Ethics is not subjective

Thinking that ethics is subjective creates bad arguments.

People use the word subjective - and objective - in ways that lead to confusion, misguided conclusions, and failed attempts to convince someone that ethics matters. Thinking carefully about distinctions and words and concepts enables us to see the world more clearly, enabling us to draw better conclusions and decisions.

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Think Ethics is Subjective? Think Again. And Again, and Again…

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An objective person will make a judgment independently of their personal interest. If they aren't distant from the judgment, they're subjective or biased.

  • Being biased comes in degrees. Some may have too much interest in the issue.
  • The process by which one forms the judgment might be biased if one was inappropriately, unfairly, or irrationally influenced.

If by saying "ethics is subjective", you mean everyone's ethical judgments are always biased, it may be false.

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  • Some things, like the existence of earth or water, are objective because their existence does not depend on anyone's beliefs or judgments.
  • Other things depend for their existence on people's beliefs or judgments, such as the Supreme Court, art, or currency.

Ethics is subjective if it depends on our beliefs. What is more controversial is to consider if the existence of ethics itself - what is right, wrong, good, bad, etc. depend on our beliefs. 

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There are many issues one can debate. In some of those debates, the correct answer is objective and in other issues, it's subjective. Or put another way, some issues are factual and others issues are non-factual.

When the issue being debated is factual, people can be wrong or incorrect. However, people can't be wrong when non-factual issues are debated, e.g. whether chocolate is better than vanilla.

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When people say, "how you see the world is subjective," they mean "how you see the world depends on your experiences." This statement is about the basis or cause of a judgement/belief and not about the judgment itself nor what the judgment is about.

There are many other ways to have ethical beliefs:

  • Some judgments/beliefs are grounded in testimony. E.g. if my friend tells me it's raining outside. I believe it even though I didn't experience it.
  • Other judgments/beliefs are grounded in other things, such as empirical evidence.

Our experiences only inform our judgments, for better or worse.

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Consider this question: "How can I make ethically objective judgments when judgments are, by definition, subjective?"

  • Does the statement mean judgments are biased? Yet, not all judgments are biased.
  • If "judgements are subjective" mean judgments are made by you, it does not mean that they are problematic or biased or unreliable.
  • If "judgments are subjective" means your judgments are not factual, it is a subjective statement, as the fact that you're making a judgment about what's right/wrong doesn't imply that you're judging a non-factual issue.

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