Making Sense of Morality: Naturalism and Subjectivist Ethics

Various ethical terms
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Naturalism and Moral Cognitivist Options: Subjectivism

In terms of the meaning of moral sentences, naturalists also could be cognitivists. They maintain moral claims are truth apt, yet they still deny there are any intrinsically moral properties. There are three main branches of moral cognitivism: subjectivism, error theory, and objectivism. Subjectivists generally reduce morals to what a speaker likes or dislikes (private subjectivism), or what a culture likes or dislikes (cultural relativism). This essay will look at subjectivism in general, and then in particular at that of Gilbert Harman.

Harman’s Subjectivism

Now, for Harman (b. 1938), there is another sense of subjectivism. According to him, moral facts are natural facts. Consistent with naturalism, there are no intrinsically moral facts. Moral facts should be understood as being relational facts, which are about reasons that are grounded in a given subject’s goals. Moreover, our moral beliefs arise from our interaction with natural facts. But that interaction always is conditioned by our upbringing and psychology, so all moral beliefs are our constructs. Morals are dependent upon us, so they are subjective in that sense.


For now, let me make some observations about Harman’s ethics. For one, we can see a consistent naturalistic position at work, that there are no intrinsically moral properties or facts. If everything is natural, and the world has been “disenchanted” of things like essential natures, then surely morals would not have essences either.

For Further Reading

Gilbert Harman, The Nature of Morality: An Introduction to Ethics, and Explaining Value: And Other Essays in Moral Philosophy

Professor of ethics, philosophy of religion @ Biola's MA Christian Apologetics. Interests: ethics, knowledge, nominalism, & how Christians have been naturalized