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The Core Idea, Problems, and Attraction of Subjectivism

by Ted Altar

[ARRS Administrator Note: One of the most common defenses put up by anti-AR persons is to assert that the moral arguments advanced by AR adherents have no force because they are simply a matter of opinion. "My ethics are as good as yours; how dare you try to impose yours on me?" is an oft-heard refrain. The thesis espoused by these persons is that of ethical subjectivism. Here, Ted Altar soundly refutes the thesis.]

Document sections:
The Core Idea of Ethical Subjectivism
10 Prima Facie Objections to Ethical Subjectivism
The Common-Sense Core Behind Ethical Subjectivism
The Doctrine of Subjectivism Begs the Question
References

The Core Idea of Ethical Subjectivism

Ethical subjectivism serves as a kind of meta-ethical critique that works as follows: whenever anyone makes some ethical claims or judgements, such claims and judgements are demoted as being in reality only expressions of the personal attitudes of the person making those statements. Ethical judgements are said to be simply judgements about the way we feel or think about things, and if we didn't think or feel these ways there would be no ethical issues whatsoever.

If someone, for instance, asserts that the hunting of animals is wrong, then such a person is merely saying, "I disapprove of such acts". Such self-reports of personal attitudes or autobiography cannot in themselves, of course, serve as evidence or as justification for the truth value of an ethical claim. The implication here is that there is never any truth value to an ethical claim, hence the mere disapproval on my part doesn't make it wrong for someone else or make it wrong at all. So what is a person who passionately disapproves of some human act going to do? All that we can do, presumably, to ensure that those acts which we find personally abhorrent and would like to see stopped is to seek sufficient support from others of a similar subjective outlook and join together to legislate some kind of social contract. Maybe there are enough fellow humans out there who also disapprove of human torture that together we can agree among ourselves to condemn and disallow this act. If we are an empowered majority or a governing minority, then we can impose our will upon others. This brings us to a kind of "contractarianism", which is quite deficient and unattractive (refer to the AR FAQ Question #24).

10 Prima Facie Objections to Ethical Subjectivism

Now, before I give a more sympathetic reading of subjectivism, permit me to list some commonly observed problems with ethical subjectivism.

1. Nobody Can Ever Be Wrong Or Right

If today I believe in animal rights and tomorrow I do not, it cannot be said whether I was right or wrong on either occasion. If ethical judgements are simply a matter of personal feelings, opinions and beliefs, then if those feelings, beliefs or opinions change then I am neither more right nor more wrongheaded as a result. I've merely changed, and there is no incompatibility of my future ethics with my current one. Hence, as G. E. Moore noted [1], the subjectivist cannot say that something is right or wrong; indeed, he or she is compelled to accept that what was deeply felt or believed to be wrong can at a different time, or at the same time, be also right. This would throw the sine qua non of rationality, namely logical consistency, out the window.

2. Non-Incompatibility Between All Ethical Beliefs

From 1 above, it would follow that nobody's views are incompatible with one another. If the sole ground of ethical judgements resides only in the personal feelings or beliefs of people, then when I say that "killing children is wrong" it cannot be said to be incompatible with someone else who says that "killing children is right". Both believe themselves right and if that is all there is to it, then both are right since ethics is now a mere matter of personal feelings or beliefs and not a matter of someone being more correct or justified than another.

3. No Independent Role for Ethical Judgement

If, however, it is the case that an ethical judgement underlies or justifies my moral feelings and moral beliefs, then such judgements cannot be identical with those feelings and beliefs of moral approval or disapproval. The subjectivist abandons this distinction and therefore must give up on there being any separate capacity, role, or legitimacy for ethical judgement.

4. Non-Sequitur from Facts of Diversity

Now, the mere fact that individuals fundamentally will differ in their attitudes towards things, cannot by itself entail that there is no ethical appraisals whatsoever which are more justified than others. Nor can we conclude from this fact of diversity that all ethical reasonings or methods are of equal justification.

5. There Are Some Cultural Universals

That individuals, or even cultures, differ does not entail that there is no general agreement, or the possibility of such agreement. Many cultural anthropologists recognize that in spite of the immense cultural diversity that exists, there nevertheless is a remarkable uniformity of disapproval (not perfect but very considerable), towards such things as simple as promise-breaking to more serious acts of cruelty and homicide. A structural reason for such universal disapprovals is that it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for any society to survive without that society embracing certain values. Social cohesion needs values and some values simply work better than others.

6. Rational Consensus is in Principle Possible

Just because individuals differ in their current outlook does not entail that given a minimal degree of open-mindedness and rational dialogue, much of their disagreement might not disappear. The disagreement might simply be about the implications of an underlying common principle due to a different evaluation of the facts. Such factual disagreements have the potential of being resolved empirically. Even a disagreement over principles might be resolved by a open consideration of their full entailments and possible conflicts with other principles more commonly shared.

