In this blog post I intend to layout the basics of my ethical views. I was introduced to moral subjectivism in Richard Carrier’s book Sense and Goodness without God if I remember correctly; however, a search through this book under the term “subjectivism” yielded no results. It could have been in another book of his I read, but I am not sure. The basic claim of this form of ethics is that there is no inherent right or wrong in the world. It is humans that give these determinations to things or actions that they see in the world. It forms part of Hume’s concept that one cannot derive an “ought” from an “is,” which I will pass by in this post. But, instead of providing what others have meant by moral subjectivism, I will be providing my own exploration of this ethical position, and how it fits into my overall view on ethics (some of it at least).
I will explain why I believe this position is basically correct; I will discuss how moral feelings drive our moral decisions; and why it is not the sole explanation for ethics as a whole. I see it fitting in with certain forms of virtue ethics, a Sam Harris type utilitarianism, rational morality, pragmatism, and moral decisions and actions. I am doing this with the understanding that I am still exploring* the positions I am arguing for here. But, after many criticisms of two books on ethics I have recently read, I feel that my thoughts on the subject have matured enough to make a first stab at explaining them.
There are two components to moral subjectivism that I take to be basically true. One, mentioned above, is that there is no inherent right or wrong in the universe. The universe does not come with ready made moral labels. It is us humans that provide them. The other component is that we are driven by what can be called moral feelings, like empathy. These show up in three aspects of the process. One, to bring to awareness of something of moral interest. Two, to provide the drive to seek a solution. And three, to move us to act.
Let me start with moral feelings, and ask where they come from? The obvious answer is we have evolve to have them. By using moral feelings we were better able to survive and reproduce. This is the individual from the orthodox point of view, but obviously it did not harm human chances to survive as a species. A core feature of these evolved moral feelings is we feel and express empathy. We feel bad when others feel bad, and we feel good when others feel good. This is also why the concept of harm is so important. Through empathy we naturally want to avoid harm to others and provide assistance when others are harmed.
There is a caveat on our empathy toward others. We most often feel and express it when the others are those that are close to us. These includes family and friends within clans. Clans here is just a close circle of individuals that are in close contact with each other. What about the rest. I think the more we become more knowledgeable about others the wider the empathy is spread—it enlarges the circle. With today’s global communications this circle of empathy is the largest it has been throughout history.
Is empathy a perfect tool for moral behavior, both in recognizing the need and performing a moral act? No. Human beings are very complex when it comes to what we are able to feel, think, and do. We have a host of other emotions and feelings that can produce the opposite of a moral action. Anger is one of these things; it maybe the strongest feeling we possess. When we get angry it often seems to turn off any empathy that we may have had at the time. Anger is a feeling that often causes us to act without thinking things through. With empathy, we are usually led to deeper thought. I will speak on how moral feelings act in conjunction with reasoning below.
Now, the thing about evolution is that it does not produce a perfect an organism. It just takes the best of incremental improvements, and allows them to reproduce to further the next generation’s, and hence its species, continued existence. This means as far as moral feelings go, they do not operate with perfection. This means that empathy is not always implemented when the occasion might call for it. Another thing about evolution is that not all individuals are equal in their capabilities. This means that not everybody has the same capacity to empathize equally. And, some individuals (psychopathics) have no capacity to empathize at all. But, none of this means that empathy and the rest of our moral feelings are not necessary for moral behavior.
Of course, genetics is only part of the story. Unfortunately sometimes us human beings are a crowd of followers, and as children highly suggestible, where children usually follow the religious, political, and moral norms of their parents. After all, no matter how much empathy we are born with, humans take a lot of learning to get on successfully with life. If a child is raised with, what George Lakoff in one of his books on metaphors¹ called, “strict father morality,” that child will most likely be rigid in the moral code he or she adopts. This has the effect of dampening that child’s empathy responses, or enables she or he to ignore them. For a child raise with Lakoff’s term, “nurturant parent” morality, he or she is encourage to use her or his empathetic responses, and will, hence, be more likely to give them heed.
