Moral subjectivism and moral knowledge Notes for September 29

Main points

The question for the day is: would we have better reason to be confident in our moral beliefs if moral realism is true than we would if moral subjectivism were true?

I don’t think there is definitive case for either side. I tried to present the good and bad implications of each view. I should add that I leaned a bit to the side of the subjectivists. I did that for two reasons. First, it’s what I believe myself: I think I owe you at least a statement of where I stand. Second, I think its advantages are less obvious, so I put extra emphasis on explaining them.

It goes without saying that this is a close call and that you should feel quite free to disagree with me.

What do subjectivists believe?

I identified subjectivism with two negative statements about proof and facts in ethics. I should have added something about what subjectivists believe ethical knowledge consists in. Ethical subjectivists believe that ethical knowledge depends on what some subject believes. If a proposition about ethics reflects that subject’s beliefs, then at least that subject is justified in believing it. While I have included God as one of the subjects, for this session, I thought it best to confine ourselves to human subjects.** Moral relativism is a subset of moral subjectivism that identifies the subject as a human culture. Most of ethical reasoning, according to subjectivists, consists in discovering what you believe about ethics.

That is why it is hard to move from the truth of moral subjectivism to indifference or the conclusion that none of your ethical beliefs are worth defending or even holding. If moral subjectivism is true, then your justification for having ethical beliefs only has to cross a fairly low threshold: do you genuinely believe those things?

Moral subjectivism appears to undermine ethical beliefs only when coupled with standards imported from moral realism. If you have to be able to prove your ethical beliefs to anyone, like scientists have to be able to prove their theories to anyone, then the truth of moral subjectivism would mean that you aren’t justified in holding any ethical beliefs. But if moral subjectivism is true, that’s the wrong standard for being justified in holding an ethical belief.

If you think it just has to be the right standard, then you don’t believe that moral subjectivism is true. Maybe you’re right. But in insisting on the point, you aren’t playing along with the exercise of asking whether the truth of moral subjectivism would lead to indifference.

Before I move on from this topic, I should repeat an observation that Maya made several weeks ago. She said that there are many things that we care deeply about despite the fact that there is no objective truth to back up what we believe. We like people for what are obviously subjective reasons: not everyone is friends with everyone else. But the fact that lots of people fail to like my friends or love my wife doesn’t undermine my feelings towards these people in the slightest. Why would it? It’s not like there’s an objective fact about who is likable that they see correctly and I am grossly mistaken about.

Disadvantages of moral realism

Moral realism has the following disadvantages.

First, it leaves open the possibility that our ethical beliefs are completely wrong. For all we know, it might be wrong to save drowning children, to treat people with respect regardless of race, or to abstain from killing the innocent when ordered to do so by a superior.

If you don’t think it’s possible that any of those things could turn out to be that way, that may show that you implicitly believe subjectivism: you don’t think it’s possible for anyone to make a discovery showing that you’re wrong. By contrast, you had better believe someone might show you’re wrong about your scientific knowledge: history shows that one generation’s certainties are the next generation’s mere approximations to the truth.

(Making this point is complicated. As Dhruv pointed out, if the examples are ones that anyone would accept, that points towards moral realism: everyone accepts these moral claims, just as everyone accepts claims about the existence of other parts of objective reality, such as rocks, chairs, and tigers. In order to make my point, I need to tread a narrow line: not everyone accepts those moral propositions, but you regard them as certain. Unfortunately, while humanity seems to agree on drowning children, there have been many racists and authoritarians. I hope that you believe they’re wrong with as much conviction as I have.)

Second, there is no compelling story about how objective moral knowledge is acquired. The sciences have the experimental method. The requirement that theories be subjected to experiments that anyone can replicate pushes scientific knowledge as close to objective truth as possible. There isn’t anything similar in the case of ethics.

Disadvantages of subjectivism

Moral subjectivism has the following disadvantages.

First, if it’s true, then ethical beliefs are not what it seems to be. They seem to reflect objective reality just as much as any other beliefs do. But if moral subjectivism is correct, this is just an illusion. Sung was right to suggest that moral subjectivism shouldn’t leave everything exactly where it started: this is what would have be given up.

Second, it sets the threshold for ethical knowledge very low. Science enjoys the prestige that it does because what it counts as knowledge has to pass very difficult tests. Most importantly, it has to be possible for anyone else to run the same experiments and get the same results. If moral subjectivism were true, the justification of ethical beliefs would be much less demanding. That seems to confirm the suspicion that ethical knowledge is second-rate and not as good as that produced by the sciences.

Many people believe that there is a third problem, namely, that different people could be equally justified in holding contradictory ethical beliefs. There is something to this. But remember that, according to moral subjectivism, neither one has to view the other as having equal justification. It’s like the position we wound up in when discussing relativism and tolerance: you follow your own standards in evaluating others, not their standards. The real problem, it seems to me, is that moral subjectivism, like relativism, seems to hold that we can’t learn anything from those whose ethical beliefs are different than our own. That is obviously wrong. So subjectivists have to explain why this is not an attitude that it entails.

This page was written by Michael Green for Problems of Philosophy, Philosophy 1, Fall 2010. It was posted October 2, 2010.
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