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MPA 8300
Leadership Ethics







Overview of Ethical Subjectivism:














































































































































































































































































































































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"De gustibus non est disputandum"
(in English, "Can't we all just get along?")


In the midst of the oftentimes heated debate surrounding ethical issues, discourse will turn somewhat ugly when individuals assert what they call “truths.”  As other individuals contest these alleged truths—oftentimes demanding “proof” that an assertion is, in fact, true—passions rise to the boiling point…and sometimes beyond the boiling point.  Then, when adequately sufficient “proof” is not produced, feelings get hurt, especially as one’s closely-held, private “truths” fail to stand the test of public scrutiny.

In a New York Times op ed piece, Anna Quindlen criticizes the prosecution of those who publicly exhibited Robert Mapplethorpe's homoerotic photographs.  Critics believe the photos were obscene but, Quindlen argued, the issue is merely a matter of personal preference:

You don't like Federal funding for this stuff?  That's O.K.; the Stealth bomber offends my esthetic sensibilities.  You say potato; I'll say pohtato [sic]....And you can buy anchovies and do whatever you want in your house, too....The board of standards resides within our own skulls.  (1990, p. E27)

Ethical subjectivism is the belief that all ethical thought and, in particular, judgments about human conduct, are shaped by and in many ways limited to perception.  That is to say, the ethical statements humans assert are arbitrary because they do not express immutable truths grasped by the refined power of the intellect.  Instead, ethical statements express the feelings, beliefs, preferences, and attitudes of the person(s) or group(s) making those statements.

As a body of ethical theory, ethical subjectivism begins with personal experiences of the world and ends as human beings generalize these experiences to the world so that a person or group can render definitive judgments about the world.  It happens with little things, for example, a person’s insistence that pouring cream into a coffee mug before pouring the coffee into it keeps the coffee warmer.  Chemists say this is absurd.  It also happens with big things, for example, a parent’s insistence that pre-marital sex is wrong.  Many young people say this is an arcane rule of a by-gone Puritan or Victorian era when sexual expression was viewed as evil.  Arguably, the idea implicit in ethical subjectivism is communicated best in M.C. Escher's drawing.  Are the stairways moving in the direction of upstairs or downstairs?  Is the answer―like ethics―a matter of person perception?


Ethical subjectivism, then, extends what individuals and groups perceive to be true into assertions concerning what is in fact true.  This body of ethical theory does so because ethical subjectivists believe that no ideal or uniquely correct resolution to ethical disagreements exist.  For ethical subjectivists, there are no objectively true ethical principles and, thus, there is no absolute standardwhat might be called an “ethical yardstick”that all rational people must agree to and use when making determinations about the veracity of various ethical assertions.  Accordingly, closely-held ethical beliefs are neither false nor irrational; they are true simply because ethical beliefs accurately (if not infallibly) report an individual's perceptions of what is “out there” in the real world.  And, although many people would deny that they are ethical subjectivists, they do conduct themselves as ethical subjectivists because they take quite seriously―and perhaps use as their starting point when making ethical decisions―the personal and cultural influences that shape how human beings seek to know objectively what the truth is.

Ethical subjectivism illuminates how many ethical conclusions are relative because these conclusions—asserted as “truths”—are, in fact, dependent upon what people feel, believe, and prefer as well as their antecedents and attitudes about these things.  Ethical subjectivism also illuminates the importance of being tolerant when one is engaged in ethical discourse because diverse ethical perspectives must be heard, understood, appreciated, and respected.  Being tolerant does not mean, however, that people must agree with the ethical judgments that others posit; it simply requires understanding and appreciating these judgments for what they are and what all ethical judgments are, namely, statements about perceptions.  Tolerance, then, is prerequisite to ethical discourse because there is no objective ethical standard that all rational people must agree to, as their perceptions frequently differ for a variety of reasons.

What ethical subjectivism accomplishes as a body of ethical theory, then, is to offer a description concerning how humans come to different ethical conclusions.  Ethical subjectivism also raises some serious challenges concerning what many people believe to be objectively true, ethically speaking.

Four Very Popular Varieties of Ethical Subjectivism

Some ethicists call ethical subjectivism a “meta-ethical” theory in that ethical subjectivism encompasses a number of subjectivist ethical theories.  It is in this sense that ethical subjectivism can be broken down into four general expressions, simple subjectivism, emotivism,  individual subjectivism (including psychological egoism and ethical egoism), and cultural subjectivism (called “cultural relativism”).


As noted above, simple subjectivism asserts that ethical statements reflect sentiments (e.g., personal preferences and feelings) rather than facts.  “I like X” or “I don’t like X” are both infallibly true as long as both honestly represent factually one’s perception of reality.  For example, the statement “I believe keeping Terri Schiavo alive through intravenous feeding is wrong” is as true as is its contrary “I believe keeping Terri Schiavo alive through intravenous feelings is right.”

As this example suggests, simple subjectivism presents a problem in that simple subjectivism offers no way for the parties engaged in ethical debate to resolve their disagreements.  Instead, simple subjectivism requires each side to exercise tolerance by acknowledging the factual truth of the perceptions asserted by opponents.  According to simple subjectivism, the admission “Yes, you do believe that and, although I disagree with you, I respect you for standing up for what you believe is true” is the place where all ethical disagreement logically ends.  After all, each person is asserting infallibly true perceptions about reality!

Simple subjectivism, then, is deficient because being tolerant skirts the type of dilemmas that ethics seeks to resolve, namely, deciding what is the right thing to do.  In the case of Terri Schiavo, the decision to provide (or, for that matter, not to provide) intravenous feeding would not be tolerant of the other side’s beliefs in this important ethical matter.

Simple subjectivism presents a second problem in that feelings oftentimes change.  This may result as additional knowledge and experience are acquired or as the facts and circumstances surrounding the ethical dilemma change.  It would not make sense, for example, to make ethical decisions based upon feelings which can be fleeting and are subject to change.  Simple subjectivism stymies ethical agents, then, in their efforts to do the right thing because, in an ethical dilemma, ethical agents would have no alternative other than to do nothing because they would not have absolute assurance that their feelings will not change.  So, what is to be done to Terri Schiavo?  Should her physician withhold or not withhold vital nutrition?  If one’s feelings today might change at some future point in time, what would tolerance dictate?  Especially when debate concerns issues involving human life, it would seem reasonable to err on the side of preserving life.  However, that would be “intolerant” of those whose beliefs suggest otherwise.


