views updated May 17 2018


Subjectivism 's natural antonym is objectivism, and various species of subjectivism have been developed as alternatives to objectivism of various sorts. One can be a subjectivist about a variety of thingsethics, aesthetics, even science. Many of these topics are covered in related entries, however, and the emphasis here will be on subjectivism with respect to ethics in modern and contemporary thought.

Philosophers often distinguish normative ethics, which deals with specific questions about rights or duties or ideals (e.g., "is infanticide wrong?") and metaethics, which deals with questions about the status of ordinary moral claims (such as, "can moral judgments be true or false?"). Subjectivism and objectivism are positions in metaethics.

Ethics and Values

The moral or ethical realm is extremely complex. Our moral lives involve practices, principles, convictions, commitments, duties, ideals, and more, and one can be a subjectivist about some of these without being a subjectivist about others.

Many versions of moral subjectivism are motivated by a combination of two views. In the first, different cultures, societies, subcultures, and the like often have strikingly different conceptions of morality; thus, many cultures have practiced human sacrifice, infanticide, and slavery. In the second, we are indelibly shaped by the culture and historical period in which we live; we cannot step outside our modes of evaluation and thought to some neutral Archimedean point from which we can impartially adjudicate the conflicting claims of alternative moral codes. Indeed, many subjectivists go one step further, urging that the notion that there is one true story about morality is empty.

Our moral beliefs and claims exhibit several fundamental features that any viable position in metaethics must either explain or explain away. First, ethical discourse often appears to describe, quite literally, facts in the moral realm. The theory that endorses the claim to objectivity is known as cognitivism; moral judgments make cognitive or descriptive claims, rather than simply expressing emotions or making recommendations. Second, when we give arguments that something is right or wrong, we often marshal reasons for thinking certain moral claims to be true or false. Third, moral judgments often provide motivation to act in accordance with them. Fourth, morality is a social institution that involves shared practices and beliefs.


According to the metaphors often used to characterize objectivism, the world (or some subdomain of it, like ethics) is "out there," beyond our language and thought. If we are fortunate, we may discover something about this mind-independent realm, but in no sense do we create or construct it. Thus, to objectivists, there is a fact about whether abortion is ever acceptable that obtains quite independently of anyone's opinions on the matter.

Varieties of Subjectivism

When people say that morality is subjective, they often mean simply that there really aren't any objective moral truths. But philosophers who defend versions of subjectivism frequently go on to offer us a new account of the moral dimension to compensate for the loss of objectivity.

Individual subjectivism: existential choice.

If alternative moral codes and ideals are possible, can each person simply choose which ones to adopt? According to many existentialists, most notably Jean-Paul Sartre (19051980), there are no objective moral values or meanings. Each person, thrown into an indifferent, often cruel world, must create individual values through making choices and living life. Indeed, it is added, no values can be binding unless chosen personally. On this view a person's claim that abortion is wrong represents a moral judgment, but one that is motivated by (and only by) subjective, existential choices. Views like Sartre's are subjectivist in the sense that people create their own values for themselves, and different people (even within the same culture) may choose quite different values.

On accounts like Sartre's, disagreements about very important things (like the death penalty or forced clitoridectomy) boil down to simple differences in the values people have decided (often tacitly, and for no objective moral reasons) to adopt. But people who disagree about things like the morality of abortion rarely feel that their claims are merely expressions of their subjective commitments; indeed, most of them would see this as trivializing their view. Finally, views like Sartre's fail to do justice to the social nature of morality.

Individual subjectivism: noncognitivist views about ethics.

Noncognitivism is the view that moral claims do not (despite appearances) function to describe a moral realm and that they instead play a very different role. The most common versions of noncognitivism are species of expressionism, according to which moral claims serve to express a speaker's attitudes, feelings, or emotions.

In the 1930s the British philosopher A. J. Ayer (19101989) defended one of the earliest and most influential versions of expressionism. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, thanks to philosophers such as Allan Gibbard and Simon Blackburn, noncognitivism has enjoyed a resurgence, though the current versions are far more nuanced than Ayer's.

Noncognitivism avoids problems that threaten objectivism. It also explains the link between moral judgments and moral motivations, since such judgments are seen to be based on attitudes and feelings, which often have a powerful motivational force. On this view the claim that abortion is wrong serves to express the speaker's disapproval of, or horror at, abortion.

Objective versions of noncognitivism are possible, but noncognitivism has a strong tendency toward subjectivism. Most versions of noncognitivist subjectivism treat moral claims as expressions of a person's (subjective) attitudes or emotions and recognize that people (even within the same culture) may differ about these. Like most forms of individual subjectivism, this view is vulnerable to the difficulties, noted above, that threaten views such as Sartre's.

