Archive for March, 2010
[This post originally appeared at my old blog on August 14, 2007. The original is here.]
On theories of ethical subjectivism (there are various stripes: emotivism and prescriptivism are two prominent varieties), moral facts are not facts about human actions or states of affairs but about the people who view those actions or states of affairs. Thus when the subjectivist says, “Slapping unsuspecting pedestrians for fun is bad,” the predicate “bad” refers not to the slapping-act but to something in the speaker’s attitude toward the slapping-act.
In my own thinking on metaethics I prefer to think of metaethical questions in the terms of moral properties. Are moral properties real? If so, where do they reside? When we think of the question in this way it clarifies the problem that many people have with ethical subjectivism. If I say, “This tire is round,” I am saying that the tire possesses the property of roundness and that this property is not in me but in the tire itself. It exists outside of me. I neither create nor facilitate the property’s existence. It exists whether I am there to perceive its existence or not. The tire just has this property, and my own opinions on the matter are thoroughly irrelevant.
Now consider the ethical subjectivist who says, “Slapping unsuspecting pedestrians for fun is bad.” The substance of her ethical theory is that the property “bad” is possessed not by the act itself but by something in the mental state of the agent considering or viewing the act. So it turns out that the subjectivist is not saying something about slapping people at all; she’s just saying something about herself.
It’s easy to see why people find the sundry forms of ethical subjectivism to be sorry excuses for moral theories: they seem to be no more than pseudo-sophisticated games of pretend. This has two undesirable consequences. First, if we were to do this in other areas of life we would be castigated as irrational or strange. Say that my mailman is not rich, but for some reason I predicate of him the property “being rich.” Suppose I did this because of some factor related not to the mailman but to me: I really like the guy, it makes me feel better, I get my mail on time, etc. That would be stupid.
Second, these pretend-games fail to do justice to how we ordinarily use language. When I say, “that dog is a three-legged dog,” I am obviously referring not to some attitude of mine toward the dog but to the fact that the dog has only three legs. However, when I say, “Playing Halo is fun,” I am using the word “is” in a slightly different way. In the first case the predicate “three-legged” is clearly meant to convey a property of the dog that is external to myself. Since it is simply there, all rational viewers must agree. In the second case, the predicate “fun,” when used with “is,” is clearly meant to convey something different. I’m simply saying that I like to play Halo. We might say that it’s properly subjective. It’s a statement more about myself than about Halo, because I know that most of the members of the human race have never played Halo and thus probably don’t think it’s fun. Now, the question is this: if I say, “kicking the three-legged dog over the shed is wicked,” in which one of these senses is the predicate “wicked” used? I think we would have to answer that its use in customary language is closer to the first example than the second. It is something that is supposed to be in the act of dog-kicking itself. Thus ethical subjectivism is inconsistent with the meanings of moral terms. Moral realism is a better option, and I think theism provides the best account of objective moral properties. I’ll save that discussion for later posts, however, or perhaps for my dissertation.