In an effort to get beyond the problems simple subjectivism poses, in might be asked: Are perceptions and feelings what people really disagree about in ethical debate?  Or, is it more likely the case that they disagree about attitudes―as all attitudes are―based upon differing perceptions and feelings?

Emotivism responds to this question by changing the language of ethical discourse so that there will be no disagreements about facts (i.e., perceptions and feelings) but only about attitudes.  Emotivists assert that ethical language is not fact-stating language that conveys information humans can demonstrate to be true or false.  Instead, human beings use ethical language to influence the attitudes and behavior of other human beings.  As such, ethical language expresses closely-held attitudes that one person uses with the intention of swaying others to accept and to act on, not information that is true or false.

Reconsidering the Terri Schiavo case in light of the contributions emotivism makes to ethical discourse, both sides hold equally strong feelings about whether to continue or withhold nutrition.  Yet, at the same time, neither side disagrees that any decision in this case is laden with serious implications concerning the value and sanctity of human life.  What both parties disagree about vehemently is the attitude each possesses and what that means in practical terms.

Like simple subjectivists, emotivists accept the premise that the content of ethical discourse is entirely subjective.  But, emotivists press beyond simple subjectivists by arguing that ethical disagreements are in attitudes people hold not their feelings about attitudes.  Those arguing that nutrition should be withheld from Terri Schiavo so that she can die hold the attitude that they do value and human life and uphold its sanctity.  In this case, therefore, the comatose woman is not and will not be capable of leading what proponents of this attitude define as “human life.”  In contrast, those arguing that nutrition continue to be given to Terri Schiavo hold the attitude that the value and sanctity of human life begins at conception and continues through natural death.  In this case, therefore, providing nutrition until Terri Schiavo recovers or dies naturally is mandated.  The disagreement, then, is in the attitudes proponents hold not their feelings about those attitudes.

But, it must be asked, “Do attitudes provide a sound basis for making ethical decisions?”

Let’s consider the Holocaust.  Is it sufficient to say that what made Hitler’s “final solution” unethical was simply the Allies’ disagreement in attitude and their power to make their attitude prevail?  Is the attitude that sending people to concentration camps and death chambers because of their religious or ethnic identity unethical simply because others―whether a majority or a minority of people―disagreed with this attitude?

Let’s also consider the issue of homosexuals who desire to be married.  Is the attitude that homosexual marriage should be legalized ethical simply because a minority (or even, a majority) of people concur with this attitude?  Is the attitude that the state has a right to deny homosexuals marriage licenses ethical simply because a legislature says so?

If the logic implicit in upholding those applications of emotivism is sound, then just about any behavior must be tolerated.  What is the point of disagreement whether one holds an attitude that is pro or con is not objective truth but, instead, subjective truth as this is expressed in one’s attitude.

Psychological Egoism and Ethical Egoism

If determining what ought to be done in a dilemma―which is the purpose for ethics―is not based upon feelings or attitudes, is determining what ought to be done worth pursuing?

Individual subjectivists argue that it would be more profitable to examine what people actually do in order to determine the actual content of ethical conduct.  To this end, psychological egoists propose looking at how people actually do behave and their motives to explain the content of ethical behavior.  In contrast, ethical egoists eschew this view, theorizing instead about how people ought to behave, proposing that it is in each person’s self interest to behave ethically.

Psychological Egoism

Consider the case of a woman who has dedicated her life to teaching young people in an inner-city, public elementary school.  From all reports, and as the standardized test scores her students receive each year attest, she is an exceptionally dedicated and caring educator, devoted to helping her students succeed academically.

Psychological egoism asks many questions regarding what this educator’s attitude about her profession and precisely what motivates her.  Is it that of a selfless altruist who has dedicated her personal and professional lives to educate young people who might otherwise be let down by the educational system, as Jonathan Kozol (1992) describes so vividly in Savage Inequalities?  Or, is this educator’s attitude motivated by self-interest, that is, she actually devotes herself to the important cause of educating young people in the inner-city because it makes her feel good about herself, the value of her life, and her sense of personal efficacy?

Psychological egoism focuses not upon what people ought to do but what people actually do and the motives explaining why people act as they do.  Psychological egoism posits that ethical behavior is explained through one of two motives: 1) people do what they do to achieve other, highly-prized yet covert ends or 2) people do what makes them feel good because they know they ought to do these things.  No matter which motive explains ethical conduct, psychological egoism posits that ethical conduct is motivated primarily by self-interest.

In the case of the inner-city educator, perhaps she is devoted to her students because what really motivates he is that others hold this woman in high regard.  If this was her true motive, this educator not only wants to be regarded as someone who cares―after all, don’t all truly dedicated educators care―but also, and more importantly, this educator wants to be regarded as someone who cares so much that she ventures beyond the comfortable boundaries of her cultural background and neighborhood in much the same way missionaries venture to foreign lands.  Might the true explanation of her behavior be that this educator possesses such low self-esteem that she compensates for this lack by drawing attention to herself through her exemplary work?

Suppose this highly-regarded inner-city educator grew up in a home where the Protestant work ethic (Weber, 1930) characterized how this educator’s parents viewed childrearing.  Might it be more accurate, then, to view what otherwise would be characterized as altruistic and selfless behavior as an unconscious attempt on this woman’s part to please her parents by pressing far beyond the norm of what they would expect of their daughter?  Undoubtedly, living up to parental expectations provides a powerful motive for many young people; but, it could become a pathological motive if young people grew up and lived out their lives simply to please their parents.

Or, might this educator’s true motive be not to please her parents but, more forebodingly, to please God through her “good works,” as is amply evident in her care for society’s poor and disenfranchised?  If that were the case, her conduct would be motivated not because she loves God and neighbor but because she fears God’s vengeance and the possibility of eternal damnation.  The threat of spending eternal life in Hell undoubtedly provides a powerful motive that explains why many people do good things.  That is, many people will conduct themselves ethically not because ethical conduct is good in and of itself and ought to be done.  Because of this, spending eternity in Hell is not in their self-interest.

