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Elements of Moral Philosophy 3: Subjectivism


Rachels is confronting basic subjectivism and emotivism. Basic subjectivism states that moral statements are neither true nor false, but simply reflect something about the speaker. “Killing is wrong” reduces to “I disapprove of killing.” “Charity is good” reduces to “I approve of charity.”

Rachels has two criticisms. First, he says that this doesn’t account for disagreement. One person can say that killing is wrong, another that killing is right, but according to subjectivism, no one is disagreeing on anything. Second, one can never be wrong about their moral beliefs. But, says Rachels, we are sometimes wrong, like when we claim that it is right to kill for no reason.

My problem with the above is that it pretty clearly begs the question. Rachels doesn’t show that it has to be true that people are wrong about morality sometimes. A dedicate subjectivist can just bite the bullet and agree, saying that the subjectivist conception of morality does imply this. Further, although most people will agree with Rachels on the wrongness of cheating or killing for no reason, this seems to be just based upon a survey of intuitions. Rachels does not provide a reason to think that our basic survey of our judgments is correct, and given historical moral mistakes, it would behoove Rachels to do so.

The next stage of subjectivism is emotivism. In this, moral statements reduce to cheering or booing. Killing is wrong = Boo killing! This is meant to account for disagreement, since boo killing and yay killing are not in agreement. Rachels criticism is that sometimes we are right about morality, and emotivism renders moral statements always correct. Second, he says that it does not explain reason in ethics. He claims that when we call something wrong, we must provide reasons. Emotivism ignores this, therefore emotivism is false. Again, it appears that Rachels is simply asserting, not arguing.

Lastly there is an interesting discussion of homosexuality. Rachels confronts the assertion of homosexuality being unnatural. First, if by unnatural we mean rare, this argument fails, because some rare things, like intelligence or affability are not immoral. Second, if we think of something as unnatural if it goes against its purpose, then this rules out eyes for flirting, sex after menopause, etc. Also, why accept that we must always use our parts for their purpose? I would add that there is a problem in deciding what something’s purpose is. Who get’s to decide? Arguably, the person himself does. If I think my hands are for finger snapping, then that’s what they are for. Assuming that our creator gets to decide, we can imagine a creator making us for killing and suffering. If that makes those things right, I don’t want to be right.

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