Ethical Theory Spring 2021

Defusing Subjectivism


Williams is interested in what he calls the “defusing project.” The aim of this project is to show that subjectivism would not undermine moral belief. The threat that subjectivism seems to pose is obvious enough. Most of us think that our moral beliefs are mostly true and that they represent the way things really are and not just the way we think about them. If subjectivism is correct, then this is a mistake.

How would you regard your moral beliefs if you became convinced that they were meaningless expressions of emotion (Ayer), attempts to say true things that are all false (Mackie), or just repetition of your culture’s standards (relativism)? It would be hard to feel the same way about morality, I think.

The defusing project seeks to show that you can accept that morality is subjective without losing confidence in morality. That’s what this chapter is about.

The Mid-Air Position

The most important point in the chapter concerns what Williams calls the “mid-air position.” Objective truths are in the mid-air position; they hang “above” the beliefs of any particular person. If subjectivism about morality is true, then there is no mid-air position for moral beliefs while there is a mid-air position for factual beliefs.

Williams makes a pretty good case for thinking that this is not just compatible with moral belief but actually essential to it.

The point of morality is not to mirror the world, but to change it; it is concerned with such things as principles of action, choice, responsibility. The fact that men of equal intelligence, factual knowledge, and so forth, confronted with the same situation, may morally disagree shows something about morality - that (roughly) you cannot pass the moral buck on to how the world is. But that does not show (as subjectivism originally seemed to insinuate) that there is something wrong with it. (Williams 1972, 33)

One way to put the point is to consider two different things that you believe wholeheartedly: one factual and the other moral. If they’re about objective questions, you should be able to admit that you might be wrong. For me, the factual one sounds sensible while the moral one doesn’t.

  1. I am convinced that there is such a thing as gravitational force but it is possible that I am mistaken.

  2. I am convinced that racial discrimination is wrong, but it is possible that I am mistaken.

I understand what is being imagined in sentence 1. Future scientists come up with a new theory that doesn’t have any place for gravitational forces. I don’t have the foggiest idea of what that theory would be; that’s why I’m convinced that gravity exists. But I have to concede that there could be such a theory. In fact, given the history of science, I would be a fool to deny it.

Sentence 2, by contrast, sounds very odd. What possibility am I imagining? How could someone discover that racial discrimination is actually OK? Could someone show I’m wrong to have thought that there is no fundamental difference in the value of people who belong to different races? I just don’t know what that would involve.

My attitudes make a lot of sense if morality is subjective rather than objective. If morality were objective, I would face the Abraham-Isaac problem: the objective moral truth could be horrible. If it’s subjective, then I can be assured that, whatever it is, it’s something that I will find acceptable.

That can’t be the final word. We would like to know more about how moral thinking is constrained. There has to be a difference between thinking that you’re right and really getting it right and it’s not at all clear that we could draw that distinction if subjectivism were true. Being right seems far too easy on the subjectivist view: all there is to it is sincerely believing you’re right. That can’t be enough. Nonetheless, speaking for myself, I still find this point extremely interesting. You would think that we would have the greatest confidence in our moral beliefs if there was an objective moral truth. But if Williams is right, the opposite is the case. You get the greatest confidence if morality is subjective. How about that?

Key Points

There’s really only one big concept here: the mid-air position.

  1. How does Williams use it to distinguish between factual and moral beliefs?
  2. Would it be a bad thing for morality if there were no moral mid-air position?

Abraham and Isaac

This is the story I’m referring to when I say there is an “Abraham and Isaac problem” if morality is objective. It’s from the Book of Genesis in the King James, or Authorized Version of the Bible.

22:1 And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am.

22:2 And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.

22:3 And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him.

22:4 Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off.

22:5 And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.

22:6 And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together.

22:7 And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?

22:8 And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together.

22:9 And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood.

22:10 And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.

22:11 And the angel of the LORD called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I.

22:12 And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.

22:13 And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son.

God let Abraham off the hook, but the important point is that Abraham thought that the right thing to do was kill his son. As he saw it, what is right or wrong has nothing to do with what he thinks; it comes from God himself.


Williams, Bernard. 1972. Morality: An Introduction to Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.