: We can be wrong about what is good or bad because we can be wrong about what reason commends. Reason says what it says, regardless of our opinions or desires.

Are There Proofs in Ethics?
If Ethical Subjectivism is not true, why are so many people attracted to it? One reason is that science provides our paradigm of objectivity, and when we compare ethics to science, “ethics seems to lack the features that make science so compelling” (Rachels: 1999, p. 47). For example, it seems a great deficiency that there are no proofs in ethics. We can prove that the world is round, that there is no largest prime number, and that dinosaurs lived before human beings. But we can prove that abortion is right or wrong? The “No-Proof Argument,” as we might call it, goes like this:
  1. If there were any such thing as objective truth in ethics, we should be able to prove that some moral opinions are true and others are false.
  2. But in fact we cannot prove which moral opinions are true and which are false.
  3. Therefore, there is no such thing as objective truth in ethics.
            The general claim that moral judgments can’t be proved sounds right: Anyone who has ever argued about a matter like abortion knows how frustrating it can be to try to “prove” that one’s point of view is correct. However, if we inspect this claim more closely, it turns out to be dubious.
            Suppose we consider a matter that is much simpler than abortion. A student says that a test given by a teacher was unfair. This is clearly a moral judgment—fairness is a basic, moral value. Can this judgment be proved? The student might point out that the test covered in detail matters that were quite trivial, while ignoring matters the teacher had stressed in discussion as important. The test also included questions about some matters that were not covered in either the readings or the class lecture. Moreover, the test was so long that not even the best students could complete it in the time allowed while it was to be graded on the assumption that it should be completed.
            Suppose all this is true. And further suppose that the teacher, when asked to explain, has no defense to offer. In fact, the teacher, who is rather inexperienced, seems muddled about the whole thing and doesn’t seem to have had any very clear idea of what he was doing. Now, hasn’t the student proved the test was unfair? What more in the way of proof could we possibly want?
            It is easy to think of other examples that make the same point:
Raul is a bad man. He is a habitual liar; he manipulates people; he cheats when he thinks he can get away with it; he is cruel to other people; and so on.

Dr. Paz is irresponsible.He bases his diagnoses on superficial considerations; he drinks before performing delicate surgery; he refuses to listen to other doctor’s advice; and so on.

Marga, a used-car dealer, is unethical.She conceals defects in her cars; she takes advantage of poor people by pressuring them into paying exorbitant prices for cars she knows to be defective; she runs misleading advertisements in any newspaper that will carry them; and so on.

            The process of giving reasons might even be taken a step further. If one of our reasons for saying that Raul is a bad man is that he is a habitual liar, we can go on to explain why lying is bad. Among other reasons, lying is bad, first, because it harms people. If I give you false information, and you rely on it, things may go wrong for you in all sorts of ways. Second, lying is bad because it is a violation of trust. Trusting another person means leaving oneself vulnerable and unprotected. When I trust you, I simply believe what you say, without taking precautions; and when you lie, you take advantage of my trust. That is why being given the lie is such an intimate and personal offense. And finally, the rule requiring truthfulness is necessary for society to exist—if we could not assume that other people will speak truthfully, communication would be impossible, and if communication was impossible, society would be impossible.
            So we can support our judgments with good reasons, and we can provide explanations of why those reasons matter. If we can do all this, and for an encore show that no comparable case can be made on the other side, what more in the way of “proof” could anyone want? It is nonsense to say, in the face of all this, that ethical judgments can be nothing more than “mere opinions.”
            Nevertheless, the impression that moral judgments are “unprovable” is remarkably persistent. What accounts for this persistence? Why is the No-Proof Argument so persuasive? Rachels mentioned three points regarding this matter (Ibid, p. 49-50):
            First, when proof is demanded, people might have in mind an inappropriate standard. They “might be thinking about observations and experiments in science”; and when there are no comparable observations and experiments in ethics, they might conclude that there is no proof. But in ethics, rational thinking consists in giving reasons, analyzing arguments, setting out and justifying principles, and the like. “The fact that ethical reasoning differs from reasoning in science does not make it deficient.”
            Second, when we think of “proving our ethical opinions to be correct,” we “tend to think automatically of the most difficult issues.” The question of abortion, for example, is enormously complicated and difficult. If we think of questions like this, it is easy to believe that “proof” in ethics is impossible. But the same could be said of the sciences. There are complicated matters that physicists cannot agree on; and if we focused entirely on them, we might conclude that there is no “proof “in physics. But of course, there are many simpler matters about which all competent physicists agree. Similarly, “in ethics there are many simpler matters about which all reasonable people agree.”
            Finally, it is easy to conflate two matters that are really very different: “proving an opinion to be correct and persuading someone to accept your proof.”
            It is a common, if frustrating, experience to have an impeccable argument that someone refuses to accept. But that does not mean that there is something wrong with the argument or that “proof” is somehow unattainable. It may mean only that someone is being unreasonable. And in ethics we should often expect people not to listen to reason: After all, ethics often requires us to do things we don’t want to do, so it is only to be expected that sometimes we will try to avoid hearing its demands.
            Therefore, we may say that in considering any particular judgment of right and wrong, we must ask why that judgment should, or should not, be accepted. We might have strong feelings, of course, and we might choose to ignore reason and go with our feelings. But in doing so, we would be opting out of moral thinking. For one, moral thinking and moral conduct are a matter of weighing reasons and being guided by them. That is why, in focusing on attitudes and feelings, Ethical Subjectivism seems to be going in the wrong direction.

We have proven therefore that morality is objective, that is, that some actions are objectively wrong and certain actions are objectively right. Indeed, how could anyone hold that the truth “torturing a baby is wrong” is not a moral absolute but a relative judgment?  Even the challenges posed by Cultural Relativism and Ethical Subjectivism, as we had seen, could not successfully disprove the fact that some actions are indeed good and some are actually bad.
          Furthermore, moral relativism is self-defeating. The statement “there are no absolutes” itself implies a claim for an absolute principle. One cannot support relativism with a non-relative statement. It should be clear therefore that any theory of ethics which explicitly says, “morality is relative” must be considered wrong.
© 2011 by Jensen DG. Mañebog

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1. Compare and contrast Simple Subjectivism and Emotivism.
2. Why are these theories in Ethics untenable?
3. Is reason important in ethical judgment? Why?

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