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Is Subjectivism in Ethics Coherent?

August 2nd, 2011 · 25 Comments

Andrew Cohen at Bleeding Heart Libertarians kicks off what will apparently be a series of posts on moral objectivity by considering the subjectivist position—the view that whether certain acts are right or wrong depends on the values of a particular person or culture. He takes a position I’ve always leaned toward myself, which is that ethical subjectivism is not so much wrong as incoherent. Subjectivists or relativists purport to argue that something may be “wrong for” one person or group, but “right for” another, but it has always seemed to me that what they’re really saying is that there is no genuine morality, but only a set of local taboos or norms.

One could say this begs the question, in that it assumes some objective or universal moral principles as the standard of “genuine” morality, in contrast with “merely” local norms. But the decisive reply, I think, is that on such a view the claim that “X is wrong for group Y” states no further fact beyond the claim that members of Y regard X as wrong, have a negative attitude toward X, seek to punish those who do X, and so on. It is not, on most of these accounts, that X is wrong for Y in virtue of or because Y regards X as wrong; rather “being wrong for Y” just means that members of Y have these attitudes and dispositions. “You believe it is wrong, therefore it is wrong for you,” then, expresses no more than the tautology: “You believe it is wrong, therefore you believe it is wrong.” Subjectivism ends up looking an awful lot like nihilism or non-cognitivism in anthropological drag.

Still, let’s see if this can be made to work somehow. We should dispense, at the outset, with a variety of uninteresting ways in which concrete ethical rules can be “relative” or “subjective” In specific circumstances, of course, what one morally ought to do will often depend on local conventions: In the U.S., it would be reckless and wrong not to drive on the right side of the street; in the UK, it would be reckless and wrong not to drive on the left. But we can easily see how both rules are applications of a higher-level universal principle about not needlessly exposing others to the risk of harm. We could tell a series of far more complex stories that would nevertheless be variants on the same basic idea, depending on cultural conventions about what constitutes a “promise” or a “contract,” which claims about another person will count as slanderous and defamatory, and so on. It might, for instance, be wrong to gravely insult or disrespect people who have done nothing to deserve it, where what counts as as insulting and disrespectful is obviously a subjective matter and depends on local norms. This kind of relativism is true on any plausible view, and can be readily accepted by people who argue that there are universal and objective general moral principles.

To make subjectivism a coherent view that doesn’t just collapse into nihilism or non-cognitivism, we’d need to drive a wedge between “believing X is wrong” (and having the associated attitudes and dispositions) and “X is wrong” so that the latter expresses a further, independent fact. At the same time, to remain distinct from ethical objectivism, this property would have to always be a function of the belief that X is wrong. “Offensiveness,” as suggested above, might often work this way, as does language generally. That is, “snow” (the word) refers to snow (white stuff that falls from the sky) just in case a linguistic community thinks it does, but that I am referring to snow when I say “snow” is a further fact. We can see this by considering cases of confusion or slips of the tongue: I meant for you to turn right, but I accidentally said “turn left.” The linguistic convention is why people nearly always mean left when they say “left” and mean snow when they say “snow,” but the relationship is causal rather than constitutive.

Can we do something similar with “wrong”? To say that X is wrong, that one ought not to do X, is to say that one has some kind of strong and normally overriding or decisive reason to refrain from doing X. There are many trivial ways in which one might have a reason not to do X if and only if one believes (or one’s social group believes) that X is wrong. One might have a purely prudential reason, for instance, to avoid the scorn and enmity of others who believe X to be wrong, whatever one thinks of that belief. Sometimes this applies even to people’s own private beliefs: Someone who believes it is wrong to look at pornography might have a prudential reason not to do so, because they will feel ashamed later—and if the disposition is sufficiently ingrained, they might continue to have this reason even after they decide (at least at an intellectual level) that their previous belief was mistaken. But this doesn’t get us to a distinctly subjectivist view: These are the sorts of reasons anyone could acknowledge one might have.

What we need, it seems, is an account of why one would have a moral reason not to do what one believes is wrong (or one’s group believes is wrong). But here, again, we have a dilemma. If I want to save my life, and believe that a particular medicine will save my life, then in one sense I have a reason (following Parfit, I’ll call this a “motivating reason”) to take that medicine—even if my belief is false and the medicine will kill me. But one could just as naturally say that I have no objective reason to take the medicine—no real reason—because my beliefs are false, and taking it will not fulfill my aims. To say we have subjective or motivating reasons to refrain from doing what we think is wrong flirts again with tautology. But to say we have an objective moral reason to so act implies at least one objective moral principle: It is wrong to act in ways that you believe to be wrong (or your group believes to be wrong). This view can plausibly be described as distinctly “subjectivist,” and it at least jibes with our intuition that someone who constantly violates their own sincerely held moral principles must be seriously morally defective in some way—even if we think the principles they hold are mistaken. But it raises the question: Why this one objective moral principle, and just this one?