As the example of the highly-regarded inner-city educator makes clear, psychological egoism raises the specter that the object of desire―not the object itself―is what determines the ethical quality of human conduct.  What appears on the surface as “good conduct,” psychological egoism deconstructs to reveal egocentric, selfish conduct.

Because ethical theories emerge in response to the deficiencies exposed in previously espoused theories as, for example, in the case of emotivism which strengthens the weakness found in simple subjectivism, it should not prove surprising that psychological egoism focuses upon attitudes rather than emotions.  As in the case of the inner-city educator, her attitude toward her profession is critical because her attitude might well poison what would otherwise appear to be a noble and laudable endeavor.  Because psychological egoism places the motive into question, this ethical theory takes a skeptical if not cynical stance toward much of what appears to be ethical conduct, explaining it in terms of selfish and egotistical motives.

For that reason, many ethicists insist that psychological egoism is fatally flawed.  Rachels (2003), for example, argues that any ideology excluding other, equally plausible rational explanations is inherently flawed.  The logical fallacy implicit in psychological egoism oftentimes appears in the workplace when, for example, a manager is told something about a subordinate’s performance and subsequently views that subordinate’s performance through the lens provided by that information not the subordinate’s actual performance.  Thus, while the claims asserted by psychological egoists seem irrefutable, what this ethical theory really does, as Rachels notes, is to accept a hypothesis and then to interpret everything else in support of it.

Furthermore, psychological egoism confuses three important matters by making them equivalent.  In reality, these matters are not equivalent at all.

First, psychological egoism equates selfishness with self-interest.  That is, psychological egoism asserts that agents will ignore the interests of others in favor of their own self-interests.   While this may be what people actually do, as Rachels notes, the logic underlying this interpretation is flawed.  For example, it certainly is in one’s self-interest to brush one’s teeth daily; but, it is not a selfish act to brush one’s teeth daily.

Second, psychological egoism equates self-interest with the pursuit of pleasure.  That is, agents are motivated to behave in certain ways because it provides pleasure.  But, once again, as Rachels notes, while this may well be what people actually do, the logic underlying this interpretation is flawed.  Consider, for example, how cigarette smoking gives pleasure; at the same time, medical evidence indicates rather conclusively that it is not in one’s self-interest to smoke cigarettes.

Third, psychological egoism equates concern for one’s welfare with having no concern for the welfare of others.  As in the case of the inner-city teacher, her concern is not really for her students’ best self-interests but for her own best self-interests, as she defines those.  But, as Rachels maintains, the conduct of agents―like the inner-city teacher―can be motivated by the desire that they and others experience happiness.

Psychological egoism provides insight into what may well explain why some agents do act as they do; that is, the appearance of ethical behavior has more to do with one’s self-interest than it does with the self-interests of other people.  The theory’s Achilles heel is not simply the negative, skeptical, and perhaps even cynical attitude spawned by equating self-interest with selfishness.  No, the Achilles heel of psychological egoism is exposed in the way this theory also equates self-interest with pleasure and happiness by excluding other very reasonable explanations.


In light of the potential for negativism, skepticism and cynicism to result from psychological egoism as well as the logical fallacies inherent in the theory, ethical egoists eschew the work of examining human conduct through the lens of how people actually do behave in favor of theorizing about how people ought to behave.  Invoking “the principle of self interest,” ethical egoists require agents to ask “Is it in my best interest to do X or to do Y?” because, ethical egoists maintain, every human being ought to pursue what is in his or her self-interest exclusively.

What, then, is exclusively in one’s self-interest?

People help other people, ethical egoists assert, not because of selfishness, pleasure, or happiness, as psychological egoists assert.  No, human beings help their fellow human beings because it is advantageous to do so.  “What difference does it make whether the inner city teacher―a profession which gives the teacher immense pleasure―is motivated solely by self-interest?” ethical egoists ask.  “After all, isn’t helping others―especially those who really do need assistance―ultimately in one’s self-interest because helping other human beings serves to improve society?” ethical egoists respond rhetorically.  Likewise, although smoking cigarettes does give pleasure, medical evidence strongly argues that it would be foolish―and hence, not in one’s self-interest―to smoke.  While ethical egoists endorse selfishness, they do not endorse acting foolishly.  Thus, ethical egoism―not any immutable ethical precept―balances personal self-interests with others’ self-interests so as to pass the test of “commonsense ethics.”

Ethical egoists propose an interesting argument, one worthy of further consideration.  To do so, consider federal policies aimed at providing welfare to underprivileged citizens.

Taken at face value, the sense of altruism present in these policies is commendable, if not laudable.  That is, in order to provide an “assist” or “social safety net” to those who stand in need, these policies offer hope not only to improve the lot of the underprivileged―their basic needs will be provided for―but also to improve society as well―it actually makes progress as fewer and fewer citizens need welfare.  Furthermore, federal welfare policies take each human being seriously and accord ultimate value to each human being’s welfare as well of society’s responsibility to its members.  Commonsense ethics―for example, the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”)―dictates that such policies are virtuous.  Even in the case where welfare policies are motivated by self-interest―for example, politicians vote for these policies because politicians will then appear to their constituents to be “champions of the poor”―their self-interest does not detract from the virtue associated with these policies.

This line of thought assumes that welfare policies are virtuous.  But, it must be asked: "Are they?"

Consider not what federal policies aimed at providing welfare to the underprivileged propose to accomplish―the intention―but what they in fact do to the underprivileged―the outcome.  By making the underprivileged the object of federal largesse, providing welfare appears to degrade the underprivileged even further by not requiring of them what is ordinarily required of their fellow citizens, namely, to provide for their own basic needs.  As the first wave of data collected after the reform of federal welfare programs in the mid-1990s indicate, it is important to ask: “Is it in the self-interest of the underprivileged and of society as well to legislate welfare policies that turn the underprivileged into second-class citizens who have grown dependent upon welfare in order to provide for their basic needs?”  Would that not be foolishness on a grand scale?

