OBJECTIVISM VERSUS SUBJECTIVISM
The question of how to establish or prove that a certain
action is right or wrong is used as an argument against
objectivism. Objectivists argue that normative
propositions have an objective reference in the same way as factual
propositions. Objectivism is also used as a synonym of
epistemological realism, the theory that reality
exists independently of the mind. Our own ontology is definitely
realistic in the epistemological sense as we have assumed that there
is a reality independent of the mind.
It is not objectivistic in that we take norms or normative conditions to
be objective entities or qualities such as planets, persons or attributes,
but in that we say that normative statements can be true or false, just
like factual ones, independently of the person making the statement.
(The belief that they are true or false is in itself cognitivism, but all
objectivism is cognitivistic.)
What we oppose is the view of subjectivists who claim that
judgments such as stealing is wrong are neither true nor false
(noncognitivist subjectivism) or else that the utterance only describes
the psychological state of the person saying it (cognitivist
A third position, one between objectivism and subjectivism, is the theory
that values have a relational status, that they are 'neither
exclusively a property of objects or acts nor exclusively created by human
beings', and that they therefore have both a subjective and an objective
Yet, those who conceive of value in this way think of something
like a diamond which is said to be only 'valuable to someone and in some
This sort of value, however, is
instrumental. The relational status
cannot hold for ultimate values of a universal nature. For
example, if happiness is a value in itself the value relation
does not concern the value of happiness as such, but an object
which can indeed be valuable to a
happiness-catenal in its
capacity of something that makes happy or happier. The so-called
'value' of the object is then another type of value than
the value happiness and, more importantly, it presupposes
happiness as a value in itself.
Hence, this third position must still rest upon an objectivistic premise
with regard to at least one ultimate value.
The type of subjectivism which holds that ethical judgments
are neither true nor false but are 'merely expressive of the
feelings of those who utter them and evocative of the feelings
of those who listen to them' is emotivism. This type of
ethical theory is not only subjectivistic but also 'noncognitive'
(or 'nondescriptive'). Noncognitivists deny the
'possibility of proving, demonstrating or otherwise establishing
that something is good or right' or that people should 'morally
act in certain ways or refrain from acting in certain ways'.
Some noncognitivists teach that ethical judgments are simply
expressions of emotions 'much like ejaculations' (while not
saying the same about factual judgments). Carried to an extreme,
subjectivism and noncognitivism thus terminate in normative
skepticism or degenerate into value-nihilism.
There are at least two reasons why we shall not embrace
subjectivism and noncognitivism in general: firstly, because of
the impersonal, normative assertions which can plausibly be made
as discussed in
section 3.2.3 (for a start they concern
relevance as values in themselves); and secondly,
the fact that normative theorizing ultimately depends on one or more
general hypotheses is not what distinguishes it from scientific,
factual theorizing. Also science has its postulates, albeit primarily
factual instead of normative ones. But for the noncognitivist
or subjectivist who feels like desperately sticking to
'er position, we have a similar
message as for intuitionists: if your judgment is merely an emotion
or kind of wish, let your emotion or kind of wish be the same as our
judgment; if not, we will have to talk about it, and then you will have
to try to justify your judgment in a rational or valid way.
It does not follow that a subjectivist, noncognitivist theory such as
emotivism is, or has been, a worthless theory — on the contrary.
Even while holding the objectivistic view that normative propositions
are true or false and not (necessarily) about the psychology of
a particular person, we can admit that uttering a certain normative
proposition does express the speaker's attitude, and that
the aim of the utterance is to evoke a similar attitude in the
listener. What emotivists have also stressed is the difference
between the conceptual or descriptive and the evaluative or
emotive meanings of words (as explained in
3.3.2). This difference
is very useful to distinguish normative judgments which are
analytically true (like one should not steal and other
intuitionist pet examples) from more informative ones.
Cognitivist theories are either factualist or nonfactualist.
Factualist theories (called "definist" by others) claim
that should or ought can be defined in terms of is,
or that normative values can be derived from facts. They do not recognize
the triadic sphericity of reality. (It might
be interesting to investigate if and why the modal sphere remains a
separate sphere nevertheless.) The best-known kind of factualist
theory is (ethical) naturalism, according to which all
ethical judgments are not only true or false but also entirely
reducible to natural science. Nonfactualist theories (often
called "nonnaturalistic") deny that words such as should and
good are entirely definable in nonnormative terms.
nonnaturalism is used by some as a synonym of intuitionism,
we shall understand by 'an intuitionist theory' a theory in which
it is professed that 'basic principles and value judgments are
intuitive or self-evident'. With our strict separation of the
normative from the factual and modal spheres, our own position
is also a nonfactualistic one, but it is at the same time
nonintuitionistic in that we are not willing to depend on more
intuition or on more, or less plausible, 'self-evident truths'
than in natural science. Science is not primarily to provide us
with crucial, factual information about
the ground-world as in
naturalist theories; science (or philosophy of science) is
primarily to provide us with crucial, normative
disciplinary thought itself.
Opponents of those who have attempted to define ought in
terms of is have said that people commit the
'naturalist fallacy' by identifying a normative judgment with a
factual one, or by arguing from premises of one logical type
(descriptions) to conclusions of another logical type (prescriptions).
This accusation has triggered off a whole series of arguments
and counterarguments. In this debate neither party seems, or
seemed, to realize that logics cannot prove the one or the other
position to be the sole correct one, because before anyone is
able to judge whether a factualist argument is valid or not in
'the' logical sense, the two parties will first have to agree on
an ontological framework in which to express their nonnormative,
factual and either their pseudonormative, factual or their
'truly' normative propositions. Every logical 'proof' of a
factualist or antifactualist argument therefore begs the question.
And not surprisingly, for in the end the two positions amount
to exactly the same in
Leaving aside the
modal sphere, the factualist calls all 'er judgments "factual".
But this all is metaphysical (see
1.7.1): where all judgments are factual,
no judgment is.
What happens is that the factualist must differentiate 'truly'
nonnormative factual and something like 'pseudonormative' factual
This, however, will make none of the normative issues we raise and none
of the normative statements we make less serious or more trivial.
To be more clear about the nature of these issues and statements, they
might as well be termed "normative" straight away, instead of
something like "pseudonormatively factual".
To sum up: objectivists are (if consistent) always cognitivists,
but these cognitivist objectivists may be either factualists or
nonfactualists; subjectivists are either cognitivists or
noncognitivists; cognitivist subjectivists are always nonfactualists.
Our own position is objectivistic, cognitivistic and
nonfactualistic, but insofar as this is a question of
ontology our attitude towards this choice itself is
instrumentalistic. For us ontology is a means, not an end in itself.
On our account what is is ontologically entirely separate from what
probably is or can be, and this again entirely separate from what should be.
This does not mean that the belief in what is (not) and can(not)
be is not very often determined by the belief in what
should (not) be, and vice versa. The belief in what cannot be,
for instance, is but too often a mere expression of the lack of
belief in what should be.