Ethical subjectivism

Ethical subjectivism is the meta-ethical view which claims that:

  1. Ethical sentences express propositions.
  2. Some such propositions are true.
  3. The truth or falsity of such propositions is ineliminably dependent on the (actual or hypothetical) attitudes of people.[1]

This makes ethical subjectivism a form of cognitivism. Ethical subjectivism stands in opposition to moral realism, which claims that moral propositions refer to objective facts, independent of human opinion; to error theory, which denies that any moral propositions are true in any sense; and to non-cognitivism, which denies that moral sentences express propositions at all.[2]

The most common forms of ethical subjectivism are also forms of moral relativism, with moral standards held to be relative to each culture or society (c.f. cultural relativism), or even to every individual. The latter view, as put forward by Protagoras, holds that there are as many distinct scales of good and evil as there are subjects in the world.[3] However, there are also universalist forms of subjectivism such as ideal observer theory (which claims that moral propositions are about what attitudes a hypothetical ideal observer would hold). Although divine command theory is considered by some to be a form of ethical subjectivism,[4] defenders of the perspective that divine command theory is not a form of ethical subjectivism say the miscategorization is based on a misunderstanding: that divine command proponents claim that moral propositions are about what attitudes God holds; but this understanding is deemed incorrect by some, such as Robert Adams who claims that divine command theory is concerned with: if a moral command is or isn't "contrary to the commands of (a loving) God".[5]


  1. ^ Richard Brandt (1959). Ethical theory; the problems of normative and critical ethics. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall. p. 153. ISBN 0132904039. LCCN 59010075. [Objectivism and subjectivism] have been used more vaguely, confusedly, and in more different senses than the others we are considering. We suggest as a convenient usage, however, that a theory be called subjectivist if and only if, according to it, any ethical assertion implies that somebody does, or somebody of a certain sort under certain conditions would, take some specified attitude toward something.
  2. ^ "Subjectivism". BBC. Retrieved 20 February 2019.
  3. ^ "moral subjectivism is that species of moral relativism that relativizes moral value to the individual subject". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  4. ^ "George Hourani is one such philosopher who makes that mistake by misnaming Divine Command theory as 'theistic subjectivism'.".The Ethics and Metaphysics of Divine Command Theory
  5. ^ "Mark Murphy further explains that a command from God suffices as an 'objective property of actions', as opposed to the attitude within a mind". Theological Voluntarism
Cognitivism (ethics)

Cognitivism is the meta-ethical view that ethical sentences express propositions and can therefore be true or false (they are truth-apt), which noncognitivists deny. Cognitivism is so broad a thesis that it encompasses (among other views) moral realism (which claims that ethical sentences express propositions about mind-independent facts of the world), ethical subjectivism (which claims that ethical sentences express propositions about peoples' attitudes or opinions), and error theory (which claims that ethical sentences express propositions, but that they are all false, whatever their nature).


Emotivism is a meta-ethical view that claims that ethical sentences do not express propositions but emotional attitudes. Hence, it is colloquially known as the hurrah/boo theory. Influenced by the growth of analytic philosophy and logical positivism in the 20th century, the theory was stated vividly by A. J. Ayer in his 1936 book Language, Truth and Logic, but its development owes more to C. L. Stevenson.Emotivism can be considered a form of non-cognitivism or expressivism. It stands in opposition to other forms of non-cognitivism (such as quasi-realism and universal prescriptivism), as well as to all forms of cognitivism (including both moral realism and ethical subjectivism).

In the 1950s, emotivism appeared in a modified form in the universal prescriptivism of R. M. Hare.

Ethical formalism

Ethical formalism is a type of ethical theory which defines moral judgments in terms of their logical form (e.g., as "laws" or "universal prescriptions") rather than their content (e.g., as judgments about what actions will best promote human well-being). The term also often carries critical connotations. Kant, for example, has been criticized for defining morality in terms of the formal feature of being a "universal law", and then attempting to derive from this formal feature various concrete moral duties.

Ethical formalism is related to, but not identical to, Harry J. Gensler's relatively recent (circa 1996) theory of formal ethics. Formal ethics is similar to ethical formalism in that it focuses on formal features of moral judgments, but is distinct in that the system of formal ethics is explicitly (and intentionally) incomplete. Specifically, while some ethical formalist systems (e.g., arguably Kant's "universal laws") view a set of formal features as both necessary and sufficient, formal ethics views such formal features as necessary but not sufficient.

