Ethical subjectivism or moral non-objectivism[1] is the meta-ethical view which claims that:

  1. Ethical sentences express propositions.
  2. Some such propositions are true.
  3. The truth or falsity of such propositions is ineliminably dependent on the (actual or hypothetical) attitudes of people.[2][3]

This makes ethical subjectivism a form of cognitivism (because ethical statements are the types of things that can be true or false).[4] Ethical subjectivism stands in opposition to moral realism, which claims that moral propositions refer to objective facts, independent of human opinion;[5] to error theory, which denies that any moral propositions are true in any sense; and to non-cognitivism, which denies that moral sentences express propositions at all.[6]

Moral Anti-Realism

Ethical subjectivism is a form of moral anti-realism that denies the "metaphysical thesis" of moral realism, (the claim that moral truths are ordinary facts about the world).[7] Instead ethical subjectivism claims that moral truths are based on the mental states of individuals or groups of people. The moral realist is committed to some version of the following three statements:[8][9]

  1. The Semantic Thesis: Moral statements have meaning, they express propositions, or are the kind of things that can be true or false.
  2. The Alethic Thesis: Some moral propositions are true.
  3. The Metaphysical Thesis: The metaphysical status of moral facts is robust and ordinary, not importantly different from other facts about the world.

Moral anti-realism is the denial of at least one of these claims.[5] Ethical subjectivists deny the third claim, instead arguing that moral facts are not metaphysically ordinary, but rather dependent on mental states, (individual's beliefs about what is right and wrong).[3] Moral non-cognitivists deny the first claim, while error theorists deny the second claim.[10]

There is some debate as to whether moral realism should continue to require the metaphysical thesis, and therefore if ethical subjectivists should be considered moral realists. [11] Geoffrey Sayre-McCord argues that moral realism should be mind-independent since there are morally relevant psychological facts which are necessarily mind dependent, which would make ethical subjectivism a version of moral realism. This has led to a distinction being made between robust moral realism (which requires all three of the theses) and minimal moral realism (which requires only the first two, and is therefore compatible with ethical subjectivism).[12]

Ethical Subjectivism and Moral Relativism

Ethical subjectivism is a completely distinct concept from moral relativism.[13] Moral relativism claims that statements are true or false based on who is saying them: they include indexicals in the same way that the truth of the statement "I am in Senegal" is dependent on who is making that statement.[14] Depending on the variety of moral relativism, these statements may be indexed to a particular society (i.e. Cultural relativism, when I say stealing is wrong, it is only true if stealing is not acceptable in my culture), or indexed to an individual (individualistic relativism).[15] Ethical subjectivism, on the other hand, claims that the truth or falsehood of ethical claims is dependent on the mental states and attitudes of people, but these ethical truths may be universal (i.e. one person or group's mental states may determine what is right or wrong for everyone). [16]

While these positions are often held together, they do not entail each other.[17] For example, someone that claims that whatever their king wants to happen is the morally right thing for everyone to do would be an ethical subjectivist (right and wrong are based on mental states), but they would not be a moral relativist (right and wrong are the same for everyone).[18] Conversely, a moral relativist could deny moral subjectivism if they thought that the morally right thing to do was to follow the written laws of your country (this morality is relativist since "the laws of your country" picks out different laws for different individuals, but not subjectivist since it is dependent on the written laws, which are not in anyone's head).[19]

Some universalist forms of subjectivism include ideal observer theory (which claims that moral propositions are about what attitudes a hypothetical ideal observer would hold). Although divine command theory is considered by some to be a form of ethical subjectivism,[20] defenders of the perspective that divine command theory is not a form of ethical subjectivism say this is based on a misunderstanding: that divine command proponents claim that moral propositions are about what attitudes God holds, but this understanding is deemed incorrect by some, such as Robert Adams who claims that divine command theory is concerned with whether a moral command is or isn't "contrary to the commands of (a loving) God".[21]

Terminology

There is some debate among philosophers around the use of the term "ethical subjectivism" as this term has historically referred to the more specific position that ethical statements are merely reports of one's own mental states (saying that killing is wrong just means you disapprove of killing). [22] While this is an ethically subjective position (the truth of your statement does depend on your mental states), it is not the only one. Due to this ambiguity, some philosophers have advocated that the general position discussed here be referred to as non-objectivism.[22]

