World-Wide Ethics. Chapter One. Individual Subjectivism

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1 World-Wide Ethics Chapter One Individual Subjectivism To some people it seems very enlightened to think that in areas like morality, and in values generally, everyone must find their own truths. Most of us grow up taking our parents instruction about right and wrong, initially. This is because our parents are almost always our first teachers. But as we mature we may recognize that we can, or even that we must, make up or own minds about questions of right and wrong, good and bad. This is part of what it means to be an individual, after all, with a mind of one s own. In school we have had writing assignments requiring us to express our opinions on controversial issues: the morality of capital punishment, for example. Our answers are expected to be sincere, to be well written, and to show evidence of research and independent thinking. Teachers who are fair will not down-grade students answers just because they express opinions different from their own. If they are fair they will recognize that students have a right to their own opinions. But school assignments like these tend unfortunately to give students the impression that ethical questions have no correct answers, unlike questions in fields like math, science and history. In those fields students learn about facts, and right answers; but in morality, as in political matters, there seem to be only opinions. People disagree about capital punishment, and it seems they can argue about it forever. This is because there seems to be no way to prove an opinion. At least not an opinion about right and wrong. That may be why students are led to think that the opinion that the death penalty is wrong is true for those who believe it, and false for those who believe the opposite. This line of thinking introduces what is known in ethics as subjectivism. The moral theory based on this line of thinking is a common-sense theory known as individual subjectivism. It is the idea, roughly, that what makes moral principles correct is simply our believing them. The term subjectivism as used in this context suggests that right and wrong, good and bad, depend upon the subject considering them, rather than on the object considered. In the term subjectivism, subject is used in the way it is often used in psychological experiments, where what is of interest is the subject s thoughts, reactions or feelings. According to subjectivism in ethics, whether a policy like capital punishment is right is a matter of what people believe, or how they feel about it. The outlook opposing subjectivism is known as objectivism. Those who accept objectivism think that whether capital punishment is right depends on features of capital punishment itself. Objectivists approach questions in ethics more like scientists approaching questions in physics. Whether something is true in physics is more than a matter of opinion. It is an assumption in that field that although people can have conflicting opinions about issues there, their opinions can eventually be proven correct or incorrect. Objectivists think that just as there are provable facts in physics, so there are in ethics. This book began with the example of a professor s shooting rampage. An objectivist would say that it is true that Amy Bishop s action was wrong, a truth as obvious as 2+2=4. According to an objectivist, anyone who understands what she did, and thinks it was not wrong, has a false opinion. A subjectivist might say, on the contrary, that it is 1

2 our thinking that what Professor Bishop did was wrong is what makes it wrong. According to the subjectivist, there is no fact of the matter that makes her action wrong, apart from what someone thinks. A Word about Tautology Subjectivism is not the idea that: if someone thinks that capital punishment is wrong, or believes it is, then that is his opinion. Even objectivists agree with this statement; and it is not a very interesting idea at all. A statement like that is known as a tautology. A tautology is a statement that, while true, is uninformative. An example of a tautology is, He thinks what he thinks. Another example is, She believes her opinion. Truths like these are obvious, and no one disputes them; anyone who understands the meanings of the words can see that they are true. So it is important that we do not treat subjectivism as the boring idea that our believing something makes it our opinion. If subjectivism means nothing more than this, then it is not a very enlightened way of thinking, and objectivism is much more appealing. In understanding subjectivism we must therefore see it as the idea that beliefs or opinions in ethics determine not what we think, but what is true. Subjectivism says that although your believing something would not make it true in science or math or history, it does make it true in ethics true for you. The Theory of Individual Subjectivism A moral theory can be defined as a set of moral principles plus some reasons for thinking they are correct. The moral theory considered in this chapter is called individual subjectivism. This is because it allows that different moral principles can be correct for different individuals. As indicated above, this theory assumes that one individual can believe that capital punishment is wrong, making that principle correct for him, while another can believe that capital punishment is right, making the opposite principle correct for her. A simple way to state the moral theory of individual subjectivism runs as follows: Theory of Individual Subjectivism: The correct moral principles are whatever moral principles an individual believes; and they are correct for that individual just because he or she believes them. This statement defines the set of correct moral principles by referring to the principles any individual believes. It also indicates why they are correct. So it conveys the two parts expected for any complete moral theory. Subjectivism, Morality and Conscience Some people see the voice of conscience as presenting one of the most persuasive reasons supporting the theory of individual subjectivism. We have individual personalities, which seems to be a good thing. So the thought that we have individual consciences seems appealing also. One person s conscience can express her moral personality, while another s can express his moral personality and since the two persons can be expected to have different personalities, on the whole, their respective consciences can be expected to differ also; at least in some respects. Your conscience might bother you about something you did, but another person may do exactly the same thing with a clear conscience. Moreover, people often feel strongly about following their consciences, 2