One family of views about the general structure of reasons may permit an answer to that question. Many people believe that our prudential practical reasons are all, and only, given by our desires—whether our actual current desires, our desires over the course of a lifetime, or the “informed” desires we would have following some period of ideal reflection, among other possibilities. On such views, the fact that I have decided I want to be a writer, for instance may give me an overriding reason to stay in and work on producing good essays even if I’m strongly tempted to watch a movie or go get a beer with friends instead.

If this is a genuinely desire-based view, rather than a hedonistic view, this can be true even if I would not really be unhappy should I fail in my aim: Perhaps I’d later be able to persuade myself I didn’t really care all that much about being a good writer, or would be having enough fun that I didn’t stop much to pause and feel bad about having fallen short of my goal. Moreover—at least on some views—I would have this reason just in virtue of having chosen and given myself the aim of being a writer, even if there were no further compelling reason to have chosen that aim over various others, and even if (perhaps with the help of hypnosis?) I could rid myself of that desire, with its accompanying frustrations, and be equally happy or happier pursuing some different and less demanding aim. This is no mere tautology: On other views, I have most reason to maximize my happiness or hedonic satisfaction, regardless of my current desires. (This is part of what Robert Nozick’s famous “Experience Machine” is all about: Some people would say we have most reason to strive to really achieve our aims, while others say that it would be irrational to refuse the guaranteed satisfaction of a thoroughly convincing illusion, because all that matters is how life feels to us.) On the views I’m considering, my reason to fulfill the aim I have set for myself—even when, on any given evening, there are other things I would rather be doing, and even if I think I could be just as happy if I failed to achieve my aim—constitutes a further (contestable!) fact above and beyond my having chosen it.

While fleshing out a parallel view for moral reasons would take a good deal of theoretical heavy lifting, we do at least have the rough outline of what a distinctively subjectivist (but not nihilist or non-cognitivist) view might look like. On any of several plausible views about practical rationality, I will have an independent reason to fulfill certain aims I have set for myself just in virtue of having chosen them. It is “true for me” that I have a compelling reason to strive to be a writer, while it is “true for you” that you have a compelling reason to pursue your own different chosen aims, even if we are in all other respects perfectly similar, and could have been equally happy had we swapped life goals. On a subjectivist view, I might similarly have an independent (moral) reason to adhere to the norms I accept (or that the community with which I identify accepts) just because they are my or our norms, and even if it is some sense arbitrary that I ended up accepting those norms instead of another set embraced by another community.

Having given my best go at laying out this sketch, I should emphasize that I don’t find this view convincing. I do not think that this is what the truth about ethics looks like. But it is not—or at least not obviously—an incoherent view.

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25 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Freddie // Aug 2, 2011 at 7:00 pm

    Here’s my immediate question, before I chew over this a bit: how strong are you defining “perfectly similar” when you say the you and the I are perfectly similar? Because I think there are non-trivial question about what space there could be for separate preferences (such as the preference to be a writer or to be something else) given perfectly similar circumstances. I find the question non-trivial in this instance because as you’ve laid out the argument, the genesis of an ontology of preference is inevitably important for the correctness of preference– even the moral correctness of preference– if I’m understand you. If that makes sense.

  • 2 Patrick // Aug 2, 2011 at 10:10 pm

    Interesting. Reading your more philosophical posts always makes me wish I’d made the time to study philosophy.

    Honestly it never occurred to me to think of “moral subjectivism” as anything other than the nihilism you outline in your first paragraph, and I always assumed that was what people who said relativistic things really meant at bottom.

  • 3 Jamie // Aug 4, 2011 at 8:51 am

    Julian, at the beginning of the entry you dismiss a very reductive sort of subjectivism (the sort, I believe, that Hobbes accepted). Do you think that all reductive accounts of ethics — accounts according to which ethical properties and facts just are certain natural, descriptive facts — are similarly unsatisfying? Or only subjectivist ones? (If you just agree with Parfit, say that, because I know what he thinks.)

    I agree that the position you identify at the end has certain virtues. Many people, I think, find a desire-based account of reasons extremely plausible — they think that it has to be a person’s goals, desires, values, etc., that generate that person’s reasons. And as you say, it is hard to deny that what moral strictures apply to you depends on what reasons you have. So that would pretty much guarantee that what is right or wrong for a given person to do depends on that person’s subjective states.

