James Rachels’ The Elements of Moral Philosophy

Lecture notes by Dan Gaskill



Chapter 3:  Subjectivism in Ethics


The Motivation for Subjectivism


            People can have disagreements on just about any subject.  But in ethics, disagreements are often (a) emotionally charged, and (b) impossible to settle, even when all of the available evidence is considered.  Take abortion, for example.  In particular, consider cases where abortion is purely elective (not medically necessary) and the pregnancy was not due to unusual or tragic circumstances (i.e. not due to rape, incest).  Is abortion in such cases morally wrong?  Many people feel very strongly that it is, while many feel very strongly that it isn’t.  People have debated the issue for decades, appealing to a wide range of facts and arguments.  Occasionally, people switch sides, but usually they stick to their guns.  It is fair to say that there will not be a consensus in the foreseeable future.  Significantly, whether people do come to an agreement on abortion does not seem to hinge on the resolution of any factual questions.  Arguably, answers to the relevant factual questions (e.g. when the fetus becomes viable, when brain activity begins) are already known.

Now, contrast the issue of abortion with another hotly debated issue:  whether Saddam Hussein possessed stockpiles of chemical and/or biological weapons in Iraq immediately prior to the war.  Like the abortion issue, the WMD issue has a great political (and often emotional) impact, and there has been much debate about it.  But in this case, people have come to a consensus.  Most people have concluded that stockpiles of chemical and/or biological weapons were not in Iraq immediately prior to the war.  Why is this?  Why haven’t those who made the WMD claims stuck to their guns?  Why, for example, did David Kay (the head inspector hired by Bush after the war) say “We were all wrong”, instead of sticking to his original belief?

A Subjectivist would explain this by saying that the WMD issue is factual, whereas the abortion issue is not factual.  The WMD issue concerns an empirical question that can be answered by going to Iraq and scouring the country for the alleged weapons.  When the weapons are not found, this undermines the claim that the weapons were there.  (Of course, it is still possible, though unlikely, that the weapons were there.  They may just be very well hidden; or, as some have alleged, they may have been smuggled into Syria before the invasion).  The WMD claim is verifiable.  It may not be easy to verify, but it is the sort of claim that can eventually be shown to be true or shown to be false with empirical evidence (observation).  But now consider the claim that elective abortion is morally wrong.  The Subjectivist would say that this is not verifiable.  No amount of empirical investigation or argumentation can show the claim to be true or false.  According to the subjectivist, this is because moral claims are not really claims at all.  There are no moral facts:  no moral truths and no moral falsehoods.  Unlike the WMD claim, the statement “Elective abortion is wrong” just does not make any claim about the world at all.  There is some initial plausibility to this idea.  After all, it seems that if the abortion conflict were really a disagreement about a factual question, then the facts could be ascertained and people could come to agreement (just as in the WMD case).  But, it seems that all of the relevant facts about abortion have been ascertained while the conflict persists.


An Argument for Moral Skepticism


1.      If moral disagreements were about factual matters, then they could all be settled by answering factual questions.

2.      Many moral disagreements persist even when answers to all of the relevant factual questions are known.


3.      Therefore, moral disagreements are not about factual matters.  In other words, there are no moral facts.


This argument leads to:


The basic idea of Subjectivism

People have different opinions, but where morality is concerned, there are no “facts,”, and no one is “right.”  People just feel differently, and that’s the end of it.


Simple Subjectivism


Simple Subjectivism is an attempt to capture the basic idea of Subjectivism.

“X is morally acceptable”

“X is right”

“X is good”

“X ought to be done”


“I approve of X”









Question:  What does it mean to say “I approve of X”?


It doesn’t mean “I believe it is a fact that X is right” or anything like that (because there are no moral facts in the Subjectivist’s view.)


Answer:  “I approve of X” means something like “I am disposed to promote X over the alternative” and “I feel better about X than the alternative”.


According to Simple Subjectivism, moral statements are really reports about one’s personal psychological state:  how one is disposed to feel or behave with regard to an issue.


Objections to Simple Subjectivism



(O1)  Simple Subjectivism Cannot Account for Our Fallibility



Simple Subjectivism implies that we are infallible (or nearly infallible) when making ethical statements.  After all, we are in a privileged position when it comes to judging how we feel about the issues.  But our views can change, and we sometimes come to the conclusion that we were wrong about an ethical matter.  All such conclusions are wrong, according to Simple Subjectivism.  (Note the similarity between this and some of the objections against Cultural Relativism).



