The claim that morality is subjective



If someone claims that morality is subjective, there are a number of things that they might mean.  The purpose of this handout is to help understand this claim, not to evaluate it. I present some positions that a person who makes the claim might be taking up. I begin with positions that have not received that much discussion in the philosophical literature, before moving on to two much discussed positions.


Moral scepticism

If someone says, “People vary in their opinions about what the moral thing to do is and we have no way of determining whose opinions are right,” they can be called a moral sceptic. Here is a statement of moral scepticism:


Moral scepticism: maybe there are moral truths, but we cannot know whether or not there are such things.


I have called this position moral scepticism because philosophers use the term ‘scepticism’ to refer to doctrines according to which we cannot attain a kind of knowledge. External world sceptics think that we cannot know facts about the external world – we could be dreaming, for example. Other minds sceptics think we cannot know whether there are other minds – ‘others’ could just emit sounds and make motions as if they have minds, when they do not. Sceptics about the mental states of other people think that we cannot know the mental states of other people – they could be faking.


Warning: I have seen the term ‘moral scepticism’ used to classify a position which I will present later on, namely moral error theory. This strikes me as confusing use of terminology, in light of how the term ‘scepticism’ is commonly used in philosophy. Scepticism about a given domain does not deny that there are truths within that domain.


Cultural relativism about morality

Someone might well say, “Morality is subjective because it is all culturally relative.” What does it mean to say that morality is culturally relative, though? I shall offer two interpretations, but there are probably more.


First interpretation

On the first interpretation, the claim that morality is culturally relative amounts to an assertion of two extreme theses, or else a moderation of the first thesis but without moderating the second thesis:


Simple conditioning thesis: the moral beliefs that a human being has are the result of them being conditioned in childhood to believe those things.

Cultural non-universalism: there is diversity in moral belief and no moral beliefs common to different cultures.


A worry about the simple conditioning thesis is that it cannot accommodate the fact that people sometimes convert from one moral outlook to a significantly different one.  A worry about combining both theses together is that, once you introduce the simple conditioning thesis, it is hard to understand how there could be so much moral diversity, as the second thesis asserts, since it is hard to make sense of how novel moral outlooks could come into being.


Perhaps the simple conditioning thesis should not be attributed to someone who says that morality is culturally relative, rather some more moderate thesis. And so there are variations on an interpretation consisting of the two theses above, which replace the simple conditioning thesis with something less extreme.


Second interpretation

The two theses above are consistent with different answers to the question of whether there are moral truths. Here is a second interpretation of the claim that morality is culturallly relative, which treats the moral cultural relativist as wanting to deny that there are moral truths of certain kind, often described as absolute moral truths:


Cultural relativity of moral truth: whether a moral judgement is true or not depends on (i.e., is relative to) the cultural context in which it is made.


This thesis requires a lot of further elaboration to properly understand. Here is a proposal to help understand what it might be getting at. If almost everybody at a certain point in the past believed that capital punishment is morally right, then during that time the belief that capital punishment is right is true. Anyone from that time who denies its truth speaks falsely. If almost everybody at some point in the future believes that capital punishment is morally wrong, then at this time the belief that capital punishment is wrong is true. To deny its truth in this time would be to speak falsely.


This is a toy example – changes in culture do not tend to be that neat. But even it raises a number of puzzles, which will cross over to less neat cases. Why not just say that there is no such thing as moral truth, merely different beliefs about moral truth? Why instead say that there is somehow a change in what is morally true as you move from one cultural context to another? Similar issues crop up if one tries to develop a view of moral truth as relative to the individual.


Moral error theory

Moral error theory is the combination of the following two theses:


Moral belief thesis: there are people with moral beliefs, i.e. beliefs about what is morally right or wrong or good or bad or required or prohibited, etc.

Moral error thesis: any moral belief and any statement that expresses an actual or possible moral belief is false.


A moral error theorist must reject moral scepticism, as specified above. Contrary to strong moral scepticism, they think that we can know whether or not there are moral truths: we can know that there are no moral truths. That puts them at odds with weak moral scepticism as well. The moral error theorist must also reject the claim that morality is culturally relative, on the second interpretation. What is morally true does not change as you move from one culture to another. Nothing is morally true, for the error theorist, and that remains the case whatever the moral beliefs are within a culture. One reason for why some moral subjectivists endorse error theory, over these positions, is because they accept the authority of science (i.e., the natural sciences) over the general nature of the world and cannot see how moral qualities, such as being morally good or bad or required or prohibited, can fit into the picture of the world’s nature that science offers.




Here is an explanation of non-cognitivism:


No moral beliefs thesis: there are no moral beliefs; beliefs are things which can be true or false; what some people think of as moral beliefs are actually something else, something that cannot be either true or false.

No moral statements thesis: there are no moral statements; statements are things which can be true or false; what some people think of as moral statements are actually something else, something that cannot be either true or false.


Different kinds of non-cognitivism offer different accounts of what the something else is in these theses. Be careful not to assume that they all offer the same account, e.g. A.J. Ayer’s emotivism. Here is one account. Imagine that someone you are with sees some food that looks tasty to them in a shop window and, rather like a cartoon character, licks their lips dramatically. Is what they do true or false? One plausible response to this question is that what they do is not the sort of thing that can be true or false, though it can be sincere or insincere. It can be a sincere or insincere expression of desire. Someone might think that what appear to be moral statements are like this. To say, ‘Capital punishment is wrong,’ is not to make a statement, rather to express a desire for the world to be a certain way, much as the person in the example expresses a desire to taste the food. Correspondingly, there is no moral belief that capital punishment is wrong, just a desire.



Non-cognitivism rejects a commitment common to most other forms of moral subjectivism: that there are moral beliefs. To accept this commitment is to be a cognitivist.