Subjectivism in Ethics

An interesting discussion is taking place in the comment thread to Bill's movie review of Open Range.

Perhaps surprising to some, and certainly at odds with Objectivists, Rights Theorists, and most other libertarians, I am a subjectivist with regard to ethics.

Especially worth reading are Sage's posts defending objectivism in ethics. I sympathize with his motivations here, and we may actually agree on more than either of us realizes, but despite my agreements with Sage and other ethical objectivists, and despite my sympathies for their noble goals, I think their belief in some metaphysical concept of justice is simply mistaken. Adapted with slight modification from the comments:

The main problem I have with Sage's and like-minded arguments is that they aren't actually arguing for the existence of an objective sense of morality by providing any evidence for it; rather, they are arguing against subjectivism in ethics because they don't like its consequences. I don't like its consequences either, but that is not a good argument for the existence of objective ethics.

Similarly, many people justify their belief in God with the claim that if we do not believe in God, we will not be able to make any objective moral claims. That may very well be true, but that doesn't make God suddenly exist if He didn't exist already.

So what can we say about ethics that isn't objective?

Randy Barnett makes the following three-part argument, which is called a hypothetical imperative:

A) Given the facts of nature and the world in which we live,

B) If we wish to achieve certain goals, such as living in a society wherein people lead happy, healthy, fulfilling, and meaningful lives,

C) Then we must implement certain rules which guide human behavior.

Now, social scientists can go about determining (A) without resorting to any claims of objective morality, and economists can go about determining (C) given the requirements set forth in (B) in the same way. But in order to determine our goals, we must rely on some form of subjective criteria, i.e. we cannot figure out what our goals should be simply by studying nature. If some people reject these goals (perhaps for some strange reason they do not desire to live in a society in which people lead happy, healthy, fulfilling, and meaningful lives), there is not much we can say to them to convince them otherwise. We can't point to a list of commandments engraved upon tablets, nor can we argue that the nature of man leads to any obvious conclusions about man's proper purpose or goals.

Share this

I totally missed that thread

I totally missed that thread and the following debate.

I'm pitching a tent with Micha, come and get me Rand Roids : )

You, me, and Will Baude, and

You, me, and Will Baude, and soon enough we can start a cult to call our own. :P

Micha and Tim, Bear with me

Micha and Tim,

Bear with me here, as I want to ask a question. After you reply, if you choose to do so, I'll see if I can add any value.

The question. In viewing "Open Range," was there any portrayal of justice that you did not find just?

John, Unfortunately, I have


Unfortunately, I have not yet seen the movie. Bill Cholenski wrote the movie review; I simply commented on the discussion that ensued.

Thanks Micha. You could

Thanks Micha. You could rent it tonight I bet.

John, I'm curious as to why


I'm curious as to why you asked Micha that question, and where you were going? What if he said "Yes"? What if he said "No"?


I agree with Micha that

I agree with Micha that arguing for God's existence based upon the need for a transcendental grounding for objective moral claims is wrong-headed. It is the complementary error to those who argue against Christianity or other religions because they don't like the consequences of religious belief.

Your critique of objective, transcendentally grounded ethics, and of belief in God, suggests that your notion of rational belief is restricted to accepting propositions for which we can give evidence. If it is, then I'm not sure you are on unproblematic philosophical ground, and I don't mean from the point of view of post-modernism or continental philosophy. Have you read Plantinga's essay "Reason and Belief in God", in the volume Faith & Rationality (eds. Plantinga & Wolterstorff, various dates)? If not, give it a shot. It's good to challenge your epistemology now and again. His arguments are relevant to wider question of reason and rational belief formation, so you can ignore the issue of God's existence, if you wish.

While probably not every one agrees with him, I don't think Plantinga is considered a lightweight within the analytic tradition.

Thanks, Chuck, I'll check

Thanks, Chuck, I'll check that out when I get a chance. I've heard of Plantiga before.

I also haven't had a chance

I also haven't had a chance to watch Open Range -- when I do, I'll have a response.

And note: you don't have to watch a movie to discuss the philosophical question at hand, so feel free to illustrate it in some other manner.

Bill - I had hoped to

Bill -

I had hoped to explore, if there were no objections to the portrayal of justice in the film, whether that answer could add weight to the argument for an objectivst regard of ethics.

If the answer had been yes, I would have explored which particular portrayal of justice had been objectionable and attempted to argue that the objectionable protrayal was, in essence, only subjectively objectionable to that individual.

It was worth asking.

More here.

More here.