(O2)  Simple Subjectivism Cannot Account for Moral  Disagreement



If I say that X is wrong, and you say that X is right, then we are both just reporting our personal attitudes.  But this means that we are both right in what we are saying.  Therefore, we are not really disagreeing at all.  In fact, we are talking about different subjects.  Thus, Simple Subjectivism fails to capture the fact that what I express with ethical language may conflict with what you express.


Emotivism (Subjectivism 2.0)


EMOTIVISM:  Moral statements do not make assertions about anything (not even our own psychological states).  Moral statements express, but do not report, our emotional reactions to issues.  Linguistically, moral statements function like exclamations and commands.


       1. Ethical language is used EXPRESSIVELY

                   - to express feelings of approval, and

                   IMPERATIVELY – to make commands or



          2. Every ethical dispute is either


A. a dispute over questions of empirical fact disguised as an ethical disagreement, or


B. a pseudo-dispute, in which both sides vent their feelings, but there is no factual disagreement at all.


-In  neither case is there a disagreement about ethical facts, since there are no ethical facts to disagree about.



Emotivism applied to ethical disputes


Example A:  An empirical disagreement disguised as an ethical one


Linda says:                   “Eating fish is wrong.”

George says:                “Eating fish is okay.”


According to the Emotivist, each is expressing a feeling and/or issuing a command about eating fish.




Linda believes that fish can feel pain.

George does not believe that fish can feel pain.


·        Whether fish can feel pain is a factual, empirical question.

·        If Linda and George were to agree on this factual question, then they would have the same feeling about eating fish.


Their real disagreement is about whether fish can feel pain.  But this isn’t an ethical disagreement.


Example B:        A pseudo-dispute


George says:                “Capital punishment is always wrong.”

Linda says:                   “Capital punishment is sometimes justified.”


According to the Emotivist, each is expressing a feeling and/or issuing a command about capital punishment.


·        Suppose that George and Linda agree on every empirical question relevant to capital punishment (e.g. whether the death penalty is a deterrent), but still maintain their opposing stances.


In that case, there is no factual disagreement at all.

Their dispute is a “pseudo-dispute”.


Some points in favor of Emotivism



·  Offers an explanation of why there appear to be irresolvable ethical disagreements


·  According to Emotivism, ethical statements are neither true nor false, so they are not all true (therefore, the infallibility objection to Simple Subjectivism is avoided)


·  According to Emotivism, people have differences in attitude, even if they don’t have disagreements about attitudes.  Recall that a problem with Simple Subjectivism is that because moral statements report attitudes, moral statements do not come into conflict.  But if moral statements express attitudes, then they can be in opposition (very much like the opposition between someone who says “Close the door” and someone who says “Leave it open.”)  Thus, the second objection to Simple Subjectivism seems to be avoided as well.


A General Problem for Subjectivism:



(O3)  Subjectivism cannot account for moral reasoning



If Simple Subjectivism is right, then when people give moral reasons, they should be giving evidence that they actually have the attitudes that they report.  But this is typically not what people are doing when they give arguments or engage in ethical disputes.

If Emotivism is right, then moral reasons do not exist, because there are no moral facts.  However, there might be a purpose for making various statements to go along with one’s expressed attitudes, and that would be to cause others to share those attitudes.  This is often best accomplished with coercion, deceit, demagoguery, appeals to prejudice, etc.  For example, if I want to convince you that a certain politician is a bad person (so that you won’t vote for him) I could lie to you and tell you that several of his interns were sexually assaulted by him, but were too intimidated to press charges.  My lie might be quite effective at changing your attitude (especially if I could provide plausible sounding details).  In general, getting others to share one’s attitudes has little similarity to what we recognize as good moral argumentation.

A proponent of Subjectivism might reply to O3 in the following way:  As a matter of fact, coercion, deceit, demagoguery, and appeals to prejudice are standard ways of promoting moral attitudes.  What we recognize as “good moral reasoning” is just another way of promoting moral attitudes that can often be very effective.  The only meaningful sense in which one strategy is “better” than another is that it works better.  Moreover, to assume that there are good moral reasons and bad moral reasons in the usual sense (i.e. good or bad evidence as to what the moral truths are) is to beg the question against Subjectivism – once we admit that there are moral reasons in the usual sense, then of course Subjectivism is false.

