Unformatted text preview: James Rachels Subjectivism in Ethics Take any action allowʹd to be vicious: Wilful murder, for instance. Examine it in all lights, and see if you can find that matter of fact, or real existence, which you call vice. . . You can never find it, till you turn your reflexion into your own breast, and find a sentiment of disapprobation, which arises in you, toward this action. Here is a matter of fact; but ʹtis the object of feeling, not reason. David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (1740) 1. The Basic Idea of Ethical Subjectivism In 2001 there was a mayoral election in New York, and when it came time for the cityʹs annual Gay Pride Day parade, every single Democratic and Republican candidate showed up to march. ʺThere is not a single candidate who can be described as not good on our issues,ʺ said Matt Foreman, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, a gay rights organization. He added that ʺIn other parts of the country, the positions taken here would be extremely unpopular, if not deadly at the polls.ʺ The national Republican Party apparently agrees; at the urging of religious conservatives, it has made opposition to gay rights a part of its national stance. What do people around the country actually think? The Gallup Poll has been asking Americans ʺDo you feel that homosexuality should be considered an acceptable alternative lifestyle or not?ʺ since 1982, when 34% responded affirmatively. The number has been rising, however, and in 2000, a majority52%‐said that they think homosexuality should be considered acceptable. This means, of course, that almost as many think otherwise. People on both sides have strong feelings. The Reverend Jerry Falwell spoke for many when he said in a television interview, ʺHomosexuality is immoral. The so‐called ʹgay rightsʹ are not rights at all, because immorality is not right.ʺ Falwell is a Baptist. The Catholic view is more nuanced, but it agrees that gay sex is impermissible. Gays and lesbians, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, ʺdo not choose their homosexual condition,ʺ and ʺThey must be accepted with respect, com‐
passion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.ʺ Nonetheless, ʺhomosexual acts are intrinsically disorderedʺ and ʺUnder no circumstances can they be approved.ʺ Therefore, to lead virtuous lives, homosexual persons must be chaste. 1 What attitude should we take? We might say that homosexuality is immoral, or we might say it is all right. But there is a third alternative. We might say something like this: People have different opinions, but where morality is concerned, there are no ʺfacts,ʺ and no one is ʺright.ʺ People just feel differently, and thatʹs the end of it. This is the basic thought behind Ethical Subjectivism. Ethical Subjectivism is the idea that our moral opinions are based on our feelings and nothing more. On this view, there is no such thing as ʺobjectiveʺ right or wrong. It is a fact that some people are homosexual and some are heterosexual; but it is not a fact that one is good and the other bad. So when someone such as Falwell says that homosexuality is wrong, he is not stating a fact about homosexuality. Instead, he is merely saying something about his feelings toward it. Of course, Ethical Subjectivism is not just an idea about the evaluation of homosexuality. It applies to all moral matters. To take a different example, it is a fact that the Nazis exterminated millions of innocent people; but according to Ethical Subjectivism, it is not a fact that what they did was evil. When we say their actions were evil, we are only saying that we have negative feelings toward them. The same applies to any moral judgment whatever. 2. The Evolution of the Theory Often the development of a philosophical idea will go through several stages. At first the idea will be put forward in a crude, simple form, and many people will find it attractive for one reason or another. But then the idea will be subjected to critical analysis, and it will be found to have defects. Arguments will be made against it. At this point some people may be so impressed with the objections that they abandon the idea altogether, concluding that it cannot be right. Others, however, may continue to have confidence in the basic idea, and so they will try to refine it, giving it a new, improved formulation that will not be vulnerable to the objections. For a time it may appear that the theory has been saved. But then new arguments may be found that cast doubt on the new version of the theory. Once again the new objections may cause some to abandon the idea, while others keep the faith and try to salvage the theory by formulating still another ʺimprovedʺ version. The whole process of revision and criticism will then start over again. 2 The Theory of Ethical Subjectivism has developed in just this way. It began as a simple idea – in the words of David Hume, that morality is a matter of sentiment rather than fact. But as objections were raised to the theory, and as its defenders tried to answer the objections, the theory evolved into something much more sophisticated. 3. The First Stage: Simple Subjectivism The simplest version of the theory, which states the main idea but does not attempt to refine it very much , is this: When a person says that something is morally good or bad, this means that he or she approves of that thing, or disapproves of it, and nothing more. In other words: “X is morally acceptable"
