What is simple subjectivism? Explain and evaluate the two most prominent arguments against it.
Simple subjectivism may be succinctly defined as the view that moral judgements are true relative to the individual which utters them. Therefore to say of certain behaviour that it is ‘wrong’ is to express one’s belief and not a prescription. This essay will develop the meta-ethical theory of subjectivism and critically evaluate how persuasive the argument for it is, by developing two of the main objections to it, namely the possibility-of-disagreement and the infallibility objection.
Subjectivism holds that any moral judgement is but an expression of one’s own personal opinion on the matter. It is a cognitivist view insofar as that it contends that moral views express beliefs about facts. These beliefs or reports are an expression of one’s personal subjective state of mind – and as such they can be true or false in correspondence to that subjective state of mind. Hence, a moral judgement is true if and only if it is an accurate report of one’s subjective state of mind. Accordingly a moral judgement is false if it does not correspond to one’s state of mind. This means that there exist moral facts, however, in contrast to realist/objectivist views, such moral facts are mind-dependent, i.e. they are only moral facts in relation to a particular subjective state of mind.
Simple subjectivists argue that the prevalence of disagreement on matters of morality serves to show that there are no mind-independent facts in morality. This argument, however, is prone to two objections: Firstly, a realist might argue that disagreement does not entail that there are no objective moral facts – it is simply an issue of how to access or interpret them that leads to disagreement. Secondly, and more troublesome an objection, we should be weary of what subjectivism imposes on disagreement as such: As the subjectivist is keen to point out, in a moral debate, every participant is reporting his own subjective state of mind. The truth of the moral judgement passed, does not depend on outside circumstances, but entirely on what the subjectivist beliefs to be true. For a disagreement to take place it is necessary that it is possible to contradict each other, meaning that we need to talk of one and the same thing. Thus, though we might seem to disagree there simply is no disagreement, as all participants by uttering their moral judgements have expressed their subjective states of mind, and since the truth of a moral judgement depends solely on the subjective state of mind of a given person, they might all speak the truth. So there never was a real disagreement, as there never was a possibility for contradiction and hence subjectivism seems to require that disagreement is not possible. This is what we have called the possibility-of-disagreement objection above.
Subjectivism at this point requires us to give up moral disagreement. Yet, this runs counter to our personal intuition, as a matter of fact we do disagree and furthermore we do think that in disagreeing we are talking about one and the same thing.
Additionally subjectivism’s metaphysical claim that the truth of moral judgements is dependent on the subjective state of mind of a given person entails that any given person is infallible in their moral judgement. For it seems that as long as one truthfully reports one’s subjective state of mind one is in fact making a moral judgement, which cannot be false. Therefore one cannot make mistakes in terms of moral claims.
Again such a claim cannot be confirmed by personal intuition – subjectivism cannot account for what we might call personal development, for to speak of development it is necessary that one moves closer to a truth or away from a falsehood. Yet, if we believe subjectivism’s account all moral judgements made are true, as long as they accurately report our subjective state of mind. Furthermore we often experience that our moral judgements may be altered by debating and discussing an issue – clearly this alteration then amounts to concede our personal fallibility.
Subjectivism then clearly fails to account credibly for our personal experience of moral issues as contentious: Firstly, it does not offer a plausible account for moral disagreement as it prima facie does not allow for any actual disagreement to take place. Secondly, subjectivism affords the subject infallibility, a claim which again cannot be coherently integrated into practice. Consequently subjectivism’s account of meta-ethics does not explain moral judgements in such a way that it corresponds to intuition and should therefore be abandoned.