Subjectivism and Objectivism about moral rightness/wrongness

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L163-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2020
Retrieved April 21, 2021, from

3. Arguments for Subjectivism

There are various arguments for Subjectivism. One involves simply an appeal to intuition: the sense of ‘wrong’ that is of concern to the morally conscientious agent in her deliberations about what to do intuitively just is the subjective sense, and there’s an end on it. This brute appeal to intuition, though satisfying to some, is not very dialectically effective.

Another argument for Subjectivism makes appeal to a connection between blameworthiness and wrongdoing. If one acts wrongly then one is blameworthy for acting in that way. But as wrongdoing entails blameworthiness, blamelessness entails a lack of wrongdoing. And surely those who harm others through blameless ignorance of the consequences of their actions are blameless for what they do. And so, as the blamelessly ignorant are blameless on account of their ignorance, then so too do they no wrong when they harm others in ignorance of the facts. Mason (2019) offers a version of this argument. This argument depends heavily on the purported connection between blameworthiness and wrongdoing, and Objectivists are inclined to deny it. There is, after all, such a thing as blameless wrongdoing, so say Objectivists, and much of the harm that is done in ignorance of the facts is wrongful though blameless. The argument for Subjectivism by way of a connection between wrongness and blameworthiness is controversial.

Yet another argument for Subjectivism appeals to the thought that morality must be action-guiding. It is maintained that only subjective ‘ought’s are ones that can be action-guiding and so given that the morally conscientious person is concerned to be guided in what to do by the correct moral theory, it must be that the kind of ‘ought’ with which the morally conscientious person is concerned in her deliberations about what to do is a subjective one. This argument is controversial and often not fully articulated, for what exactly is required for a moral theory to be action-guiding is often not precisely specified, nor is it clearly explained why it is that objective moral theories can’t be action-guiding in the relevant sense.

The most promising argument against Objectivism and for Subjectivism is one that has been offered by Jackson (1991). This argument revolves around the following case: Dr Jill has a patient suffering from a mildly painful condition. She has to choose between three syringes with which to inject her patient. The first syringe she knows contains a partial cure for her patient’s ailment. If she administers it, she knows that she’ll alleviate her patient’s pain by 90%. In one of the second and third syringes is a complete cure for her patient’s ailment and in the other is a fatal poison, but she doesn’t know, nor does her evidence indicate, which syringe has the cure and which has the poison. In this case it seems clear that it would be morally wrong to do anything other than inject the first syringe. But injecting the first syringe, Dr Jill knows to be objectively morally wrong. And she also knows that the only objectively morally permissible option is injecting one of the second and third syringes, whichever of them contains the complete cure. As a morally conscientious person would never knowingly do anything they took to be wrong, and no morally conscientious person would do otherwise than inject the first syringe, it must be that injecting the first syringe is not morally wrong. But injecting the first syringe is, and Dr Jill knows it to be, objectively morally wrong. And so, it seems, the sense of ‘wrong’ with which the morally conscientious person is concerned in her deliberations about what to do is not the objective sense of ‘wrong’. So, the Dr Jill case, it is claimed, shows that Objectivism about moral wrongness is false.

What’s more, many maintain, the Dr Jill case demonstrates the truth of a view that goes by the name Prospectivism and is most vigorously defended by Zimmerman (2008, 2014), according to which an action is morally wrong just in case there is among the agent’s options an option which has a higher expected deontic utility than it. The expected deontic utility is calculated in an analogous way to how expected utilities are standardly calculated: the expected deontic utility of an option is the sum of the products for each of the possible option-outcome pairs that might occur given that option is taken of that option-outcome pair’s epistemic probability and its deontic utility. And the deontic utility of an option-outcome pair just is the cardinal ranking that the correct moral theory, whatever it happens to be, assigns to it in the hierarchy of options delivered by that theory. (In appealing to these deontic utilities, Prospectivists hope to accommodate any substantive moral theory, be it consequentialist or non-consequentialist.) Injecting the first syringe in the Dr Jill case is the option with the highest expected deontic utility because though injecting the complete cure, whichever syringe it happens to be in, has the highest deontic utility, injecting the partial cure has a deontic utility only slightly less than it, and the deontic value associated with injecting the fatal poison is very significantly lower than that of both the complete and the partial cures. Thus, according to Prospectivism, the only permissible option in the Dr Jill case is injecting the first syringe. (Zimmerman’s Prospectivism is more complicated than this presentation of the view, however; and that’s because he takes uncertainty about the various deontic values to be relevant to what it would be morally wrong for a person to do. Because of this, Zimmerman talks in terms not of expected deontic value, but in terms of expectable value (2008) and projected value (2014).)

Bykvist (2009) and Graham (2010) reply to the anti-Objectivist argument in the following way. It is a mistake, they claim, to assume that a morally conscientious person would never knowingly act wrongly, as a crucial premise of the anti-Objectivist argument has it. Rather, a morally conscientious agent might indeed act knowingly wrongly if ever she finds herself in a situation in which doing something minorly wrong is the only way she can avoid risking doing something very majorly wrong, even if taking such a risk were the only way she could have a chance at doing what was morally right. In fact, that’s precisely the predicament Dr Jill finds herself in – she knows that partially curing her patient, though wrong, because it falls short of completely curing him, is only very minorly wrong, whereas killing him by injecting a fatal poison into him is very majorly wrong, and that is something she would have to risk doing in order to do what would be morally right, injecting him with the complete cure. As a morally conscientious person could indeed sometimes do what she knows to be morally wrong, the Dr Jill scenario does not undermine Objectivism about moral wrongness, for though injecting the partial cure is something no morally conscientious person would fail to do, it doesn’t follow from that that injecting the partial cure is not morally wrong in the sense of ‘wrong’ that is of ultimate concern to the morally conscientious agent in her deliberations about what to do.

Citing this article:
Graham, Peter. Arguments for Subjectivism. Subjectivism and Objectivism about moral rightness/wrongness, 2020, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L163-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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