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Moral Subjectivism Revisited


In “Is Morality a Matter of Taste?” (Free Inquiry, Fall 1998), Theodore Schick, Jr. tears down a straw man he calls ‘subjectivism’. He defines subjectivism as the view that “what makes an action right is that a person approves of it.” But this is a form of relativism, not subjectivism. Subjectivism claims that there is no objective fact of the matter over whether a specific action is right or wrong; therefore it does not claim that anything makes an action right or wrong–including personal approval. For X to say “murder is wrong” means that X merely disapproves of committing murder. It doesn’t mean that there is some transcendental cosmic standard of ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ existing independently of human minds. If subjectivism is true, nothing (such as intent) inherently makes an action right or wrong, just as nothing (such as invoking pleasure) inherently makes a sound aesthetically good or bad. To say that a piece of music is beautiful or that an action is morally righteous is to invoke man-made distinctions between types of sounds or actions–actions (or sounds) individuals find pleasing versus those they find displeasing. But in nature there are just actions and sounds. Arguing for the existence of objective moral laws falsely invests an indifferent nature with meaning, in this case moral meaning, but meaning nonetheless. Isn’t one of the prime lessons of naturalism that there is no inherent meaning in the universe, just the meaning we create? Isn’t subjectivism then merely a simple acknowledgment that moral meaning is something human beings create and therefore is not an intrinsic feature of the universe?

I’m wary of Schick’s suggestion that moral truths are self-evident in the same sense that logical truths (such as A and not-A cannot both simultaneously be true) are. Since by definition one cannot appeal to evidence or arguments to defend or criticize such “truths”, alleged moral truths are incapable of being refuted. In any system of thought, one has to make some basic assumptions and work out arguments based on those assumptions. But Ockham’s razor compels us not to make any more unjustified assumptions than we have to in order to account for some feature of the world. Postulating the existence of objective moral laws is simply another case of multiplying entities beyond necessity.

It takes quite a leap of faith to compare concepts so invested with this human notion of greater meaning as ethical and aesthetic principles with concepts such as laws of physics or fundamental logical rules which are neutral or indifferent to the human desire for meaning. Ethics and aesthetics deal with specifically human (or at least sentient) concerns and do not serve any function outside of them. Scientific laws and logical rules, on the other hand, also deal with processes that have nothing to do with human (or sentient) concerns, such as the nuclear processes occurring inside of stars or the relationships that hold between a system of defined symbols. To postulate objective moral standards would be as superfluous as postulating objective aesthetic standards. It is erroneous to elevate a human invention to the status of a law of nature.

To say that music is good is simply to express an opinion. In fact, we could even consider that the vast majority of people may agree that there are certain basic acoustic features of music which makes it distinguishable from noise. Nevertheless, music is a human invention–the distinction between an annoying sound and a pleasant one does not exist in nature but only in our minds. I think it would be relatively uncontroversial to argue that the same holds for the distinction between a moral and an immoral action were it not for people’s distaste with the perceived consequences of such a view. But, as in case that our minds cease to exist after brain death, disfavor with the perceived implications of such views does not in any way discredit their validity.

In his concluding remarks, Schick challenges his readers to find a counterexample to the ‘moral truth’ that “unnecessary suffering is wrong.” But the challenge is misguided because the lack of a counterexample does not establish the objectivity of moral values. Consider analogous challenges: Would a continuous tone be considered music by anyone, or would anyone consider a blank canvass to be a beautiful work of art? Using Schick’s reasoning I could similarly argue that, unless you can find a counterexample where a blank canvass is a beautiful work of art, or a monotonous tone constitutes music, the burden of proof is upon you to show that there are no objective aesthetic values. Schick also argues that our moral progress is evidence for objective moral standards; but this simply begs the question. To assume that there has been, or could be, moral progress is simply to assume that such standards exist.

The point is that just because there are criteria that all ethical systems will hold as basic assumptions–such as the immorality of producing unnecessary harm–this does not establish that these kinds of criteria, whether invoked by art critics or ethicists, are somehow inherent in nature, existing independently of human opinion. What we have in ethics (as in aesthetics) are basic criteria that we invent. In the absence of objective moral values we can have basic intersubjective moral standards–but intersubjective is still subjective. Instead of morality being based on a single individual’s opinions it can be based on the common elements of several individuals’ opinions–but opinions they still are. They are not moral ‘laws’ existing independently of human opinion inherently in nature–indeed, it would be quite odd to say that objective moral standards would exist if sentience never arose in the universe or all sentient beings were extinct.

Subjectivism then, properly defined, does not fail to meet Schick’s criteria for an adequate ethical theory. It doesn’t sanction “immoral actions” because in a naturalistic universe there are just actions–‘moral’ and ‘immoral’ are man-made distinctions that do not exist in nature, but exist only in our minds. Whatever people consider moral or immoral is not sanctioned by subjectivism because this metaethical theory is a factual theory–a theory about what morality is–and thus does not itself make any value judgments whatsoever but is morally neutral about all actions. It doesn’t imply that people are morally infallible because to do so would be to assume that there is some objective moral standard existing independently of human opinion by which people could measure whether an act is right or wrong–an assumption subjectivism obviously denies. In Schick’s misleading definition of subjectivism that standard is the individual’s own approval. But on a truly subjectivist account, there’s no standard at all for ‘what makes an action moral’ just as there’s no standard for ‘what makes art beautiful’.

In a sense, if moral subjectivism is true, one cannot err morally; but one cannot succeed morally either, because morality is akin to aesthetics. One can judge a work of art as poor but we do not say they ‘erred’ simply because we enjoy it. When we disagree about whether rock music is pleasing we do not say that, because this is a matter of taste, we are therefore all ‘aesthetically infallible’ or that the idea that whether something is aesthetically good or bad is a matter of taste does not constitute an ‘adequate aesthetic theory’.

Subjectivism also does not deny that there are substantial moral disputes. It simply acknowledges that morality is a human (or sentient) invention. Once an individual or community has accepted a general set of basic moral premises (e.g. murder is wrong), moral disputes can arise when applying those premises in real-life cases–such as when one has to choose between two children joined at the head at birth when only one could survive an operation. Moral disputes can arise even if the premises they arise from are invented; the premises of those disputes need not reside independently of us in some Platonic realm of ideas.