Group subjectivism.

There are several different types of group subjectivism.

Different human groups. Human beings are social animals who acquire most of their values and attitudes in the process of socialization; these acquisitions become part of a shared social heritage. Hence, it is often argued, there can be widespread agreement about right and wrong and what makes for a meaningful life within a group (such as a culture). But groups with different cultures, languages, or religions may share values that are quite alien to other groups.

This view allows a good deal of agreement and intersubjectivity within a culture, and morality does not boil down to simply what any particular individual thinks or feels or decides. Furthermore, it enables us to explain how moral arguments within a culture are possible; the partisans share enough values and beliefs that disagreement here and there is possible, and issues can often be evaluated within a shared framework of values and standards for moral justification. On this view the claim that abortion is wrong amounts to the claim that all or most members of the culture believe that it is or, more plausibly, that they subscribe to more general principles that entail this.

This view is subjectivist in the sense that moral facts and values are not based on any objective moral realm, but instead derive from (shared) attitudes and outlooks that may vary from group to group. Although ethical debate within a relevant group (such as a culture) is possible, there are no nonquestion begging methods to adjudicate disagreements between different cultures or the like. Moreover, it is extremely difficult to view some moral differences (as about the Holocaust) as mere differences in group opinions.

Species subjectivism.

Species subjectivism is the view that ethical matters rest on subjective aspects (like emotions) of human beings. Humans are similar enough, however, that specieswide values are possible. David Hume's (17111776) mid-eighteenth-century account of morality is the prototype for such views.

On Hume's view, morality is a matter of feeling rather than reason and is based on human sentiments that are ultimately grounded in human sympathy. Because Hume believed human nature to be constant, he concluded that many of the basic aspects of morality would be similar for all human beings. Still, in a letter to Francis Hutcheson Hume regretted the limitations of his view, stating that it "regards only human nature and human life." Recent "sensibility theories" are more sophisticated than Hume's but are recognizably inspired by it.

Species subjectivism underwrites a specieswide intersubjectivity that allows genuine moral argument and debate among humans. Hume went on to argue that we often "project" our feelings and attitudes onto the world, so they seem (wrongly) to characterize something objective ("out there"). This enabled Hume to explain the appearance that moral discourse and argument involve literal description.

Different versions of species subjectivism would offer different accounts of the claim that abortion is wrong, but all rest on views about human nature and human sensibility. Views like Hume's are subjective in the sense that, although all human beings have roughly the same moral sentiments, this is a completely contingent fact about us.

Many philosophers have argued that morality is based on things like reason that run deeper than emotions like human sympathy. In fact, as Hume himself lamented, his account may make morality seem uncomfortably contingent, resting on subjective (such as emotional) aspects of human life. Indeed, it is nowadays natural to view these aspects as the product of an evolutionary history shot through with randomness and chance.


In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries there has been a great deal of work on objectivism and subjectivism. As such views become more subtle and sophisticated, it becomes more difficult for an outsider to tell them apart. But they remain important, involving as they do very basic questions about the human condition and our place in the world.

See also Empiricism ; Knowledge ; Objectivity ; Truth .


Ayer, A. J. Language, Truth, and Logic. New York: Oxford University Press, 1950. The most famous early account (originally published in 1936) of noncognitivism; oversimplified by today's standards, but vividly written, very accessible, and still worth the read.

Blackburn, Simon. Essays in Quasi-Realism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. A sophisticated account of projectivism which is a central component of Hume's moral philosophy.

Gibbard, Allan. Wise Choices, Apt Feelings. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990. By far the most sophisticated development of noncognitivism.

Harman, Gilbert. The Nature of Morality. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977. An influential argument against moral objectivity; very accessible.

Hume, David. Treatise of Human Nature: Being an Attempt to Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Originally published in 17391740. Book III contains Hume's views on ethics, including his seminal defense of subjectivism; accessible.

Nagel, Thomas. The Last Word. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. State-of-the-art defense of objective standards for many sorts of reasoning, including moral reasoning.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness: An Essay of Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956. Sartre's magnum opus, originally published in French in 1943. Difficult.

Williams, Bernard. Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985. A sustained and subtle argument against various forms of objectivismparticularly those inspired by Aristotle and Kantin ethics. Difficult in spots, but repays the effort.

Chris Swoyer


views updated May 29 2018

sub·jec·tiv·ism / səbˈjektəˌvizəm/ • n. Philos. the doctrine that knowledge is merely subjective and that there is no external or objective truth.DERIVATIVES: sub·jec·tiv·ist n. & adj.