Philosophy

Research Article

Objectivity in Morals

William Kneale

It is remarkable that we have to-day a number of philosophers who call themselves subjectivists in moral philosophy. For, although the name “subjectivist” is by no means new, philosophers have reserved it hitherto for their opponents, and usually for imaginary opponents at that. Perhaps the chief cause of the change which has taken place in recent years is the discovery of a distinction between descriptive and emotive meaning. In the past the only form of subjectivism considered by writers on moral philosophy was the suggestion that moral sentences such as “You ought to do that” were statements about the speaker's own attitude; and it was easy to refute this by pointing out that we discuss questions of morals in a way which would be unintelligent, and even unintelligible, if moral judgments were only reports of introspection. But those who now call themselves subjectivists maintain that the peculiarity of moral words is their expressive and evocative power. According to their analysis, a speaker who uses one of these words in an indicative sentence may be stating nothing at all, but is undoubtedly trying to influence others (and perhaps also himself) to adopt a certain attitude. This, they say, explains how there can be genuine disagreement about questions of morals and why discussion may produce results. If A tries to evoke one attitude in his hearers and B tries to evoke an incompatible attitude, their utterances are opposed, not indeed like contradictory statements, but rather like the efforts of men engaged in a tug-of-war.