  • 4 jadagul // Aug 5, 2011 at 12:17 am

    Julian: interestingly, you seem to have wound up describing something similar to my actual beliefs. Which are basically (influenced by Rorty) that values are at root fundamentally arbitrary. I value things, and this is a fact of my psychology, but at some level arguments that I ought to value things other than the things I value are hopeless and incoherent. You can try to argue that my values are inconsistent somehow, or that I don’t understand the implications of my values, but any “ought” argument has to appeal to some values, and so can’t convince me to have values I don’t already have.

  • 5 Julian Sanchez // Aug 5, 2011 at 3:30 pm

    So, of course, under literally identical circumstances, all the particles in our brains would have followed the same trajectories, they did in the actual world, and our preferences and choices would have been the same. I’m speaking in a looser sense—as in, it is not hard for me to run through my personal history and project how, if seemingly minor and arbitrary things had gone a bit differently (had I not taken a particular class as a college freshman, though which I met…) I could have ended up happily pursuing a life as an academic or, hell, a software developer. Or I might have been a writer, but as focused and passionate about (say) animal rights or the drug war as I am about privacy and surveillance. And in retrospect, it might have been quite trivial (initial) deviations from my actual personal timeline that resulted in these very different choices and preferences.

    I should probably finish “On What Matters” and mull it over a while before I commit to agreeing with Parfit or not, but I am generally pretty skeptical about the prospect of reducing normative to descriptive statements. I don’t think people who disagree about what one morally ought to do (though they agree on all the relevant facts) are just mired in semantic confusion, of the sort that could be resolved by agreeing to designate ought(1), ought(2), …ought(n) for the descriptive properties corresponding to each sense of “ought.” I think they mean roughly the same thing by “ought,” and really disagree.

  • 6 Jamie // Aug 5, 2011 at 4:46 pm

    Good, so it’s reductivism in general and not reduction to subjective reports.

    Of course, it need not be semantic confusion. Those who disagreed a hundred years ago about whether heat was molecular kinetic energy were not semantically confused, even though heat is molecular kinetic energy — and saying that something is hot “states no further fact” over and above its having a high molecular kinetic energy. So we might be disagreeing, and not semantically confused, even if there are no further facts over and above the facts about our attitudes, goals, valuings.

    Great discussion, anyway.

  • 7 Jerold Duquette // Aug 6, 2011 at 1:01 pm

    You write, “You believe it is wrong, therefore you believe it is wrong.” Subjectivism ends up looking an awful lot like nihilism or non-cognitivism in anthropological drag.”

    The problem here may be the unit of analysis. Ethics or morality are by definition applicable to groups of people and would have little force or meaning for an isolated individual, who would have to be his own judge, jury and executioner. Therefore, when a subjectivist says that morality is subjective, they are not necessarily saying that each iondividual owes no allegiance to community standards, but rather that there are multiple communities each of which may have some standards that contradict those of other communities.

  • 8 Libertarianism and Moral Foundations « Libérale et libertaire // Aug 7, 2011 at 11:13 am

    […] Is Subjectivism in Ethics Coherent? […]

  • 9 Julian Sanchez // Aug 8, 2011 at 10:54 am

    Good point, though I think the nature of the gap is different, so I’m not sure that analogy is a reason to be less skeptical about reduction.

    I just disagree that ethics or morality are “by definition” applicable only to groups. A person alone on an island could have views about how the animals there ought to be treated; whether there would be anyone to *enforce* a particular view is beside the point. Also, if the subjectivist is only saying that “there are multiple communities, each of which may have some standards that contradict those of other communities,” he is only saying what it obvious to everybody. Why would we need to even stick a name on such a banal position?

  • 10 Miles White // Aug 11, 2011 at 5:11 am

    But what if there were no animals on the island. What if there was literally just one man, all by himself, on a rock island. No life around him within one hundred meters, including plants, and no way off. Would he still need an ethical code? Are you saying that morality exists as both a potential and an actual? That whether he needs it or not it’s still there? If so, what is it?

    This is what I never understood about the the argument in defense of moral objectivity. If morality exists, separate from our interpretation, than what is it? Where is this “ten commandants” of right and wrong, and how do we know it exists, in a universal sense, separate from man? No matter how I dissect an ethical argument, I’ve always felt that moral subjectivism was the inevitable consequence of the topic in question. I’m not so much a subjectivist by choice, as a subjectivist by fact.

    How do you get around this fact?

  • 11 Julian Sanchez // Aug 12, 2011 at 8:59 pm

    If there are any moral facts, then they are a species of reasons. To say that you ought not to inflict suffering on someone (for instance) is to say that the fact that a certain action will cause someone else to suffer counts as a strong (and normally overriding) reason not to do it.

