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Resolving the Objective-Subjective Conflict in Moral Valuation

An inquiry into the problems of the origin of values
in general and of moral values in particular

by Ruel F Pepa


The context of this discussion is focused on values specifically appreciated by humans. This clarificatory introduction is important to distinguish human values from things 'valued' by other living species in the animal and plant realms. The issue of value enters at this particular consideration as humans observe how plants and animals are benefiting from their environments. Under these circumstances, it may be assumed that animals and plants 'value' the things from which they benefit in terms of survival and life sustenance. We say that water, plants and air are valuable for animals because the latter depend on them in these animals' need to drink, eat, and breathe. However, we as humans are limited as to the access to evidence pertaining to whether animals really 'value' these things or not in the same way that we do. In other words, do these animals really consciously exercise a sense of appreciation in the act of 'valuating' the things that are useful to them? Is such an act really a valuation? Is there a way for us to find certain answers to these concerns? Is it worthwhile to deal with this matter seriously in the context of this particular treatise's main inquiry? These questions being unanswered at this point in time (or may even be unanswerable at any point in time), a better course is to proceed on the path that has been beaten to resolve the major burden of this treatise.

Are Values Basically Objective in Origin?

These are people who claim that values have external sources — points of origin distinct from us. In many cases, these external origins are even considered to be of a higher nature such as God, Bathala, Allah, the Absolute Reality, Brahman, Nature, etc. With these sources, values emanating from them are deemed to be thoroughly objective. This perspective assumes the non-necessity of the human factor in the existence of values. In other words, humans are not necessary in the formation of values, so that values exist independent of humans. In this sense, it is said that values are basically objective and it specifically means that (1) values are factual properties regardless of whether there are humans or not, or (2) values emanate from supernatural origin, or (3) values are inherent in nature.

Regarding the first, it doesn't make sense at all to say that humans could not have valued things if these things were not to the least inherently valuable. It is a most basic assumption that things are deemed valuable based on the appreciation that humans extend to them so as to satisfy or achieve human purposes. In short, things of this world are axiologically neutral by and in themselves and can only be said to be either valuable or insignificant depending on the purposes that humans have determined for their usefulness or uselessness. The words of Wittgenstein at 6.41 of the Tractatus agree to this point:

...In the world everything is as it is and everything happens as it does happen; in it no value exists — and if it did exist it would have no value. If there is any value that does have value, it must be outside the whole sphere of what happens and is the case. For all that happens and is the case is accidental.[1]

A further clarification of this view is revealed by the pericope where it is located in the Tractatus:

6.373 The world is independent of my will.

6.374 Even if all that we wish for were to happen, still this would only be a favour granted by fate, so to speak; for there is no logical connexion between the will and the world, which would guarantee it, and the supposed physical connexion itself is surely not something that we could will.

6.43 If the good or bad exercise of the will does alter the world, it can alter only the limits of the world not the facts — not what can be expressed by means of language. In short, the effect must be that it becomes an altogether different world. It must so to speak, wax and wane as a whole. The world of the happy man is different from that of the unhappy man.[2]

The whole point being presented here is summarized in Wittgenstein's Notebooks (p. 77): 'Ethics does not treat of the world. Ethics must be a condition of the world, like logic.'[3]

Things of this world can only become valuable as humans attribute values to them. This matter of values further extends particularly more strongly to aesthetics and ethics, the latter being our focus of concern in this treatise. We can then say based on the presuppositions that we have already established -- that in matters of ethics and morality, the stronger can the claim be that moral values can never be found inherent in states of affairs or events without humans to value them. Moral values are therefore strictly basically human in origin. Values in general and moral values in particular are basically of human origin; hence, they are basically subjective in terms or origin.

The entirety of the previous discussion can be essentially presented via the following logical arguments:

1. 'Values are basically either inherent to things valued or human-attributed. If values are basically inherent, then, they are not basically human-attributed. Hence, if values are basically human-attributed, then, they are not basically inherent.'

2. 'Values are basically either inherent to things valued or human-attributed. If values are basically inherent, then, they are basically objective in origin. If values are basically human-attributed, then, they are basically subjective in origin. Therefore, values are either basically objective or basically subjective in origin.'

3. 'Values are basically either objective or subjective in origin. If values are basically objective in origin, then, they are not subjective in origin. Therefore, if values are not basically objective in origin, then, they are subjective in origin.'

