Rachels, Ch. 3, Subjectivism


1.      Subjectivism in general

         a.      No objective facts or truths in morality

         b.      No (unique?) right answers to moral questions

         c.      Morality is

                  i.      Mere matter of personal opinion

                  ii.     Mere expression or statement of feelings

                  iii.    Matter of sentiment/emotion/feeling, not truth, fact, or reason

2.      Subjectivism applied to claims about homosexuality

         a.      When someone says “Homosexuality is wrong”

         b.      Facts are

                  i.      Some people are homosexual and others are not

                  ii.     Some people have feelings of approval about homosexuality and others of disapproval

         c.      No facts about wrongness (or rightness) of homosexuality

         d.      When we perceive a gay couple holding hands, we don’t perceive any (fact of) wrongness (or rightness)

                  i.      Assumption is, if it was a fact, we’d perceive it? All facts perceivable (in theory)?

         e.      The wrongness or rightness is something we (the perceiver) add

                  i.      It is subjective (from the subject)

                  ii.     Not objective (from the object)

                  iii.    It is our own feeling or emotion toward the behavior and is not a property of the behavior

         f.      So when we think an act is objectively right or wrong, we confuse something in us with something in the object

         g.      Rightness or wrongness is a mere feeling or attitude we have and not an objective fact about the act we evaluate

         h.      David Hume: The wrongness or vice exists as a feeling in you

3.      Three specific versions of subjectivism: Simple subjectivism, emotivism, and error theory


4.      Simple Subjectivism = X is morally right/wrong means I (the speaker) approve of (or disapprove of) X

         a.      Contrast this account with the one Rachels gives:

                  i.      According to Rachels, X is morally right means X has the weight of reasons on its side (it has the strongest arguments for it)

5.      According to SS, moral language states facts about a speaker’s attitudes and feelings

         a.      This is strange: When you say some act is wrong, it turns out (according to SS) that you are talking about yourself and your attitudes and not about the act itself

6.      Objection to simple subjectivism: it makes moral disagreement impossible

         a.      Because (according to SS) we are talking about our own feelings toward actions and not the actions themselves

         b.      When one person says “X is right” and another says “No X is wrong” they are not disagreeing

                  i.      One is saying “I approve of X” and the other is saying “I disapprove of X”

                  ii.     But both of these can be true at the same time and each can agree that the other person has the other attitude

         c.      But because moral disagreement obviously exists, SS must be mistaken, for it makes such disagreement impossible


7.      Emotivism = X is morally right/wrong means either

                  i.      “Do X” (a command)


                  ii.     “Yuck on X” or “Boo X” (a venting of emotion)

8.      For emotivism, moral language is not a fact stating use of language

         a.      A moral utterance is not an attempt to say something true or false

         b.      Moral utterances are either

                  i.      Commands (which aren’t T or F),


                  ii.     Expressions of emotions (as opposed to stating or reporting one’s emotions as SS claims)

         c.      The point of moral utterances are to influences people’s attitudes or behavior (not to utter true statements)

9.      Emotivism avoids SS’s inability to account for moral disagreement

         a.      While there is no disagreement about the truth of moral utterances (as they not claims or statements about alleged truths)

         b.      Emotivism allows for disagreement in attitudes or desires

                  i.      “Yeah Cougars” versus “Down with the Cougars”

                  ii.     “Stop that behavior” versus “Engage in that behavior”

                  iii.    While there is no disagreement about truth, there is a disagreement about what folks want to happen (i.e., a disagreement in desires) or in their attitudes about something

10.    Rachels’ criticism of SS and E: They don’t accurately describe the phenomenon of moral statements

         a.      When one says “long-term solitary confinement is cruel punishment,” one is not just saying I disapprove of it (simple subjectivism) or expressing ones emotions about it (emotivism), not just trying to persuade others to oppose it (emotivism)

         b.      One is also trying to say something true; making a statement one believes is correct

         c.      One doesn’t think of it as just “mere opinion,” no more justified than any other view on the subject (say, that long-term solitary confinement is a light punishment)

         d.      An understanding of moral language should acknowledge this dimension

         e.      Error theory below acknowledges this point


11.    Error Theory: All value claims are mistaken/false

         a.      People are attempting to say true things when they claim acts are right and wrong

         b.      But since there are no moral facts or moral truths, they are mistaken

         c.      All moral/value claims are thus false

12.    Nihilism: The denial of value

         a.      Values are not real

         b.      Nothing is good or bad/right or wrong

13.    Criticism:

         a.      May seem plausible if you think about hard cases in ethics or controversial values

         b.      Not plausible if consider uncontroversial cases

                  i.      Nazis did not act badly when they killed millions of peoole based on their racial background

                  ii.     Baby torturer is does not act badly

                           (1)    You believe his behavior is evil

                           (2)    He thinks it fine

                           (3)    Neither is right

         c.      Rachels suggests it may not be easy to refute person who consistently holds these views

                  i.      But such views are absurd and no real need to refute (?)