3 feeling that they ought to obey them no matter what. Children are taught to listen to their consciences, and adults who obey their consciences at great personal risk are often admired for doing so. This makes it seem that morality ultimately comes down to a matter of following one s conscience. These observations suggest that right and wrong depend on individuals consciences; because what their consciences tell them to do is right for them to do. And since individuals consciences do not always agree, it appears that what is right for one person may not be right for another. This line of reasoning, called the Argument from Conscience, seems to support individual subjectivism. What does objectivism, the opposite of subjectivism, say about conscience? Objectivists would say that following one s conscience could sometimes be wrong. For objectivists, right and wrong do not depend on what we think or believe, or on what our consciences may tell us. They depend instead upon objective things, or things external to our beliefs. For this reason, objectivists think that someone s conscience can be mistaken. The Conscience of Huckleberry Finn On the subject of mistaken conscience, consider this event in Mark Twain s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In the story, Huck s friend, Jim, was a runaway slave. The two had floated down the Mississippi River on a raft, to a point where Jim could turn up the Ohio River toward a northern, free state, and become a free man. But as they approached the Ohio, Huck s conscience began to bother him, and he started thinking about Miss Watson, Jim s rightful owner. It hadn t ever come home to me, before, what this thing was that I was doing. But now it did; and it stayed with me, and scorched me more and more. I tried to make out to myself that I warn t to blame, because I didn t run Jim off from his rightful owner; but it warn t no use, conscience up and say, every time: But you knowed he was running for his freedom, and you could a paddled ashore and told somebody. That was so I couldn t get around that, no way. That was where it pinched. Conscience says to me: What had poor Miss Watson done to you. What did that poor old woman do to you, that you could treat her so mean? (107) Huck continued to struggle with his conscience, though in the end he resisted its stinging voice. He decided not to betray Jim. Most people today would say that Huck s conscience got it wrong, because of the way he had been taught, and because of the times and circumstances in which he grew up. An objectivist would say that Huck ended up doing the right thing, even though he disobeyed his conscience. But according to a subjectivist, he should have done what he believed to be right, even if hardly anyone today would share his belief that it was right. The Argument from Conscience An argument is a line of reasoning. The line of reasoning based on conscience that seems to support the theory of individual subjectivism can be formulated in the following set of statements: (1) It s always right to obey one s conscience. (2) Different people s consciences can tell them that different things are right. (3) Therefore, different things can be right for different people; what their consciences tell them determines what is right for them. The first point that should be made about this reasoning is that the conclusion of the argument, statement (3), is not a moral judgment. We have seen examples of moral reasoning ending in moral judgments, but 3

4 moral reasoning does not always result in moral judgments. The concluding statement here is a general statement, not referring to anyone in particular. It does not tell us that anyone s action, or that any society s policy, is right or wrong, good or bad. If we look carefully at statement (1), we should notice the type of statement it is: it is a moral principle. Moral principles were defined earlier as, roughly, general statements expressing moral evaluations of ways of acting. Since statement (1) expresses the rightness of obeying one s conscience, it expresses a moral evaluation of that way of acting in general. This makes it a moral principle; and that s a problem. Notice what believers in individual subjectivism must say about the moral principle in statement (1). They must say that it is a true statement for all who believe it, and untrue for anyone who disbelieves it. For this reason, even subjectivists must agree that the argument from conscience is not very good. It would not persuade anyone to accept the theory of subjectivism who does not already believe statement (1) that it is always right to follow your conscience. But anyone who already believes this probably does not need to be persuaded to accept individual subjectivism. They probably accept it already. So although the argument from conscience may at first seem like good reasoning, closer inspection shows that it is practically worthless. Other Problems So far we have clarified the theory of individual subjectivism, and analyzed an argument for accepting the theory. That argument turns out not be persuasive. What follows now will be a survey of a set of problems that arise for individual subjectivism. The following problems are well known to people who study ethics. 1. The Problem of Infallibility To be infallible is to be incapable of making a mistake. If we accept individual subjectivism, then we must acknowledge that the extremely rare quality of being infallible becomes extremely common, at least regarding morality. Few people think of themselves as incapable of making a mistake. But those who accept individual subjectivism must believe they are infallible when it comes to matters of right and wrong or at least when it comes to correct moral principles. For according to this theory, to believe a moral principle is to make it correct (for you); and that means that it is simply impossible for anyone to make a mistake in believing a moral principle. But that seems pretty implausible, for the following reason. Perhaps one time or another you have wondered whether your view about some moral issue is correct. According to individual subjectivism, in having such thoughts you are just being silly. Of course your view is correct! a subjectivist would say. Since it is your opinion it has to be correct (for you). 2. The Problem of Moral Disagreement One of the primary reasons people are attracted to the theory of individual subjectivism is that there seems to be so much disagreement about what is right or wrong, good or bad. But the problem of moral disagreement shows that the theory is not a very plausible response to such disagreement. To explain why, let us return to the example of capital punishment. Suppose that Ann believes capital punishment is right, or that it is a good policy for our society s legal system. And suppose Ben believes it is not right. Most people would say that on this point Ann and Ben disagree. But by the theory of in- 4