    It is true, to be sure, that if there were no people with interests or experiences or rational capabilities, there would be no reasons (and, a fortiori, no moral reasons). But that is not a bar to these reasons being (in the relevant sense) objective when people do exist.

    Suppose, borrowing an example from Parfit, that I will be in unbearable agony tomorrow unless I take a certain medicine today. When tomorrow comes, I will wish more than anything for the pain to stop, and experience overwhelming regret that I had not taken the medicine today. Suppose also that I have no special countervailing reason not to take the medicine (such as a religious conviction), or to be indifferent to pain. I freely admit that tomorrow, my strong desire will be not to feel this agony, and to have taken the medicine today. But, I tell you, I simply don’t see why that gives me any reason TODAY to take the medicine. I’m just not interested in the fact that tomorrow I will be in agony. I treat it with the same detached attitude I would take if you told me that, tomorrow, a particular flower will wilt.

    Most people, I think, would say that I am being irrational. Given the facts of the situation, I really do (objectively!) have a very strong reason to take the medicine, even though, incredibly, I seem unable to recognize it. The fact that I have this reason, admittedly, is not “objective” in the same way that (say) rocks and oceans have objective existence: I would not have this reason if I were not a thinking being capable of experiencing pain, and so the existence of the reason is in one way “mind dependent.” But it is objective in the sense that, given the facts about the kind of being or mind I am, my having this reason does *not* depend on my recognizing that I have this reason—though if I am rational, I will indeed recognize it.

    To be sure, on a very thin conception of “rationality,” one might argue (as perhaps Hume would) that it is “not contrary to reason” to be simply indifferent, for no special reason, to one’s own near-future suffering. On such a view, if I am unconcerned with the agony I will feel tomorrow (and the powerful reason I will then acknowledge to escape my pain by almost any means), then I truly have no reason to take the medicine today. But neither do I think there are any peculiar metaphysics involved in holding the opposite view.

    If we allow, at least, that it is not CRAZY to think someone could have a reason—a reason that is, in this sense, objective— to prevent their own future suffering, then I don’t think it is inherently any more crazy to suggest that another person’s suffering might similarly provide a reason, whether or not a particular individual is willing to recognize it.

  • 12 dwayne stephenson // Aug 17, 2011 at 1:26 am

    You’re a smart guy, so if this reply seems to insult your intelligence, I apologize. I thought I’d say my piece anyway, since I can’t singlehandedly make the internet any stupider than it already is.

    The whole reason relativism is attractive is because two people who espouse to be moral objectivists, when asked to produce their lists of moral facts, may yield up to us two entirely different, sometimes contradictory lists. In this situation, the relativist simply asks, how do we decide which facts on the lists are the “true” ones, and which aren’t? When objective moralist one goes on blathering about Kantian deontology, and objective moralist two pulls out his Bible, the relativist can just throw up his hands in the air and say, “See? This is impossible!” And it seems in this context at least like he has a damn good point. Maybe there are ways that objective moral thinkers have of making incommensurable world views commensurable-if so, i would very much like to see how they are accomplishing that.

    It is unclear how making reasons “facts” resolves this, and is also unclear how you demonstrate how a reason can be an “objective fact” in the sense that would fit in the same schema as an objective morality. After all, a relativist isn’t going to deny that it is an objective fact that cannibals have reasons to eat people. But that doesn’t help us figure out whether it is objectively moral to do so.

    And what if we twist the Parfit around just a little bit, and, upon our encounter with a person who refuses to take his medicine, hear him say, “Yes, I know it will hurt, but I’ve never been in this kind of pain before, and I want to see what it feels like before I start taking treatments.”

    I think this is useful, not as some kind of slam dunk against the thought experiment, but just as a means of analyzing a little further how reasons differ from facts in the conventional sense, and why this makes attempts at in some sense fixing them into a fact-like framework problematic. Facts inform our reasons, but there is something bound up with reasons-intention, at the very least, and probably even aesthetics-and those things, I think it’s important to say, are distinct from facts, even if they are enumerable in some sort of fact categories. Otherwise everything about people is just facts slamming into each other, and it becomes impossible to avoid something worse than relativism, like epiphenomalism or some other undesirable deterministic strait-jacket.

    And that also points to why the development of an objective morality is so problematic. If morality is about the kinds of choices people can make, it seems like there’s a lot of freedom to maneuver, that real moral questions may often times have multiple right answers. And that isn’t necessarily a point for the relativists either. But when we try to intuit out the how all the circuitry works, we tend to focus on these arbitrarily focused situations (do you save the one baby or the three old men kinds of dilemmas) that lend more credence than is probably warranted to the implicit hypothesis that all moral dilemmas have only one best answer.

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