Let’s say a theory in normative ethics is subjectivist just in case, according to it, what one ought to do is determined ultimately by the attitudes of some subject or group of subjects, such as the agent himself, the agent’s society, some ideal observer, or God. So ordinary subjectivism, cultural relativism, ideal observer theory, and divine command theory are all forms of subjectivism. Here’s a dilemma for such views.
(Sorry, this post is on the longer side. But it is (I hope) easy reading – no fine points, nothing technical.)
For ease of presentation, let’s consider the view according to which the relevant group is the agent’s society. (The argument carries over to other forms of subjectivism.) Here’s the view, Societal Subjectivism (a.k.a., cultural relativism):
Societal Subjectivism (SS): an act (token) is morally right iff it is not prohibited by the moral code of the society of the agent of the act at the time of the act.
Though this definition will be a point of dispute in a moment, let’s say that the moral code of a society is the set of moral norms (or moral rules, or moral principles) accepted by the society. These are sentences that attribute a normative status to some act type. Some simple norms: “Lying is wrong,” “Adultery is wrong,” “Passive euthanasia is ok.” The norms people actually accept are probably more complicated, with exceptions built in, such as: “Killing a person is wrong, except in self-defense,” “If you make a promise, you ought to keep it, unless breaking it is required to save someone from extreme harm,” “If a person’s life’s is in danger and only you can help, and doing so isn’t very risky, then you ought to do so.”
To accept a norm is to be inclined to assent to it, to be inclined to try to act according to it, to tend to feel guilty if you don’t; to tend to feel contempt towards others who don’t, etc.
It’s no part of SS that societies ever actually write down their moral code or anything. The code is determined by the psychological dispositions of the members of the society. It would be very hard in practice to be certain exactly what some society’s moral code is, but this is an empirical question. (Let’s ignore the question, How many members of a society must accept a norm before we can say that the society accepts it?)
Here’s the dilemma. Either the theory restricts the notion of a moral code to include only basic moral norms, or it doesn’t. Either option leads to implausible consequences.
First, let me explain this restriction to basic moral norms. A moral norm is basic for a society if the society doesn’t derive it from other norms. So the norm “Adultery is wrong,” might be derived from the norm “If you make a promise, you ought to keep it, unless breaking it is required to save someone from extreme harm.” The latter norm might be basic. The norm “It’s wrong to throw away motor oil with the rest of the garbage” would very likely be non-basic. Some society might derive it from some basic norm concerning refraining from harming others; another society might derive it instead from a basic norm against damaging the environment that doesn’t derive from a norm against harming people.
Now back to the dilemma:
Why it’s implausible NOT to restrict the theory to basic moral norms. If we don’t restrict the theory to basic moral norms, then the theory generates implausible results concerning moral reasoning.
Suppose you’re trying to decide whether you ought to shop at Wal-Mart, or water your lawn everyday, or drink on Sunday, or … . If we don’t restrict the theory, and so include non-basic norms in the code, the code will contain a norm for each of these very specific act types. It follows that the way to know whether it’s ok to shop at Wal-Mart would NOT be to engage in ordinary moral reasoning from basic principles (i.e., basic norms) that you and your fellows accept. Instead, the way to discover whether you ought to shop at Wal-Mart would be to take a poll on the very specific issue of shopping at Wal-Mart. Then you’d have to do a different poll for lawn watering, drinking on Sunday, etc.
But this is insane. No one – not even those inclined towards some sort of subjectivism – thinks we ought to decide the issue this way. What we think is that we ought to reason from basic principles. Now, if ever it comes to questioning these basic principles, we will, on SS, have to defer to collective opinion about the principle. You will find this objectionable if (like me) you find all forms of subjectivism objectionable. But I hope you agree it is clearly less objectionable than those views according to which taking a poll on every specific moral issue is the way to go.
The implausibility of allowing non-basic norms in the moral code is especially clear when it comes to Personal, rather than Societal, Subjectivism. On such a form of Personal Subjectivism, whatever a person happens to accept at the moment about the morality of shopping at Wal-Mart will automatically be correct. Again, this flies in the face of ordinary practice. We reason from more basic principles we accept. It is far less crazy, and much more in line with common practice, to suppose that the fundamental moral norms are in the eye of the beholder than it is that the answer to every specific moral issue is in the eye of the beholder.
Why it’s implausible to restrict the theory to basic moral norms. Suppose some members of some society became convinced of Societal Subjectivism WITH the restriction to basic moral norms. That is, they accept:
SSb: an act (token) is morally right iff it is it is not prohibited by the moral code of the society of the agent of the act (where the moral code of a society is the set of basic moral norms accepted by the society).
Suppose those convinced of SSb go on a campaign to convince all their fellows of the truth of their theory. Suppose they are successful. Everyone now accepts SSb. They think all of our moral obligations derive ultimately from SSb.
But then look what happens. This is just to say that there is now really just one basic moral norm that they accept – namely SSb itself. So now their view comes to this: do what society thinks you should do; and all society thinks you should do is whatever society thinks you should do. If this is their view, then their view entails that no act is prohibited. In cases where everyone accepts the view, the view reduces to Nihilism. And all because people actually come to accept the theory!
Consider an analogy. Suppose my theory says that I ought never to violate any rule written on this sacred tablet. Suppose the sacred tablet contains just one rule: never violate any rules on this tablet. It would be impossible to do anything wrong according to this theory.
So the restricted forms of subjectivism have the following feature: if the relevant subject or group of subjects mentioned in the theory comes to accept the theory, then Nihilism follows. This seems to me to be an implausible consequence of any theory, and a consequence that even defenders of subjectivism would not welcome.
Two final notes (feel free to skip them if you’re tired of reading). First, this is not the objection that the theory is self-effacing or self-defeating. It’s not that people are more likely to violate the theory if they accept it. It’s rather that, if the relevant subject or group of subjects accepts the theory, then anything goes (for some people – who it is depends on the form of subjectivism under consideration).
Second, for versions of subjectivism that appeal to an ideal observer or to God, the problem remains. What would follow is that nothing that any ideal observer or God does could be wrong, so long as the ideal observer or God accepts the ideal observer or the divine command theory. An ideal observer, or God, could go around torturing people for fun, and there would be nothing wrong with that. But not even God can go around torturing people for fun.