Notes on Subjectivism

Sandra LaFave
West Valley College

Beginnings in Hume

David Hume (1711-1776) was the most important English-speaking philosopher of the "modern period" in philosophy (roughly 1400-1900). He was an empiricist who ended up being skeptical about the possibility of genuine knowledge from experience.

Hume’s argument for subjectivism is a disjunctive syllogism, so it’s valid (its logic is correct):

P1: Moral judgments originate either in sensation (impressions with external origin) or feelings (impressions with internal origin).

P2: They don’t originate in sensation ("Is" does not imply "ought").

C: Therefore, they originate in feelings.

Logical Positivism was an influential movement in early 20th-century philosophy. The logical positivists (Herbert Feigl, Moritz Schlick, Rudolph Carnap, A.J. Ayer, et al.) advocated the verificationist principle of meaning, redefined the enterprise of philosophy as the search for a logically perfect language, rejected metaphysics, and accepted Hume’s argument for subjectivism.


Simple Subjectivism (SS)

SS is the meta-ethical view that moral judgments are reports of one’s feelings or attitudes, and nothing more. So to say "Stealing is wrong" is simply to report that "I feel stealing is wrong".

Reports are assertions or statements or claims. They claim that something is so.

As such, reports have truth value; i.e., they are either true or false. They are true if what they claim is so really is so, and false is what they claim is so really isn't so.

The report "I feel stealing is wrong" is true just in case I do feel stealing is wrong; i.e., the report is true if I am sincere.

The report "I feel stealing is wrong" is false just in case I don’t feel it; i.e., the report is false if I am insincere.


Two arguments against SS

Both arguments are in modus tollens form, which makes them valid (logically correct).

The first counterargument is:

P1: If SS is correct about what moral judgments are (reports of our feelings),and we are sincere in our moral judgments, then our moral judgments must be true (i.e., cannot be false), i.e., they are infallible.

P2: But our moral judgments do not seem infallible.

C: Therefore, SS does not seem correct.

The second counterargument requires that we understand what a "genuine moral disagreement" is. A genuine moral disagreement is a disagreement regarding the content of our moral judgment – what we feel. For example, a genuine moral disagreement occurs if we disagree about whether or not stealing is wrong. But if SS is correct, and moral judgments simply report that we feel certain things, and those reports are true (we do feel them), then genuine moral disagreement is not possible. I agree that you feel what you feel; and you agree that I feel what I feel. So we have the second argument against SS:

P1: If SS is correct, and moral judgments report only that we feel what we feel, then genuine moral disagreement — disagreement about what we feel– is not possible.

P2: But genuine moral disagreement seems to be possible (it seems to happen all the time).

C: Therefore, SS does not seem correct.

Emotivism(Stevenson’s version)

A re-working of SS, emotivism is the meta-ethical view that moral judgments do not function as statements at all. Rather, according to Stevenson’s version of emotivism, moral judgments function (1)to express attitudes or feelings; and/or (2) to command. So although moral judgments may look like statements, they are not really statements at all because they do not claim that anything is so. Rather, they are disguised exclamations or imperatives. Because I can express or command an attitude I do not feel, my sincerity (or lack thereof) is simply irrelevant to emotivism.

Since moral judgments do not claim anything in the first place, moral judgments don’t claim that anything is true or false. Moral judgments have no cognitive content. They do not pass the verificationist test of meaningfulness. Therefore, according to emotivism, since moral judgments claim nothing at all, they claim nothing "infallibly". Hence, counterargument (I) to SS is eliminated.

Furthermore, according to emotivism, although the function of moral statements is not what we’re used to thinking it is, the content of moral judgments is pretty much what we do think it is. When I express the claim that "Stealing is wrong", I really am expressing something negative about stealing ("Boo on stealing!"); or I’m telling you not to steal. Someone who disagreed with me would be expressing positive attitudes toward stealing. Therefore, we would have a genuine moral disagreement, because our moral judgments would differ in content. There goes counterargument (2) to SS.


How SS and Emotivism Differ

Consider the following exchange:

Jerry Falwell: "Homosexuality is wrong."

Gay Activist: "Homosexuality is morally acceptable."

1. The Ordinary Person Would Say…

According to the ordinary person, the exchange between Jerry Falwell and the Gay Activist is a genuine moral disagreement about the morality of homosexuality. Most philosophers would agree with the ordinary person here. Jerry Falwell thinks homosexuality is morally wrong; i.e., he thinks the claim "Homosexuality is wrong" is true, or reasonable to believe. The Gay Activist thinks homosexuality is morally acceptable; i.e., he believes the claim "Homosexuality is wrong"is false, or unreasonable to believe. Both speakers assume reasons can be given for their positions; i.e., they are not moral subjectivists.

