2525 Lecture 5 Subjectivism chap 3 Move this discussion about Protagoras into lec 4 next year – moral scepticism

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2525 Lecture 5 Subjectivism chap 3

????? Move this discussion about Protagoras into lec 4 next year – moral scepticism…….

For lecture 5

Regarding attendance question for lecture 4: 2011

What kind of moral progress would you like to see in the next ten years?
The most common response was regarding acceptance of homosexuality.

The environment

Animal rights

Women’s rights

Poverty and social justice
Other mentions
Female (and male) circumcision

Exploitation of others

Unfairness in divorce proceedings


Freedom of speech

And one person wrote that we shouldn’t have any more social or moral progress because it always just leads to further problems…

An additional note to last week’s discussion about moral scepticism….also relevant to today’s discussion about subjectivism….

Protagoras: early Greek philosopher 490-420 BCE

Considered a pre-Socratic even though alive at the same time as Socrates

Protagoras considered himself a moral skeptic
He came as close as it was safe to come to insisting that there were no gods (Religious authorities powerful…)
In any case, he said, even if the gods created the world, they didn’t seem to care about people
Therefore, people shouldn’t care about them
If you relied on the gods for moral guidance, you were lazy or you were duped (by those who proclaimed to speak for the gods)
We are alone here and we are our own responsibility
(Early Humanism?)

Protagoras: Moral skeptic
Protagoras was a sophist – taught for money
Sophists generally not held in high regard – lacked community roots
Willing to teach young men to prove anything

Didn't care whether truth

The correct side is the winning side –
But Protagoras very concerned with matters of virtue and morality…where morality might come from – whether virtue can be taught…

Find Plato’s dialogue between Socrates and Protagoras...

Moral skeptics:

Man is the measure of all things – of the things that are, that they are – of the things that are not, that they are not

Individuals and groups create truth, according to Protagoras
"For Protagoras, this same relativism applies to morality. We all have our own perceptions about what things are good, evil, just and unjust. We can also defend our views with arguments.

In this sense, each of our respective moral views is true.
(but true only in the sense that there is no standard against which it can be found untrue)
Our respective moral views are not all equally good

Or equally useful

Or equally beneficial
If I say that lying is morally permissible, this may be a true perception on my part, but it isn’t particularly beneficial

if it disgraces me

or jeopardizes my relationships

or undermines social order.

To the extent that Protagoras values the practical benefit of morality,

It’s not saying much to say that your morality is as good as anyone else’s
Protagoras claimed that he could teach moral virtue (arete), just as he could other skills.
The moral virtue he taught, then, involved those values that contained the most practical benefit."
The main points of Protagoras’s moral skepticism:

  • There is no ultimate moral truth

  • Our individual moral views are equally true

  • The practical benefit of our moral values is more important than their truth

  • The practical benefit of moral values is a function of social custom rather than nature


(He seems to abandon objective moral truth in favor of practical moral benefit.)

We spoke last week about Cultural Relativism and the way in which different societies develop their moral systems

When societies come into conflict – everyone thinks that their morality is the RIGHT morality and others are confused, ignorant or evil

Emigration and Immigration also lead to conflict – fear, suspicion and hatred of the newcomer who refuses to conform – who seems to want different rights – religion, education, food, dress, family life

William Graham Sumner wrote:

We learn [the morals of our society] as unconsciously as we learn to walk and hear and breathe, and [we] never know any reason why the [morals] are what they are. The justification of them is that when we wake to consciousness of life we find the facts which already hold us in the bonds of tradition, custom and habit.”

We awaken into a fully-formed family, religion, community, society and we learn to be functioning members of that society long before we question anything…

Cultural relativism says that every society develops its moral values based on its particular experiences and circumstances. And the fact that these vary so widely over time and distance persuades us that we have no reason to suppose that underneath there are any objective moral principles

Today, we’re going to go even a little further and say that morality is dependant on each individual

This is called Simple Subjectivism and is clearly related to relativism

Early proponent: David Hume (18th C. ) but also others

Hume: morality is a matter of sentiment rather than fact…

(sometimes referred to as a ‘moral sense’ theory)

“moral sense” as in a sixth sense

So that we have a sense of taste, smell, touch, hearing, seeing

All these help us understand the world around us

But are also always intermediaries – standing between us and the ‘real’ world -- standing and filtering, perhaps….changing even

