All You Need to Know about Ethical Subjectivism and Emotivism

What is ethical subjectivism?

If you have ever thought, that moral statements can’t be objective, because it is only people’s perception and attitude that makes them right or wrong, then – congratulations! – you have adhered to the main principle of Ethical Subjectivism. It claims that ethical judgments about other human beings are shaped by our own personality. Basically, they depend on feelings, personal preferences, and convictions held by the observers. Therefore, any moral argument is purely arbitrary and can’t express indisputable truths.

Ethical Subjectivism can be applied to any fact, questioning its moral side. For a case in point, Nazi extermination camps were used to murder millions of people during World War II. It’s a historical fact that can’t be argued over. Almost everyone thinks of it as a dark and terrifying page in the world’s history. But an Ethical Subjectivist would say: “When we consider Nazi’s actions to be evil, we only show our negative attitude. They can’t be defined as bad ones on the basis of our emotions”.

Where does ethical subjectivism begin?

In a form of a philosophical theory, Ethical Subjectivism emerged from the words of David Hume, a Scottish philosopher of the 18th century. He looked upon morality as “a matter of sentiment rather than fact”. The idea provoked criticism, and in attempts to provide answers to the opponents’ objections, its defenders made Ethical Subjectivism result in a more sophisticated doctrine. It went through several stages, from being put into a simple form and subjected to critical analysis to acquiring an improved formulation, not exposed to doubts.

First stage: the theory of Simple Subjectivism

The basic concept of the simplest version of Ethical Subjectivism is the following: “One can only approve or disapprove of the thing he states to be good or bad in aspects of morality”.

I approve

As you can see, the supporters of Simple Subjectivism didn’t really try to refine the theory, though many people found it attractive. But still, there are two most marked objections:

Simple Subjectivism Implies that We Cannot Make Mistakes

How could that be? None of us is perfect. Sometimes people are wrong in their judgments, and when they realize it, they may want to change their point of view. But from the perspective of Simple Subjectivism that would be unimaginable.

Let’s assume a person saying: “Betrayal is moral”. In accordance with Simple Subjectivism, it means that he merely favors betrayal. And as long as he honestly represents his feelings, he cannot make a mistake. Thus, we are all infallible and our opinion is always correct and unquestionable.

What it really means, is that we acknowledge moral error both in ourselves and in others.

Simple Subjectivism Implies that We Cannot Disagree

Moral statements simply reflect preference. We cannot disagree about what the other person’s honestly stated preference is. When a person says, that betrayal is moral, the subjectivist’s agreement of this thought would mean: “It is true that you have feelings of approval toward betrayal.”

But we do experience an actual disagreement with others about moral matters. How can we express it, if we are looking at reality through the lens of Simple Subjectivism? No answer.

Second stage: the theory of emotivism

Emotivism was developed by Charles L. Stevenson, an American philosopher, as an upgraded version of its predecessor, and became one of the most remarkable theories of Ethics in the 20th century. According to Emotivism, moral language is neither used to state facts nor to convey information. Instead, it serves as a means of affecting human behavior and expressing one’s feelings and emotions.

When an individual says, “Murder is immoral,” supporters of Emotivism would interpret his utterance as something like: “Don’t kill people!”, “Murder – boo!” And in just the same way they would convert the statement “Equality is moral” into “Equality – hurrah!”, where “boo” is the expression of disapproval and “hurrah” is used to transmit approval. That’s why we may also come across Emotivism as the “Boo-Hurrah Theory”.

Taking this into consideration, the difference between Simple Subjectivism and Emotivism becomes obvious:

Simple SubjectivismEmotivism
Interprets moral judgments as statements that can be true or false, so a sincere speaker is always right when it comes to moral judgments;Interprets moral judgments as either commands or attitudes, which can be neither true nor false;
States facts either of approval or disapproval;Denies stating facts at all;
People cannot make mistakes.Commands and expressions of attitude don’t have categories of “rightness” and “wrongness”, so people can’t be infallible.

The strengths of Ethical Subjectivism

Although this theory is quite controversial, there is a number of strong points to be singled out:

  1. Ethical Subjectivism highlights how moral judgments are always approving or disapproving and reflects their evaluative elements. Moral statements like “Stealing is wrong” become judgments, whereas factual statements like “Ice cream is cold” don’t.
  2. It highlights the subjectivity of morality and in what way it is dependent upon an individual’s experience and feelings.
  3. It helps in clarifying what people are discussing (no truths, all attitudes) and thus may resolve problems.
  4. Finally, it allows us to see convincing intentions behind moral statements. People may get involved in an argument by Ethical Subjectivism to persuade their opponent to follow their point of view and not to dispute objective truths.

The uncomfortable consequences of the theory

Based on the above-mentioned information, we can conclude the main confusing effects of Ethical Subjectivism:

  1. If the theory is correct, then two individuals may have different moral judgments on the same situation and both may be right. Thus, Subjectivism fails to define what is right and wrong.
  2. If the theory is correct, then a person cannot be wrong in their moral judgments.
  3. Led by emotions, people can’t have a reasonable discussion on ethical issues, because Ethical Subjectivism prevents them from it.
  4. We can’t successfully communicate with other people without understanding the basic notions of “good” and “bad”. Therefore, it is impossible to live life as an Ethical Subjectivist.

