3: Is Morality Based on Individual Feelings?


  • Define and appropriately use important terms such as
    subjectivism and emotivism
  • Demonstrate knowledge of major arguments for and problems with
    ethical subjectivism
  • Apply ethical concepts and principles to address moral concerns.

I. Subjectivism and Emotivism in Brief

  • Moral judgments are based on one’s opinions
  • Simple Subjectivism was revised into Emotivism in the 1900s
  • Criticized for failure to include reason

II. Subjectivism: Ethics are my personal opinion

The Assassination of President Lincoln
April 1865

Key Terms

Ethical Subjectivism
Simple Subjectivism

  • People have different opinions
  • There are no “facts” in morality
  • No “right” or “wrong”
  • Moral opinions are based on feelings and opinions
  • Similarities to Cultural Relativism
    • Right and wrong dependent on culture
    • Right and wrong dependent on individual opinion


Take any [vicious] action...willful murder, for instance. Examine it in all lights, and see if you can find that matter of fact, or real existence, which you call vice... You can never find it, till you turn your reflexion in your own breast, and find a sentiment of [disapproval], which arises in you, toward this action. Here is a matter of fact: but ‘tis the object of feeling, not reason

III. Evolution of Ethical Subjectivism

  • Philosophical theories go through stages
  • Theory is presented, objections are raised, the theory is revised,
    objections are raised, and so on
  • A. Simple Subjectivism
    • David Hume quote, advocate of subjectivism
    • When a person says something is morally good, this simply means he or she approves of the thing. Nothing more
    • X is morally acceptable/right/good/ought to be done = I approve of X.
    • X is morally unacceptable/wrong/bad/ought not be done = I disapprove of X
    • Problems with Simple Subjectivism
      • Cannot account for disagreement
        • Ethical statements are statements of personal attitude.
        • If you disagree with someone’s view, you are disagreeing with the truth of their attitude, not the issue
      • Subjectivism implies we’re always right.
        • As long as you’re being truthful, your moral judgment is correct
        • Does not take human fallibility into account
  • B. Emotivism
    • Charles L Stevenson, approached Subjectivism through language
    • Purposes of language: statements of fact, express commands,
      make exclamatory statements about personal attitude
    • Only statements of fact can be judged as true or false
    • Commands and statements of attitude cannot
    • Moral statements are statements of command and attitude
    • Addressing the Problems with Simple Subjectivism
      • Cannot account for disagreement
        • With Emotivism, disagreements can occur, they just occur in different forms
        • Disagreement in belief vs. Disagreement in attitude
        • Moral disagreements are disagreements in attitude
      • Subjectivism implies we’re always right.
        • Statements of command and attitude cannot be true or false
    • Continuing flaws
      • Implication that our moral judgments are beyond reproach
      • Does not explain the role reason plays in Ethics


Any statement about any matter of fact which any speaker considers likely to alter attitudes may be adduced as a reason for or against an ethical judgment

IV. The Role of Reason in Ethics

  • Statements of personal taste do not need reasons
  • Moral judgments need reasons
  • Reason in Subjectivism
    • Moral judgments express one’s attitude and attempt to influence
      other people’s attitude
    • Express attitude = personal taste, no reason required
    • Attempt to influence, any statement could be factually untrue
    • Reasons should be relevant and true
  • What does it mean “matters of fact” in morality?
    • There are moral facts, in the same way that there are chairs and computers
    • Our values are the expressions of subjective feelings
    • OR
    • Moral truths are the truths of reason

V. Proofs in Ethics

  • Differences between scientific proofs (experiments) and ethical proofs (reason, analysis)
  • Why scientific proofs aren’t a valid objection to ethics
    • Ethical proofs are formed through different methods than scientific proofs, but this doesn’t make them better or words
    • Complex ethical questions, like complex scientific questions, are debatable
    • Having a good argument is not the same thing as convincing others of your argument. Many other factors may interfere with your argument’s effectiveness on others.

VI. Concluding Thoughts on Subjectivism

  • Similar concerns as Cultural Relativism
  • Being guided by reason is very different from following one’s feelings