Moral subjectivism is the view that reason doesn’t apply to morality; that morality is a matter of feeling, not thinking. Two versions of moral subjectivism are simple subjectivism and emotivism.


2. The Simple Subjectivist Would Say …

The Simple Subjectivist would say the exhange between Jerry Falwell and the Gay Activist looks like a disagreement about the morality of homosexuality. But it’s not. It’s really the following:

Jerry Falwell: "I feel homosexuality is wrong."

Gay Activist: "I feel homosexuality is morally acceptable."

These statements are reports of each person’s feelings. The statements are genuine statements; they function to claim. Thus, the statements are true or false: true if the person is sincere (is accurately reporting his feelings), false if the person is insincere.

Note the topic of discussion here is how each person feels. The morality of homosexuality is not addressed at all. Contrary to what might first appear, there is no disagreement about the morality of homosexuality, since (assuming both speakers are sincere) each speaker would have to acknowledge that the other speaker is telling the truth.

Furthermore, there is no way to move the discussion away from feelings. Jerry Falwell could not now say, "Homosexuality is wrong even if you don’t feel it’s wrong." According to SS, this would be simply pointless: the expression"homosexuality is wrong" just means "I feel homosexuality is wrong." Substituting into Jerry’s new claim, we get "I feel homosexualityis wrong [the only meaning, according to SS, of "homosexuality is wrong"] even if you don’t feel it’s wrong." But everyone would agree that these two guys have different feelings. Per SS, that’s as far as you can ever go.


3. The Emotivist Would Say …

The exchange looks like a disagreement about the morality of homosexuality. But it’s not. It’s really one of the following:

Jerry Falwell: "Homosexuality! Yuck!"

Gay Activist: "Homosexuality! Hurray!"



Jerry Falwell: "Don’t be homosexual."

Gay Activist: "Homosexuality: go for it."


According to Emotivism, the original statements are not statements in function; they are not claiming anything. Genuine moral "claims" simply do not exist, according to Emotivism. What appear to be moral claims really function as exclamations or commands, and therefore have no truth value. Since they don’t claim anything at all, they don’t claim anything infallibly.

Note the topic of discussion here is homosexuality, though neither speaker is claiming anything about it. The speakers are expressing different attitudes toward it, or urging different actions. The speakers, in other words, are not performing the speech-act of claiming; they are doing something else with language.

Sincerity is not an issue here at all, since you can express an attitude you don’t feel, or advocate a course of action you don’t believe in.

Furthermore, there is no way to move the discussion toward a reasoned analysis of the morality of homosexuality. Jerry Falwell could not now say, "Homosexuality is wrong even if the Gay Activist expresses approval for it or advocates it." According to Emotivism, this would be simply pointless: the expression "homosexuality is wrong" just means "Homosexuality! Yuck! / Don’t do it!" Substituting into Jerry’s new claim, we get "Homosexuality! Yuck! /Don’t do it! – even if the Gay Activist expresses approval for it or advocates it." But everyone would agree that these two guys are expressing different feelings or advocating different courses of action. Again, that’s as far as you can go.


Arguments Against Emotivism

Emotivism ignores moral reasoning in general. Be sure you understand and can explain all the arguments in section 3.5 and 3.6 of Rachels; those arguments are the main ones you’re expected to know, and they are not repeated here. The following additional arguments are mine.

Emotivism ignores the role of reason in adjudicating disagreements in desire. Emotivism says our moral judgments express attitudes. It says we can have genuine disagreements in our attitudes, even if we agree about all the relevant facts, because we have different desires. But some desires are clearly more reasonable than others. For example,some desires are downright illogical, because self-contradictory. Some desires contradict other desires. So reason does help us in moral decision-making, because it diagnoses contradiction. It fails only when we are dealing with a sociopath or psychopath — one who has no desires in common with other people.

Emotivism assumes that thinking and feeling are necessarily opposed. But this seems just false. Emotional factors, such as anxiety or depression, affect thinking and learning. Cognitive factors affect emotional responses; for example, learning about art or music enables you to feel appropriately. Thus, emotivism seems based on a false dilemma: it assumes that if a moral judgment expresses my feeling, it can’t also be supported by reason. I.e., either my moral judgment expresses my attitudes OR it is the outcome of areasoning process, but not both. But why not both? The reasonable person is exactly the one whose feelings are formed by reason!


For another line of argument against subjectivism, see the reading Thinking Critically about the Subjective / ObjectiveDistinction .

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