While I have so far only mentioned “empathy” as a moral feeling, there are others as well, which I feel feed off of empathy. These include compassion, rapport, warmth, and concord. There are also negative moral feelings, such as shame, guilt, and embarrassment. While some may disagree, I think pride can be a positive feeling. It can drive one to do the best she or he can. On the negative side it can lead to lessening of worth seen in other people. There are even times when anger can be a positive moral feeling such as with righteous anger, which still has to be handled with care. Two more positive moral feelings are gratitude and elevation. I think gratitude is important as it can lead to reciprocal altruism (see below). Elevation is a feeling experienced when we observe good moral behavior. It makes us feel good when we see good being done to others.²
Finally, in connection with moral feelings there is the concept of altruism. The Oxford English Dictionary gives two definitions for altruism:
1. Disinterested or selfless concern for the well-being of others, esp. as a principle of action. Opposed to selfishness, egoism, or (in early use) egotism.
2. Chiefly Zool. Behaviour of an animal that benefits one or more others (typically of its own species), but which carries a cost for the individual concerned.
The first definition I think is how it is viewed morally, and the second is a more scientific definition. You can think of altruism as an action brought on by our moral feelings. The reciprocal kind is less disinterested; there is some kind of weighting being given to the action. “Can this benefit me in the future?” This weighting need not be conscious.
One other thing I will mention before moving on is that I have been using moral feelings, and not moral emotions. I belief it is feelings that is most often the impetus for are actions. This is because our moral actions our most often a conscious affair, and it is our feelings that make us aware of our emotions. We can have an emotion without being aware of it, but feelings are a conscious event. One exception where emotions can lead directly to moral behavior is during some acts of altruism. For instance, immediately coming to the aid of an accident victim without a “moment’s thought.”
So, if a good part of our moral actions are driven by the moral feelings, where does reasoning—the rational component—fit in? I believe that reasoning is an important part of our moral decision making. Some moral actions can still get done without it, but the more deliberative a moral decision is the higher the reasoning component’s role in the decision making it is.
“Oh, I didn’t think.” “I am so sorry. I don’t know what I was thinking.” “I wish I could take it back.” These are some of the things we say when we act before we think about the consequences of our actions. It also shows the importance of reasoning about our moral actions. As I said above our moral feelings are not a certain guide to moral behavior. This is why rational thought—thinking things through—is so important in behaving morally. I will repeat again, however, that this reasoning would not be possible without the driving force of moral feelings.
So, we know we have to think properly to act morally in most cases, but on what basis do we reason about these acts? Do we have any guidance, since we our the ones who label ours and others’ actions as good or bad? Remember, it is us who provide meaning to our world, including our moral world of right and wrong. What are the facts of a particular situation calling for a moral decision? To answer these questions you need to use your brain’s reasoning capabilities.
But, first what does and does not make for a moral action? The concept of harm is a popular standard by which to judge these acts. Whatever harms another is not moral, and whatever prevents harm is moral. This is supported by Walter Sinnot-Armstrong in his Morality
without god. Another who supports the harm doctrine is Robert Johnson in his Rational Morality. However, he believes in addition to harm (actually previous to it) it is whether or not an action is rational that makes it moral or not. He also supports Sam Harris’ view seen in The Moral Landscape that sets the bar at whatever contributes to the well being of conscious life, which includes other animals besides us human beings.
Then there are the classical forms of ethics to help guide us such as utilitarianism. This principle is guided by the what contributes to the greatest happiness for the greater number of people. There is also Kant’s moral imperative, which involves two main notions. One is that an action is moral if you can will it to be a universal law (sort of the “golden rule”). The other is always treat others as ends and never as just means (I see this as everyone should be accorded respect). One more principle often used is consequentialism. An action is moral or not depending on the consequences of the the action performed. These are not the only principles^ that people follow to inform them of what is right or wrong, but these are enough to make a point—all of these moral principles require rational thought.
I have mentioned facts. Why? Because without knowing what is actually the case, it is hard to see how one can arrive at a good, let alone best, moral choice. Here, I would agree with Harris; we must know the latest knowledge concerning things like psychology, neuroscience, and sociology. We want to know what is best for people in any given situation, and science can give us needed information as we go about our way of finding out what to do.