Ethical formalism is "considered as an absolutist system, if something is wrong, it is wrong all the time" (Pollock, 2004). Just the same, if something is right, it is then right all the time.

Ethical non-naturalism

Ethical non-naturalism is the meta-ethical view which claims that:

Ethical sentences express propositions.

Some such propositions are true.

Those propositions are made true by objective features of the world, independent of human opinion.

These moral features of the world are not reducible to any set of non-moral features.This makes ethical non-naturalism a non-definist form of moral realism, which is in turn a form of cognitivism. Ethical non-naturalism stands in opposition to ethical naturalism, which claims that moral terms and properties are reducible to non-moral terms and properties, as well as to all forms of moral anti-realism, including ethical subjectivism (which denies that moral propositions refer to objective facts), error theory (which denies that any moral propositions are true), and non-cognitivism (which denies that moral sentences express propositions at all).


In meta-ethics, expressivism is a theory about the meaning of moral language. According to expressivism, sentences that employ moral terms – for example, "It is wrong to torture an innocent human being" – are not descriptive or fact-stating; moral terms such as "wrong", "good", or "just" do not refer to real, in-the-world properties. The primary function of moral sentences, according to expressivism, is not to assert any matter of fact, but rather to express an evaluative attitude toward an object of evaluation. Because the function of moral language is non-descriptive, moral sentences do not have any truth conditions. Hence, expressivists either do not allow that moral sentences have truth value, or rely on a notion of truth that does not appeal to any descriptive truth conditions being met for moral sentences.

Ideal observer theory

Ideal observer theory is the meta-ethical view which claims that:

Ethical sentences express propositions.

Some such propositions are true.

Those propositions are about the attitudes of a hypothetical ideal observer.In other words, ideal observer theory states that ethical judgments should be interpreted as statements about the judgments that a neutral and fully informed observer would make; "x is good" means "an ideal observer would approve of x".

This makes ideal observer theory arguably a subjectivist yet universalist form of cognitivism, though arguably the abstract "ideal observer" may be seen as an objective reference point, thus making ideal observer theory a form of ethical objectivism. Ideal observer theory stands in opposition to other forms of ethical subjectivism (e.g.moral relativism, and individualist ethical subjectivism), as well as to moral realism (which claims that moral propositions refer to objective facts, independent of anyone's attitudes or opinions), error theory (which denies that any moral propositions are true in any sense), and non-cognitivism (which denies that moral sentences express propositions at all).

While Adam Smith and David Hume are recognized to have espoused early versions of the ideal observer theory, Roderick Firth is responsible for starting a more sophisticated modern version. According to Firth, an ideal observer has the following specific characteristics: omniscience with respect to nonmoral facts, omnipercipience, disinterestedness, dispassionateness, consistency, and normalcy in all other respects. Notice that, by defining an Ideal Observer as omniscient with respect to nonmoral facts, Firth avoids circular logic that would arise from defining an ideal observer as omniscient in both nonmoral and moral facts. A complete knowledge of morality is not born of itself but is an emergent property of Firth's minimal requirements. There are also sensible restrictions to the trait of omniscience with respect to nonmoral facts. For instance, a geological event in another solar system is hardly something necessary to know to make a moral judgment about a case of theft or murder on Earth.

Those proposing the ideal observer theory do not necessarily assert that any real ideal observers actually exist.


Individualism is the moral stance, political philosophy, ideology, or social outlook that emphasizes the moral worth of the individual. Individualists promote the exercise of one's goals and desires and so value independence and self-reliance and advocate that interests of the individual should achieve precedence over the state or a social group, while opposing external interference upon one's own interests by society or institutions such as the government. Individualism is often defined in contrast to totalitarianism, collectivism, and more corporate social forms.Individualism makes the individual its focus and so starts "with the fundamental premise that the human individual is of primary importance in the struggle for liberation." Classical liberalism, existentialism, and anarchism are examples of movements that take the human individual as a central unit of analysis. Individualism thus involves "the right of the individual to freedom and self-realization".It has also been used as a term denoting "The quality of being an individual; individuality" related to possessing "An individual characteristic; a quirk." Individualism is thus also associated with artistic and bohemian interests and lifestyles where there is a tendency towards self-creation and experimentation as opposed to tradition or popular mass opinions and behaviors, as with humanist philosophical positions and ethics.


