Saturday, July 23, 2011

The meaning of subjectivism

One charge against subjectivism is that it entails contradictions. If I say, "Killing Jews is bad," (because I don't like killing anyone) and Hitler says, "Kill Jews is good," (because he does like killing Jews) both statements are true, but they obviously contradict each other. Any type of theory that has this sort of internal contradiction is obviously incoherent, n'est pas? But this view misses a fundamental point: while there are certainly philosophers who would endorse this kind of view (since there are philosophers who will endorse anything) a subjectivist account of morality must talk not about the objective truth of moral statements but about their meaning.

It is a tenet of meta-ethical subjective relativism that ethical statements in general are true relative to some subjective entity or entities. In other words, ethical statements are statements not about the "objective" world (i.e. the world outside peoples minds) but about the minds of various entities. As such, seemingly contradictory ethical statements are simply statements about the properties of two different entities, and we are typically not philosophically distressed when different entities have different properties. We do not see a contradiction when we say that "Alice is tall" and "Bob is short." Similarly, the statements, "Killing Jews is good," and, "Killing Jews is bad," are not in contradiction, because they are statements about the different properties of different minds.

The subjectivist account really can't be understood as establishing a pattern of logical entailment. Subjectivism cannot attempt to establish the syllogism
Minor Premise: I dislike killing Jews
Major Premise (enthymeme): What I dislike is bad
Conclusion: Killing Jews is bad
because of the rather obvious contradiction that different people really do have radically different likes and dislikes, which would entail that mutually contradictory statements would be accepted as true. The subjectivist position can't be that "Killing Jews is bad" follows from "I dislike killing Jews;" instead, the subjectivist position must be that the statement, "Killing Jews is bad" is the same statement as "I dislike killing Jews." A subjectivist theory is not a theory about how to find ethical statements objectively true or false, it is a theory of what moral statements mean.

Now it is of course true that a lot of people really do intend an objective meaning by ethical statements. In contrast, when people say "Ice cream tastes good," they consciously and intentionally understand that they really mean "I like the taste of ice cream." In this case, the apparently objective syntax ascribing a property to ice cream itself serves only as a metaphorical idiom for the more literally accurate subjective language. But people typically don't have this idiomatic metaphor consciously in mind. Whey they say, "Killing Jews is bad," they really do mean that it is objectively true that killing Jews is bad, regardless of anyone's preferences; it is merely a happy accident (or the consequence of the objective truth) that they also dislike killing Jews. The subjectivist therefore sees the conscious meaning as a category error, an error that can be corrected only by applying idiomatic interpretation.

Whether subjectivism in general and this particular flavor of subjectivism is actually true at the meta-ethical level is a different argument. It might be true that "Killing Jews is bad" really is objectively true regardless of what anyone or everyone actually thinks. It might be true that "Killing Jews is bad" really does follow from "I dislike killing Jews." To date, however, I've been unimpressed by the arguments for either position. More importantly, I think subjectivism has a compelling positive case (which I've described in previous essays). Until someone comes up with a compelling epistemic theory that can give us any knowledge at all about the mind-independent truth of of ethical statements — a theory which, as far as I can tell, would be as revolutionary an epistemic innovation as was the scientific method — I have to go with the simpler theory that when we make ethical statements, regardless of category errors we might make in our interpretation, we cannot be talking sensibly about anything other than our own preferences.


  1. Many people, religious and non-religious alike panic a little bit when they consider the idea that morality boils done to little more than our innate preferences.

    "Without God all things are permitted" etc. or Sam Harris' recent book where he tries to paint our subjective morality with a kind of half-hearted objectivity. I think Harris does have some good and serious points to make but his fear of a relativistic moral anarchy shows. In fairness to Harris there is a lot of straw-manning of his position. Harris ultimately is a moral subjectivist (if I am reading him correctly) he is trying to point out that many of our moral preferences are based on objective facts about what we are. That these facts can be used as a guide to moral oughts.

    There is a lot of agreement between people about what is right and wrong and this fact is often used to argue for objective morality. Statements of the kind "Everyone knows it is wrong to X" or "Who seriously argues that X is moral" That vastly different moral opinions exist on many other topics doesn't seem to phase these folk at all though. We, being social mammals of the same species, are almost guaranteed to have similar moral preferences.

    I also think there is a lot of confusion between the ideas of moral subjectivity and the very different notion of cultural moral relativism.

  2. @Barefoot Bum

    "...I have to go with the simpler theory that when we make ethical statements, regardless of category errors we might make in our interpretation, we cannot be talking sensibly about anything other than our own preferences."

    Since all the evidence seems to show that people (generally) are _attempting_ to talk about some objective moral reality, but (as you say) they cannot sensibly (I would say cannot correctly) be doing so, I think the best explanation is that they are attempting to do the impossible. In other words, as moral error theorists say, there is a fundamental error involved in moral claims, which renders it impossible for such claims to be true.

    @Celtic Chimp

    It's quite possible that many people have misinterpreted Harris. I've only read his online articles, not his book. But on the basis of those his position seems poorly explained, if not quite muddled.


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