One final thing I want to say about the rational component to morality. Reason comes into its own (unlike with moral principles, which still relies on the subjective to some degree) when we deliberate about the actual action we should perform. We have formed (hopefully) some basis to make moral decisions (i.e. formed some principles to guide us), and we have (hopefully again) attended to the facts we were able to assemble, now we have to reason our way to a decision we believe is the right thing to do, or at least avoid a wrong one. Remember though, that our moral feelings are still driving us to seek a moral solution, it is just that actual moral feelings are not in direct use in making the actual decision. Moral feelings will become important again once we finalize our decision and act.
So, we have I believe there are three major components to determining moral action. First, and without which I do not think there would be much moral action in the first place is moral feelings. While empathy might be the main moral feeling that guides us, there are also as mentioned before: compassion, rapport, warmth, concord, shame, guilt, embarrassment, pride, righteous anger, gratitude, and elevation. One I did not mention before is disgust. Scenes, real or imagined, of moral decrepitude bring on feelings of disgust, and therefore can be a significant factor in assessing and doing the right things and avoiding or correcting the wrong things.
Second, is our reasoning capacities. We are capable of rationally contemplating what is good or bad, and what is the right or wrong thing to do. This includes the forming of moral principles, which will be partly subjective, being formed in conjunction with moral feelings. While moral feelings are certainly important in forming the need for moral action and driving the search for a moral solution, it is our rationality that helps us know what is the right moral action to perform. Rationality means that our thinking must be coherent (i.e. without contradictions or inconsistencies), and that it has to jive with the facts.
Third, as just mention it is necessary to consider the facts. This is where science comes in; it provides the best (although, not the only) information we can obtain. So, it makes sense to utilize the best we have access to. This is where observation of what has worked in the past in making good moral decisions is useful. Call it knowledge if you will; nevertheless, without the facts our moral decisions, hence actions, would be poorer.
So, are moral feelings, our reasoning, and attention to the facts have been attended to, what next? Action of course. But, how? This is where one of the most powerful of all our feelings comes into play. So, what is this feeling? Free will†. Yes, I have come to believe that free will is a feeling. And, I also believe that is a necessary feeling in order for us to perform any deliberated action—moral or not. There are studies that show that the parts of the brain thought responsible for our feelings are also active when we make decisions and then act upon them. Free will is such a strongly felt feeling that it is impossible to deny, except in certain philosophical moments, that we do not have it.
Let us wrap it up. Morality is in a large part subjective, but still has some objectivism to it. The subjective part comes in two flavors. One is it is us who assign the labels right and wrong, good or bad to the world around us. The other is that the core of morality as I see it is that there would be no morality at all without what I have called moral feelings. These are so integral to morality that without them I doubt we would be moral creatures at all. We move to the more objective, but still reliant on the subjective, when we look at some guiding principles, which is a more rational activity. Rationality then moves into its own when we reason about a particular moral action we should perform. But, it is also necessary to look at the facts of the matter. This includes observations of the particular situation and using the findings of science where available. Finally, free will allows us to perform the moral action that we have deliberated about.
Have I proved my case? Not if you want a foolproof guide to ethics. But, I do not think anyone has provided this kind of proof. Does my case help us understand moral decision making and behavior? I believe so, and I also believe that it does so more effectively than other ethical theories. Could my case use some work? Of course, it could. After all this is philosophy, and to me philosophy is an exploration of things.* If it were “the” answer, it would not be called philosophy anymore by my lights. It would be called dogma (a dubious title) or fact.
¹ Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think.
² For a review article on the subject of moral feelings and action see a chapter in “Moral Feelings and Moral Behavior” of Annual Review of Psychology (2007) It can be found here – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3083636/
* For my view on what philosophy is about see my post – What Is Philosophy?.
^ I give a fuller exploration of different moral theories in my post – What Did Aristotle Mean?. You will also find there my take on virtue ethics, which I did mention, but did not really discussed in this post.
† I plan on writing a blog post on free will being a feeling. It will also review other theories and find where I think they are wanting as explanations. I will also point out that free will is activite in more than just moral decision making and acting.
Postscript: I am sorry to all you objectivists out there, some (a good part) of ethics involves subjectivism, and this if not liked by everybody is something we just need to learn to accept. I see no way around moral feelings or that human beings are the provider of meaning in the our world. Simple and complex (scientific) observations should be enough to show that moral subjectivism is true, albeit not the sole component to moral decision making and behavior. I also did not mention natural law or rights and divine command theories in this post. The reason is also simple and complex—they are patently false.