5 dividual subjectivism, it is hard to explain how they can disagree. According to this theory, Ann believes something that is correct for her; and Ben believes something that is correct for him. Imagine that Ben hears Ann say, I firmly believe that capital punishment is right. And imagine that he is convinced that Ann is sincere that she is expressing what she truly believes. In that case, if Ben accepts individual subjectivism, he cannot disagree with Ann on this matter. He must agree that, for Ann, capital punishment is right, because that is what she believes. How could anyone ever disagree with a moral principle believed by another person, when their believing it makes it correct? This is the problem of moral disagreement. Disagreement over moral principles seems impossible if we accept individual subjecttivism. Suppose Ben tries to express disagreement with Ann by saying, I recognize that the principle she believes is correct for her, but it is not correct for me. Wouldn t this be an expression of moral disagreement? It seems not, because of the way correct for me must be understood. Take this example: imagine that Ann and Ben are standing face to face, on a beach. Ann might then say, correctly, that The ocean is on the right, for me. And Ben might say, I recognize that the ocean is on the right, for her; but it is not on the right for me. There is no disagreement here. There is certainly nothing to quarrel about. As in the simple example of the beach, there is also no disagreement expressed by Ben, when he says that capital punishment is right for Ann, but not right for him. In saying this he is merely expressing the fact that he and Ann see things from different points of view, not that they disagree. So the theory of individual subjectivism makes it hard to see how people could be capable of disagreeing with one another about questions of right and wrong. This does seem like a weakness in the theory, since it seems so obvious that people really are capable of disagreeing over such questions. 3. The Problem Posed by Rights Most of us are confident that we know our rights, at least our most basic rights. Our rights are founded on moral principles. A principle like Killing innocent people is wrong is widely supposed to be the basis for a right to life. But because of the way rights depend on moral principles, individual subjectivism has a difficult problem explaining rights. If moral principles are correct for those who believe them, and if rights are based on moral principles, then individuals rights must depend on what they believe. That result seems unacceptable. At the end of the first paragraph of this chapter something was pointed out that almost every student understands: that students have a right to their opinions. This right to their own opinions makes it wrong for a teacher to down-grade students assignments when they express opinions different from her own. It is worth observing here that this belief is not compatible with individual subjectivism. For according to this theory, if a teacher happens to believe that students do not have a right to their opinions, then, for that teacher, they do not. That teacher may also believe that she has the right to downgrade assignments expressing opinions she disagrees with. And according to subjectivism, even her students should agree that, for her, she has that right because that is her opinion. 4. The Problem of Self-Evaluation Making moral judgments about ourselves, that we are good, or good enough, is an important part of our self-esteem. Self- 5