Now that the first argument supportive of the objective origin of values has been debunked, could the next be a tenable claim? Do values emanate from a supernatural origin? [The term 'supernatural' used in the context of the succeeding discussion is different in meaning from the context of its use in Wittgenstein's 'Lecture on Ethics.' In the latter context, the term 'supernatural' is linguistically contrasted with the 'natural' which is the realm where the sciences operate. The contrast being linguistic in character does not in any way imply an affirmation of the reality of a higher dimension of existence inhabited by more intelligent and more powerful denizens. Says Wittgenstein: 'I can only describe my feeling by the metaphor, that, if a man could write a book on Ethics which really was a book on Ethics, this would, with an explosion, destroy all the other books in the world. Our words used as we use them in science, are vessels capable only of containing and conveying meaning and sense, natural meaning and sense. Ethics, if it is anything, is supernatural and our words will only express facts; as a teacup will only hold a teacup full of water and if I were to pour out a gallon over it. I said that so far as facts and propositions are concerned there is only relative value and relative good, right, etc.']

Perhaps it could still be safely said that the majority of people in this world believe in a supernatural entity they call 'god' or even many of this type of being which are called 'gods.' They generally believe that values, specifically moral ones, emanate from or dispensed by this 'supernatural reality' or 'ultimate reality,' if you will. He (if we want to personify this reality) has formed the world as well as the things found in this world, and has established values -- both artistic and moral -- for all creation, more specifically humans, to obey. Of course, it is not logically impossible for such supernatural entities to exist and have done such dispensation of values. However, we can neither make any final conclusion or affirmation as to certainty of their existence. We should definitely opt to exercise strong belief -- which could be construed as 'faith' in religious language game--but such cannot be considered as objective proof.

Looking at the problem now of which of the set of moral laws or moral bans we ought to obey, the complication has been created by the differences among groups of people or communities of people who recognize different 'gods' or supernatural beings: the Judeo-Christian tradition; the Hindus; the Confucians; the Taoists, etc. These supernatural beings as well as the thought systems and religions honoring and worshipping them have accompanying systems of morality. There could be some points of similarity, but in a lot of instances, differences are so pronounced and oftentimes very wide. It is, therefore, difficult if not really impossible for us to ascertain the most accurate supernatural foundation. This factor tells us that no evidence is available to prove the necessary supernatural origin of objective moral values. At this point, nothing is left in our minds but the impression that even the so-called morality of supernatural origin is subjectively attained by people who needs and wants are determined out of a common goal to live and enjoy life in a peaceful and productive milieu rather than having been 'commanded' to be and to do so from a supernatural dimension.

What about the third option now -- are values inherent in nature? Those who hold the notion that values are inherent in nature promote the argument that moral laws are within the realm of nature and hence, part of the natural world. It is further held by them that anything that violates or goes contrary to nature is therefore wrong. But there seems to have some confusion here in treating 'moral laws' at par with what science tells us as 'natural laws' like the law of gravity, the law of buoyancy, and others. There is a difference in meaning when the word 'law' is used in relation to nature and when the same word is used in relation to morality.

Natural laws are descriptive, whereas moral laws are prescriptive. Natural laws, on the other hand, are generalizations based on contrast regularities discovered in events or states of affairs. On the other hand, moral laws are 'invented' for the maintenance of order and to promote acceptable behaviors and attitudes or conducts in human relations. In H.O. Mounce's discussion of Wittgenstein's view of ethics in the Tractatus, Mounce says: 'The ethical problem is not to determine what is so but what to do, what attitude one is to adopt.'[4] For those who affirm the reality of 'natural moral laws,' one thing should be proved: that there are laws discovered and discoverable (or observed and observable) in nature telling humans the way they ought or ought not to behave. But it seems to be difficult, if not impossible at all, to prove it because nothing prescriptive actually issues out of nature. In other words, nature does not demand morality to be acted on by humans. It is a reconfirmation that moral values are not basically objective in origin even if we appeal to nature. To 'see' in nature some events or states of affairs that move or lead us to behave morally is but an interpretation of an entire gamut of experience involving human interest in favor of and advantageous to our circumstances, needs, desires, objectives and satisfaction. In this sense, moral values formed out of our relationship with nature are therefore basically subjective. In the article 'Naturalism,' Charles R. Pigden says: 'In the famous Principia Ethica, G.E. Moore contended that most moralists have been naturalists and that all naturalists are guilty of a common fallacy. They have confused the property of goodness with the things that possess that property or with some other property that good things possess. This is what naturalistic fallacy is: a mixing of two distinct items.'[5]

The Basic Subjective Origin of Values, Particularly Moral Values

The notion that values have a basic subjective origin doesn't necessarily mean that they are always subjective through and through, i.e., at all times. Hence, when it is argued that values have a basic subjective origin, what is hereby contradicted is the opposite notion that values have a basic objective origin -- not that values are objective. It only means that even if it is claimed that values have a basic subjective origin, such a claim does not necessarily contradict the notion that values may be objective. This matter is a vital aspect of the thesis of this treatise which in the progressive development of the discussions about it will ultimately unveil the non-contradictory character of what is being proposed as an ethics that is both objective and relative. Relativity of values in general and moral values in particular is however an offshoot of subjectivity and this matter will be discussed later to summarize the points being raised here. In logical terms, we say:

1. 'Values either have a basic subjective origin or a basic objective origin. It has been demolished that values have a basic objective origin. Hence, values have a basic subjective origin.'

