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.

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.[2] 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 to be a form of ethical subjectivism,[3] it is based on the misunderstanding that divine command proponents claim that moral propositions are about what attitudes God holds, rather than, as Robert Adams claims, if a moral command is or isn't "contrary to the commands of (a loving) God".[4]

Ethical subjectivism is compatible with moral absolutism, in that the individual or society to whose attitudes moral propositions refer can hold some moral principle to apply regardless of circumstances. (That is, a moral principle can be relative to an individual, but not relative to circumstances). Ethical subjectivism is also compatible with moral relativism when that is taken to mean the opposite of absolutism, that is, as the claim that moral precepts should be adjusted to circumstances, as in consequentialism.[5]


  1. ^ Brandt, Richard (1959). Ethical theory; the problems of normative and critical ethics. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall. p. 153. 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. ^ "moral subjectivism is that species of moral relativism that relativizes moral value to the individual subject". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  3. ^ "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
  4. ^ "Mark Murphy further explains that a command from God suffices as an 'objective property of actions', as oppose to the attitude within a mind". Theological Voluntarism
  5. ^ Brandt, Richard (1959). Ethical theory; the problems of normative and critical ethics. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall. p. 154. LCCN 59010075. A subjectivist, clearly, can be either an absolutist or a relativist.