The ‘moral sense’ philosophers believed that we have another sense for morality – some special tool – akin to these other senses –

Hume's moral theory is of lasting importance in the history of moral philosophy both for its originality and for its influence on later moral theoriesHume is famous for the position that we cannot derive ought from is -- that is, the view that statements of moral obligation cannot simply be deduced from statements of fact. Some contemporary moral philosophers see Hume as an early proponent of the metaethical view that moral judgments principally express our feelings. What is perhaps less well-known is that Hume's moral theory is the first in modern philosophy to be completely secular, without reference to God's will, a divine creative plan, or an afterlife. Hume also directly argues that key moral values are matters of social convention. These views spawned both praise and indignation in writings of commentators over the years. http://www.iep.utm.edu/h/humemora.htm

Hume accepted from earlier philosophers the distinction between different players in the investigation of morality


The agent: the person doing (or not doing) the action

The receiver: the person directly affected

The spectator: the person watching and judging


(note that they call the person judging the action – the spectator – as though there is something passing from the action to the spectator just as in sight or smell….

And the receiver – as though he is physically receiving something

Punching someone might be physical – the receiver actually receiving

But what of gossip? What does the ‘receiver’ receive?

What of promise-breaking? What does the receiver receive?

What of lying?

What Hume put together was something like this:

Moral actions stem from character, which can be virtuous or vicious

The agent performs some act – the receiver either benefits and is happy or suffers and is distressed

The spectator’s judgment (my judgment) is based on sympathy with the receiver

If the receiver is happy, I judge the act moral

If the receiver is distressed, I judge the act immoral

And since mostly the same things make most of us happy and mostly the same things distress most of us, we eventually build norms for ourselves – and can judge actions right or wrong even abstractly with no agent or receiver in sight

The sympathy is the key – as humans, we have a great capacity for understanding the emotions of others and for sympathising….

(Empathy is the ability to feel what others are feeling in the absence of the direct stimuli

It’s one of the reasons why literature and movies (and soap operas) are so powerful and so rewarding)

I’ve mentioned Frans de Waal’s interesting book Primates and Philosophers

Rather than assuming, as so many have, that we humans have somehow ‘grown beyond’ our animal natures, he sees the roots of human morality in the social emotions found in the higher primates….


The hypothesis which we embrace is plain. It maintains that morality is determined by sentiment. It defines virtue to be whatever mental action or quality gives to a spectator the pleasing sentiment of approbation; and vice the contrary.

We then proceed to examine a plain matter of fact, to wit, what actions have this influence. We consider all the circumstances in which these actions agree, and thence endeavour to extract some general observations with regard to these sentiments. If you call this metaphysics and find anything abstruse here, you need only conclude that your turn of mind is not suited to the moral sciences.

You hear of this subjectivism all the time

It’s right for me…

I have to feel good about it, not you…

I have to make up my own mind…

Morality is in the eye of the beholder….

Where morality is concerned everyone has to make up their own mind…

We like it – it seems to suit our modern world with its rejection of ethnocentrism (the human tendency to judge the world through our cultural or moral eyes) think colonialism – the white man’s burden -- the destruction of Native Canadian culture -- religious bigotry ---

(All the thinks we’ve learned to think better about, eh?)

It seems suited to the diversity of our multicultural society

It seems suited to our laid-back attitudes

It seems good and easy and tolerant….but it has traps p. 38

  1. It cannot account for moral disagreement for it argues that statements about morality are merely self-reports. “I have a headache” is a self-report. It makes no sense to tell me that I don’t. You just have to take my word for it. If I say “Abortion is immoral” your only logical response is acceptance (because what I’m really saying is that I disapprove of abortion – and how could you argue that ‘no, I don’t’??)

      • But we do have moral disagreements – and they’re not really just like I like chocolate chip cookies and you like peanut butter and we’ll each be happy in our own way…

  1. It implies that we’re always right since the only arbiter is ourselves (and our little tummyaches or heartaches) –

      • But we know we’re not always right (and neither is anyone else) – we’ve all regretted something we did (or didn’t do).

