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Moral Subjectivism

Subjectivism, Emotivism

Objectivism, Subjectivism, and Relativism in Ethics


Do we desire things because they are good, or are they good because we desire them? Objectivists answer that we desire things because they are good; subjectivists answer that things are good because we desire them. Further, does it make sense to account for moral disagreement by claiming, as the moral relativist does, that something might be good for one person but not for another? Some essays in this book consider whether objective moral truths can be grounded in an understanding of the nature of human beings as rational and social animals. Some discuss the ethical theories of historical figures-Aristotle, Aquinas, or Kant-or offer critical assessments of the work of recent and contemporary theorists — such as Moore, Putnam, Ayn Rand, Philippa Foot, and Rosalind Hursthouse. Other essays ask whether moral principles and values can be constructed through a process of practical reasoning or deliberation. Still others consider what the phenomenology of our moral experiences can reveal about moral objectivity. ~ Product Description

James Waller on Amorality


One of the striking things in the study of perpetrators is how they live with themselves morally. It’s not that difficult because this really isn’t a moral issue for them. They’ve removed the victims from their universe of moral obligation. What they’re doing to the victims isn’t really a moral problem because the victim’s not part of their moral universe in the way that for some of us a bug or an insect isn’t. Killing it is just not a moral problem for us because we don’t feel that moral obligation.

A Critique of Ethical Relativism


To sum up our discussion to this point, unless we have an independent moral basis for law, it is hard to see why we have any general duty to obey it; and unless we recognize the priority of a universal moral law, we have no firm basis for justifying our acts of civil disobedience against “unjust laws.” Both the validity of law and morally motivated disobedience of unjust laws are annulled in favor of a power struggle.

Thomas Nagel on Truth and Relativism


Many forms of relativism and subjectivism collapse into either self-contradiction or vacuity — self-contradiction because they end up claiming that nothing is the case, or vacuity because they boil down to the assertion that anything we say or believe is something we say or believe. I think that all general and most restricted forms of subjectivism that do not fail in either of these ways are pretty clearly false. It is usually a good strategy to ask whether a general claim about truth or meaning applies to itself. Many theories, like logical positivism, can be eliminated immediately by this test. The familiar point that relativism is self-refuting remains valid in spite of its familiarity: We cannot criticize some of our own claims of reason without employing reason at some other point to formulate and support those criticisms.

Justice Anthony Kennedy on Liberty and Defining Meaning


Our law affords constitutional protection to personal decisions relating to marriage, procreation, contraception, family relationships, child rearing, and education. Our cases recognize “the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child.” Our precedents “have respected the private realm of family life which the state cannot enter.” These matters, involving the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy, are central to the liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion by the State.

D.H. Monro on Subjectivist Definitions of Morality


One suspects that some modern philosophers have used the device of defining morality as a means of softening the rigours of subjectivism. They are unable to accept an objectivist ethic, and feel forced to conclude that moral utterances merely express attitudes that men happen to have acquired. They are, however, reluctant to accept the consequence that they have no reason for condemning the moral attitudes of (say) Hitler except that they do not happen to share them. They try to avoid this conclusion by saying that it applies only to certain kinds of attitude. Others may be excluded simply because, by definition, they are not moral. ¶ It is clear, however, that to say … that moral desires are, by definition, those impersonal desires which we want others to share does not excuse us from saying why we think that personal desires should yield to impersonal ones, when they conflict; nor does it justify us in condemning another man if he prefers to give precedence to personal desires. Again, to say … that moral principles are, by definition, ‘universalizable’ does not automatically justify a preference for universalizable principles over ones that cannot be universalized. The hard questions for subjectivism still remain, however morality is defined.

David Hume on Subjective, Emotivist Morality


Examine it in all lights, and see if you can find that matter of fact, or real existence, which you call vice. In which-ever way you take it, you find only certain passions, motives, volitions and thoughts. There is no other matter of fact in the case. The vice entirely escapes you, as long as you consider the object. You never can find it, till you turn your reflection into your own breast, and find a sentiment of disapprobation, which arises in you, towards this action. Here is a matter of fact; but ’tis the object of feeling, not of reason. It lies in yourself, not in the object. So that when you pronounce any action or character to be vicious, you mean nothing, but that from the constitution of your nature you have a feeling or sentiment of blame from the contemplation of it. Vice and virtue, therefore, may be compar’d to sounds, colours, heat and cold, which, according to modern philosophy, are not qualities in objects, but perceptions in the mind: And this discovery in morals, like that other in physics, is to be regarded as a considerable advancement of the speculative sciences; tho’, like that too, it has little or no influence on practice. Nothing can be more real, or concern us more, than our own sentiments of pleasure and uneasiness; and if these be favourable to virtue, and unfavourable to vice, no more can be requisite to the regulation of our conduct and behaviour.

William G. Sumner on Morals from Tradition, Custom, Habit


We learn the morals as unconsciously as we learn to walk and hear and breathe, and [we] never know any reason why the [morals] are what they are. The justification of them is that when we wake to consciousness of life we find them facts which already hold us in the bonds of tradition, custom, and habit.

George MacDonald on the One Principle of Hell


Jesus is a king because his business is to bear witness to the truth. What truth? All truth; all verity of relation thoughout the universe — first of all, that his father is good, perfectly good; and that the crown and joy of life is to desire and do the will of the eternal source of will, and of all life. He deals thus the death-blow to the power of hell. For the one principle of Hell is “I am my own. I am my own king and my own subject. I am the centre from which go out my thoughts; I am the object and end of my thoughts; back upon me as the alpha and omega of life, my thoughts return. My own glory is, and ought to be, my chief care; my ambition, to gather regards of men to the one centre, myself. My pleasure is my pleasure. My kingdom is — as many as I can bring to acknowledge my greatness over them. My judgment is the faultless rule of things. My right is — what I desire. The more I am all in all to myself, the greater I am. The less I acknowledge debt or obligation to another; the more I close my eyes to the fact that I did not make myself; the more self-sufficing I feel or imagine myself — the greater I am.” …

Oscar Wilde on War as Vulgar Not Wicked


The emotions will not make us cosmopolitan, any more than the greed for gain could do so. It is only by the cultivation of the habit of intellectual criticism that we shall be able to rise superior to race prejudices. … Criticism will annihilate race-prejudices, by insisting upon the unity of the human mind in the variety of its forms. If we are tempted to make war upon another nation, we shall remember that we are seeking to destroy an element of our own culture, and possibly its most important element. As long as war is regarded as wicked, it will always have its fascination. When it is looked upon as vulgar, it will cease to be popular. … Intellectual criticism will bind Europe together in bonds far closer than those that can be forged by shopman or sentimentalist. It will give us the peace that springs from understanding. ¶ Nor is this all. It is Criticism that, recognizing no position as final, and refusing to bind itself by the shallow shibboleths of any sect or school, creates that serene philosophic temper which loves truth for its own sake, and love it not the less because it knows it to be unattainable.

Mark Twain (as Huck Finn) on Doing Right


Then I thought a minute, and says to myself, hold on; s’pose you’d a done right and give Jim up, would you felt better than what you do now? No, say I, I’d feel bad — I’d feel just the same way I do now. Well, then, says I, what’s the use you learning to do right when it’s troublesome to do right and ain’t no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same? I was stuck. I could’t answer that. So I reckoned I wouldn’t bother no more about it, but after this always do whichever come handiest at the time.