Is Morality Subjective? – A Reply to Critics

8. Sophisticated Emotivism Is a
Subjectivist Meta-ethic


Critics voicing this objection seek to expose a glaring inconsistency between my advocacy for an objective element to ethics and my acceptance of a subjectivist meta-ethic. For this objection to have effect, these critics lean on a particular criterion for demarcating objectivist and subjectivist meta-ethical views. For them, an 'objectivist' meta-ethic regards the rightness and wrongness of an action as entirely independent of human judgement. A 'subjectivist' meta-ethic, on the other hand, considers the moral status of an action to be dependent on personal human valuations. The sophisticated emotivist view I advocate, they claim, is a paradigm example of a subjectivist meta-ethical view.


Book cover: Practical Ethics by Peter Singer

The first point to note is that in the field of meta-ethical enquiry, moral philosophers draw the objectivist/subjectivist divide in a variety of ways. The terms 'objectivism' and 'subjectivism' mean different things in different texts, depending on which author you are reading. This lack of agreement on meanings leads to some confusion. Many definitions are unclear or not particularly helpful. For example, classifying 'sociological report' type subjectivism as 'objectivist' for the reason that group psychological reports have a robust truth value is confusing. Categorizing Ideal Observer and Divine Command Theories, on the other hand, as 'subjectivist' because they are mind-dependent is similarly confounding.

The demarcation criterion adopted by proponents of this objection is another case in point. One could argue that on these critics' definition of 'objective', my scheme is objective because whether it is true or not that a particular moral decision is impartially arrived at is entirely independent of human judgement. The ascription of this truth value is akin to how we assign a truth value to other statements about human feelings. For example, the statement, 'The British feel hot when the temperature surpasses 30 degrees Celsius', is true or false independently of whether we believe the statement to be true or not.

Given this confusing fluidity and ambiguity in what moral philosophers take 'objectivism' and 'subjectivism' to mean, there is no compulsion to call a broadly naturalist view of ethics, such as mine, 'subjectivist'. This multiplicity in classification schemes also means that anyone who advocates some form of 'objectivity' in ethics is not, ipso facto, a promoter of some mysterious metaphysical realm. What I am advocating is that we regard morality to be objective not is some spooky sense of being commanded by God or being part of the fabric of the universe, but in the sense of requiring impartiality of judgement. Pronouncing that ethics is 'subjective' only confuses the sophisticated naturalist view that grounds our moral systems in our evolutionary history and social organization with a naïve subjectivist meta-ethic that simply identifies moral judgements with introspective psychological reports or sociological records.

I want to turn now from a general consideration of how moral philosophers classify meta-ethical theories to the view I advocate in particular. Sophisticated emotivism is one of a number of theories that provide a broadly naturalist account of ethics. In that respect, it may be described as a 'subjectivist' moral theory. On the other hand, the sophisticated emotivist recognizes that moral terms, such as 'good' and 'right', have a variety of descriptive meanings, depending on the identity of the speaker. Along with many noted philosophers throughout history, I'm contending that the descriptive import of moral terms is not entirely variable. Terms such as 'good' and 'right' are semantically constrained in a way that requires their application to be universalized. I explain this by saying that a moral reason for action must be impartial.[2] It is in this sense that objectivity is a necessary requirement for a reason to be a moral reason and why I argue that labelling ethics as 'subjective' is misleading.

That moral terms have a minimal logic and descriptive semantics built into them is best illustrated by likening them to our term 'democracy'. Fundamentally, this term refers to a system of government that represents the interests of the people. The term 'democracy' is a good example to illustrate my point as it is a term that C. L. Stevenson [1963: ch. III, 1976: ch. IX] calls a 'persuasive definition'. In giving a persuasive definition of 'democracy', a speaker is commending that system of government (constituting the emotive meaning of the term) in addition to stating what 'true' or 'real' democracy is about.

Political thinkers propose different factors as distorting the representative will of the people. These advocates even have different ideas about which people should be represented. So, the early Greeks defined 'democracy' as excluding women and slaves. Some modern liberals think that a 'real' democracy excludes private donations to election campaign funds. Others think it necessitates dispersed media power or a plebiscite for every major decision or the exclusion of gerrymandered electorates.

However, even with all of these different definitions of 'true democracy', the central descriptive meaning of 'representative government' cannot be ignored by a speaker on pain of speaking gibberish. If a speaker announces, for example, that a 'real democracy' is a song with 3/4 timing, we would say that they did not understand the meaning of 'democracy'. We would rightly conclude that the speaker is not a competent user of the term.

The same semantic constraints apply to the meanings of our moral terms. Even though each of our moral words has wide descriptive meaning, as with the emotive term 'democracy', they each have minimal descriptive content. This 'thin' content becomes apparent in the logic of moral justification I describe in my original essay, Is Morality Subjective? [Allan 2015a]. That we don't allow my neighbour to morally justify bribing a politician by appealing only to his own interests demonstrates that there is this logic to moral justification. This logic of justification, I argue, is predicated on the requirement of impartiality that is built semantically into moral terms and governs their correct application.

The upshot here is that sophisticated emotivism sits comfortably with the notion that the 'thin' descriptive content contained in generic moral terms, such as 'good' and 'right', give an element of objectivity to ethics. Furthermore, this moral theory is also consistent with allowing other moral terms to have 'thick' descriptive content. These include terms such as 'justice', 'benevolent', 'charitable' and 'fair'. Terms such as these necessarily include additional notions of reward distribution, punishment, empathy, and so on. As I argued in §6, without allowing for such 'thin' and 'thick' descriptive content in our moral words, it becomes theoretically impossible to distinguish moral from non-moral judgements. This is the challenge faced by 'subjectivist' moral theories.


  1. [2] I also note here that this aspect of impartiality explains the supervenience of moral qualities in a way that a simple 'subjectivist' account fails to do. If action X in circumstances A is morally right because it treats interests impartially, then any identical act Y in circumstances A is, ergo, also morally right.

Copyright © 2016, 2020

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