6 esteem is important in turn for human wellbeing. In judging ourselves, morally, we do not have to boast to others about how good we are, or think we are better than they are. We merely need to feel satisfied that, on the whole, we are good. Concluding that we are not good, or less good than we expect ourselves to be, results in loss of self-esteem. This can lead to anxiety, depression, and in extreme cases, to suicidal behavior. Individual subjectivism does not seem to be fully compatible with these facts about human psychology, which signals yet another problem for the theory. In order to believe you are a good person you must be convinced that you exhibit at least some of the qualities that make a person good: honesty, for example. Personal qualities like these are subjects of some widely believed moral principles, like Honesty is a good quality. But if you believe that honesty is good, and you are a subjectivist, this would not boost your self-esteem. For self-esteem, and related feelings like self-respect and pride, all require an objective basis. It would be hard to be proud of yourself for a quality you possess, or for something you have accomplished, if you are the only one who thinks it is good. It is even harder if you suppose, as subjectivists do, that what makes your honesty good is nothing but your thinking it is good. It is virtually impossible to take pride in something you recognize as good only because you believe it is. There has to be another reason why it is good, apart from your thinking it is good a reason that should convince others that it is good also, if they do not already believe it. But as seen above in discussing the argument from conscience, subjectivism denies that there are any reasons like that. That is why individual subjectivism cannot fully support the psychological connection between positive self-evaluation and self-esteem. Concluding that you are a good person good for you is not a satisfactory basis for self-esteem. This is the problem of self-evaluation. The Problems of Individual Subjectivism The four problems preceding are related to the concepts of infallibility, disagreements, rights, and self-evaluation. Each of these problems presents a good reason for thinking that the theory of individual subjectivism should be rejected. That is, they each show good reasons not to think that what makes moral principles correct is just our believing them. The study of ethics typically works this way. We make progress in understanding ethical truths by coming to realize that some ideas, attractive as they may be, simply do not work. In the following chapters of this book we will often list multiple problems that arise for theories under consideration, but not usually so many. These can help us understand more clearly what a theory actually says. They can help us also in imagining how to improve a theory. Subjectivism in General Subjectivism is the idea that the truth or correctness of moral principles is based on a person s beliefs or feelings. Objectivism, the opposite view, says the truth of moral principles is based on features of objects that the principles are about. The focus so far has been on individual subjectivism: the theory that allows different individuals to be correct in believing different moral principles. General subjectivism is different; and it does not exhibit the problems detailed above for individual subjectivism. In general subjectivism, facts about human nature are 6

7 offered as the basic evidence for the correctness of moral principles. For example, human beings are almost universally repulsed by the idea of cruelty; and our subjective reaction is not a belief, but a feeling, or a sentiment. What makes cruelty morally wrong, according to general subjectivism, is the negative feelings that people normally have about it. The following quotation, from the respected 18 th - century philosopher, David Hume, provides another, more elegant statement of the same idea: Take any action allowed to be vicious: Willful murder, for instance.... 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 it lies in yourself, not in the object. ( ) What David Hume called attention to here, in the 1700s, is acknowledged by many who study ethics even today. They do not consider actions or personal qualities to have any rightness or wrongness, virtue or vice, in themselves. Subjectivism assumes that moral qualities like right and wrong are introduced into the world by human beings emotional reactions. In general subjectivism, the assumption is that normal human beings tend to react to the actions and personal qualities of those around them, in roughly similar ways. That is why we can expect widespread agreement on correct moral principles. It is also why people can be mistaken in their moral beliefs. Despite its name, general subjectivism is not very far from objectivism. Many today look to evolution as the explanation for the common, subjective reactions of human nature. In the 1800s, Charles Darwin theorized that humans are endowed with social instincts, which: may be attributed in part to habit, but chiefly to natural selection. With those animals that were benefited by living in close association, the individuals which took the greatest pleasure in society would best escape various dangers, whilst those that cared least for their comrades, and lived solitary, would perish in greater numbers. (72) [Social instincts,] with the aid of active intellectual powers and the effects of habit, naturally lead to the golden rule, As ye would that men should do to you, do ye to them likewise ; and this lies at the foundation of morality. (106) Evolution may therefore provide at least one type of reason for accepting general subjectivism. And when considered this way, according to Darwin, subjectivism lends support to at least one important moral principle, the golden rule: We should treat others as we would want to be treated. An important thinker in the general subjectivist tradition was the 18 th -century philosopher Francis Hutcheson. His influence can be found in Hume, as well as in Darwin. Hutcheson is credited with having suggested that the concepts of right and wrong are derived from a moral sense, which functions like a sense of beauty, or good taste. As he put it, the Author of Nature has determined us to receive, by our external senses, pleasant or disagreeeable ideas of objects, according as they are useful or hurtful to our bodies; and to receive from uniform objects the pleasures of beauty and harmony... in the same manner, he has given us a moral sense, to direct our actions, and to give us still nobler pleasures.... (I.VIII) In this comment, Hutcheson attributes to God our ability to feel pleasure or pain, subjectively, in the experience of things that are objectively helpful or hurtful to our bodies. Likewise, he says, we can feel specifically moral pleasures and pains, through a moral sense, which God has given us as a guide for acting morally. 7

