Ethics Subjectivism vs. Relativism
This study will critically compare Ethical Subjectivism and Ethical Relativism. The study will examine the theories as well as examples by which the practical importance of the theories can be more clearly understood. The study will basically argue that both of these approaches to ethics are deeply flawed, but that they each have something important to contribute to the realm of ethics as well. Ethical Subjectivism is defined in terms that can appear almost absurdly simplistic. MacNiven defines it in the following way: a particular action . . . is . . . morally right if some person . . . has a pro attitude toward the action . . . ; a particular action . . . is . . . morally wrong if some person . . . has a con attitude or does not have a pro attitude toward the action (MacNiven
8). This means that the Ethical Subjectivist gives all the power of defining some act as moral or immoral to the individual. In Ethical Subjectivism, if any individual sincerely believes an act to be moral, it is moral. Ethics are entirely subjective. In other words, one individual can feel or believe that homosexuality is immoral, and another feel that homosexuality is moral, and neither one would be right or wrong, according to Ethical Subjectivism. The individuals giving such clashing moral views would simply be expressing their feelings. The only thing at stake in such a system is the right of each individual to express such views.
Ethical relativism is the thesis that ethical principles or judgments are relative to the individual or culture. When stated so vaguely relativism is embraced by numerous lay persons and a sizeable contingent of philosophers. Other philosophers, however, find the thesis patently false, even wonder how anyone could seriously entertain it. Both factions are on to something, yet both miss something significant as well. Those who whole-heartedly embrace relativism note salient respects in which ethics is relative, yet erroneously infer that ethical values are noxiously subjective.
Those who reject relativism do so because they think ethics is subject to rational scrutiny, that moral views can be correct or incorrect. But in rejecting objectionable features of relativism they overlook significant yet non-pernicious ways in which ethics is relative. In short, each side harps on the opponent’s weaknesses while overlooking its own flaws. That is regrettable. We are not forced to choose between relativism and rationality. We can have both. There are ways in which ethical principles and behavior vary legitimately from culture to culture and individual to individual. That we must recognize. However this in no way suggests we cannot reason about ethics. Rather we should strive for a rational yet relativistic ethic which emphasizes the exercise of cultivated moral judgement rather than the rote application of extant moral rules. Or so I shall argue.