The role of reason in Ethics

When we make any kind of judgment, we must, so to say, reinforce them for valid reasons. As a child, you learned how to merge with the world not in the least by adopting your parents’ view on what is acceptable and what is not. You came to know, for instance, that lying is bad, being greedy is bad, taking other people’s things is bad. You stored away those thoughts as something absolutely evident. Why? Because behind those statements were good reasons. If your parents didn’t substantiate their statements, there was a chance that you would subconsciously reject them as unfounded.

And that’s the way a moral judgment differs from a simple expression of preference. If you say that you like cakes, you don’t need to have a plausible reason. It is all just about your personal taste. But when you claim that abortions are unacceptable, you must back it up by reasons, otherwise, your judgments are null and void.


It is true that such notions as “values” and “morals” are not tangible in the way the objects like trees, flowers, and houses are. But if something gives Ethics its objective basis, then it is nothing else but reason. Consequently, we should focus on it, if we want to figure out the essence of Ethics and to get answers to the moral questions. The correct ones are those with the weight of reason on its side.

Ethical subjectivism in real life

We have learned the theoretical part of Ethical Subjectivism inside out. And now it’s time to consider some examples of hypothetical applying Ethical Subjectivism to real life.

The leaders of the Islamic State believe, that what they are doing is ethically correct and in accordance with God. On the other hand, the rest of the world (for the most part) sees them as an Islamic extremist group that is slaughtering and creating mass chaos. In the eyes of the rest, what they are doing is nowhere close to being ethically correct, while IS finds what they are doing is the right thing. Ethical Subjectivism argues that there is no moral truth and therefore if the Islamic State believes they are morally correct, then they are morally correct.

Another contemporary example might be if you were a pregnant Christian teenager. According to her belief, she must keep a baby. The parents force her to do it. For Christians, abortion is murder, as they believe life begins from the moment of conception. But many people would think that the right choice for the girl is to give up on the idea of having a baby at such a young age for the sake of her future. So there is no right option here. In both cases, the girl’s decision would provoke conflicts.

These examples clearly show us how difficult it is to apply Ethical Subjectivism in real life, simply because of all the problems it would create.

Ethical subjectivism vs cultural relativism

Whereas Ethical Subjectivism claims that moral values depend on an individual’s personality, cultural relativism argues that what determines right or wrong is the set of cultural consensus of each group and not objective or universal standards. In other words, what is common for one culture can be weird or even outrageous for another one.

Let’s consider some examples:

  • In civilized parts of the world, men and women are not expected to walk around naked, because it will violate most people’s moral code. Everything is different in the African tribes, though, where people farm, eat and even attend church topless and pantless! Their cultural context implies that nudity is not immoral.
  • You have probably heard that the Japanese do not like to make eye-contact. If you are trying to look into the eyes of a Japanese during a conversation, he most likely will be embarrassed. For the Japanese, attempts to make eye-contact can be interpreted as the signs of disrespectful or aggressive behavior, whereas in Western culture the very same act demonstrates your confidence.
  • Being late in Germany, America or Japan is a sign of poor etiquette. Being late in Italy or India is almost normal.
  • Those who like chewing gum may be misunderstood in Switzerland, Luxembourg, and France, as people in those countries consider public gum-chewing to be indecent and vulgar.
  • Japanese never give up their seats on public transport. Never. So when in Japan, you can sit on your seat as long as you like, just be careful not to take one of the special seats for disabled people and senior citizens.
  • Humility in China is a very important trait to have, whereas in the United States it’s also accepted to brag about your accomplishments. In America, it’s okay to say: “Hey, look, I’m successful!” The Chinese people tend not to boast about their achievements.

To sum it all up, Ethical Subjectivism is a thought-provoking theory, worth to be discussed with your friends when you feel like playing philosophers on a long night in a pub. But, unfortunately, this theory proved to be inapplicable in real life.


What is Ethical Subjectivism?

Ethical Subjectivism is a theory, according to which there are no objective moral truths: what is right and what is wrong varies from person to person.

What is Cultural Relativism?

Cultural Relativism is the view that all beliefs, customs, and ethics are relative to the individual within his own social context: words “right” and “wrong” are culture-specific.

What is the theory of Emotivism?

Emotivism is an ethical theory that says that ethical sentences are expressions of our feelings or emotions.

Why does Ethical Subjectivism not work in real life?

The application of Ethical Subjectivism to real life would result in various misunderstandings and conflicts because the theory doesn’t manage to explain what is right and what is wrong.

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1 year ago

Very philosophical and very interesting article for me, for now the purpose of your story is achieved, I thought about it. Indeed, philosophy is such a thing where extremes seem so strange, such that they can form a new reality and a new sense of it, which are actually one and the same. In fact, as always, the truth is somewhere in the middle, because as the author wrote, some things are definitely not something good and our attitude depends on emotions, but the thing is animal fear and there is definitely nothing good here either from a philosophical or biological point of view.