Thursday, February 19, 2009

What is Moral Subjectivism?

On another website, a reader asked: ""Still can anyone here give a decent and concise version of sophisticated moral subjectivism to be addressed?"

This was my best response:

am not sure how "sophisticated" it is, but let me try.

I see moral subjectivism the way JL Mackie did: it is the negation of moral objectivism. Morals are not properties of the "out there" world and, as such, they are properties of the subject's mental world.

Put further, we may feel or think certain things to be right and good, but we are in error if we think there is any objective reason compelling others to see it the same way. No matter how knock down or drag out our argument is for the rightness of a particlar thing, that argument will always be our opinion of the mattter, not objective fact.

Subjectivists are not, as David seems to be getting at, nihilists. We have as strong ideas about moral oughts as anyone else, and we judge others and ourselves by standards. We also try to convince others to see things morally as we do.

What subjectivists can't do, though, is to think that any moral system - even our own - has necessary import beyond our own subjective minds. We may wish it were different, but in the absence of any great suggestion on how to detect the moral properties that some allege exist in the world, we see morality as a product of individual subjects making individual judgments.


People have a big problem with subjectivism. How, we think, can our strong convictions that pedophilia, murder, homosexuality, bestaility, theft, etc, are simply subjective opinion statements? They feel like more; we want them to be more. We want them to be truths binding on all and all alike, and we want those who disagree with us not simply to be of differing opinion, but to be WRONG.

Heck, even I - a subjectivist - would rather subjectivism be false. Subjectivism is boring, as subjectivism has nothing positive to say in ethics or morals. The only benefit to being a subjectivist is that it allows me to be a pluralist and avoid dogmaatism. But still, I would rather believe that there were definitive rights and wrongs that transcended individual subjective judgment.

The problem is that there is really no evidence for objective morality. As JL Mackie wrote, we do not have any reason to believe that "goodness" is a property in the world and do not even know what such a property would be like (do we see it, smell it, hear it, feel it, or taste it?) Nor does it make sense to say that "good," "bad," "right" and "wrong" are objective terms, in the face of so much disgareement about (a) what they mean, and (b) concrete moral quesitons (is abortion good?).

Further, we know that "good" and "bad" are valuative terms much like "hot" and "cold." Like "hot" and "cold" (or "beautiful" or "ugly") these terms are vaguely descriptive. (We all know what is meant when we say that a song was ugly or say that the beverage is hot.) But we also know that there is no objective standard for what is "hot" or "cold" (my "hot" may be your "lukewarm" and her "cold" with none of us being objectively right or wrong.)

Subjective morality is this kind of view. Even if we all kind of know what is meant by saying things like "Johny did something very bad," or "Jenny is a good human being," there seemingly exists no objective standard - true for all - by which to judge what is good and bad. (And like terms dealing with termpurature, subjectivists see moral terms as often having fuzzy borders).

So, while being a moral subjectivist may confine me to never having the satisfaction of knowing that I am objectively right in my moral judgments, until I hear some good arguments as to where we can find moral qualities in the "out there" universe, I have to remain a subjectivist.


  1. Again, I completely agree.

    I've found there are a lot of related theories, like moral nihilism and non-cognitivism, but they all seem to be based on trivial technicalities. Do you think the distinctions are significant?

  2. To be honest, the variations that I have seen in subjectivism have not amounted to much because, at the end of the day, subjectivistm holds that judgments are not objectively binding.

    I do think that subjectivism does not per se lead to nihilism, though, as long as one does not deny the existence of a fairly constant (over time) human nature. Subjectivists, like myself, can certainly say that certain moral sympathies - revulsion to unprovoked killing, lying, or theft - are fairly constant, even though there exists variation. Therefore, unlike nihilism, this type of subjectivism shows that there is a basis for morality, but not quite an objective morality.

  3. Kevin, I respond to this topic over on my blog and invite you to reply. (And I apologize for my recent "blog silence" - I've been MIA due to being way too overworked lately.)

  4. Hi. That's a very nice explanation of moral subjectivism. It's so hard to find a decent one.

    "Put further, we may feel or think certain things to be right and good, but we are in error if we think there is any objective reason compelling others to see it the same way."

    But we are not necessarily in error in thinking that there are many *subjective* reasons for that person to feel the same way. Moral subjectivists can be convinced, but they need to be convinced according to their own values and preferences, not according to some supposedly "objective" command by God, Logic, or the Universe.

  5. I am doing a project for class and choose to research moral skep. I came across this page. Are there any solid quotes from Mackie that summarize what you just said in a paragraph or so? Not to be rude, but I can't cite "special ed philosopher" xD