2. 'Objective values may issue out of values whose basic origin is subjective. Values are really of basic subjective origin. Therefore, it cannot be that objective values will not issue out of values whose basic origin is subjective.'

3. 'Objective values may issue out of values whose basic origin is subjective. Relative values may also issue out of values whose basic origin is subjective. And the basic origin of values are really subjective. Therefore, it can be that values are both relative and objective.'

4. 'If values can both be relative and objective, then, it cannot be that there is contradiction between relative values and objective values.'

Going back to the issue of the basic subjective origin of values, particularly moral values, it is simply the idea that the starting point or the begin-all of valuation is a person's expression of his/ her personal desires or feelings. Nevertheless, the Humean view that reason doesn't play any role in the function of moral judgment is not hereby affirmed. This writer believes otherwise. [James Rachels observes in his article 'Subjectivism': '[T]he function of moral judgment, says Hume, is to guide conduct, but reason alone can never tell us what to do. Reason merely informs us of the nature and consequences of our action and of the logical relations between propositions... Hume concludes that in the final analysis, 'Morality is determined by sentiment.'[6] Reason plays a vital role in such function because the acceptability of someone's personal feelings or desires demands rationality from a moral agent and reasonableness in a moral act. Perhaps, the rhetorical statement of Blaise Pascal applies here: 'The heart has its reason that reason does not know.'

However, that which we consider subjective may evolve towards the direction of the objective. Yet an 'evolved' value seen in the objective realm doesn't have the 'natural' characteristics inherently found in the original properties of matters of fact located in this realm. At this point, let us further discuss the complexities surrounding the issue of the subjectivity of values so that a smooth transition could be effected from subjectivity to relativity which are actually so much related between each other. In fact, value relativity issues out of value subjectivity. In other words, value subjectivity effects value relativity and there could be no value relativity without value subjectivity.

Logically we say, 'There is value relativity if and only if there is value subjectivity. And there is value subjectivity. Therefore, there is value relativity.'

From Simple to Critical Subjectivity in Ethics: James Rachels' Analysis

Simple Subjectivism

In James Rachels' discussion of subjectivity in his article, 'Subjectivism,' he distinguishes between two types of subjectivism: the simple one and the improved version called emotivism. This is the way his discussion goes:

The historical development of ethical subjectivism illustrates a process typical of philosophical theories. It began as a simple idea — in the words of David Hume, that morality is more a matter of feeling than of reason. But as objections were raised against the theory, and as its defenders tried to answer those objections, the theory became more complicated. So far, we have not attempted to formulate the theory very precisely — we have been content with a rough statement of its basic idea. Now, however, we need to go a bit beyond that.

One way of formulating ethical subjectivism more precisely is this: we take it to be the thesis that when a person says that something is morally good or bad, this means that he or she approves of that thing, or disapproves of it, and nothing more...

We might call this version of the theory simple subjectivism... However, simple subjectivism is open to several rather obvious objections, because it has implications that are contrary to what we know to be the case (or at least contrary to what we think we know) about the nature of moral evaluation.

For one thing, simple subjectivism contradicts the plain fact that we can sometimes be wrong in our moral evaluations. None of us are infallible. We make mistakes and when we discover that we are mistaken we may want to change our judgments. But if simple subjectivism were correct, this would be impossible — because simple subjectivism implies that each of us in infallible.

...In the face such difficulties, many philosophers have chosen to reject the whole idea of ethical subjectivism. Others, however, have taken a different approach. The problem, they say, is not that the basic idea of ethical subjectivism is wrong. The problem is that 'simple subjectivism' is too simple a way or expressing that idea. Thus, these philosophers have continued to have confidence in the basic idea of ethical subjectivism and have tried to refine it — to give it a new, improved formulation — so that these difficulties can be overcome.