As this example suggests, ethical egoism endorses both unethical conduct as well as foolishness.  Furthermore, ethical egoism dictates that people ought to do their best to prevail in ethical dilemmas because it is in their self-interest to prevail.  However, the outcome of this approach is that conflicts of interests and social inequalities are further exacerbated, not resolved.  Considering the impact that such logic has upon human beings, this is bad enough.  But, things get worse when ethical egoism is pursued to its logical end.

The fundamental basis of ethical egoism is that, when agents make ethical decisions, each individual’s self-interests are primary even if there is no factual difference between people.  Should it not be asked: “What makes me and my self-interests so special that I ought to prevail over others and their self-interests?”  For example, why should a non-minority teacher’s self-interests prevail over the self-interests of minority groups whose members would prefer that one of their own teach their children?  Or, why should the self-interests of non-racists trump those of racists?  After all, the only differences between non-minority and minority teachers or non-racists and racists are secondary differences not factual differences!  Yet, commonsense ethics suggests the opposite.

Unfortunately, ethical egoism―while offering an interesting argument concerning what agents ought to do―does not provide logically consistent principles concerning what agents must do.


The study of ethics presumes the possibility that human beings can discover a code of conduct that agents should follow in all times and places.  Yet, during the 20th century as anthropologists like Margaret Mead examined different cultures and the codes governing the conduct of their peoples, it has become increasingly evident that although this sought-after Holy Grail of ethics can be conceived of by the power of the human mind, it simply does not exist in the world of human interaction.  Instead, proscribed conduct―specific behaviors identified as “taboo,” “wrong,” “immoral,” “bad,” or “evil”―is, for the most part, largely dependent upon the culture proscribing that conduct.  Ethical relativism―offering a rationale that presses beyond other subjective ethical theories―is perhaps the most seductive ethical theory influencing many people today.

The premises of ethical relativism

Ethical relativism steadfastly opposes the fundamental premise of traditional Western ethics, asserting that no ethical absolutes exist.  Furthermore, ethical relativism posits that these are the product of the accumulated experience of individual cultures.  What is “customary” in one culture may not be customary in another culture making all ethics not universal but relative to the culture within which it emerges.  The aphorism, “Everything is relative,” is commonly invoked to communicate this notion.  Ethical relativism also posits that objections to another culture’s customs―its ethical conventions―are based not upon truth (whether philosophical or religious) but upon individual, societal, or cultural preferences.  And, as a consequence, the customs of different cultures are of equal worth or merit, to be tolerated if not respected.  The “I’m okay, you’re okay” mentality which begets the “Can’t we all just get along?” attitude pretty well pinpoints the reasoning of ethical relativists.

However, it is the aphorism “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” that provides the greatest clarity about and insight into ethical relativism.

"What the Romans do,” it is to be presumed, is virtuous (or, at a minimum, not unethical) for Romans.  So, when in Rome, a visitor is free to engage in what otherwise would be unethical behavior, at least in so far as it is proscribed by one’s native culture.  Furthermore, should the visitor wish not to engage in that conduct because he believes it truly is unethical, would it not be arrogant―if not imperialist―for the visitor to criticize Roman culture as ethically inferior one’s own?  Why?  Because the customs of different cultures are relative, ethically speaking, and it is neither appropriate to label differences “inferior” nor to force other cultures to conform to another’s customs.

Viewed in this way, ethical relativism rests upon five basic assertions.

First, human beings are acutely aware of their limitations and nowhere more especially so than the limits of human reasoning.  That is, humans are not omniscient.  To sustain this assertion, ethical relativists point to history, replete as it is with examples where individuals, societies, and cultures have acted in the name of an infallible truth later demonstrated to be fallible.  Human beings simply cannot see infallibly into the future much less assert anything with absolute confidence based as the assertion would be upon limited knowledge.  Due to this limitation, ethical relativists assert that intellectual humility requires individuals, societies, and cultures to recognize much of what is believed to be “fact” is actually “opinion,” as Plato (1981) first noted in The Meno.  Thus, an individual, society, or culture asserts what it believes to be an absolute only at the highly prohibitive cost of being deceptive or, worse yet, disillusioned.  Thus, individuals, societies, and cultures should be extremely wary of, if not utterly reject, the existence of any absolute and absolutely avoid basing important ethical decisions premised upon an absolute.

Second, ethical relativists assert the commonsensical ethical proposition that it is far superior for individuals, societies, and cultures to be ready to adjust and readjust their trajectory based upon short-range goals rather than to stick with (or to abandon) long-range goals.  Knowledge of past experience as well as an awareness of what lies ahead in the short term proves itself vastly superior in the ethical decision-making process than does placing hope in and gambling upon an unknown future which denies present prospects.  While long-term projections are helpful, for example, when formulating national budgets, ethical relativists believe that life experience and a short-term view provide better guidance for individuals, societies, and cultures to improve themselves and others as well.

Third, experience teaches individuals, societies, and cultures that trial and error promotes progress as individuals, societies, and cultures learn to adapt to a continuously changing and turbulent environment.  Absolutes can inhibit experimentation and foreclose possible fields of inquiry and human endeavor that might yield novel insights into what constitutes the nature of reality as individuals, societies, and cultures experience it, as Kuhn (1986) argued in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  Once again, history proves itself instructive in this regard because avant garde intellectuals, innovators, and entrepreneurs oftentimes must defy cultural taboos before being able to expand the body of human knowledge and produce new consumer products.  Ethical relativists desire to progress beyond the limits imposed by hegemonic paradigms in order to render more enlightened judgments, especially those concerning human conduct.

Fourth, ethical relativists ask, if there is an absolutely last end or ultimate goal of human existence, what would happen when that end is reached?  Certainly, because this end is the absolute end, there necessarily would have to be no further possibility which an individual, society, or culture could stretch beyond and grasp.  Would achieving this end not stifle the human spirit and quest for meaning, thus rendering individuals, societies, and cultures devoid of interest, excitement, and joy?  However, if there were further growth and progress beyond this absolute end (e.g., eternal perfection in beatitude), ethical relativists assert, the end achieved was not truly the end.

