Normative Ethical Subjectivism: An Exploration of Its Foundations and Critiques

Ethical theories have long been a subject of debate and discussion in the field of philosophy. One such ethical stance is normative ethical subjectivism, which posits that the morality of an action depends solely on the personal approval or disapproval of the individual making the judgment. In this essay, we will delve into the foundations of normative ethical subjectivism, examine its key arguments, and critically evaluate its strengths and weaknesses.


Normative ethical subjectivism asserts that an action is morally right if, and only if, the person evaluating the action approves of it.

This ethical stance stands in contrast to other theories, such as moral objectivism, which claims that there are objective moral truths independent of individual opinions. Normative ethical subjectivism contends that morality is inherently subjective and that moral judgments are contingent upon personal beliefs and values.

To establish its claims, normative ethical subjectivism relies on four main arguments: the democracy argument, the tolerance argument, the disagreement argument, and the atheism argument.

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Each of these arguments aims to support the idea that moral judgments are subjective and dependent on individual perspectives. However, as we will explore in the subsequent sections, these arguments face various challenges and critiques.

The Democracy Argument

The democracy argument posits that if everyone has an equal right to have and voice moral opinions, then everyone's moral opinions are equally plausible.

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It further asserts that everyone does have an equal right to have and voice moral opinions. Consequently, the argument concludes that everyone's moral opinions are equally plausible.

However, a critical examination of the democracy argument reveals its limitations. While it is important to respect individuals' rights to hold and express their moral opinions, this does not necessarily render all opinions equally valid or plausible. For instance, personal opinions may be based on erroneous or uninformed beliefs, leading to morally questionable conclusions. The mere existence of a right to an opinion does not guarantee the truth or moral correctness of that opinion.

To illustrate this point, consider the example of an individual who believes that acts of violence against innocent people are morally justifiable. According to the democracy argument, this opinion should be considered equally plausible as any other moral opinion. This conclusion raises ethical concerns and highlights the need for a more robust foundation for normative ethical subjectivism.

The Tolerance Argument

The tolerance argument asserts that if normative subjectivism is true, then no one's deepest opinions are more plausible than anyone else's. It follows that if no one's deepest opinions are more plausible than anyone else's, we must respect and tolerate the opinions of all others. Therefore, if normative subjectivism is true, we have an ethical obligation to respect and tolerate the opinions of all individuals.

While the concept of tolerance is highly regarded in ethical discourse, the tolerance argument encounters significant challenges. The fundamental issue lies in the potential consequences of absolute tolerance. If we accept that all opinions, regardless of their content, are equally valid and deserving of respect, we may inadvertently condone harmful or morally reprehensible views.

For instance, if an individual's deepest opinion advocates for discrimination, violence, or hatred towards certain groups, should society be obligated to respect and tolerate that opinion? The tolerance argument appears to lack a mechanism for distinguishing between morally justifiable and unjustifiable opinions. Consequently, it may not provide a strong foundation for normative ethical subjectivism, as it fails to address the complexities of moral judgment.

The Disagreement Argument

The disagreement argument posits that if there is persistent disagreement among educated, open-minded, and good-willed people about a subject matter, then that subject matter does not admit to an objective truth. Given the premise that there is persistent disagreement about ethical issues among educated, open-minded, and good-willed people, the argument concludes that there are no objective ethical truths.

This argument raises important questions about the nature of moral disagreements. It suggests that the existence of ongoing, substantial disagreement within a group of reasonable and well-intentioned individuals implies the absence of objective moral truths. However, this interpretation overlooks alternative explanations for moral disagreements.

For instance, disagreements in ethics may stem from differences in foundational ethical theories, cultural backgrounds, or individual values. Such disagreements do not necessarily negate the possibility of objective moral truths but may highlight the complexity of ethical discourse. Moreover, the argument of disagreement does not account for the potential for moral progress or consensus-building over time, which can lead to the convergence of ethical views.

In summary, while the disagreement argument challenges the existence of objective moral truths, it fails to provide conclusive evidence for the subjectivity of morality. It is essential to consider alternative explanations for moral disagreements and the potential for moral consensus.

The Atheism Argument

The atheism argument asserts that if ethics were objective, then the existence of God would be necessary. However, it further posits that God does not exist. Consequently, the argument concludes that ethics is not objective.

