What Is Ethical Subjectivism?

One of the most important issues in ethics concerns the status of moral views. Are they objectively true or false (as are, say, views regarding history or biology), or are they essentially matters of taste? Is ethics ultimately about objective properties — properties that do not depend on anyone's attitudes or feelings — or about subjective judgements? Objectivism is the view that there are objective facts in ethics, e.g., that certain things really are good and others really are bad. Subjectivism is the denial of this. 1 Consider for instance a claim such as "Stalin was evil". An objectivist maintains that such a claim refers to a real property that Stalin supposedly had, namely the property of "evilness". Just as it is either true or false that Stalin had a mustache or that he was 1.7 meters tall, it is either true or false that he was evil, i.e., that he had that property. A subjectivist, on the other hand, maintains that there are no objective moral properties. On this view, when someone claims Stalin was evil, they are merely expressing their disapproval of Stalin, or attempting to influence others to feel the same way, or something like that. (Of course they may believe that they are doing something else — that they are stating an objective fact about Stalin — but if so, they are mistaken.)

The main reason for accepting subjectivism is that it provides a simple, common-sensical explanation of what morality is. Human beings (and to varying degrees other sentient creatures) have certain desires. Among other things, we desire things that are pleasant and avoid things that are painful. As social animals, we also have feelings of empathy, and thus to some extent have unselfish desires. Morality is, at root, merely an expression of the attitudes we have as a result of such feelings. But attitudes are neither true nor false: they simply are.

Thus if I say "Stalin was evil", I am expressing my strong dislike of the sorts of things that Stalin did. But it does not follow that it is true (or false) that Stalin was evil. One who disagrees with me on purely moral grounds (that is, provided he agrees with me regarding all non-evaluative facts about Stalin) is not making an intellectual error. Rather, he simply has a different attitude — he feels that doing the sorts of things that Stalin did is good or justified (and in my judgement is therefore evil himself).

If like me you think that on the face of it the subjectivist view seems obviously right, you may wonder why anyone would accept objectivism. There are several possible reasons (and in most cases, the real reason probably involves several of these). One argument that is commonly put forward by objectivists is that ethical views have the internal appearance of objectivity. That is, when we make a moral judgement, we supposedly feel that we are making, or attempting to make, an objective statement. As Stephen Darwall put it: "to hold a moral opinion... is [at least sometimes] to take that opinion to purport or aspire to objectivity or truth." 2 According to Darwall, it doesn't seem to us that when we express a moral opinion we are merely expressing our preferences or tastes. Now, I don't know if this is true or not of people in general. I can only say that that is not how things appear to me. (I will admit, however, that the reason for this is probably because I've gotten used to seeing ethics through subjectivist lenses, and so it seems to me that when I make moral pronouncements I'm merely expressing my feelings.) But even if most people have the impression that moral judgements are statements of fact, that does not make them so. Most people might simply be mistaken.

At any rate, it is undeniable that people react differently to moral disagreement than they do to disagreement over other subjective matters — which suggests that they might think of moral opinions as more than a simple matter of taste. One does not get angry with someone for having a different opinion with respect to, say, whether or not pineapples taste good. But one is likely to be more critical of someone who disagrees that Hitler was evil. One reason for this is that, when it comes to moral issues, one person's view can have a direct bearing on another person's welfare. We are not content to let someone say, e.g., "stealing is good", as if that opinion did not concern us. And we don't just want to inform others that we happen to not like the act of stealing. We want to influence them so that they will not commit the act.

That ethical discourse is usually assertive in form is another fact commonly offered in support of objectivism. "Albert Schweitzer was a very decent man" seems to be no less a descriptive claim than "Albert Schweitzer was a trained physician". But although this is an interesting fact about language, philosophically it is not very relevant. Again, even if it meant that people always consciously regarded ethical sentences as fact-stating, that would not make them so; it would only mean that people believed them to be fact-stating.

A third reason given in favor of objectivism is that ethical claims very often have factual implications. Again, consider the sentence "Albert Schweitzer was a very decent man". Based on this claim, you can probably conclude with a good deal of confidence that Schweitzer did not go around torturing innocent children for fun. But the reason we are usually able to deduce certain facts from ostensibly ethical claims is that they are not purely ethical. They often are meant to convey some factual information as well. If we hear someone we know say "x is a good person", we are able to infer certain things about x because we already know what kind of character traits the person speaking is likely to regard as good. Those character traits, e.g., being considerate of others, honest, and so on, are facts about x. The moral evaluation of x by the person speaking, however, is not a fact about x. And that evaluation is what is neither true nor false.

The fact that our ethical claims aren't "pure", but contain implied factual content, is one possible reason why moral claims are usually put in the form of assertions. In saying "x is a good person" I am usually not simply expressing a moral evaluation of x. I am also implying certain facts about x based on the fact that my listeners will probably share some or most of my views as to what makes someone good. Because of this implied descriptive content, we can argue about and offer reasons for our "moral" opinions. But it is not our basic ethical claims that we are debating, i.e., not our purely evaluative views. In all debates of this kind, some basic moral common ground is presupposed.

A final reason why there are ethical objectivists is that subjectivism is a disturbing view for many, and may even be regarded as immoral. If our moral pronouncements are neither true nor false, then they are not any more correct (in a factual sense) than anyone else's, including Hitler's or Stalin's. But how can that be?

Obviously, this last reason is nothing more than a misunderstanding of subjectivism. Once one understands what it means for ethical claims to be merely an expression of one's attitudes, then questions regarding the factual correctness of one's views, or of anyone else's, will be seen to be meaningless.


1. The terms "objectivism" and "subjectivism" are sometimes used in somewhat different senses, but my usage here captures what I think is the most important disagreement between objectivists or moral realists on the one hand, and subjectivists or moral anti-realists on the other. ^

2. Stephen Darwall, Philosophical Ethics, p. 19 ^

See also: Replies to Some Objections

©2000 Franz Kiekeben