Fifth, ethical relativists maintain that there is no means that is not a means to an end and, furthermore, there is no end that is not a means to a further end.  This chain of means and ends is necessarily indefinite in length and the notion of an absolutely final end―what Aristotle’s (1958) metaphysical scheme calls a "final" cause―is not only a wrong opinion but an irrational belief.  As Dewey (1939) noted in his Theory of Valuation, the continuity of means and ends renders anything like an ultimate fixed goal both impossible and undesirable because, by breaking off the continuity of mean and ends, individuals, societies, and cultures curtail the flexibility and freedom that has been demonstrated to be associated with human progress.  For this reason alone, it is imperative that ethical agents adopt an incremental, short-term aimed at making progress.

The five assertions of ethical relativism thus stated, much can be said in favor of this ethical theory, but only as long as one is relatively ethically relative.  That is, the ethical relativist who denies all absolutes contradicts oneself by asserting the proposition that everything is relative.  Ethical relativism does not fail as long as one excludes any absolute to which all relatives could be relative, as Augustine (1950) argued nearly sixteen centuries ago in Against the Academics.

What ethical relativists most descry is the hegemony of ethical absolutism, and perhaps especially so because ethical absolutism can lead to political absolutism while ethical relativism leads to political relativism, that is, democracy.  As Kelsen described this fear in the late-1940s,

If one believes in the existence of the absolute, and consequently in absolute values, in the absolute it not meaningless to let a majority vote decide what is politically good?...Tolerance, minority rights, freedom of speech, and freedom of thought, so characteristic of democracy, have no place within a political system based upon the belief in absolute values.  This belief irresistibly leads―and has always led―to a situation in which the one who assumes top position possesses the secret of the absolute good claims to have the right to impose his opinion as well as his will upon the others who are in error.  And to be in error is, according to this view, to be wrong, and hence punishable....It may be that the opinion of the minority, and not the opinion of the majority, is correct.  Solely because of this possibility, which only philosophical relativism can admit―that what is right today may be wrong tomorrow―the minority must have a chance to express freely their opinion and must have full opportunity of becoming the majority.  Only if it is not possible to decide in an absolute way what is right and what is wrong is it advisable to discuss the issue and, after discussion, to submit to a compromise.

This is the true meaning of the political systems which we call democracy, and which we may oppose to political absolutism only because it is political relativism.  (1948, 913-914)

Sounds pretty convincing, doesn't it?

That may well serve to explain why ethical relativism, as a form of ethical subjectivism, is so popular today and why it is invoked by so many people when they have to make decisions in concrete ethical dilemmas.

The arguments of those who oppose ethical relativism

Despite the commonsensical assertions that ethical relativists introduce into speculative discourse about human conduct, many people continue to believe―if only based upon the evidence of innate aspirations that are constitutive of the human spirit―that there must be an absolute upon which individuals, societies, and cultures not only can make judgments about human conduct but also render valid comparisons concerning the conduct of various individuals, societies, and cultures.

The Roman orator and statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero was perhaps the first to advance this argument in his objection to relativism two millennia ago.

In the Laws, Cicero argued, "Socrates was right when he cursed, as he often did, the man who first separated utility from Justice; for this separation, he complained, is the source of all mischief" (as quoted in Morris, 1959, p. 46).  Later, Cicero noted, "But the most foolish notion of all is the belief that everything is just which is found in the customs or laws of nations....But if the principles of Justice were founded on the decrees of peoples, the edicts of princes, or the decisions of judges, then Justice would sanction robbery and adultery and forgery of wills, in case these acts were approved by the votes or decrees of the populace" (p. 48).  Most damning of all, was Cicero's conclusion:

What is right and true is also eternal, and does not begin or end with written statutes....From this point of view it can be readily understood that those who formulated wicked and unjust statutes for nations, thereby breaking their promises and agreements, put into effect anything but "laws."  It may thus be clear that in the very definition of the term "law" there inheres the idea and principle of choosing what is just and true....Therefore Law is the distinction between things just and unjust, made in agreement with that primal and most ancient of all things, Nature; and in conformity to nature's standard are framed those human laws which inflict punishment upon the wicked but defend and protect the good."  (p. 51)

Take, for example, the idea that no wise person would disagree with the ethical relativist’s assertion that the human mind is limited and that agents ought to exercise intellectual humility when making ethical decisions.  But, at the same time, the wise person would also ask the ethical relativist: Would not authentic humility demonstrate itself more forcibly when an agent accepts the evident truth and less forcibly when an agent stubbornly refuses to yield to what evidence dictates?  For example, is it not infallibly true that imbibing adult beverages beyond a certain limit is hazardous to good health?  How could anyone hold that preserving good health is not an absolutely good end and especially when that assertion is bolstered by the facts associated with over-indulgence in alcoholic beverages?  Likewise with cigarette smoking.  How could any reasonable person deny the correlation of smoking and lung cancer and, to a lesser degree, breast cancer?  By elevating the otherwise justified intellectual fear of being deceived or disillusioned to the status of an absolute end, the ethical relativist is being disingenuous by denying facts that reveal truth.

Furthermore, the ethical relativist is correct to assert that human existence consists of making continuous adjustments based upon experience.  Where the ethical relativist confuses matters, however, is that humans do not adjust ends; rather, they adjust the means to those ends.  Take, for example, traveling from one place to another and encountering a road construction project.  One doesn’t cancel the trip simply due to road construction; instead one makes adjustments to one’s plans and perhaps to one’s route.  Where ethical relativists go awry is by transforming means into ends and making it appear logical to believe that individuals, societies, and cultures cannot know if they are bettering their condition.  What is needed to make this assessment and what ethical relativists are not willing to admit is the existence of a fixed standard―an absolute―by which individuals, societies, and cultures can assess progress toward the desired end.

Once again, ethical relativists are correct to criticize any individual, society, or culture that would elevate mere opinion―whether well-founded or not―to the status of immutable truth.  This is especially dangerous and not only because it renders those opinions immune to questioning but also because it renders those opinions immune to testing through careful experimentation.  However, ethical relativists go awry once again by denying the fact that although individuals, societies, and cultures can adopt false absolutes, this does not disprove the existence of absolutes.  Ethical relativism merely reasserts Protagoras’ notion that truth is simply what the perceiver perceives here and now and only as long as the perceiver perceives it, an illogical opinion Plato noted in Theaetetus (1977, ¶152ff.).  Undoubtedly, trial and error produce advances in knowledge.  But, but if there is no end toward which humans direct their questions and experiments, what Aristotle called the "First Cause," how is it possible to know whether and if they have achieved success or encountered error?