Meta-ethics is the branch of ethics that seeks to understand the nature of ethical properties, statements, attitudes, and judgments. Meta-ethics is one of the three branches of ethics generally studied by philosophers, the others being normative ethics and applied ethics.

While normative ethics addresses such questions as "What should I do?", thus endorsing some ethical evaluations and rejecting others, meta-ethics addresses questions such as "What is goodness?" and "How can we tell what is good from what is bad?", seeking to understand the nature of ethical properties and evaluations.

Some theorists argue that a metaphysical account of morality is necessary for the proper evaluation of actual moral theories and for making practical moral decisions; others reason from opposite premises and suggest that studying moral judgments about proper actions can guide us to a true account of the nature of morality.


In philosophy, meta-rights are the entitlements of individuals to their rights, including the possibility to waive, transfer or sell their rights. When we talk of the rights of individuals, we do not always distinguish between rights which can be waived or sold and rights which are non-negotiable. Yet that distinction and often the distinction is made implicitly. When we say a person has a right to her house, we usually mean that she also has the meta right to sell the right. On the other hand, when we say a person has the right to his body parts, we usually assume this comes without the accompanying meta right to sell these rights. Economic efficiency usually comes with having rights which come together with the meta right to sell the right. It is arguable that we should be much more explicit about when rights come together with meta rights and when without, and the moral basis that accompany these decisions.

Moral realism

Moral realism (also ethical realism or moral Platonism) is the position that ethical sentences express propositions that refer to objective features of the world (that is, features independent of subjective opinion), some of which may be true to the extent that they report those features accurately. This makes moral realism a non-nihilist form of ethical cognitivism (which accepts that ethical sentences express propositions and can therefore be evaluated as true or false) with an ontological orientation, standing in opposition to all forms of moral anti-realism and moral skepticism, including ethical subjectivism (which denies that moral propositions refer to objective facts), error theory (which denies that any moral propositions are true); and non-cognitivism (which denies that moral sentences express propositions at all). Within moral realism, the two main subdivisions are ethical naturalism and ethical non-naturalism.

Many philosophers claim that moral realism may be dated back at least to Plato as a philosophical doctrine,

and that it is a fully defensible form of moral doctrine. A survey from 2009 involving 3,226 respondents found that 56% of philosophers accept or lean towards moral realism (28%: anti-realism; 16%: other). Some notable examples of robust moral realists include David Brink, John McDowell, Peter Railton, Geoffrey Sayre-McCord, Michael Smith, Terence Cuneo, Russ Shafer-Landau, G. E. Moore, John Finnis, Richard Boyd, Nicholas Sturgeon, Thomas Nagel and Derek Parfit. Norman Geras has argued that Karl Marx was a moral realist. Moral realism has been studied in the various philosophical and practical applications.

Moral relativism

Moral relativism may be any of several philosophical positions concerned with the differences in moral judgments across different people and cultures. Descriptive moral relativism holds only that some people do in fact disagree about what is moral; meta-ethical moral relativism holds that in such disagreements, nobody is objectively right or wrong; and normative moral relativism holds that because nobody is right or wrong, we ought to tolerate the behavior of others even when we disagree about the morality of it.

Not all descriptive relativists adopt meta-ethical relativism, and moreover, not all meta-ethical relativists adopt normative relativism. Richard Rorty, for example, argued that relativist philosophers believe "that the grounds for choosing between such opinions is less algorithmic than had been thought", but not that any belief is as valid as any other.Moral relativism has been debated for thousands of years, from ancient Greece and India to the present day, in diverse fields including art, philosophy, science, and religion.


Morality (from Latin: moralis, lit. 'manner, character, proper behavior') is the differentiation of intentions, decisions and actions between those that are distinguished as proper and those that are improper. Morality can be a body of standards or principles derived from a code of conduct from a particular philosophy, religion or culture, or it can derive from a standard that a person believes should be universal. Morality may also be specifically synonymous with "goodness" or "rightness".

Moral philosophy includes moral ontology, which is the origin of morals; and moral epistemology, which studies the knowledge of morals. Different systems of expressing morality have been proposed, including deontological ethical systems which adhere to a set of established rules, and normative ethical systems which consider the merits of actions themselves. An example of normative ethical philosophy is the Golden Rule, which states that: "One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself."Immorality is the active opposition to morality (i.e. opposition to that which is good or right), while amorality is variously defined as an unawareness of, indifference toward, or disbelief in any particular set of moral standards or principles.