The improved version was a theory that came to be known as emotivism...[7]

The criticism towards simple subjectivism is a valid one if this type of subjectivism really creates difficulties to clearly determine the rightness or wrongness of moral evaluations. In this situation, everybody becomes entitled to his or her moral views and opinions without the obligation of testing whether his or her moral evaluation is right or wrong. (We could sense a situation of relativism here, but this is not the type of relativistic position that is advocated in this treatise.) In other words, there is really right or wrong moral evaluation and under this condition, everybody really becomes 'infallible.' Some critiques of simple subjectivism who do not intend to totally reject the whole notion of ethical subjectivism but to salvage its more basic idea are, however, correct in their intention to transcend its prominent errors and make a refinement of it.

As has previously been discussed, the basic subjectivity of values in general, and moral values in particular, owing to the fact that values have a basic subjective origin, is an empirically defensible and logically coherent position. This is the basic idea of ethical subjectivism which is salvageable. But is emotivism the truly critical alternative to transcend the errors of simple subjectivism? Let us look at emotivism closely.

Emotivism: An Improvement from Simple Subjectivism

The starting point of emotivism is the recognition that humans use language in so many ways. We use it not only in expressing factual statements whereby we give information that may either be true or false. With language we may also issue requests and commands whose objective is not to give information or describe a state of affairs but rather prescribe an action or attitude. The statement, 'President Macapagal-Arroyo is against human rights violations,' is descriptive, whereas, 'Let us condemn human rights violations!' is prescriptive.

Looking at the issue of moral language, emotivism holds that 'moral language is not fact-stating language; it is not typically used to convey information. Its purpose is entirely different. It is used, first, as a means of influencing people's behavior: if someone says 'You ought not to do that,' they are trying to stop you from doing it. And second, moral language is used to express (not report) one's attitude.'[8]

Comparing simple subjectivism with emotivism at this point, we say, on the one hand, simple subjectivism grasps ethical statements as factual statements reporting the speaker's attitude. So that when President Macapagal-Arroyo says that she is against human rights violation, such is tantamount to saying, 'I (Pres. Macapagal-Arroyo) do not approve human rights violation' — a factual statement about his attitude. On the other hand, emotivism disagrees that Pres. Macapagal-Arroyo's words are an expression of fact. According to emotivism, what Pres. Macapagal-Arroyo says is simply, 'Damn human rights violation!' or 'To hell with human rights violation!'

Regarding this view, Rachels observes that the difference between simple subjectivism and emotivism is not a superficial hair-splitting matter but an important one. Simple subjectivism says that statements of moral judgment are statements about feelings, whereas, emotivism says that they are statements of feelings. Thus, they cannot be subjected to truth-value analysis. If I believe that X acted alone in plotting the assassination of Ninoy Aquino and another person believes that X was ordered or commanded by a group of conspiring Marcos cronies to plot the assassination of Ninoy Aquino, such a disagreement is over facts. However, if I advocate the view that capital punishment or death penalty is an effective deterrent to the commission of heinous crimes while another believes otherwise, the disagreement is in opinion or views. The first type of disagreement can be solved by an appeal to facts which in turn will determine which of the two beliefs is true (because both cannot be true). The second type, however, is a matter of making a choice based on desires or feelings, i.e., making one of the views desirable over the other according to the particular individual's perspective, barring the possibility of choosing both.

Rachels rightly echoes the points made by the American philosopher C.L. Stevenson (the most prominent spokesperson of emotivism) in his classical book on the subject of emotivism, Ethics and Language, that such an opposition is a 'disagreement in attitude and contrast it with disagreements about attitudes. Moral disagreement, says Stevenson, are disagreements in attitude. Simple subjectivism could not explain moral disagreement because once it interpreted moral judgments as statement about attitudes, the disagreement vanished.'[9]

There has been an expression of a similar view prior to this in a chapter of an earlier work by Alfred Jules Ayer, Language, Truth, and Logic, entitled 'Critique of Ethics and Theology':

Thus, although our theory of ethics might fairly be said to be radically subjectivist, it differs in a very important respect from the orthodox subjectivist theory. For the orthodox subjectivist does not deny, as we do, that the sentences of a moralizer express genuine propositions. All he denies is that they express propositions about the speaker's feelings. If this were so, ethical judgments clearly would be capable of being true or false. They would be true if the speaker had the relevant feelings, and false if he had not. And this is a matter whish is, in principle, empirically verifiable. Furthermore they could be significantly contradicted. For if I say, 'Tolerance is a virtue,' and someone answers, 'you don't approve of it,' he would on the ordinary subjectivist theory, be contradicting me, because in saying that tolerance was a virtue, I should not be making any statement about my own feelings or about anything else. I should simply be evincing my feelings, which is not all the same thing as saying that I have them.[10]