Moreover, if death is the absolute end of life, as ethical relativists assert (relatively speaking of course), would death then not be the most stifling, suppressing, and awful of all ends, that is, perpetual nothingness?  Does not this last and final end or goal of life eliminate all possibility for further progress and growth?  Were this assertion veritable, the reality of death would contradict what individuals, societies, and cultures have learned through centuries of experience, namely, the commonsensical notion that the fulfillment of the human spirit is discovered in the freedom to learn, to chase after impossible dreams, hopes, and aspirations, as well as to expand beyond any constraint or limit imposed upon individuals, societies, and cultures.  Adopting the ethical relativist’s assertion and to think about death as an absolute and permanent termination of the human spirit would be akin to striving to achieve excellence in an occupation or hobby with the prior knowledge that no such thing as excellence exists.  Viewed from this perspective, a crude skepticism fuels ethical relativism while the optimism innate to human beings as “spirit in the world” (Geist und welt) provides the reasonable foundation to believe that an end beyond death toward which human beings are oriented (viz., the possibility of eternal life) corresponds to their nature and not in something that would permanently stifle and suppress it.

A more recent critic of ethical relativism, Allan Bloom, assails the political agenda animating ethical relativism in his Closing of the American Mind, observing in particular that, for students who attend American universities, "the relativity of truth is not a theoretical insight but a moral postulate, the condition of a free society" (1987, p. 25).  What Bloom fears are professors who purposely expose young persons to ethical relativism, proclaim its orthodoxy, and then indoctrinate students to view everything their world through its lens.  In Bloom’s own words:

Relativism is necessary to openness; and this is the virtue, the only virtue, which all primary education for more than fifty years has dedicated itself to inculcating.  Openness―and the relativism that makes it the only plausible stance in the fact of various claims to truth and various ways of life and kinds of human beings―is the great insight of our times.  The true believer is the real danger.  The study of history and of culture teaches that all the world was made in the past; men always thought they were right, and that led to wars, persecutions, slavery, xenophobia, racism, and chauvinism.  The point is not to correct the mistakes and really be right; rather it is not to think you are right at all.  The students, of course, cannot defend their opinion.  It is something with which they have been indoctrinated.  The best they can do is point out all the opinions and cultures there are and have been.  What right, they ask, do I or anyone else have to say one is better than the others?  (pp. 25-26)

For Bloom, the cultural relativists who rule the Academy are absolutely unwilling to accept any absolutes…hardly a relativistic stance!

The late-Pope John Paul II addressed this specific issue on many occasions during his twenty-five year pontificate but, with the rise of terrorist attacks throughout the world, traced its roots to ethical relativism and the threat this philosophy poses to present-day democracies.

Arguing that truth "is the best antidote" to what he termed "ideological fanaticism," the Pope expressed his appreciation for democracy "inasmuch as it ensures the participation of citizens in political options and guarantees them the possibility both of electing and controlling their rulers, as well as of replacing them in a peaceful way."  However, the Pope noted, it is important for citizens to be aware of

...the risks and threats for a genuine democracy that might derive from philosophic currents, anthropological views, or political conceptions with ideological prejudices. There is, for example, the tendency to consider that relativism is the attitude of thought that corresponds better to democratic political forms, as if knowledge of the truth and adherence to it were an impediment.  In reality, truth is often feared because it is not known....If political action does not have as reference a higher ethical exigency, enlightened in turn by an integral view of man and society, it ends by serving inappropriate or even illicit ends.  Truth, on the contrary, is the best antidote to ideological fanaticism, in the scientific, political and also the religious realm….Without being rooted in the truth, man and society are exposed to the violence of passions and to open or hidden conditioning.  (Zenit, 2004)

As a former philosophy professor, Pope John Paul II re-echoed the primary critique of ethical relativism that has been leveled during the 20th century, namely, the need for human conduct to be informed by an "enlightened" anthropology which is rooted in objective truth rather than in subjective feelings or attitudes.  When human conduct is not rooted in truth, the Pope argued, citizens in political democracies not only will become confused about what civic duty requires of them but also will be swayed by fanatics―whether on the political left or political right―who will use clever but untrue arguments to get citizens to cast votes for "inappropriate or even illicit ends."  While some may criticize the Pope for crossing the line demarcating morality from ethics by injecting his religious beliefs into political discourse, it should be recalled that Adolph Hitler and Saddam Hussein were duly elected leaders of their respective nations.

Summing up ethical relativism

Ethical relativism provides a theory that enables individuals, societies, and cultures to grapple with some very important and complex notions, especially those concerning the purpose of human existence and the relationship between means and ends.  These notions are central to ethical discourse.

This body of ethical speculation rejects the existence of any absolute good or supreme end or purpose in life.  Instead, ethical relativism answers the question “Is there meaning to human existence?” in the affirmative, requiring agents to discover meaning through culturally defined, limited, and immediate objectives.  This not only requires the willingness to seize upon present opportunities and to adapt to sudden changes in fortune but also to refuse to act upon any singular principle as normative.  Content to live with a short-term view, looking only to immediate prospects, and allowing the future to take care of itself by deliberately intending to remain open to possibilities, the ethical relativist must remain uncommitted to any particular stance.

As Dewey noted in Human Nature and Conduct, what possesses value is whatever an individual finds satisfaction in doing in the world of experience (2002, IV.1).  For the ethical relativist, then, human existence is somewhat meaningful but only in terms of immediate prospects and as these are known in retrospect.  The complete and ultimate meaning of human existence is undiscoverable in the present and, it must be added, unnecessary for navigating a successful life.

