The Core Idea, Problems, and Attraction of Subjectivism
by Ted Altar
[ARRS Administrator Note: One of the most common defenses put up by anti-AR persons is to assert that the moral arguments advanced by AR adherents have no force because they are simply a matter of opinion. "My ethics are as good as yours; how dare you try to impose yours on me?" is an oft-heard refrain. The thesis espoused by these persons is that of ethical subjectivism. Here, Ted Altar soundly refutes the thesis.]
If someone, for instance, asserts that the hunting of animals is wrong, then such a person is merely saying, "I disapprove of such acts". Such self-reports of personal attitudes or autobiography cannot in themselves, of course, serve as evidence or as justification for the truth value of an ethical claim. The implication here is that there is never any truth value to an ethical claim, hence the mere disapproval on my part doesn't make it wrong for someone else or make it wrong at all. So what is a person who passionately disapproves of some human act going to do? All that we can do, presumably, to ensure that those acts which we find personally abhorrent and would like to see stopped is to seek sufficient support from others of a similar subjective outlook and join together to legislate some kind of social contract. Maybe there are enough fellow humans out there who also disapprove of human torture that together we can agree among ourselves to condemn and disallow this act. If we are an empowered majority or a governing minority, then we can impose our will upon others. This brings us to a kind of "contractarianism", which is quite deficient and unattractive (refer to the AR FAQ Question #24).
1. Nobody Can Ever Be Wrong Or Right
2. Non-Incompatibility Between All Ethical Beliefs
3. No Independent Role for Ethical Judgement
4. Non-Sequitur from Facts of Diversity
5. There Are Some Cultural Universals
6. Rational Consensus is in Principle Possible
7. A Reductio Ad Absurdum
8. The Irrelevancy of Justified Belief for a Subjectivist
9. The Trivial Circularity of Subjectivism
10. Subjectivism is Not a Coherent Theory
The only recourse, if one still wishes there to be some normative principles for society, would be to resort to some version of contractarianism. That some such recourse is necessary is given by the fact that no subjectivist is an equalitarian with respect to other individuals pursuing all their subjective interests. Such interests might well conflict with their own. If we are to have more than a mere personal strategy of living, a private egoist ethics that is undermined or inexpedient if it is made public, then the subjectivist needs to turn to something like contractarianism. The alternative, if one is to remain consistent with his or her subjectivist credo, is to simply give up on defending or challenging any public policy whatsoever or another person's views. This does not seem to be the natural inclination of ethical subjectivists, so what are they to do?
Now, permit me to change hats and attempt to be more generous and ask what might be the authentic attraction behind subjectivism.
As the Canadian political/ethical philosopher Kai Nelson  points out, after we have been confronted with the myriad of different views and meta-ethical treatises, the "feeling" emerges that maybe there are in the end no real or knock-down arguments. Indeed, why should I choose to act morally rather than immorally? Certainly, one could argue that self-interest might be better served if I am not bound by morality, especially on those occasions when I can get away with it. What this kind of reflection leads us to is that at some basic level I must ultimately decide to CHOOSE to act morally or not. Maybe the existentialists were right after all. Hence, we would say, "its a value judgement" and "in the end it is a matter of what sort of person you want and choose to be". I must in the end choose, and no intellectual weighting of the pros and cons can ultimately settle the matter for me. Here we have an important foundation for our common-sense preference for individual autonomy, and what greater autonomy can we have but to choose that there be value, because nothing compels value otherwise.
This much, I think is true about subjectivism, but as Robert Nozick  has well argued, simply because we must ultimately choose that there be values does not mean that we also have complete freedom to choose their nature. "Value", then, is something inert with no causal powers of its own to compel assent; at best, value can act only through value perceivers who pursue it. Values exist for value perceivers, and each person must choose that there be value and then CONSENT to what might be the inherent merits and rational requirements of what has been chosen.
But why should we choose values and what guides our better choice? First of all, we can't but choose value even when we choose that there be no values. Let us say that I simply opt for always satisfying my personal self-interest even at the expense of others. Even this value of the psychopath is a value of sorts but hardly a very interesting or useful morality. Again, we need to affirm some set of values that can meaningfully guide our interactions with each other and help resolve our conflicts by some appeal to principles. I would also add that ethics becomes most interesting when it forwards a vision of a better world rather than simply an ad hoc justification of the status quo ante. Most of us believe that things could be better for us all, and that a system of value commitments that helps to inform us about how things ought to be for a better world makes ethics more interesting. We all would like to say that something is the better course because it is the "right act", "the right thing to do". What better rational can we have for doing what we do?
In this way, as value perceiving and choosing beings, it can be said that we more distinctively realize our better human possibilities. Now, if we are willing to choose value and to therefore be willing to reason ethically, nothing that the subjectivist would say need upset the objectivity and rationality of our ethical criteria.
Of course, the hard core subjectivist might here interject and say, "what if I don't choose to be that way, what if I refuse to commit myself to value and refuse to accept the better rationality that might follow from a proper analysis of those values?". Here, as Kai Nelson points out, all that we can say is that people almost universally are not that way. Yes, there are psychopaths, but most of us are perceptive to, say, the value of another human and non-human being, to the value that pain and cruelty are inherently wrong, and we choose to affirm such values.
Some further considerations will temper this capitulation into a complete subjectivism. Although subjectivism will vary among individuals and societies, all societies and individuals are interested in preserving morality; after all, there are rationally justified vested interests in preserving and advancing these moralities, both on a societal and on an individual level. For instance, psychopaths do live disruptive lives and end up in prison in spite of all their prideful boasting of being beyond and free of any bonds of morality; they do what they really feel like doing while the rest of us are so tethered to our seeking a general ethic. Of course, the ordinary subjectivist is far from being a psychopath, but if we were to take complete subjectivism seriously then is not the psychopath the ultimate subjectivist, one who not merely affirms that all is a matter of how one personally feels or believes, but also acts upon only his or her personal feelings or beliefs as they occur at any time?
Consider the following. Any would-be subjectivist either explicitly or implicitly must forward the claim that his or her "personal subjectivity" is important and desirable. If it wasn't, then such a claim cannot have any force over, say, the claim of animal rights. Unless the subjectivist is truly consistent with their subjectivism and keeps it to themselves as a kind of private strategy of living, then such a subjectivist cannot be the overt iconoclast of all ethical views but their own. That is, when a subjectivist comes out of their private, subjective closet, he or she would have to acknowledge that another person's subjectivity is of equal moral importance. But why be fair? Every subjectivist probably believes his or her subjective preferences to be the best, at least for themselves, and it is preferable if no one else's subjectivity interferes. But is this simply not another way of asking "why be ethical"? Why should I promote my subjective preferences even when it conflicts with what might be the subjective preferences of others? Thus, the subjectivist cannot evade an ethical claim by merely stating that there is no justification for taking any ethical point of view at all since he or she is in fact taking one.
Since in the end we must choose that there be values, then let us choose well and be guided by the rational entailments of that choice, and be further willing to subject our choices to a rational discussion of their merits or demerits. Only in this way can we discover how well we have chosen and how we might better choose for a better world for all of us.
1. G. E. More (1912). Ethics (chpt 3). London: Oxford University Press.
2. Kurt Baier (1958). The Moral Point of View: A Rational Basis of Ethics. (see p. 308) Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
3. Kai Nielson (1989). Why Be Moral? (chpt. 8) New York: Prometheus Books.
4. Robert Nozick (1981). Philosophical Explanations. (chpt. 6) (winner of the Ralph Waldo Emerson award of phi beta kappa). Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
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