However, not all is secured yet for emotivism's place as a formidable position having transcended the loopholes of simple subjectivism. Rachel makes the criticism that emotivism has also faced some rough sailing. Says he: 'Emotivism also had its problems and they were sufficiently serious that today most philosophers reject the theory. One of the main problems was that emotivism could not account for the place of reason in ethics.'[11]

Rational Subjectivism

Rachels who is a subjectivist would classify his variety of subjectivism as rational. According to him, there ought to be good reasons to support value judgment of any kind in general and moral judgment in particular. We tend to evaluate actions as either right or wrong. Mere expressions of personal likes and dislikes may not need supporting reasons. Without the latter, such expressions amount only to arbitrary statements. Rachels says, '[A]ny adequate theory of the nature of moral judgments and the reasons that support them. It is at just this point that emotivism falters.'[12]

In conclusion, Rachels comments:

Thus, as our final attempt to formulate an adequate subjectivist understanding of ethical judgment, we might say, nothing is morally right if it is such that the process of thinking through its nature and consequences would cause or sustain a feeling of approval toward it in a person who was being as reasonable and impartial as is humanly possible (italics supplied).[13]

An Evaluation of J. Rachels' Analysis

The central issue brought out by Rachels in his critique of emotivism and in the formulation of his 'rational' brand of subjectivism is the importance of reason as the determinant of the moral rightness or wrongness of an action. Basically, there should be no quarrel at all regarding this matter. The only problem here is that it is difficult to establish objective rationality or reasonableness in matters of ethics or morality on the individual plane. In other words, the only meaningful rationality on that plane is subjective considering the fact that an individual A's moral choice of x is rational or reasonable depending on circumstances that led him/ her to make such a moral choice. Whereas, in the case of individual B's moral rejection of x, such is likewise rational or reasonable from his/ her perspective and in his/ her own right. So that, A and B are rational or reasonable in their own respective decisions, even if they are opposite to or contrasting each other.

The element of 'thinking through' that is being proposed here by Rachels is an acceptable aspect of making moral judgments rational or reasonable. But again, such a process -- if we call it a process at all -- is done on the individual plane. Hence, the function of which is still subjective, i.e., depending on the circumstance and conditions surrounding the individual person making the choice or decision.

All in all, the basic subjective origin of moral judgments has been proven once and for all a formidable assumption in the tracing of the rootage of morality and ethics. This assumption is also the foundation of moral or ethical relativity which is the bridge that ultimately leads us to a more realistic type of ethical or moral objectivity that is far different from an ethical objectivity that depends on moral facts. The type of moral or ethical objectivity that is herein being proposed dialectically develops from the subjective rootage and evolves therefrom along relativity until it reaches the point of objectivity. In short this type of moral or ethical objectivity cannot really be formulated without making any basic and initial recognition of the twofold reality of its subjective-relative beginnings.

We cannot actually underestimate the basic importance of subjectivity in its universal applicability. Even science basically starts off from subjectivity. In this regard, let me quote Prof. Claro Ceniza, the eminent symbolic logician and analytic philosopher of De La Salle University--Manila, in his article 'Logic of Confirmation and Objectivity' that appears in SOPHIA, vol. XXV, 1995-96:

Subjectivity can be helpful in producing preliminary hypotheses, even in science. In fact, there is no other way of producing preliminary hypotheses except by ways that are affected and influenced by subjectivity. We tend to advance preliminary theses to which our personal experiences and cultures direct us. Science, however, and everyday life cannot remain on that level. There is always an objective way of finding out what the object in question really is either by common consent or better through the process of confirmation and disconfirmation.[14]


1. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, as quoted in Wittgenstein's Tractatus (ed.) H.O. Mounce (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1981), p.94.
2. Ibid., pp. 95-96.
3. Ibid., p. 95.
4. Mounce, Wittgenstein's Tractatus, p. 97.
5. Charles Pigden, 'Naturalism' in A Companion to Ethics (ed.) Singer, Peter (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1994), p. 426.
6. James Rachels, 'Subjectivism' in A Companion to Ethics, p. 433.
7. Ibid., pp. 434-436.
8. Ibid., p. 437.
9. Ibid., p. 438.
10. A.J. Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1974), p. 144.
11. Op. cit., Rachels, p. 438.
12. Ibid.
13. Ibid., p. 440.
14. Claro Ceniza, 'Logic of Confirmation and Objectivity' in SOPHIA, Journal of Philosophy, Vol. (ed.) Elwood, Brian Douglas (Manila: De La Salle University Press, Inc., 1995-1196), p. 40

© Ruel F. Pepa