The ethical relativist’s proposition, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” is both true and false.  The proposition is true in that everything does possess a relative aspect.  It may be the case that, when visiting Rome, an agent can engage in conduct what otherwise is proscribed at home as, for example, a teenager might legally order a bottle of wine to accompany a meal.  But, this proposition is false in that nothing has any absolute aspect.  Upon returning home, the teenager must abide by the law regarding the sale of alcoholic beverages.  What is of consequence in ethical discourse is that the terms “relative” and “absolute” are not immutable but identify how individuals, societies, and cultures look at and evaluate human experience.  By looking at how cultural mores differ, it is easy to identify relative aspects, as is the case of the visitor to Rome.  But, looking at how cultural mores differ without denying its bearing upon any other thing also makes it easy to identify its absolute aspect, as is the case when the visitor to Rome returns home.  Thus, it is possible to conceive of the same thing as both relative and absolute concurrently although not in the same respect.

Those who contest ethical relativism argue that the relative can only be understood in relationship to some absolute to which all relatives are relative.  That is, the relative is intelligible only if there is some absolute to which all relatives are relative because, if everything is to be judged upon its consequences and these upon their consequences ad infinitum, then there really is no criterion of consequences or, for that matter, of anything.  In ethics, then, everything other than the absolutely final end is relative.  Yet, ethical relativists assert, even this is relative to human beings because the means of living ethically are relative to the end of ethical living and to the person whose life it is.

In the end, it may be that the ethical relativists have unwittingly validated Kant’s (1995) insight, namely, there are a few ethical propositions―what he called “categorical imperatives”―that can be established absolutely.  However, even these must be variants of a single proposition of such transcending generality that no all-embracing proposition can be found to which it might be subordinated.

A more-detailed look at the critics of ethical subjectivism

Think about what might appear, taken at face value, to be a somewhat irrelevant and antiquated argument:

One person asserts that the earth orbits around the sun, stating that this is an objective truth verified by satellite pictures as well as the testimony of astronauts.  Whether anyone wants to believe this proposition or not, this person maintains steadfastly that it is the truth.  Another person argues equally vehemently that the sun revolves around the earth and that this is an objective truth verified by nearly one thousand years of testimony.

What this argument relates, of course, is the debate transpiring between Galileo and officials of the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century.  But, in terms of ethical subjectivism, what this somewhat irrelevant and antiquated argument points out is the fundamental flaw with the assertion of contemporary ethical subjectivists that a judgment is subjectively true simply because someone judges it to be true.

While it is quite reasonable to assert that feelings and attitudes oftentimes do play a prominent role in ethical decision making, it is an entirely different matter to say that all ethical decisions are nothing more than generalizations of personal feelings and attitudes to the ethical realm.  If that were the case, when any ethical assertion is criticized, for example, a Roman Catholic bishop states “Abortion is wrong,” what is being assailed is not the fact that abortion is wrong but that another person’s feelings or attitudes about abortion are wrong.  In an odd sort of way, ethical debate isn’t debate at all because, after all, there is no objective content to debate, only subjective feelings, attitudes, and cultural norms.  Furthermore, what is called “ethical debate” would be more accurately named “ethical mutuality” or “ethical consensus” because contending factions are required to understand and appreciate one another’s perceptions, feelings, and attitudes.  Since ethical subjectivism cannot allow for “winners” and “losers”—because all that counts are perceptions, feelings, and attitudes—ethical subjectivists are very concerned about tolerance and accord it a high premium.  Subjectivism ends not with a solution or an answer to prickly ethical dilemmas but with Rodney King’s question, “Can’t we just all get along?”

There are defects inherent in this reasoning, however.

While it is appealing to believe that ethical assertions reflect human perceptions and are generalizations to the world about how one feels or one's attitudes about things, ethical issues cannot be left to the mercy of feelings and attitudes which are fleeting and oftentimes change.  Were this the case, it would be impossible for individuals and nations to contest and deny the validity of what most identify as absolutely reprehensible human conduct.  Adolf Hitler, for example, perceived and believed the Jewish people presented a proximate threat to humanity and, because of Hitler’s perceptions and beliefs, believed himself justified to exterminate the Jews in the Holocaust.  In the USA, the bigoted feelings, attitudes, and statements as well as the heinous conduct of Klu Klux Klan members during the past two centuries have reflected nothing more than their perceptions, feelings, and attitudes.  According to ethical subjectivism, then, people perceiving and believing otherwise have no right to assert their beliefs as ethically superior to those asserted by KKK members.  Smoking cigarettes, partaking of illegal drugs, and rape don’t represent “evil,” “bad,” “unjust,” or “immoral” conduct.  No, they simply reflect perceptions of reality and the generalization of these perceptions to reality.  Who has a right to criticize those?

As these examples indicate, by elevating “tolerance” to the status of a “virtue,” ethical subjectivists ensnare themselves in a logical bind because they inevitably must accept the statement “I’m okay, you’re okay” or the “anything goes” attitude despite the fact that commonsense ethics compels many people not to believe that those who disagree with them about ethical matters are “okay” or that “anything goes” is acceptable.  For people who use commonsense ethics, when an individual believes that one is “right” and others are “wrong,” at stake is more than a simple disagreement over preferences, beliefs, attitudes, and even cultural norms.  Even though commonsense ethics may not be able to verify exactly why one is right and others are wrong, what animates someone who operates according to commonsense ethics is not simply perception, belief, or an attitude  but the virtues of wisdom and courage, that is, these people “stand for something” when ethical subjectivism requires its adherents to “stand for everything.”  This is the basis upon which men and women exercise ethical leadership.

It is reasonable for ethical subjectivists to ask in ethical debate that ethical assertions be supported by factual evidence, that is, that contending parties verify that their perceptions, beliefs, and attitudes are accurate and, short of hard evidence, that contending parties be skeptical of what each asserts to be “truth.”  But, it is an altogether different matter in the absence of hard evidence to assert that there is no objective truth.  Why? The skeptic errs in logic when doubting the existence of truth simply because the skeptic’s argument itself hinges upon accepting the truth that there is no truth, as Augustine (1950) argued.  In ethical debate, evidence and reason are what overcome commonsense or even reasonable doubts.  What an ethical assertion evidences, then, is not “proof” in the scientific sense of the term but a judgment that is true until challenged and overcome by a better interpretation afforded by new evidence and new reasons.

