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 whatsoever. 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 Disagreement. 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 judgments. 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 attitude. The Role of Reason in Ethics A moral judgment must be supported by good reasons. 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.