Ethical subjectivism

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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 this 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 whether 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 claims this by referring to 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