Moral Dagers: egoism, emotivism & subjectivism
Ethical egoism, emotivism and subjectivism are moral daggers aimed at moral discourse, and philosophical discussion of animal rights. Emotivism, ethical egoism & subjectivism are philosophical daggers aimed moral discourse. Emotivism says that moral judgements are not statements of fact but are expressions of our feelings and nothing more. Ethical egoism says that the best way for you to act is to pursue your self-interests. Subjectivism says that when people's attitudes differ they are simply disagreeing and that is all."
Are people's utterances about animal rights meaningful? Opponents of factory farming say it is wrong to keep calves in tiny crates to prevent them exercising in order to make their meat light and tender for gourmets. This is an evaluation about a situation, a moral judgement. Emotivism is a philosophical theory that says moral judgements are not statements of fact but merely expressions of our feelings and amount to nothing more.
An alternative name for emotivism is non-cognitivism, meaning 'not about thinking'.
Emotivists claim that nobody's moral judgement is ever right or wrong. Nor are any moral judgements true or false, because they are entirely about the feelings of the people who utter them - they are only emotions. If you say eating animals is wrong (or right)
, you are only giving vent to your emotional feelings. You might just as well shout down (or up) with eating animals
, which likewise expresses your passion. Furthermore, claim emotivists, since people see the world in different emotional colours and since moral disputants are only expressing their feelings, then people will forever disagree with each other. If people are morally rational at all it is only to rationalise their emotional preferences.
Wheel of Emotions by Robert Plutchik, 1980. Eight inner emotions and eight outer emotions of two emotions each can be folded into a spinning top. Photo: Ivan Akira.
Some people distinguish a subtle difference between emotivism and the similar subjectivism (that morality depends only on your attitude). In emotivism you are being emotive, whereas in subjectivism you are also telling others to do things or are implying commands or recommendations. Thus if you say we should not abuse animals
, according to emotivism you are making a statement about your feelings. On the other hand, according to subjectivism you are telling others that we should stop abusing animals.
Antagonists of emotivism, however, point out that we do seem able to argue logically and rationally and do sometimes base ethical decisions on rational thought, so emotivism might be false. Discussing treatment for your dog's heart ailment, for instance, your vet may want a thorough cardiac investigation. But you may decide it would be too much stress for your dog and would be better off as he is.
Emotivists would counter this by claiming that you are making your decision on gut feelings and then rationalising them. Emotivists would say that even when you are apparently debating ethics you are really only engaged in such things as defining terms or discussing scientific ideas, and that being able to rationalise does not prove emotivism is false. We can rationalise about many things that have no basis, such as how many fairies can dance on a pinhead.
Ethicists closely identify emotivism with philosophers A J Ayer (1910 - 1988) and Charles Stevenson (1908 - 1979) of the mid-20th century, the period when emotivism was widely promoted.
The best way for you and everyone to act is to pursue your own self-interests. This is what ethical egoism declares. Always do what is in your best interests regardless of the good or bad outcome for others. Perhaps most people are ethical egoists when it comes to animals and animal rights: they eat animals, wear animals and support animal experimentation for their own self-interests.
Ethical egoism is not the same as psychological egoism. Ethical egoism is about how people ought to behave and is a philosophical theory. Psychological egoism is speculation in psychology to explain why people behave as they do.
As an ethical egoist your only obligation is to benefit yourself and you have no moral responsibility to others. You can treat humans and animals any way that benefits you. Others have rights only in so far that their rights are advantageous to you or do not inconvenience you. You do things for your own pleasure and avoid anything which brings you discomfort or pain, even at the expense of others. You hunt animals because you enjoy the sport; experiment on animals because it advances your career; clear the last remaining animal habitat to grow more crops or to enhance your garden; you are a vegetarian not for the sake of animals but because eating them upsets you.
Compared with other ethical theories it is easier for the ethical egoist to know what is in his own interests, unlike utilitarianism where you must judge what is good and right for others. Ethical egoism also encourages individual freedom and responsibility for your actions; you decide what to do for yourself and bear the consequences.
Egoistic appeals to self-interest do not always necessarily work against animals in practice. Vegetarian egoism, for example, saves animal lives no matter what its motive. And a desire to avoid food poisoning from salmonella or bovine spongiform encephalitis (BSE) may lead you to boycott factory farmed eggs and meat.
A downside of ethical egoism is that it applies only to you, that is to each person as an isolated individual, whereas moral behaviour is about applying your acts for the benefit of others and is universal (that is everyone, everywhere does it all the time). ethical egoism does not provide an ethical basis for the helping professions, such as medical, veterinary or welfare work. As such ethical egoism is a dead-end philosophy.
Another censure is that while you might privately aspire to ethical egoism you would dwell to tell others not to do it. Tell them to be altruists instead. For if they become ethical egoists they will be acting in their own interests and are likely to act against you. But then you will be a hypocrite and morally perverted by telling them this.
Perhaps worst of all, conflicts will frequently arise if everyone acts in their own self-interest and ethical egoism does not allow for the resolution of conflicts. No matter how bad the situation, the rule of ethical egoism simply tells everyone to keep acting in their own self-interests, making matters worse.
Subjectivism is an ethical theory asserting that morality depends entirely on the attitude of each individual. Thus, attitudes are neither right nor wrong but merely statements about how you feel and moral judgements are just statements about the thoughts and feelings of the person saying them. When people disagree about what moral behaviour is, according to subjectivism, they are not engaging in rational debate, but are voicing differences of attitude. Subjectivism opposes the belief in the objectivity of moral truth that is Absolutism.
Subjectivism declares that when you say animals are worthy, you only mean you like animals, and that when you say killing animals is wrong, you only mean you are against killing them. Subjectivism says that when people's attitudes differ they are simply disagreeing and that is all. Someone claims hunting animals for sport is good. You maintain hunting animals for sport is bad. Your statements are true only in that they are about what you believe, otherwise they are neither true nor false, neither right nor wrong, neither good nor bad.
Subjectivism seems to be agreeable in so far it acknowledges that people have different moral opinions, encourages personal feelings, and dispenses with any need for moral facts that may confuse matters. Subjectivism allows everyone to develop their own position without being forced to agree with views of other people that they may find objectionable.
Is the square real, objective or subjective? In what way can it exist?
A big downside of subjectivism is that you cannot resolve moral disputes if everyone is simply talking about their personal opinions. Someone's beliefs are as valid as anyone else's beliefs, so there is no way of saying whether an act is moral or not. Nobody is ever wrong in the subjectivist view.
People make many moral judgements apparently based on rational decisions. It is reasonable to believe that setting a living animal on fire for pleasure is wrong, for instance. Rationalising, you could claim that the pain suffered by the animal would be disproportionately greater than the pleasure of the villain who started the blaze (see Utilitarianism), or that God gave us a moral duty to care for those who are weaker than ourselves (see Religious Tradition: Modern Interpretation). Surely, therefore, not all moral judgements are necessarily subjectivist. There may, at the least, be a core of rationalizable values shared by everyone.
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