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On the Need for Normative Ethics:

A study of Subjectivist thought

Foremost is a brief description of Subjectivism, particularly Emotivism.

Subjectivist thought rests on the idea that morality is a function of one’s individual emotions, and that is all. The strength of Emotivism over other avenues of Subjectivism lies in its awareness of the other purposes of language. Rather than statements designed to convey information, Emotivism relies on utterances that can be deemed neither true nor false. Moral judgments are interpreted as either commands (seen as an attempt to influence conduct rather than state fact) or exclamations (used, not to state one’s opinion or report of one’s feelings on a particular matter, but only to express some attitude irrelative of whether one actually possesses the attitude).

As a result, the emotivist argument transcends the main objections to the earlier Simple Subjectivism. It circumvents the premiss that, "If Subjectivism is correct, than each of us is infallible in our moral judgments". (Rachels p.40) By choosing to interpret moral judgments as commands and/or expressions of some attitude, the theory thereby eliminates their qualification as true or false. The question of fallibility, then, is quashed.

The second of the previous objections overcome by the emotivist conception is the allowance for moral disagreement. The slight alteration in the perception of how moral judgments are to be defined highlights the idea that, while individuals may wholly agree as to the relative truth of any pertinent facts (even agreeing as to what each other’s feelings are on the matter), they may each desire different and irreconcilable ends.

Emotivism, by way of linguistic gymnastics, eliminates the most obvious flaws of the earlier simple argument. Its proponents still ascribe to the same fundamental ideal of the Subjectivist that ‘morality’ is, as Hume implied, "?the object of feeling, not reason", and that it is a notion belonging solely to the thinking subject rather than to the object of thought.


This conviction leaves no real platform for why one ‘ought’ to do or believe any one thing over another. Individuals need only ask themselves what their ‘attitude’ is on a particular matter. The theory seems to nullify the whole conception of moral norms as prescriptions and proscriptions of universal truths. Determination of rights and wrongs seems here reduced to questions of societal benefit, preservation of consistency, or simply individual whim.

Subjectivism may be seen as a reaction to the apparent inability to provide concrete proof as to the correctness of particular moral judgments. The seeming impossibility of obtaining recognizable empirical evidence, as in that of the scientific tradition, spurs the push away from morality born of reason alone. As a consequence, thought also drifts from such notions as Kant’s categorical imperatives (Singer p.159). Not only do these objective standards appear incapable of being verified, they don’t seem universally identifiable. Sidgewick would argue that principles contain a "self-evidence" as to their value. The Achilles’ heel of this explanation lies in the "special sense" needed to detect such axioms. Anything with "special" attached to it seems to be problematic for want of an explanation as to why it isn’t ordinary. This leads to Mackie’s detailed "argument from queerness". (pp. 159-164) The Subjectivist seeks to construct, without need of peculiar qualifications, an argument more suited to fit what appear to be the facts of moral practice. In so doing, their proposed theory provides very little basis for the subject matter of normative ethics.

But, it has been further suggested that the rejection of intuitionally-attainable abstract moral standards may not necessarily preclude the existence of absolute truth. Subjectivist thought seems to suggest that, where one’s beliefs and opinions are concerned, personal satisfaction is the ultimate goal. Kant brings forth what appears to be a convincing contradiction to this notion:

"After counting all the advantages which [experienced persons] draw?

from the sciences? they nevertheless find they have actually brought

more trouble on their shoulders instead of gaining in happiness?

?[their] judgment is based on the idea of another and far more worthy

purpose of their existence for which, instead of happiness, their reason

is properly intended?" (p. 125)

Even if this account of a "higher purpose" does not, by direct evidence, deny that a subject’s emotions alone motivate his actions, it does give example of an instance wherein it appears this is not the case.

Subjectivism must now contend with "third party" theories that appear equally suited to describe observed actions. Several of these theories appeal to the instincts of common sense that point to the existence of a definite code of conduct. The doctrine of moral realism submits that there are, in fact, universal moral Facts, recognizable by a combination of intellect and emotion. Michael Smith purports to alter the standard psychological picture to include action-inducing reasons. He suggests that properly informed individuals under certain controlled conditions may experience a future convergence of moral beliefs. (pp. 170-176) It is proposed that, through moral argument and the contemplation of various normative theories, humanity moves closer to this convergence and, therefore, to the truly ‘correct’ principles. When complete convergence has been attained, all relativity in moral judgment will have been eliminated. It is contended that the practice might, at long last, provide the missing proof. The idea that moral judgments are wholly subjective and devoid of absolute truth may, then, have to be replaced as devoted moralists continue to search for the ‘correct’ system of ethics.

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