7. A Reductio Ad Absurdum

If subjectivism is true, then all I have to do to settle any doubt whatsoever regarding someone else's actions is simply to introspect to see what might be my own feelings, attitudes, or beliefs on the issue. Given that such introspection usually yields an unmistaken knowledge about what I feel and believe, then how is that I can ever be mistaken in the real world about whether an action is right or not? Imagine a courtroom jury deciding its verdict by a mere polling of each member's subjective opinions, without any debate or dialogue. The point of such debate is predicated on the notion that we can be wrong in our ethical judgements and that mere feelings or subjective opinions (of which we are not wrong) are insufficient. Keep in mind that while I cannot be wrong about what I believe, what I believe can be very wrong indeed. Ethical subjectivism would deny this distinction. The notion of being wrong no longer applies except in the following minimal sense: if someone is "wrong", they can only be wrong with respect to what they themselves really feel or believe. Ethics is thus reduced to psychotherapy.

8. The Irrelevancy of Justified Belief for a Subjectivist

If I can't be wrong in my beliefs, then whatever factual mistakes I might have made in arriving at those beliefs is irrelevant. Hence, if I believe hunting is right because it helps the deer population, then even if this fact were later to be decisively proven to be wrong, I am still right! After all, the subjectivist would have us believe that ethical judgements are simply a matter of prior beliefs or feelings of approval or disapproval towards things. When I said that I thought hunting was right because it helped the deer maintain their population, all I was doing was merely stating my personal pro-hunting opinion or feeling and nothing really compels me to change even when the facts that I might have invoked for that belief change. Again, ethical subjectivism claims that all ethical judgements are NOT judgements based upon good reasons or facts but are merely a matter of personal taste or opinion. Hence, to attempt to justify those personal tastes or opinions by any appeals to facts or reasons is simply superfluous and irrelevant.

9. The Trivial Circularity of Subjectivism

Thus, we have a circularity about what is right and wrong: "hunting is right because I think it is right". But why is it right? "Because I think it is right". And why do you think it is right? "Because I think it is right", and so the circle never ends.

10. Subjectivism is Not a Coherent Theory

The above points lead to the conclusion that subjectivism cannot be an ethical standard or benchmark. Our common-sense view is that the general purpose of ethical discourse to arrive at some self-evident, justified, or defensible principles, principles that can serve to adjudicate what might be the conflicting interests and competing claims of other individuals and groups. But if each individual, according to the subjectivist, is in fact his or her own standard, then in point of fact we have no standard by which to adjudicate these conflicts [2]. The whole point of ethical discourse has been frustrated. Subjectivism, since it cannot be a standard of ethical appraisal, therefore cannot be a rational doctrine of ethics.

The only recourse, if one still wishes there to be some normative principles for society, would be to resort to some version of contractarianism. That some such recourse is necessary is given by the fact that no subjectivist is an equalitarian with respect to other individuals pursuing all their subjective interests. Such interests might well conflict with their own. If we are to have more than a mere personal strategy of living, a private egoist ethics that is undermined or inexpedient if it is made public, then the subjectivist needs to turn to something like contractarianism. The alternative, if one is to remain consistent with his or her subjectivist credo, is to simply give up on defending or challenging any public policy whatsoever or another person's views. This does not seem to be the natural inclination of ethical subjectivists, so what are they to do?

The Common-Sense Core Behind Ethical Subjectivism

Given the above objections to ethical subjectivism, it must indeed seem odd that so many people are attracted to a theory that is really very deficient and unsatisfactory, as ethical theories go. One reason that G. E. Moore gives for this attraction is that many people simply find it difficult to understand or conceive what we can possibly mean by the words "right" and "wrong" except to say that is how we simply feel or believe things to be. Maybe, as Moore suggested, it is naturally difficult for many people to understand that ethical discourse can be objective without being absolute. That is, there is a widespread tendency to seek complete certitude and full objectivity of things before admitting of their reality. Such stringent standards are not found in scientific discourse where we can justify some theories and activities in terms of facts (but not all), nor do we need to question each and every tread of the whole enterprise of science before believing in the possibility of science. Are we not therefore being far too stringent in our demands for absolute certitude in our practical discourse of ethics?

Now, permit me to change hats and attempt to be more generous and ask what might be the authentic attraction behind subjectivism.

As the Canadian political/ethical philosopher Kai Nelson [3] points out, after we have been confronted with the myriad of different views and meta-ethical treatises, the "feeling" emerges that maybe there are in the end no real or knock-down arguments. Indeed, why should I choose to act morally rather than immorally? Certainly, one could argue that self-interest might be better served if I am not bound by morality, especially on those occasions when I can get away with it. What this kind of reflection leads us to is that at some basic level I must ultimately decide to CHOOSE to act morally or not. Maybe the existentialists were right after all. Hence, we would say, "its a value judgement" and "in the end it is a matter of what sort of person you want and choose to be". I must in the end choose, and no intellectual weighting of the pros and cons can ultimately settle the matter for me. Here we have an important foundation for our common-sense preference for individual autonomy, and what greater autonomy can we have but to choose that there be value, because nothing compels value otherwise.