“X is right”
“X is good”
“X ought to be done” } all mean: “I (the speaker)
approve of X” And similarly: “X is morally unacceptable”
“X is wrong”
“X is bad”
“X ought not to be done” } all mean: “I (the speaker)
disapprove of X” We may call this version of the theory Simple Subjectivism. It expresses the basic idea of Ethical Subjectivism in a plain, uncomplicated form, and many people have found it attractive. However, Simple Subjectivism is open to several objections, because it has implications that are contrary to what we know (or at least, contrary to what we think we know) about the nature of moral evaluation. Here are two of the most prominent objections. Simple Subjectivism Cannot Account for Our Fallibility. None of us is infallible. We are sometimes wrong in our evaluations; and when we discover that we are mistaken, we may want to correct our judgments. But if Simple Subjectivism were correct, this would be impossible, because Simple Subjectivism implies that each of us is infallible. Consider Falwell again, who says homosexuality is immora1. According to 3 Simple Subjectivism, he is merely saying that he, Falwell, disapproves of homosexuality. Now, of course it is possible that he is not speaking sincerely – it is possible that he really does not disapprove of homosexuality, but is merely playing to his conservative audience. However, if we assume he is speaking sincerely – if we assume he really does disapprove of it – then it follows that what he says is true. So long as he is honestly representing his own. feelings, he cannot be mistaken. But this contradicts the plain fact that none of us is infallible. We are sometimes wrong. Therefore, Simple Subjectivism cannot be correct. Simple Subjectivism Cannot Account for Disagreement. The second argument against Simple Subjectivism is based on the idea that this theory cannot account for the fact of disagreement in ethics. Matt Foremen does not believe that homosexuality is immoral. So, on the face of it, it appears that he and Falwell disagree. But consider what Simple Subjectivism implies about this situation. According to Simple Subjectivism, when Foreman says that homosexuality is not immoral, he is merely making a statement about his attitude – he is saying that he, Foreman, does not disapprove of homosexuality. Would Falwell disagree with that? No, Falwell would agree that Foreman does not disapprove of homosexuality. At the same time, when Falwell says that homosexuality is immoral, he is only saying that he, Falwell, disapproves of it. And how could anyone disagree with that? Thus, according to Simple Subjectivism, there is no disagreement between them; each should acknowledge the truth of what the other is saying. Surely, though, there is something wrong here, for Falwell and Foreman do disagree about whether homosexuality is immoral. There is a kind of eternal frustration implied by Simple Subjectivism: Falwell and Foreman are deeply opposed to one another; yet they cannot even state their positions in a way that joins the issue. Foreman may try to deny what Falwell says, but according to Simple Subjectivism he succeeds only in changing the subject. The argument may be summarized like this. When one person says “X is morally acceptable” and someone else says “X is morally unacceptable,” they are disagreeing. However, if Simple Subjectivism were correct, there would be no disagreement between them. Therefore, Simple Subjectivism cannot be correct. These arguments, and others like them, show that Simple Subjectivism is a flawed theory. It cannot be maintained, at least not in such a crude form. In the face of such arguments, some thinkers have chosen to reject the whole idea of Ethical Subjectivism. 4 Others, however, have worked to produce a better version of the theory that would not be vulnerable to such objections. 