Furthermore, since ethical assertions give voice to personal feelings, ethical subjectivists assert that all ethical statements must be of equal worth.  While this democratization of ethics has made the four varieties of ethical subjectivism immensely popular, the two premises upon which ethical subjectivism is based lead to another erroneous conclusion.  Those premises are: 1) if everyone possesses an equal right to have and voice their ethical opinions, then everyone's ethical opinions are equally plausible, and 2) everyone does possess an equal right to have and to voice their ethical opinions.  What is the illogical conclusion following from these premises?  Everyone’s ethical assertions are equally plausible.

From the start, ethical subjectivism is errant because the first premise is patently false. Having a right to have and to voice an ethical opinion does not ipso facto make that opinion plausible.  For example, although everyone possesses an equal right to express views about ethical matters, it is not correct to suppose that everyone's opinions are equally plausible.  In addition, while everyone does possess the right to have and to voice ethical opinions, many of these opinions are mistaken.  The plausibility of an ethical opinion, then, really has very little or nothing to do with one's right to hold and to give voice to it.  Having a right to have and to voice an ethical opinion is one thing; the truth of that ethical opinion quite another.  This conclusion directly undermines the first premise, thus rendering the entire argument fallacious.

For example, if everyone's ethical views are as plausible as everyone else's, then all ethical views are ethically equivalent.  While this believe provides a potent weapon in public debate—like political talk shows on cable television—subjectivists had better be careful.  Why?  Because if all ethical views are ethically equivalent, there is no rational basis for criticizing unsavory ethical views or characters.  Ethical outrage has to be eschewed and tolerance must rule because terrorists, mass murderers, racists, and all sorts of other people because their ethical views are true (and perhaps infallibly so) as long as they are sincerely held.  The only area of criticism, ethically speaking, is from one's sincerely held ethical perspective because conflicting ethical views are just different views, one being no better or worse than another.

As noted above, ethical subjectivism also provides a convenient explanation about why there is so much disagreement about fundamental ethical issues, namely, that ethical assertions reflect perceptions rather than truth.  Furthermore, there is no well-defined method in ethicsas there exists in the sciencesfor discovering new truths that supersede or even overturn earlier truths now known to be false.  The diversity of opinions and the lack of any methodology to ascertain the truth seem to add support to the ethical subjectivist’s seemingly logical claim: 1) if there is persistent disagreement among informed, good-willed, open-minded people about some ethical issue, then that issue does not admit of objective truth, and 2) there is persistent disagreement about ethical issues among informed, good-willed, open-minded people.

What is the illogical conclusion following from these premises?  There are no objective ethical truths.

While there is great disagreement about ethical issues, as the second premise rightly argues, much of this disagreement is due to mistaken beliefs.  More factual evidence, it would seem, might lead in the direction of resolving complex ethical disagreements.  Yet, even after gathering the facts, it is also likely that people will continue to contest their ethical views.

Why is this so?

It may well be that some people who disagree do so not because they pride themselves in being disagreeable but because they want to discover the objective truth of the ethical issue being debated.  They aren’t primarily interested in asserting their personal opinions nor are they primarily interested in using their perceptions to defend their views.  No, they truly are attempting to discover something more permanent and lasting than perceptions and attitudes, namely, what the truth of the matter really is.  Disagreement, then, is not necessarily evidence that one is being subjective nor does disagreement imply that one’s judgments are simply a matter of perception or attitude.  In contrast to the subjectivist’s assertion, disagreement evidences how open-minded, serious, and sincere seekers of truth can disagree and do so vehemently.  It is not logical to deduce, therefore, that objective truth does not exist.

A little experiment frequently used by ethicists sets all of these notions in a proper context.

What do you see centered  above?

Based upon their perceptions of the figure, most people would respond stating that they see a blue box.  And, they may be correct.

What is important from the perspective afforded by ethical subjectivism is that some people may perceive something other than a blue box.  And, for these people, the figure is exactly what they identify it to be because that is how they perceive it.  For example, a color-blind person may see nothing because the box is blue!

To know the truth of what the figure is, human beings need to step outside and beyond their perceptions to test their hypothesis asserting that the figure is a blue box.  But, as Descartes (2005) noted, human beings cannot step outside and beyond their perceptions to test hypotheses about “what is.”  Instead, human beings take for granted that their perceptions are a reliable (if not infallible) guide to what identify what truly is “out there.”  Extrapolating this idea, ethical subjectivists maintain that there no truth exists out there.  What exist are perceptions “in there,” meaning “in the mind,” that is, how things appear.  Thus, ethical statements are devoid of factual content and reflect only personal beliefs about ethical matters that have been informed through perception.

As the experiment with the blue box indicates, this is an absurd proposition if only because commonsense dictates otherwise.  If two people disagree that the outdoor temperature is 80 degrees Fahrenheit, that does not mean that there are two different outdoor temperatures.  Likewise, if two people disagree that the capital of the United States is Washington, DC, that does not mean there are two capitals.  There is an absolute truth—the temperature is or is not 80 degrees Fahrenheit and the United States does or does not have a capital—and one person knows what the truth is while the other does not.  Were this not true, human would live in Sartre’s (1969, 1992) world of the absurd which is nothing other than a world of nonsense.

So, is the only rational option to be skeptical, as the ethical subjectivists assert?

The answer must be a resounding “No” because, rather than looking for proof, one might seek to question the validity of certain doubts and, as noted above, the best human beings can hope for, ethically speaking, is to arrive at a prudential judgment regarding the truth that is beyond any reasonable doubt until that truth is contested and overthrown by a better interpretation of the facts.  What this means is that human beings can make assertions about ethical “truths” but wisdom suggests that they do so only provisionally.

In light of all of this, it becomes clear that even though ethical thought, like ethical subjectivism in its many varieties, asserts what appears on the surface to reflect commonsense ethics, there seems to be no shortage of counter-arguments that weaken but do not absolutely overcome ethical subjectivism with a “knock out” punch.  What is required is clear-headed thinking and that depends upon how well all parties to the debate―the entire spectrum from objectivists to subjectivists―advance positive arguments that their critics can then call into question.  Through this hard intellectual labor involving a lot of give and take―where detractors and critics challenge proponents―human beings will make better judgments about what is required of them, ethically speaking.


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