References

  1. ^ Joyce, Richard (2016), Zalta, Edward N. (ed.), "Moral Anti-Realism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, retrieved 2021-03-08, Non-objectivism (as it will be called here) allows that moral facts exist but holds that they are, in some manner to be specified, constituted by mental activity...The present discussion uses the label “non-objectivism” instead of the simple “subjectivism” since there is an entrenched usage in metaethics for using the latter to denote the thesis that in making a moral judgment one is reporting (as opposed to expressing) one's own mental attitudes (e.g., “Stealing is wrong” means “I disapprove of stealing”).
  2. ^ Richard Brandt (1959). Ethical theory; the problems of normative and critical ethics. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall. p. 153. ISBN 0132904039. LCCN 59010075. [Objectivism and subjectivism] have been used more vaguely, confusedly, and in more different senses than the others we are considering. We suggest as a convenient usage, however, that a theory be called subjectivist if and only if, according to it, any ethical assertion implies that somebody does, or somebody of a certain sort under certain conditions would, take some specified attitude toward something.
  3. ^ a b Harrison, Jonathan (2006). Borchert, Donald M. (ed.). Encyclopedia of philosophy (2nd ed.). Detroit: Thomson Gale/Macmillan Reference USA. ISBN 0-02-865780-2. OCLC 61151356. A subjectivist ethical theorist is a theory according to which moral judgements about men or their actions are judgements about the way people react to these men and actions - that is, the way they think or feel about them.
  4. ^ van Roojen, Mark (2018), Zalta, Edward N. (ed.), "Moral Cognitivism vs. Non-Cognitivism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, retrieved 2021-03-08, Cognitivism is the denial of non-cognitivism. Thus it holds that moral statements do express beliefs and that they are apt for truth and falsity. But cognitivism need not be a species of realism since a cognitivist can be an error theorist and think all moral statements false.
  5. ^ a b Joyce, Richard (2016), Zalta, Edward N. (ed.), "Moral Anti-Realism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, retrieved 2021-03-08, As a first approximation, then, moral anti-realism can be identified as the disjunction of three theses: i) moral noncognivitism ii) moral error theory iii) moral non-objectivism.
  6. ^ "Subjectivism". BBC. Retrieved 20 February 2019.
  7. ^ Vayrynen, Pekka (2006). Encyclopedia of philosophy. Donald M. Borchert (2nd ed.). Detroit: Thomson Gale/Macmillan Reference USA. pp. 379–382. ISBN 0-02-865780-2. OCLC 61151356. No single description is likely to capture all realist views, but a reasonably accurate rule is to understand moral realism as the conjunction of three theses: The semantic thesis: The primary semantic role of moral predicates (such as "right" and "wrong") is to refer to moral properties (such as rightness and wrongness), so that moral statements (such as "honesty is good" and "slavery is unjust") purport to represent moral facts, and express propositions that are true or false (or approximately true, largely false and so on). The alethic thesis: Some moral propositions are in fact true. The metaphysical thesis: Moral propositions are true when actions and other objects of moral assessment have the relevant moral properties (so that the relevant moral facts obtain), where these facts and properties are robust: their metaphysical status, whatever it is, is not relevantly differnet from that of (certain types of ordinary non-moral facts and properties).
  8. ^ Joyce, Richard (2016), Zalta, Edward N. (ed.), "Moral Anti-Realism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, retrieved 2021-03-08
  9. ^ Vayrynen, Pekka (2006). Encyclopedia of philosophy. Donald M. Borchert (2nd ed.). Detroit: Thomson Gale/Macmillan Reference USA. pp. 379–382. ISBN 0-02-865780-2. OCLC 61151356. No single description is likely to capture all realist views, but a reasonably accurate rule is to understand moral realism as the conjunction of three theses: The semantic thesis: The primary semantic role of moral predicates (such as "right" and "wrong") is to refer to moral properties (such as rightness and wrongness), so that moral statements (such as "honesty is good" and "slavery is unjust") purport to represent moral facts, and express propositions that are true or false (or approximately true, largely false and so on). The alethic thesis: Some moral propositions are in fact true. The metaphysical thesis: Moral propositions are true when actions and other objects of moral assessment have the relevant moral properties (so that the relevant moral facts obtain), where these facts and properties are robust: their metaphysical status, whatever it is, is not relevantly differnet from that of (certain types of ordinary non-moral facts and properties).
  10. ^ Joyce, Richard (2016), Zalta, Edward N. (ed.), "Moral Anti-Realism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, retrieved 2021-03-08