  1. It makes morality itself a useless concept for there can be no comparison of one moral act with another – because no standard of comparison – no better or worse moral actions – no better or worse moral people – no way to choose morally between Mother Teresa and Hitler (as long as they were both sincerely living by their own principles)

      • But surely we all feel that some actions are good and some are bad -- notice that word ‘feel’ in there though…

  1. It reduces moral choices to mere likes and dislikes – as in “I don’t know anything about art, but I know what I like” --- saying that torturing cats is immoral can only mean that you don’t like torturing cats – no different logically than saying veggie burgers are bad when all you mean is that you don’t like veggie burgers – and no one can argue with what you like – if you say it sincerely, it has to be a true statement (p 37 in your text) “Homosexuality is immoral” reduces to “I disapprove of homosexuality”

If you want “homosexuality is immoral” to mean more than “I disapprove of homosexuality” you have to give up ethical subjectivism – can’t have it both ways

If you want “torturing cats is immoral” to mean more than “I disapprove of torturing cats” you have to give up ethical subjectivism – can’t have it both ways

Same with murdering your neighbour and stealing her stuff

Same with invading another country

Because these are serious problems, philosophers have tried to tweak the system to make it behave – to make it more acceptable –

The Second Stage: Emotivism (early 20th C.)

  • Begins with the observation that language is used in a variety of ways

    • not only to state facts

    • but also to ask questions

    • express feelings

    • and [of especial interest here] to give commands (imperative sentences)

  • Emotivist Thesis: moral judgments -- though they have the surface grammar of statements, are really disguised commands.

    • Surface grammar: when I say X is right" I seem to be saying there is a property (rightness) had by X.

    • But really:

      • What I am saying is "Do X"

      • When I say X is wrong I'm saying "Don't do X"

    • So we really do disagree – we disagree, not about our attitudes, but in our attitudes.

  • Rachels says:

    • Moral judgments must be supported by reasons

    • If you like peaches, you don’t have to defend your preference

    • But if you like torturing cats, you should have a reason

Emotivism seems to accept as ‘reasons’ any consideration which influences attitudes – this could be trickery, demogoguery, falsehood, propaganda etc.

Another question?? Subjectivism says that morality is based on feelings – reasons can only be of the kind ‘hitting other people always makes them unhappy – so hitting people must be wrong…

Is it reasonable to ask a theory which bases morality on feelings to provide ‘reasons’?

Rachels' Counterproposal

  • There are moral facts

  • It's a false dichotomy to think

    • Either there are moral facts in the same way that there are facts about stars and planets

    • Or else "values" are nothing more than the expression of subjective feelings.

Maybe there’s a third way…..

  • "Moral truths are truths of reason; that is, a moral judgment is true if it is backed by better reasons than the alternatives." P 45

“We cannot make something good or bad just by wishing it to be so….

Before we go on to the question of homosexuality, conventionalism

Conventional ethical relativism

Another attempt to avoid the traps of subjective relativism

Conventionalism is the view that there are no objective moral principles but, rather, all valid moral principles are justified by virtue of their cultural acceptance – this includes an attempt to recognize the social nature of morality

If we are all our own moral arbiters, how can there be any ‘morality’

Conventionalism tries to blunt the harshness of that by requiring ‘social acceptance’ Safety in numbers? Reliability in numbers?

Traps here also…


Hitler had social acceptance for his invasion of Poland

George Bush had social acceptance for his invasion of Iraq

As I said last week, how big does a group have to be to define its own morality?

Lynch mobs in 1920 Mississippi had social acceptance

The Mafia has social acceptance within its ranks

The terrorists of 9/11 have social acceptance within their ranks


We all belong to different groups (with different moral codes)

We belong to families, to churches, to governments, to the human race

How to choose when moral codes disagree?

The Mafia (as portrayed in the Godfather) were good Catholics

Surely the Mafia and the Catholic Church had conflicting moral codes?

The Question of Homosexuality

  • No doubt that many people's anti-homosexual beliefs are rooted in irrational fears & hatreds

  • But we need reason, not emotion

  • Emotions are so powerful, we feel they must be telling us the truth…early learning not easily questioned

Unpacking our prejudices….e. g. homosexuality is wrong

Wrong how? Wrong why? Wrong for whom?

