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Subjectivism and Objectivism about moral rightness/wrongness

DOI
10.4324/9780415249126-L163-1
Published
2020
DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L163-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2020
Retrieved April 21, 2021, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/subjectivism-and-objectivism-about-moral-rightness-wrongness/v-1

1. The debate

The debate between Subjectivists and Objectivists about moral wrongness is a debate about what non-moral facts the moral wrongness of an action is grounded in. Subjectivists hold that the wrongness of an action is grounded in the subjective circumstances of the agent at the time of action. Different Subjectivists take different stands on just what an agent’s subjective circumstances consist in. For Belief Subjectivists (e.g. Prichard (1932), Ross (1939), and Howard-Snyder (2005)), an agent’s subjective circumstances consist in the set of all of her beliefs about her situation. For Evidence Subjectivists (e.g. Zimmerman (2008) and Mason (2013)), on the other hand, an agent’s subjective circumstances consist in the entirety of her evidence about her situation. Whereas Subjectivists think the wrongness of an action is grounded in the agent’s subjective circumstances, Objectivists maintain that the wrongness of an action is only a function of the agent’s objective circumstances at the time of action, where an agent’s objective circumstances just are the facts of her situation other than those that comprise her subjective situation. A third position is possible as well: an Ecumenist about moral wrongness would be one who thinks that the moral wrongness of an agent’s action is grounded in both her subjective and her objective situations.

Best to see what is at issue between Objectivists and Subjectivists is to consider a case about which they disagree. Suppose the light switch in Chang’s apartment has, unbeknownst to her and contrary to all her evidence, been connected to a bomb, and if the light switch is switched, the bomb will go off, killing twenty innocent civilians. Would it be morally wrong for Chang to flip the light switch? According to Subjectivists, it would not be morally wrong for Chang to flip the switch – all of her beliefs and evidence about her situation indicate that flipping it will turn on the light and do nothing else. Objectivists, on the other hand, maintain that it would be morally wrong for Chang to flip the switch – flipping the switch will kill twenty innocent civilians, and it is morally wrong to kill twenty innocent civilians.

Settling the dispute between Subjectivists and Objectivists is of significant moral-theoretical importance. If Subjectivism is true, for example, then many popular moral theories, like that of Utilitarianism – according to which what one morally ought to do is maximise utility – are false. Getting straight on whether the moral wrongness of an action is grounded in an agent’s subjective circumstances or in her objective circumstances (or both) is necessary before setting out upon a search for the correct moral theory.

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Citing this article:
Graham, Peter. The debate. Subjectivism and Objectivism about moral rightness/wrongness, 2020, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L163-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/subjectivism-and-objectivism-about-moral-rightness-wrongness/v-1/sections/the-debate-1.
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