Just for fun I thought that I would post an essay that I recently submitted for a practical ethics course that I am doing on-line with Peter Singer, perhaps it will kick off some interesting discussion.
The goal of this essay is to describe and evaluate one argument against subjectivism in ethics. I’ll begin by suggesting a definition of subjectivism, and then I’ll proceed to outline one possible argument against subjectivism which could be seen as implicit in the remarks that Peter Singer made in the lectures (although he doesn’t actually go so far as to endorse this argument). Then I’ll offer reasons why we shouldn’t think that this argument gives us a decisive reason to reject subjectivism.
Let me propose the definition of subjectivism that I wish to work with. This definition is influenced by aspects of the slightly different definition given in the Wikipedia article on subjectivism, while also attempting to remain true to the spirit of what Peter Singer seemed to mean by “subjectivism” in the lectures. I propose that subjectivism means the view that, if there are ever any facts about reality which make a positive atomic moral judgement true, (a positive atomic moral judgement being one to the effect that a particular moral agent is under an obligation to perform a certain action), then it’s not the case that those facts are constitutively independent of human opinion.
Now I’ll outline one possible argument against subjectivism.
- If subjectivism were the truth, then the practice of attempting to resolve ethical disagreements by reasoned argument would be irrational and would have no point to it.
- But it’s not the case that the practice of attempting to resolve ethical disagreements by reasoned argument is irrational and has no point to it.
- So subjectivism is not the truth.
This argument is deductively valid, but I want to argue that the second premise is at least open to question, and then I’ll go on to offer reasons for thinking that we should reject the first premise.
To begin with the second premise, this premise shouldn’t be regarded as being completely certain. The fact that the practice of attempting to resolve ethical disagreements by reasoned argument is quite widespread and generally believed to have some point to it shouldn’t be regarded as decisive evidence that the practice is in fact rational. It could be speculated that, as time goes on and widespread lack of theistic belief persists in our culture over a long period of time, this practice will eventually be abandoned and come to be seen as irrational. So the second premise should be regarded as being at least open to question.
However, what I would wish to urge and will now proceed to argue in more detail is that in fact the first premise should be rejected. I will define a version of subjectivism known as error theory, and then proceed to argue that even if error theory were the truth, there is at least a plausible account of moral discourse available on which the practice of attempting to resolve ethical disagreements by reasoned argument is fully rational.
Let me begin by stating the content of error theory about moral discourse. I define it to be the claim that, on those occasions when a speaker utters a positive atomic moral judgement in such a way that it has cognitive content, this utterance is always false. If one is to avoid making false statements and still continue to utter positive atomic moral judgements, one must take a non-cognitivist stance on what one is doing, which holds that one is merely expressing a personally held moral attitude towards a certain contemplated line of conduct rather than any actual beliefs about any aspect of reality. Due to limitations of space I cannot argue for this view, so I’ll just content myself with suggesting that it’s at least a plausible account of moral discourse.
I now want to suggest reasons why, even if error theory were the truth, nevertheless the practice of attempting to resolve ethical disagreements by reasoned argument could be fully rational.
Those people who continue to engage in normative ethical discourse and to attempt to resolve disagreements by means of reasoned argument despite having a non-cognitivist stance on what they are doing, are people who desire to have a set of moral attitudes which are as coherent, and unified, and as fully in harmony with the considerations that strike them as most intuitively compelling, as is possible. The desire to achieve such a set of moral attitudes and to have one’s behaviour governed by it is not irrational, and the practice of attempting to resolve ethical disagreements by means of reasoned argument is rational with respect to the fulfilment of this desire.
Since this is at least a plausible account of moral discourse and the rationality of the practice of attempting to resolve disputes by means of reasoned argument, we have on balance no good reason to accept the first premise of the argument against subjectivism which I outlined earlier. This first premise should be rejected, and on the whole this argument gives us no good reason to reject subjectivism. Subjectivism, and in particular error theory, should be considered a live option for what might be the truth about moral discourse.