Bad in themselves? Bad for society (family values)

Note that 2/3rd’s of the way down page 49, Rachels admits that the idea that homosexuality is unnatural has intuitive appeal --- but, importantly, no logic

So if you care about logic, you’ll have to reject this argument

And then the ‘family values’ argument

And then the religious argument Leviticus 18:22 and others

But there are many verses in the Bible that we choose to ignore…about beating children, about eating sheep’s fat, about letting women into church who have recently given birth etc.

  • Rachels conclusion

    • moral thinking and moral conduct are a matter of weighing reasons and being guided by them

    • in focusing on attitudes and feelings, Ethical Subjectivism seems to be going in the wrong direction

Discussion: The Ashley treatment:
Remember Rachels’ way of dealing with the Baby Teresa case
Outline your position using principles -- the hard part is aligning your solution to your principles
Everyone has the right to make their own decisions about their body.
Are there exceptions?

  • What about your ten-year old getting a tattoo?

  • What about your mentally-delayed but physically grown son?

  • What about 6 year old Ashley X?

  • What about 15 year old Katie Thorpe?

Everyone should be allowed to reach their full potential.
Are there exceptions?

Hume first discusses ethics in A Treatise of Human Nature. He later extracts and expounds upon the ideas he proposed in Treatise in a shorter essay entitled An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. Hume's approach in Enquiry is fundamentally an empirical one. Instead of telling us how morality ought to operate, he tells us how we actually make moral judgments. After providing us with various examples, he comes to the conclusion that most, though not all, of the behaviors we approve of increase public utility. He supposes that humans may be, in the language of today, 'hard-wired' to approve of things that help society – public utility. Hume used this insight to explain how we evaluate a wide array of phenomena, ranging from social institutions and government policies to character traits and talents.

Nonetheless, Hume is no utilitarian. In line with his debunking of religion, and of knowledge itself, he has no time for theories attempting to put ethics on a pedestal. But nor is he entirely contemptuous of public morality. Unlike Thomas Hobbes, Hume considers the ethical impulse a worthy one, based on more than self-interest. This is because, in addition to considerations of self-interest, Hume maintains that we can be moved by our 'sympathy' for others, fundamental human impulses that provide a person with thoroughly non-selfish concerns and motivations—sometimes referred to by contemporary theorists as altruistic concern.

Here, Hume follows his close friend and (at the time) much more highly respected contemporary, Adam Smith whose book entitled 'The Theory of the Moral Sentiments' (1759) starts with a chapter entitled 'Of Sympathy'. Smith's theory was intended to explain the operations of human society in much the same way as his (better-remembered) economic works on the nature of money. The theory assumes that there are, in fact, "no differences between right and wrong, just different emotional responses to acts"[40] as Martin Cohen has put it. This is why Hume says: "It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger"[41] Instead, Hume defends his sympathy-based, moral sentimentalism by claiming that we could never make moral judgments based on reason alone. Our reason deals with facts and draws conclusions from them, but, Ceteris paribus, it could not lead us to choose one option over the other; only our sentiments can do this. Also, our sympathy-based sentiments can motivate us towards the pursuit of non-selfish ends, like the utility of others. For Hume, and for fellow sympathy-theorist Adam Smith, the term "sympathy" is meant to capture much more than concern for the suffering of others. Sympathy, for Hume, is a principle for the communication and sharing of sentiments, both positive and negative. In this sense, it is akin to what contemporary psychologists and philosophers call empathy. In developing this sympathy-based moral sentimentalism, Hume surpasses the divinely implanted moral sense theory of his predecessor, Francis Hutcheson, by elaborating a naturalistic, moral psychological basis for the moral sense, in terms of the operation of sympathy. Hume's arguments against founding morality on reason are often now included in the arsenal of moral anti-realist arguments. As Humean-inspired philosopher John Mackie suggests, for there to exist moral facts about the world, recognizable by reason and intrinsically motivating, they would have to be very queer facts. Still, there is considerable debate among scholars as to Hume's status as a realist versus anti-realist.

From Wikipedia


Charles Manson.....
Born in 1934 to a teen-age mother who became a prostitute, Manson drifted from reformatory to jail to San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury in the late 1960s. There, his occult spoutings and feral charisma attracted followers who became The Family. Manson and his disciples (who called him both "God" and "Satan") moved to Los Angeles in 1968 to pursue his song-writing ambitions...

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