The Basic Idea of Ethical Subjectivity

Subjectivism in Ethics

James Rachels


Stuart Rachels


What are morals?


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.


What are moral truths?


Different from moral standards


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

Simple Subjectivism Cannot Account for Disagreement.

Moral statements simply reflect preference. We cannot disagree about what another person’s sincerely stated preference is.

Falwell: ʺHomosexuality is immoral. The so‐called ʹgay rightsʹ are not rights at all, because immorality is not right.ʺ

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 .)

It’s very dear to me, the issue of gay marriage. Or as I like to call it: marriage. You know, because I had lunch this afternoon, not “gay lunch”. I parked my car; I didn’t “gay park” it.


Liz Feldman


We seem to experience actual disagreement with others about moral issues.


Objections to Simple Subjectivism

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.

Falwell: “Homosexuality is immoral.”

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 .)


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.


What’s the difference?


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.

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