  11. ^ Joyce, Richard (2016), Zalta, Edward N. (ed.), "Moral Anti-Realism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, retrieved 2021-03-08, Another general debate that the above characterization prompts is whether the “non-objectivism clause” deserves to be there. Geoffrey Sayre-McCord, for example, thinks that moral realism consists of endorsing just two claims: that moral judgments are truth apt (cognitivism) and that they are often true (success theory). (See Sayre-McCord 1986; also his entry for “moral realism” in this encyclopedia.) His motivation for this is that to make “mind-independence” a requirement of realism in general would lead to counter-intuitive implications. “Independence from the mental may be a plausible requirement for realism when we're talking about macro-physical objects but it's a non-starter when it comes to realism in psychology (psychological facts won't be independent of the mental)” (1986: 3). Sayre-McCord is motivated by the desire for a realism/anti-realism “template,” which can be applied with equal coherence to any domain.
  12. ^ Joyce, Richard (2016), Zalta, Edward N. (ed.), "Moral Anti-Realism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, retrieved 2021-03-08, In deference to the influence that Sayre-McCord's views have had on recent metaethics, perhaps the judicious terminological decision is to distinguish minimal moral realism—which denies (i) and (ii)—from robust moral realism—which in addition denies (iii).
  13. ^ Joyce, Richard (2016), Zalta, Edward N. (ed.), "Moral Anti-Realism (Supplement on Moral Objectivity and Moral Relativism)", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, retrieved 2021-03-08
  14. ^ Joyce, Richard (2016), Zalta, Edward N. (ed.), "Moral Anti-Realism (Supplement on Moral Objectivity and Moral Relativism)", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, retrieved 2021-03-08, Relativism holds that moral claims contain an essential indexical element, such that the truth of any such claim requires relativization to some individual or group. According to such a view, it is possible that when John asserts “Stealing is wrong” he is saying something true, but that when Jenny asserts “Stealing is wrong” she is saying something false.
  15. ^ Joyce, Richard (2016), Zalta, Edward N. (ed.), "Moral Anti-Realism (Supplement on Moral Objectivity and Moral Relativism)", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, retrieved 2021-03-08, An individualistic relativism sees the vital difference as lying in the persons making the utterance or in the persons about whom the judgment is made; a cultural relativism sees the difference as stemming from the culture that the speaker inhabits or from the culture of those about whom the judgment is made.
  16. ^ Joyce, Richard (2016), Zalta, Edward N. (ed.), "Moral Anti-Realism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, retrieved 2021-03-08, Non-objectivism (as it will be called here) allows that moral facts exist but holds that they are, in some manner to be specified, constituted by mental activity.
  17. ^ Joyce, Richard (2016), Zalta, Edward N. (ed.), "Moral Anti-Realism (Supplement on Moral Objectivity and Moral Relativism)", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, retrieved 2021-03-08, In short, the non-objectivism vs. objectivism and the relativism vs. absolutism polarities are orthogonal to each other, and it is the former pair that is usually taken to matter when it comes to characterizing anti-realism.
  18. ^ Joyce, Richard (2016), Zalta, Edward N. (ed.), "Moral Anti-Realism (Supplement on Moral Objectivity and Moral Relativism)", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, retrieved 2021-03-08, ...the non-objectivist need not be a relativist. Suppose the moral facts depend on the attitudes or opinions of a particular group or individual (e.g., “X is good” means “Caesar approves of X,” or “The Supreme Court rules in favor of X,” etc.), and thus moral truth is an entirely mind-dependent affair. Since, in this case, all speakers' moral utterances are made true or false by the same mental activity, then this is not strictly speaking a version of relativism, but is, rather, a relation-designating account of moral terms (see Stevenson 1963: 74 for this distinction).
  19. ^ Joyce, Richard (2016), Zalta, Edward N. (ed.), "Moral Anti-Realism (Supplement on Moral Objectivity and Moral Relativism)", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, retrieved 2021-03-08, perhaps what determines the relevant difference is an entirely mind-independent affair, making for an objectivist (and potentially realist) relativism.
  20. ^ "George Hourani is one such philosopher who claims this by referring to Divine Command theory as 'theistic subjectivism'.".The Ethics and Metaphysics of Divine Command Theory
  21. ^ "Mark Murphy further explains that a command from God suffices as an 'objective property of actions', as opposed to the attitude within a mind". Theological Voluntarism
  22. ^ a b Joyce, Richard (2016), Zalta, Edward N. (ed.), "Moral Anti-Realism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, retrieved 2021-03-08, The present discussion uses the label “non-objectivism” instead of the simple “subjectivism” since there is an entrenched usage in metaethics for using the latter to denote the thesis that in making a moral judgment one is reporting (as opposed to expressing) one's own mental attitudes (e.g., “Stealing is wrong” means “I disapprove of stealing”). So understood, subjectivism is a kind of non-objectivist theory, but, as we shall see below, there are many other kinds of non-objectivist theory, too.