This argument hinges on the assumption that the existence of objective ethics requires a divine source or moral lawgiver. It presents a challenge to moral objectivism, which often invokes a transcendental foundation for ethical truths. However, it is important to note that not all ethical theories rely on a religious or theistic framework.

Critics of the atheism argument argue that ethical objectivism can be grounded in secular moral philosophies, such as utilitarianism, deontology, or virtue ethics. These frameworks do not necessarily require the existence of a deity to support objective ethical principles. As a result, the atheism argument may be insufficient in refuting all forms of moral objectivism.

Furthermore, the atheism argument raises the classic philosophical dilemma known as the Euthyphro problem. This problem questions whether actions are good because God commands them or if God commands them because they are inherently good. Both options have implications for the nature of ethical objectivity and the role of divine authority in morality.

In conclusion, while the atheism argument challenges the link between ethics and theism, it does not provide a definitive refutation of all forms of objective ethics. It underscores the need to explore secular ethical theories and consider alternative foundations for objective moral truths.

Critique of Normative Ethical Subjectivism

Normative ethical subjectivism, as discussed through the democracy, tolerance, disagreement, and atheism arguments, presents a perspective that is not without its challenges and critiques. Let us critically evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of this ethical stance.

Strengths of Normative Ethical Subjectivism

  1. Emphasis on Individual Autonomy: Normative ethical subjectivism places a strong emphasis on individual autonomy and personal agency in moral decision-making. It respects the right of individuals to form their own moral judgments based on their unique values and beliefs.
  2. Acknowledgment of Diversity: This ethical stance acknowledges the diversity of moral perspectives within society. It recognizes that individuals may hold differing opinions on ethical matters, and it encourages a degree of openness to differing viewpoints.
  3. Promotion of Tolerance: Normative ethical subjectivism, particularly through the tolerance argument, promotes the value of tolerance and respect for others' moral opinions. It encourages dialogue and understanding among individuals with conflicting moral views.

Weaknesses of Normative Ethical Subjectivism

  1. Relativism and Moral Neutrality: Critics argue that normative ethical subjectivism can lead to moral relativism, where all moral opinions are considered equally valid, regardless of their content. This potential moral neutrality raises ethical concerns, as it may fail to condemn morally reprehensible actions and beliefs.
  2. Lack of Moral Guidance: Normative ethical subjectivism does not provide a clear framework for resolving moral dilemmas or guiding ethical decision-making. It lacks objective criteria for distinguishing morally right actions from morally wrong ones, which can leave individuals uncertain in morally complex situations.
  3. Challenge of Moral Progress: The disagreement argument suggests that persistent moral disagreements among educated and open-minded individuals indicate the absence of objective moral truths. However, this perspective may overlook the potential for moral progress and the convergence of ethical views over time. Normative ethical subjectivism does not account for the possibility of refining moral judgments through rational discourse and reflection.
  4. Ethical Relativism: Normative ethical subjectivism shares similarities with ethical relativism, which asserts that morality is contingent upon cultural or individual beliefs. Ethical relativism has faced criticism for its potential to justify morally abhorrent practices in certain cultural contexts, as it may condone harmful actions if they align with local customs or norms.


Normative ethical subjectivism, a philosophical stance that asserts the subjectivity of morality, presents a complex and nuanced perspective on ethical theory. While it emphasizes individual autonomy, diversity of moral perspectives, and the value of tolerance, it faces significant challenges and critiques.

The arguments supporting normative ethical subjectivism, including the democracy, tolerance, disagreement, and atheism arguments, have been examined and critiqued in this essay. While these arguments offer insights into the subjectivity of morality, they do not provide conclusive evidence for the complete rejection of objective ethics.

It is important to recognize that ethical discourse is multifaceted, and different ethical theories offer varying approaches to understanding morality. Normative ethical subjectivism, like other ethical stances, contributes to the ongoing dialogue about the nature of ethics and the foundations of moral judgments.

Ultimately, the question of whether morality is entirely subjective or possesses objective elements remains a topic of philosophical inquiry and debate. Ethical theories continue to evolve and adapt to address the complexities of human ethics, values, and moral decision-making.

Updated: Nov 07, 2023
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Normative Ethical Subjectivism: An Exploration of Its Foundations and Critiques. (2016, Jul 06). Retrieved from

Normative Ethical Subjectivism: An Exploration of Its Foundations and Critiques essay
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