4. The Second Stage: Emotivism The improved version was a theory that came to be known as Emotivism. Developed chiefly by the American philosopher Charles L. Stevenson (1908‐1979), Emotivism was one of the most influential theories of Ethics in the 20th century. It is far more subtle and sophisticated than Simple Subjectivism. Emotivism begins with the observation that language is used in a variety of ways. One of its principle uses is in stating facts, or at least what we believe to be facts. Thus we may say: “Abraham Lincoln was president of the United States.” “I have an appointment at four o’clock.” “Gasoline costs $1.39 per gallon.” “Shakespeare is the author of Hamlet.” In each case, we are saying something that is either true or false, and the purpose of our utterance is, typically, to convey information to the listener. However, there are other purposes for which language may be used. Suppose I say “Close the door!” This utterance is neither true nor false. It is not a statement of any kind; it is a command, which is something different. Its purpose is not to convey information; rather, its purpose is to get you to do something. I am trying to influence your beliefs; I am trying to influence your conduct. Or consider utterances such as these, which are neither true statements of fact nor commands: “Hurrah for Abraham Lincoln!” “Alas!” “Would that gasoline did not cost so much!” “Damn Hamlet” These are familiar types of sentences that we understand easily enough. But none of them is “true” or “false.” (It makes no sense to say, “It is true that hurrah for Abraham Lincoln” or “It is false that alas.”) Again, these sentences are not used to state facts. 5 Instead they are used to express the speaker’s attitudes. We need to note clearly the difference between reporting an attitude and expressing the same attitude. If I say “I like Abraham Lincoln,” I am reporting the fact that I have a positive attitude towards him. This is a statement of fact, which is either true or false. On the other hand, if I shout “Hurrah for Lincoln!” I am not stating any sort of fact, not even about my attitudes. I am expressing an attitude, but not reporting that I have it. Now, with these points in mind, let us turn our attention to moral language. According to Emotivism, moral language is not fact‐stating language; it is not typically used to convey information. Its purpose is different. It is used, first, as a means of influencing people’s behavior: If someone says “You ought not to do that,” he is trying to stop you from doing it. Thus the utterance is more like a command than a statement of fact; it is as though he had said, “Don’t do that!” Second, moral language is used to express (not report) one’s attitude. Saying “Lincoln was a good man” is not like saying “I like Lincoln,” but it is like saying “Hurrah for Lincoln!” The difference between Emotivism and Simple Subjectivism should now be obvious. Simple Subjectivism interpreted ethical statements as statements of fact, of a special kind—namely, as reports of the speaker’s attitude. According to Simple Subjectivism, when Falwell says, “Homosexuality is immoral,” this means the same as “I (Falwell) disapprove of homosexuality”—a statement of fact about Falwell’s attitude. Emotivism, on the other hand, denies that his utterance states any fact at all, even a fact about himself. Instead, Emotivism interprets his utterance as equivalent to something like “Homosexuality—yechh!” or “Would that there was no homosexuality.” Now this may seem to be a trivial, nit‐picking difference that isn’t worth bothering with. But from a theoretical point of view, it is actually a very big and important difference. One way to see this is to consider again the arguments against Simple Subjectivism. While those arguments were severely embarrassing to Simple Subjectivism, they do not affect Emotivism at all. 1. The first argument was that if Simple Subjectivism is correct, then we are all infallible in our moral judgments; but we certainly are not infallible; therefore, Simple Subjectivism cannot be correct. This argument is effective only because Simple Subjectivism interprets moral judgments as statements that can be true or false. “Infallible” means that one’s judgments are always true; and Simple Subjectivism assigns moral judgments a meaning that will always be true, so long as the speaker is sincere. That is why, on that theory, people turn out to be infallible. Emotivism, on the other hand, does not interpret moral judgments as statements that are true‐or‐false; and so the same 6 argument will not work against it. Because commands and expressions of attitude are not true‐or‐false, people cannot be “infallible” with respect to them. 2. The second argument had to do with moral disagreement. If Simple Subjectivism is correct, then when one person says “X is morally acceptable” and someone else says “X is morally unacceptable,” they are not really disagreeing. They are, in fact, talking about entirely different things—each is making a statement about his or her own attitude with which the other can readily agree. But, the argument goes, people who say such things really are disagreeing with one another, and so Simple Subjectivism cannot be correct. Emotivism emphasizes that there is more than one way in which people may disagree. Compare these two kinds of disagreement: First: I believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in the assassination of John Kennedy, and you believe there was a conspiracy. This is a disagreement about the facts—I believe something to be true that you believe to be false. Second: I favor gun‐control legislation and you are opposed