Could Ethical subjectivism be classified as Moral realism if we include God?


For the sake of my question, God = "an omnipotent being". I am not referring to any specific gods that come from any past or present religions.

Ethical subjectivism generally stands in opposition to Moral realism.I'm wondering, if you were someone who believed in Ethical subjectivism, could you still be a moral realist if you determined God or a God as holding the ability to create immutable(unless changed by the same or another omnipotent being) moral facts?

I'm thinking it could still be Ethical subjectivism, because if(somehow, someway) another God replaced the current one, then he would now have jurisdiction over what the moral facts for us would be. At the same time, we non-omnipotent beings would still have the ability to create moral facts, just not holding as high of a jurisdiction as the ones created by God(they lack (partial)immutability, the attribute that requires omnipotence in order to associate with a moral fact).

Tobias Ethercroft

Posted 2018-12-19T17:58:31.410

Reputation: 257

1If the god gets replaced it is hard to see how he was omnipotent. And having some powerful beings issue commandments does not necessarily turn those commandments into moral facts. A standard form of ethical subjectivism is cultural relativism about morality, and that is certainly incompatible with moral realism. – Conifold – 2018-12-19T18:22:40.203

I would think that if a god CANT get replaced it is hard to see how he is omnipotent. It was quite hypothetical, but I suppose I was saying that if a god is omnipotent than he could indeed turn his commandments into moral facts. – Tobias Ethercroft – 2018-12-19T18:53:47.133

1Cf Plato's Euthyphro dialogue and the impact the dilemma could have on construing a God's wishes as moral facts – Not_Here – 2018-12-19T19:00:51.977

I'm not just talking about "some powerful beings." I'm referring to omnipotent gods. – Tobias Ethercroft – 2018-12-19T19:01:03.880

@Not_Here I actually thought of this while looking at possibly making the first horn "Right actions are right because God commands them" not lead to a more anti-realist point of view – Tobias Ethercroft – 2018-12-19T19:03:51.387

Well I agree with Conifold that it's hard to understand how an omnipotent god could be overthrown and have their immutable facts changed. – Not_Here – 2018-12-19T19:05:31.533

yes, it would be hard for one to be overthrown, but for one to step down..... – Tobias Ethercroft – 2018-12-19T19:07:13.940

I honestly think you should drop that angle because it raises a very thorny debate about what omnipotence is (an omnipotent God could step down and still have their moral facts be immutable because they can do anything and that is surely something). Instead, if your real argument was to try and show that even if God commands moral facts, you could just use the Euthyphro dilemma to achieve the same "Even God's moral statements are subjective" idea. That's exactly the point of that horn. – Not_Here – 2018-12-19T19:09:42.757

If you want to keep that argument you're going to have to come up with a consistent and coherent idea of what omnipotence is. Good luck with that. – Not_Here – 2018-12-19T19:10:39.517

I think this may miss that modifying "Ethical Subjectivism" so that it could be classified as "Moral realism" would destroy the grounds by which we could call the stance Ethical Subjectivism at all. Even if the source of your morality is an omnipotent subject, your morality is still not subjective in the sense that any subject can determine it. This reeks of a categorical error analogous to "could we classify mammals as amphibians if they didn't have warm blood and also reproduced via. laying eggs" -- of course we could, but then the category mammal would be invalidated thereby. – Ethan NOPE – 2018-12-19T19:13:06.263

All very good points. I'll have to research omnipotence a little more to get a better understanding; as well as ethical subjectivisim. – Tobias Ethercroft – 2018-12-19T19:18:08.753



You raise an intriguing issue. I'm not sure, however, that your question is best framed in terms of 'ethical subjectivism'. This term can cover a number of views.


There are four formulations of ethical subjectivism which readily come to mind. 1) A moral judgment is subjective if it cannot be made and justified independently of the attitudes of some particular human being or groups of human beings. 2) A moral judgment is subjective if it merely describes the attitudes of the utterer and/or expresses these attitudes. 3) A moral judgment is subjective if it is formed, skewed, or at least strongly influenced by an emotional bias or prejudice of the person making the moral, judgment. A moral judgment is subjective if, while it purports to refer to 'something out- side the speaker's mind' all it really means (all the speaker has the right to say, or all he can be warranted in saying) is that the speaker approves of what is being done, advocated, prescribed, commended, or generally approved of. (Kai Nielsen, 'Does Ethical Subjectivism Have a Coherent Form?', Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 35, No. 1 (Sep., 1974), pp. 93-99: 93.)

This doesn't logically rule out the truth of at least some moral judgements but I think what you have in mind can best be discussed in terms just of divine omnipotence and moral realism. Shall we try that ?


A theist such as Descartes interprets divine omnipotence in very strong terms. For Descartes it means not merely that God can do anything which it is possible to do but that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, which is impossible for God. God can change the rules of logic and mathematics, abolish the laws of nature and, if God chose, alter the requirements of morality. God could make unnecessary suffering a good thing, justice a vice, love an abomination. You get the picture.

Descartes does not believe that any of this is to be expected from God. It is simply an acknowledgement of God's absolutely limitless power.

Now, on such a view of divine omnipotence, God could alter totally what you call the 'moral facts'. There could be moral truths, and moral realism be the correct ethical position, but this would be no restraint on God's replacing those facts completely and creating others - even quite contrary others. There would be new, different moral facts but they would still be moral facts and moral realism the correct ethical position.


On this approach, you don't need to hypothesise 'another God'. The present God could do all this. One extra point to note - a complication - is that you refer to 'immutable' moral facts. I'd just suggest that if they really are immutable then prima facie not even another God could change them. But on the Cartesian approach, since God is not bound even by logic, God could create moral facts which are immutable - and then change them. 'But it's contradictory to hold that the immutable, or unchangeable, could be changed'. Agreed, but the Cartesian God can alter the rules of logic so that it is not contradictory.


I think your basic intuition is sound. A God who/ which can change moral facts - a Cartesian God - could preserve moral realism. Moral facts would remain facts, or truths, but their content could change in the exercise of divine omnipotence. It's this changeability which I think you have in mind when you talk of 'ethical subjectivism'.

Cartesian omnipotence is very far from being the only possible or defensible form of omnipotence. But it is one conceptual possibility, and I have used it as such here.

Geoffrey Thomas

Posted 2018-12-19T17:58:31.410

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I'm not a philosopher, but yes: moral realism and ethical subjectivism overlap under the right theistic conditions.

Let's say that the ethical subjectivist is on Facebook. Suppose that Mark Zuckerberg employs a proprietary fake-news-prevention algorithm in order to remove problem users from the network. Each user's actions are judged according to the same algorithm, and if what they wanted was to stay on Facebook, then each person needed to refrain from posting anything that fits Mark's definition of "fake news".

Now, it is immaterial whether Mark's definition of "fake news" is completely valid, since Mark has the authority to kick anybody off as he sees fit. It is only necessary to know that the algorithm is the same no matter which user it applies to.

It is also immaterial whether Mark's definition of "fake news" is the same as the one for Twitter, LinkedIn, or Google News: the only way to stay on Facebook is to follow Facebook rules.

Now, instead of talking about Facebook suppose that God had communicated the rules to everybody somehow. And instead of getting kicked-off Facebook we're worried about either being together with God in the afterlife or not.

I don't see how this is different from the Moral Realism of a typical theist.

elliot svensson

Posted 2018-12-19T17:58:31.410

Reputation: 4 000