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Subjectivism in Ethics
James Rachels
Stuart Rachels
The Basic Idea of Ethical Subjectivism
 People have different opinions, but where
morality is concerned, there are no ‘facts,’ and
no one is ‘right.’ People just feel differently, and
that’s all there is to it.
Some Implications
 It is a fact that the Nazis exterminated millions
of innocent people.
 According to ethical subjectivism, it is not a
fact that what they did was objectively evil.
Some Implications
 According to ethical subjectivism, when we say
that the actions of the Nazis were evil, we are
merely expressing our negative subjective
feelings toward them.
 The same applies to any moral judgment
The Evolution of the Theory
 It began as a simple idea—in the words of David Hume
(1711-1776), that morality is a matter of sentiment
rather than fact. But as objections were raised to the
theory, and as its defenders tried to answer the
objections, the theory became more sophisticated.
The First Stage: Simple Subjectivism
 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.
Objections to Simple Subjectivism
1. Simple Subjectivism Cannot Account for
 Moral statements simply reflect preference. We
cannot disagree about what another person’s
sincerely stated preference is.
o Falwell: “Homosexuality is immoral.”
o Subjectivist: “I agree.” (For the subjectivist, this merely
means: “It is true that you have feelings of disapproval
toward homosexuality.” The subjectivist’s own feelings
are irrelevant .)
 This seems wrong. We seem to experience actual
disagreement with others about moral issues.
Objections to Simple Subjectivism
2. Simple Subjectivism Implies That We’re
Always Right.
 So long as people honestly represent their
feelings, their moral judgments will always be
correct and indisputable.
o Falwell: “Homosexuality is immoral.”
o Subjectivist: “You’re right.” (For the subjectivist, this
still merely means: “It is true that you have feelings of
disapproval toward homosexuality.” The subjectivist’s
own feelings are irrelevant .)
 This also seems wrong. We seem to acknowledge
moral error in both ourselves and in others.
The Second Stage: Emotivism
 Moral language is not fact-stating language; it
is not used to convey information or to make
reports. Charles L. Stevenson (1908-1979)
 Moral language is instead used as a means of
influencing other people’s behavior or
expressing one’s own attitudes.
The Second Stage: Emotivism
 Stevenson: “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.”
 This seems unacceptable.
Misleading and irrelevant
statements are not good
reasons for supporting a
moral judgment.
The Second Stage: Emotivism
 When Jerry Falwell says, “Homosexuality is
immoral,” emotivists interpret his utterance as
equivalent to something like:
“Homosexuality—gross!” or, “Don’t be gay!”
The Second Stage: Emotivism
 Accordingly, we may agree in all our judgments
about our attitudes, yet disagree in our attitudes.
 For the emotivist, moral disagreements are
disagreements in attitudes, not about attitudes.
They are disagreements in which one’s desires
(rather than beliefs) conflict with those of another.
Simple Subjectivism vs. Emotivism
 Simple subjectivism interprets moral judgments as
statements that can be true or false, so a sincere
speaker is always right when it comes to moral
 Emotivism, on the other hand, interprets moral
judgments as either commands or attitudes; as
such, they can be neither true nor false.
Simple Subjectivism vs. Emotivism
 Although emotivism is an improvement on
simple subjectivism, both theories imply that
our moral judgments are, in a fundamental
sense, beyond reproach.
 Neither a simple subjectivist
nor an emotivist can view a
moral judgment as wrong.
Such a judgment is merely a
statement regarding
approval or an expression of
The Role of Reason in Ethics
 A moral judgment must be supported by good
 This is different from
saying, “I like peaches.” I
don’t need to give any
reasons for liking peaches.
The Role of Reason in Ethics
 When I say, “Liberty is morally better than
slavery,” the emotivist hears this as similar to:
“Peaches are better than apples.”
 Reason can play no important role here.
The Role of Reason in Ethics
 The flaws of emotivism cast doubt on the whole
idea of ethical subjectivism.
 Reason is important in ethics.
 Values are not tangible things like planets, trees, and
spoons. However, this does not mean that ethics has
no objective basis.
 People have not only feelings but also reason, and
these two are fundamentally distinct.
 Moral truths are truths of reason. They are
objective in the sense that they are true
independently of what we might want or think.
Are There Proofs in Ethics?
 When we compare ethics to science, ethics
seems to be lacking in objectivity.
• For example, we can prove that
dinosaurs lived on the Earth before
humans, but we cannot seem to
prove whether an ethical issue such
as abortion is immoral or not.
No Proofs in Ethics?
! This attitude is suspect. If we can provide good
reasons for our moral judgments, we may
accept them as sufficient proof. Consider:
Moral judgment: Jones is a bad man.
o Proof: He is a habitual liar who toys with people
and cheats when he can get away with it. He once
killed someone in a dispute over 37 cents.
 People confuse proving an opinion to be
correct with persuading someone to accept
that proof. An argument may be good, yet fall
on deaf ears.
The Question of Homosexuality
 Examined objectively, claims that homosexuals
pose some sort of threat to the rest of society
turn out to have no factual basis.
 The case against homosexuality generally
reduces to the claim that it is ‘unnatural’ or that
it is against religion.
Homosexuals are not ‘unnatural.’
 Considered statistically, if
being homosexual is
deemed ‘unnatural,’ then
so is being left-handed,
tall, or immensely nice.
Homosexuals are not ‘unnatural.’
 If homosexual sex is considered ‘unnatural’ due
to the thought that the ‘natural’ function of the
genitals is procreation, then other widely
accepted sex practices should also be deemed
‘unnatural,’ such as heterosexual sex using birth
control or for pleasure.
Homosexuals are not ‘unnatural.’
 If ‘unnatural’ is used simply as a term of negative
valuation, to say that homosexuality is ‘unnatural’ is
to make a vacuous statement equivalent to:
“Homosexuality is wrong because it is wrong.”
The Biblical Argument
 Homosexuality must be wrong because the Bible
says so (in Leviticus, for example).
 Consider, however, what else the Bible forbids
(also in Leviticus):
o Eating sheep’s fat (7:23)
o Letting a woman into the church’s sanctuary who has
recently given birth (12:2-5)
o Seeing one’s uncle naked (18:14, 26)
 Like homosexuality, this is deemed an abomination.
o Cursing one’s parents (20:9)
 This is punishable by death.
! Note that Leviticus also says we may purchase slaves
from nearby nations (25:44).
Keep in mind. . .
 The point is not to ridicule the Bible, for it contains much
that is true and wise. We may nevertheless conclude
that what is written in the Bible is not always right.
 Since the Bible is not always right, we cannot conclude
that homosexuality is an abomination just because the
Bible says so.
Back to the Main Point
 Moral thinking and moral conduct are a matter of
weighing reasons and being guided by them.
 Being guided by reason is very different from
following one’s feelings.
 If we ignore reason and merely go with our
feelings, we opt out of moral thinking altogether.
 Thus, ethical subjectivism seems to be going in
the wrong direction.