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.