Subjectivism Blunts Morality

It is often said that subjectivism makes people less likely to care about morality or to act morally when the stakes are high. This is possibly true, but I think subjectivism also has the effect of blunting a person’s moral thought.

For example, subjectivists often compare our moral beliefs to our ice cream preferences. Clearly, this analogy suggests that morality is not important enough to spend a lot of time thinking about. No one has constructed a philosophically rigorous system to defend their ice cream preferences. Why is this? I think that there are several reasons.

First, ice cream preferences don’t have any hold on other people. Ice cream preferences are just matters of taste, so anyone can come along and wipe out your whole system by saying “nope, that’s not what I prefer.” If our beliefs in a certain area can’t aspire to bind other people, then we don’t really want to bother defending them or examining them at any length.

Second, ice cream preferences don’t seem to be capable of being objectively true the way scientific facts are. We are less likely to spend time defending a belief if it can’t aspire to objectivity, because we prefer finding things out about the world over contemplating our own subjective feelings.

Third, it doesn’t seem very useful to spend time defending our ice cream preferences. There are other things we need to do – most people have jobs that they have to spend a significant amount of time at, for example – and there is no real reason to spend time thinking carefully about something that is just a matter of our feelings.

So I would expect someone who believes morality is subjective to be significantly less likely to think carefully about his or her moral beliefs.

I need to make a couple of qualifications on this claim. First of all, this is not to say that moral subjectivists never think carefully about their moral beliefs. Hume, for example, was one moral subjectivist who thought very carefully about his moral beliefs. Nor am I saying that all moral objectivists think carefully about their moral beliefs. There are plenty of Christians who believe morality is “objective” without really knowing what that means or which moral beliefs make the most sense (although this may be motivated partly by their adherence to divine command theory, which encourages people to think that morality is a series of arbitrary commands and therefore in a sense subjective).

Here is an illustration of what I am saying. I once met an atheist who said that Peter Singer’s work isn’t valuable because Singer is just contemplating his own feelings. When pressed further, he admitted that he believed that all morality is just a matter of preference, and therefore that normative ethics isn’t really worth thinking carefully about. This is the sort of thing that I am saying moral subjectivism encourages.


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