Non-cognitivism is the meta-ethical view that ethical sentences do not express propositions (i.e., statements) and thus cannot be true or false (they are not truth-apt). A noncognitivist denies the cognitivist claim that "moral judgments are capable of being objectively true, because they describe some feature of the world". If moral statements cannot be true, and if one cannot know something that is not true, noncognitivism implies that moral knowledge is impossible.Non-cognitivism entails that non-cognitive attitudes underlie moral discourse and this discourse therefore consists of non-declarative speech acts, although accepting that its surface features may consistently and efficiently work as if moral discourse were cognitive. The point of interpreting moral claims as non-declarative speech acts is to explain what moral claims mean if they are neither true nor false (as philosophies such as logical positivism entail). Utterances like "Boo to killing!" and "Don't kill" are not candidates for truth or falsity, but have non-cognitive meaning.

Objectivity (philosophy)

Objectivity is a philosophical concept of being true independently from individual subjectivity caused by perception, emotions, or imagination. A proposition is considered to have objective truth when its truth conditions are met without bias caused by a sentient subject. Scientific objectivity refers to the ability to judge without partiality or external influence, sometimes used synonymously with neutrality.

Outline of ethics

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to ethics:

Ethics – major branch of philosophy, encompassing right conduct and good life. It is significantly broader than the common conception of analyzing right and wrong. A central aspect of ethics is "the good life", the life worth living or life that is simply satisfying, which is held by many philosophers to be more important than moral conduct.


Quasi-realism is the meta-ethical view which claims that:

Ethical sentences do not express propositions.

Instead, ethical sentences project emotional attitudes as though they were real properties.This makes quasi-realism a form of non-cognitivism or expressivism. Quasi-realism stands in opposition to other forms of non-cognitivism (such as emotivism and universal prescriptivism), as well as to all forms of cognitivism (including both moral realism and ethical subjectivism).

Secular ethics

Secular ethics is a branch of moral philosophy in which ethics is based solely on human faculties such as logic, empathy, reason or moral intuition, and not derived from supernatural revelation or guidance—the source of ethics in many religions. Secular ethics refers to any ethical system that does not draw on the supernatural, and includes humanism, secularism and freethinking. A classical example of literature on secular ethics is the Kural text, authored by the ancient Tamil Indian philosopher Valluvar who lived during the 1st century BCE.

Secular ethical systems comprise a wide variety of ideas to include the normativity of social contracts, some form of attribution of intrinsic moral value, intuition-based deontology, cultural moral relativism, and the idea that scientific reasoning can reveal objective moral truth (known as science of morality).

Secular ethics frameworks are not always mutually exclusive from theological values. For example, the Golden Rule or a commitment to non-violence, could be supported by both religious and secular frameworks. Secular ethics systems can also vary within the societal and cultural norms of a specific time period.


Subjectivism is the doctrine that "our own mental activity is the only unquestionable fact of our experience.", instead of shared or communal, and that there is no external or objective truth.

The success of this position is historically attributed to Descartes and his methodic doubt. Subjectivism accords primacy to subjective experience as fundamental of all measure and law. In extreme forms like Solipsism, it may hold that the nature and existence of every object depends solely on someone's subjective awareness of it. One may consider the qualified empiricism of George Berkeley in this context, given his reliance on God as the prime mover of human perception. Thus, subjectivism.

Universal prescriptivism

Universal prescriptivism (often simply called prescriptivism) is the meta-ethical view which claims that, rather than expressing propositions, ethical sentences function similarly to imperatives which are universalizable—whoever makes a moral judgment is committed to the same judgment in any situation where the same relevant facts obtain.

This makes prescriptivism a universalist form of non-cognitivism. Prescriptivism stands in opposition to other forms of non-cognitivism (such as emotivism and quasi-realism), as well as to all forms of cognitivism (including both moral realism and ethical subjectivism).Since prescriptivism was introduced by philosopher R. M. Hare in his 1952 book The Language of Morals, it has been compared to emotivism and to the categorical imperative of Immanuel Kant. Unlike Kant, however, Hare does not invoke universalizability as a test of moral permissibility. Instead, he sees it as a consistency requirement that is built into the logic of moral language and helps to make moral thinking a rational enterprise.

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