8 Chapter Summary The moral theory of individual subjectivism, which this chapter has been mainly about, offers a popular explanation of moral principles. It says that, the correct moral principles are whatever moral principles an individual believes; and they are correct for an individual just because he or she believes them. Because different individuals can believe different principles, different principles can be correct for different individuals, according to individual subjectivism. A principle like Capital punishment is right can be correct for one individual, while the opposite principle, that Capital punishment is wrong, can be correct for another. The theory of individual subjectivism does not express the tautology that the moral principles individuals believe are their opinions. It says instead that the moral principles individuals believe are true, at least for them, because they believe them. One line of reasoning supporting individual subjectivism is called the argument from conscience. The argument has three statements: (1) it s always right to obey one s conscience; (2) different people s consciences can tell them that different things are right; (3) therefore, different things can be right for different people. This argument fails on account of the first statement, which is a moral principle. Individual subjectivism can give no reason why that principle is correct, except to say that it is correct for someone who believes it; though not for someone who doesn t. Apart from the failure of that argument, four problems arising for the theory of individual subjectivism are: 1. The problem of infallibility: that in this theory no one can be mistaken in believing a moral principle. 2. The problem of moral disagreement: that we can never disagree with anyone else about morality, because it is not possible for someone whose beliefs are different from ours to be incorrect. 3. The problem posed by rights: that individual subjectivism cannot explain taking others rights seriously, because it must base rights on individuals differing beliefs about rights. 4. The problem of self-evaluation: that individual subjectivism is not compatible with psychological facts about self-esteem you must believe you are good in order to feel good about yourself; but this does not work if moral principles are correct just because you believe them. A related theory considered in the end was general subjectivism. This theory bases the correctness of moral principles on subjective or emotional reactions that are common to all normal human beings. Because of this it avoids most if not all of the problems that arise for individual subjectivism. According to general subjectivism, human beings tend to react emotionally to the same kinds of actions, in the same kinds of ways. This provides a common basis for correct moral principles. Some subjectivists of this type follow Darwin in thinking that the emotional commonality in human nature has been produced over millions of years by social evolution. Others, like Francis Hutcheson, attribute the subjective basis of morality to God, the Author of Nature. Where We Go from Here This chapter has not proven that the moral theory known as individual subjectivism is false. Theories are never proven false, so much as discredited. Or they are replaced by alternative theories that provide better explanations. The greatest shortcoming of individual subjectivism lies in the emphasis it places on the power of individuals moral beliefs, which can make moral principles correct, at least to the individuals who believe them. We turn next to explore another widely 8

9 accepted moral theory, which emphasizes the role of society, or culture. It is called the theory of cultural relativism. According to this theory, the correctness of moral principles depends not on the opinions of individuals, but on society. Works Cited Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (1871), (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989). David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (1734), (Oxford: Clarendon, 2000). Francis Hutcheson, An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue in Two Treatises (1725), (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2004). Mark Twain, Then Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), (Mineola: Dover Publications, 2005). Terms Introduced Subjectivism: the assumption, in ethics, that the correctness of moral principles depends upon psychological features of subjects, such as their feelings or beliefs. Subject is used here in the sense of the subject of a psychological experiment. Argument: in logic, a line of reasoning that supports a conclusion; in this chapter, for example, the argument from conscience. Infallibility: the quality of being unable to make mistakes; someone is infallible, regarding some subject matter, if they cannot be wrong about it. Self-evaluation: in ethics, your judging whether you are a good or bad person. Self-esteem: in psychology, a feeling of pride or self-worth from judging yourself to be good. Natural Selection: in biology, part of the theory of evolution. It is the process by which species change their characteristics as they adapt to changing environmental conditions, usually over millions of years. Golden Rule: As ye would that men should do to you, do ye to them likewise ; the words of Jesus, from The Gospel of Luke 6:31, quoted approvingly in this chapter by Charles Darwin. Objectivism: the opposite of subjectivism; the correctness of moral principles depends upon the objects moral principles are about. An objectivist believes, for example, that whether capital punishment is right or wrong depends upon features of capital punishment, not on anyone s opinions about it. Tautology: in logic, a statement that is invariably true, though uninformative; for example, Wrong answers are incorrect or, Your believing a moral principle makes it your opinion. 9

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