14.    Respect (idolization?) for science falsely thought to imply skepticism about values

         a.      Belief in objective values is like a belief is ghosts/witches

         b.      If there are such things, why hasn’t science discovered them?

         c.      Examine a wicked action (like torturing a baby) and you will find no wickedness–only screaming and writhing

         d.      Wickedness is not part of the fabric of the world and that is why science hasn’t discovered it

15.    Subjectivism is appealing because it presents a false dilemma

         a.      If falsely assumes only two possibilities, either

         b.      (1) Moral truths/facts/values exist in same way as planets and spoons exist;

                  i.      That is, they are physical objects that we can perceive with out senses

         c.      (2) Or moral truths/facts/values are mere personal feelings or emotions or attitudes (that we take toward behavior)

16.    The subjectivist argues that since (1) is obviously false, (2) must be true (hence subjectivism is true)

17.    This is a false dilemma because there is a third option

         a.      (3) Moral truths are truths of reasons (they exist as truths of reason)

                  i.      A moral judgment is true if it is backed by better reasons than its alternatives

                  ii.     The correct answer to moral questions is the answer that has the weight of reason on its side.

18.    Moral truths are “objective” not in the sense that they exist in the physical world, but in the sense that

         a.      They are true independent of what we want to think

                  i.      We can’t make the weight of reason lie on one side of an issue by wanting it to lie on that side of the issue

                  ii.     Reason says what it says regardless of our desires about what it says

         b.      We can be mistaken in ethics; we can be wrong about what reason recommends (about where the weight of reason lies)

19.    Note that mathematical truths also don’t exist as physical facts in real world, but are truths of reason (or at least this is a plausible claim)



21.    Many say no

         a.      Science is our paradigm of objectivity and proof and ethics lacks that sort of objectivity or proof

22.    Rachels thinks there are proofs in ethics

23.    One example: The test was unfair

         a.      Teacher gives a test that a student judges to be unfair

         b.      The test covered in details matters that were quite trivial, while ignoring matters the teacher had stressed as important

         c.      It also covered material not in class readings or discussions

         d.      Test was so long not even best students could complete it in the time allowed (and it was graded on the assumption it should be completed)

         e.      All these things are true and the teacher has no response when confronted with them

         f.      This is a good proof that the test was unfair.

24.    People think moral judgments are unprovable

         a.      Because they use the wrong standard of proof (scientific, empirical standard)

         b.      Focus on hard cases; there are lots of easy cases people agree upon and where reason makes clear the answer

         c.      Falsely believe that proving something means convincing everyone



25.    Rachels account of Catholic church on homosexuality

         a.      HS do not choose their condition

                  i.      Is this true?

         b.      Homosexuals must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity

         c.      Unjust discrimination should be avoided

         d.      HS acts are intrinsically disordered and under no circumstances can they be approved

         e.      If gays want to be virtuous, must resist their desires

26.    Three senses in which HS might be considered unnatural and how this does not imply immorality

27.    (1) Unnatural = uncommon; statistically uncommon

         a.      Lots of valuable behavior is uncommon

28.    (2) Unnatural = using something for a purpose other than what it was selected for?

         a.      But then lots of innocent sexual and other behavior does this and is not wrong

29.    (3) Unnatural = wrong

         a.      But this begs the question: assumes what it tries to prove

Questions on Rachels Chapter Three: Subjectivism

1.      What is subjectivism about morality? How is it different from cultural relativism? What does Rachels think about subjectivism? What is Rachels' own position about the nature of morality? Is it subjectivistic or objectivistic? Explain.

2.      Define and explain simple subjectivism. Explain the objection that Rachels gives to simple subjectivism (it’s about moral disagreement).

3.      Define and explain emotivism. How is it different from simple subjectivism? What are the two versions of emotivism? Explain how emotivism avoids the objection Rachel gives of simple subjectivism.

4.      What is it that people think they are doing when they make moral claims that neither subjectivism nor emotivism can account for? What is error theory and how does it account for this?

5.      What is nihilism? Is it plausible from your own perspective?

6.       How might respect or idolization of science lead to skepticism about values?

7.      Rachels argues that the appeal of subjectivism is based on a mistaken belief that we only have two options (a “false dilemma”). What are those two options? What is the third option that Rachels suggests we could (and should) adopt?

8.      In what sense are moral truth’s “objective” according to Rachels, even though he does not claim they exist physically in the world.

9.      According to Rachels, are there proofs in ethics? (What is one of Rachels’ examples.) What are some of the reasons Rachels gives for why people think there are no proofs in ethics?

10.    Do homosexuals choose their sexual inclinations?

11.    Rachels considers the charge that homosexuality is unnatural in three different ways. What are those ways and what is Rachels’ evaluation of those claims?