This much, I think is true about subjectivism, but as Robert Nozick [4] has well argued, simply because we must ultimately choose that there be values does not mean that we also have complete freedom to choose their nature. "Value", then, is something inert with no causal powers of its own to compel assent; at best, value can act only through value perceivers who pursue it. Values exist for value perceivers, and each person must choose that there be value and then CONSENT to what might be the inherent merits and rational requirements of what has been chosen.

But why should we choose values and what guides our better choice? First of all, we can't but choose value even when we choose that there be no values. Let us say that I simply opt for always satisfying my personal self-interest even at the expense of others. Even this value of the psychopath is a value of sorts but hardly a very interesting or useful morality. Again, we need to affirm some set of values that can meaningfully guide our interactions with each other and help resolve our conflicts by some appeal to principles. I would also add that ethics becomes most interesting when it forwards a vision of a better world rather than simply an ad hoc justification of the status quo ante. Most of us believe that things could be better for us all, and that a system of value commitments that helps to inform us about how things ought to be for a better world makes ethics more interesting. We all would like to say that something is the better course because it is the "right act", "the right thing to do". What better rational can we have for doing what we do?

In this way, as value perceiving and choosing beings, it can be said that we more distinctively realize our better human possibilities. Now, if we are willing to choose value and to therefore be willing to reason ethically, nothing that the subjectivist would say need upset the objectivity and rationality of our ethical criteria.

Of course, the hard core subjectivist might here interject and say, "what if I don't choose to be that way, what if I refuse to commit myself to value and refuse to accept the better rationality that might follow from a proper analysis of those values?". Here, as Kai Nelson points out, all that we can say is that people almost universally are not that way. Yes, there are psychopaths, but most of us are perceptive to, say, the value of another human and non-human being, to the value that pain and cruelty are inherently wrong, and we choose to affirm such values.

Some further considerations will temper this capitulation into a complete subjectivism. Although subjectivism will vary among individuals and societies, all societies and individuals are interested in preserving morality; after all, there are rationally justified vested interests in preserving and advancing these moralities, both on a societal and on an individual level. For instance, psychopaths do live disruptive lives and end up in prison in spite of all their prideful boasting of being beyond and free of any bonds of morality; they do what they really feel like doing while the rest of us are so tethered to our seeking a general ethic. Of course, the ordinary subjectivist is far from being a psychopath, but if we were to take complete subjectivism seriously then is not the psychopath the ultimate subjectivist, one who not merely affirms that all is a matter of how one personally feels or believes, but also acts upon only his or her personal feelings or beliefs as they occur at any time?

The Doctrine of Subjectivism Begs the Question

Now, permit me to give one final blow to subjectivism. Saying that moral issues are merely matters of subjective opinion with no other justification simply begs the question as why this should be considered a serious retort to another's ethics at all. If it is not relevant, then it cannot serve as a some kind of counter-argument to those who would forward a justification for some ethical stance. If it is relevant as a demolisher of all other ethics but its own, then indeed it becomes its own ethics and therefore begs some further justification other than, "it is my subjective opinion that all ethical views are subjective".

Consider the following. Any would-be subjectivist either explicitly or implicitly must forward the claim that his or her "personal subjectivity" is important and desirable. If it wasn't, then such a claim cannot have any force over, say, the claim of animal rights. Unless the subjectivist is truly consistent with their subjectivism and keeps it to themselves as a kind of private strategy of living, then such a subjectivist cannot be the overt iconoclast of all ethical views but their own. That is, when a subjectivist comes out of their private, subjective closet, he or she would have to acknowledge that another person's subjectivity is of equal moral importance. But why be fair? Every subjectivist probably believes his or her subjective preferences to be the best, at least for themselves, and it is preferable if no one else's subjectivity interferes. But is this simply not another way of asking "why be ethical"? Why should I promote my subjective preferences even when it conflicts with what might be the subjective preferences of others? Thus, the subjectivist cannot evade an ethical claim by merely stating that there is no justification for taking any ethical point of view at all since he or she is in fact taking one.

Since in the end we must choose that there be values, then let us choose well and be guided by the rational entailments of that choice, and be further willing to subject our choices to a rational discussion of their merits or demerits. Only in this way can we discover how well we have chosen and how we might better choose for a better world for all of us.

References

1. G. E. More (1912). Ethics (chpt 3). London: Oxford University Press.
2. Kurt Baier (1958). The Moral Point of View: A Rational Basis of Ethics. (see p. 308) Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
3. Kai Nielson (1989). Why Be Moral? (chpt. 8) New York: Prometheus Books.
4. Robert Nozick (1981). Philosophical Explanations. (chpt. 6) (winner of the Ralph Waldo Emerson award of phi beta kappa). Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.



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