Ethical Subjectivism and the Argument from Outrage

In arguing for the superiority of theistic ethics over secular ethics, apologists sometimes present some version of an argument like this:

1. If theism is not true, then ethics is subjective.

2. Ethics is not subjective.

3. Therefore, theism is true.

I think this is a bad argument because I think premise 1 is false. But I will not be arguing that point here. Instead, I want to point out what I think is a massive irony in the way premise 2 is usually defended. I call the  argumentative strategy at issue the “argument from outrage”. Here is an example of the argument from outrage at work.

…if there are no objective ethics, then who is to say that Hitler was objectively morally wrong? Humans have an intuitive sense of right and wrong. The moral argument requires only that at least some actions are objectively right or wrong (e.g. torturing children for pleasure is objectively morally wrong). (

Note the examples that are given: Hitler’s genocidal policies, or torturing children for pleasure. In choosing these examples, the apologist is counting on the audience to feel powerful negative emotions in response to the examples. The suggestion that, say, stomping on kittens isn’t objectively wrong is just outrageous!

The irony, though, is that according to subjectivism, moral judgments are motivated not by reason, but by feeling. And the irony is that the apologetical strategy here only seems to be effective when the chosen examples can be expected to provoke strong negative feelings. Contrast the following two example arguments:

A1. If subjectivism is true, then stomping on kittens is not objectively wrong.

A2. But stomping on kittens is objectively wrong.

A3. Therefore, subjectivism is not true.


B1. If subjectivism is true, then gathering sticks on Sunday is not objectively wrong.

B2. But gathering sticks on Sunday is objectively wrong.

B3. Therefore, subjectivism is not true.

Why doesn’t the second argument have as much persuasive force as the first (except for cat haters)? The subjectivist will say that it is because the judgment expressed in A2 is really not a cognitive judgment, but an emotional judgment (or not a judgment at all). Those for whom B2 seems true are those who are emotionally invested in disapproving of whatever they think God has forbidden, and those who are not emotionally invested along these lines have no strong negative feelings about gathering sticks on Sunday, and therefore will not be likely to agree that B2 is true.

Or how about:

C1. If subjectivism is true, then buying slaves from foreigners is not objectively wrong.

C2. But buying slaves from foreigners is objectively wrong.

C3. Therefore, subjectivism is not true.

These days, it is hard to find theists (even among Biblical literalists) who will disagree with C2, even though a straightforward reading of the Bible suggests that they should (Leviticus 25:44-46). Why? Isn’t it because they are motivated more strongly by their negative feelings about slavery than they are by speculation about some theistic basis for opposing slavery? Doesn’t subjectivism provide a better explanation for why opposition to slavery is much more common among contemporary theists than it was in America in the mid-1800’s?

One would be hard-pressed even to find someone offering a controversial example as part of the argument from outrage. Consider this argument:

D1. If subjectivism is true, then human cloning is not objectively wrong.

D2. But human cloning is objectively wrong.

D3. Therefore, subjectivism is not true.

Because the ethical status of human cloning is a matter of considerable controversy, it makes a very poor choice of example in arguing against subjectivism (note, incidentally, that for those who advocate a divine command ethic as the only route to an objective foundation for ethical judgments, it is not at all clear how to motivate either a “yea” or “nay” position on such issues as this). The subjectivist can make the point that controversial ethical claims derive their controversial status precisely from differing feelings about them (or from different feelings about projected consequences). What is needed in rebuttal is a compelling argument that human cloning (for instance) is either objectively right or objectively wrong despite how anyone feels about it. In motivating such a claim, the opponent of subjectivism would be advised not to rely only on examples about which there are strong feelings, since otherwise it is open to the subjectivist to respond that agreement with the examples is motivated exclusively by those feelings (thus ironically confirming, rather than refuting, subjectivism).