Rachels, like most of us, recoils at the idea of ethical stances being promoted by fallacious reasoning.  Most of us believe that there is a distinction between good and bad ethical reasoning, and what distinguishes the two is not their efficacy at shaping attitudes.  Perhaps Rachels –and most of us—are right on this point.  Still, it would be nice if there were something that could be said to convince the Subjectivist that we are right.


Are there Moral Facts?

Rachels lists three possibilities:


1.  There are moral facts, in the same way that there are facts about stars and planets.

2.  Our values are nothing more than the expression of our subjective feelings.


Plausibly, moral claims are not verifiable through empirical observation alone.  This marks an important difference between moral claims and claims about stars, planets, and WMD in Iraq.  For this reason, many of us are inclined to reject 1.  But it would be a mistake to accept 2 on these grounds.  Rachels presents a third alternative:


3.  Moral truths are truths of reason; that is, a moral judgment is true if it is backed by better reasons than the alternatives.


          This is an interesting proposal. If it is right, then there are moral facts, even though they are not empirically verifiable.  But as I suggested above, someone who accepts Subjectivism is likely to view 3 as question-begging.  Why think that some reasons are better than others, apart from being more effective than others?  We will put this question aside for a moment, and focus on a different but related question.


Are There Proofs in Ethics?


          Science and mathematics, it is said, offer proofs of various claims.  As Rachels says, “We can prove that the world is round, that there is no largest prime number, and that dinosaurs lived before human beings.”  On the other hand, it seems that we can’t prove that abortion is right or wrong, or that eating meat is right or wrong, etc.  This is what makes plausible the idea that there are no moral facts.  After all, if there were moral facts, shouldn’t we be able to prove them?  From a logical standpoint, the answer is “no”.  Logically speaking, there is no reason why there couldn’t be a whole domain of facts, none of which could be proven.  Even in science, there are many unanswered questions (for example:  Is there intelligent life on other planets?).  So, from a strictly logical standpoint, a lack of ethical proofs would not be an especially strong reason to be skeptical of moral facts.

But as Rachels points out, it would be hasty to conclude that there are no ethical proofs.  Consider the following cases which ethical judgments in italics:


The test was unfair.  The test covered subjects that weren’t covered in the course.  It was so long that no one was able to finish it, and the grades were not curved.  Some of the questions were confusing and the instructor would not help to clarify them.


Jones is a bad man.  Jones is a habitual liar; he manipulates people; he cheats when he thinks he can get away with it; he is cruel to other people; and so on.


Dr. Smith is irresponsible.  He bases his diagnoses on superficial considerations; he drinks before performing delicate surgery; he refuses to listen to other doctors’ advice; and so on.


A certain used-car dealer is unethical.  She conceals defects in her cars; she takes advantage of poor people by pressuring them into paying exorbitant prices for cars she knows to be defective; she runs misleading advertisements in any newspaper that will carry them; and so on.


          Each of the cases above can be augmented in a couple of ways.  For example, we can explain why lying is bad: because it harms people and it is a violation of trust.  In general, we can explain why the various considerations are relevant.  Moreover, we can also show that comparable cases cannot be made on the other side.  If we do all of this, have we “proven” these various ethical claims?  According to Rachels, the answer is “yes”.  On his view, there are proofs in ethics, even though they don’t look like scientific or mathematical proofs.  This is not to say, however, that an ethical proof would be able to convince everyone of its conclusion.  Some people may lack an understanding of the ethical concepts involved, or may simply be too pig-headed or emotionally invested on the other side of the issue to admit the proof.  Notice, though, that the same is true in science.  Even today, there is a Flat Earth Society, and there are those who deny that astronauts have been to the moon.  The fact that others may insist on dismissing a body of evidence does not automatically call it into question.


Ethical disagreements do often seem intractable.  Ethical claims do not seem to be verifiable in the way that claims about the physical world typically are.  But it would be hasty to conclude that there are no ethical facts and that ethical language simply reports or expresses emotion.  Disagreements about empirical matters can sometimes be just as intractable as disagreements in ethics (Did Lee Harvey Oswald act alone in assassinating JFK?  Will rolling back some of Bush’s tax cuts hurt the economy?  Etc.) but no one suggests that these are non-factual matters.  Moreover, there are many areas of widespread agreement in ethics, where ethical proof seems possible.  Perhaps the differences between ethics and other subjects that are recognized as objective are not as great as they first appear.  However, we have yet to examine a realist theory of morality that would tell us about the fundamental nature of ethics and about what makes an ethical claim true as opposed to false.  A realist theory of morality that is plausible and explanatory would go a long way towards refuting subjectivism.