to it. Here, it is not our beliefs that are in conflict but our desires—I want something to happen that you do not want to happen. (You and I may agree about all the facts surrounding the gun‐control controversy and still take different sides concerning what we want to see happen.) In the first kind of disagreement, we believe different things, both of which cannot be true. In the second, we want different things, both of which cannot happen. Stevenson calls the latter kind of disagreement disagreement in attitude, and he contrasts is with disagreement about attitudes. You and I may agree in all our judgments about our attitudes: We agree that you are opposed to gun control, and we agree that I am for it. But we still disagree in our attitudes. Moral disagreements, says Stevenson, are like this: They are disagreements in attitude. Simple Subjectivism could not explain moral disagreement because, once it interpreted moral judgments as statements about attitudes, the disagreement vanished. Simple Subjectivism was an attempt to capture the basic idea of Ethical Subjectivism and express it in an acceptable form. It ran into trouble because it assumed that moral judgments are statements about attitudes. Emotivism was better because it jettisoned the troublesome assumption and replaced it with a more sophisticated view of how moral language works. But, as we shall see, Emotivism also had difficulties. One of its main problems was that it could not account for the place of reason in ethics. 7 5. Are There Any Moral Facts? A moral judgment—or for that matter, any kind of judgment—must be supported by good reasons. If someone tells you that a certain action would be wrong, you may ask why it would be wrong, and if there is no satisfactory answer, you may reject that advice as unfounded. In this way, moral judgments are different from mere expressions of personal preference. If someone says “I like coffee,” she does not need to have a reason; she may be making a statement about her personal taste and nothing more. But moral judgments require backing by reasons, and in the absence of such reasons, they are merely arbitrary. Any adequate theory of the nature of moral judgment should, therefore, be able to give some account of the connection between moral judgments and the reasons that support them. It is at just this point that Emotivism foundered. What did Emotivism imply about reasons? Remember that for the emotivist, a moral judgment is like a command—it is primarily a verbal means of trying to influence people’s attitudes and conduct. The view of reasons that naturally goes with this basic idea is that reasons are any considerations that will have the desired effect, that will influence attitudes and conduct in the desired way. But consider what this means. Suppose I am trying to convince you that Goldbloom is a bad man (I am trying to influence your attitude toward him) and you are resisting. Knowing that you are a bigot, I say: “Goldbloom, you know, is Jewish.” That does the trick; your attitude toward him changes, and you agree that he is a scoundrel. It would seem that for the Emotivist, then, the fact that Goldbloom is Jewish is, at least in some contexts, a reason in support of the judgment that he is a bad man. In fact, Stevenson takes exactly this view. In his classic work Ethics and Language (1944), he says: “Any statement about any fact which any speaker considers likely to alter attitudes may be adduced as areason for or against an ethical judgment.” Obviously, something had gone wrong. Not just any fact can count as a reason in support of just any judgment. For one thing, the fact must be relevant to the judgment, and psychological influence does not necessarily bring relevance with it. (Jewishness is irrelevant to viciousness, regardless of the psychological connections in anyone’s mind.) There is a small lesson and a larger lesson to be learned from this. The small lesson is that a particular moral theory, Emotivism, seems to be flawed, and with it, the whole idea of Ethical Subjectivism is brought into doubt. The larger lesson has to of with the importance of reason in ethics. Hume emphasized that if we examine wicked actions—“wilful murder, for instance”—we will find no “matter of fact” corresponding to the wickedness. The universe, apart from our attitudes, contains no such facts. This realization has often been taken as cause for despair, because people assume this must mean that values 8 have no “objective” status. But why would Hume’s observation come as a surprise? Values are not the kinds of things that could exist in the way that stars and planets exist. (What would a “value,” thus conceived, be like?) A fundamental mistake, which many people fall into when they think about this subject, is to assume just two possibilities: 1. There are moral facts, in the same way that there are facts about stars and planets; or 2. Our values are nothing more than the ...
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