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The field of ethics is like math, said Plato, as numbers and mathematical relations are timeless concepts that never change and are universally applied. Plato noted that moral values are absolute truths. This objective “other-worldly” philosophy – one that espouses absolute truths controlled by the will of God – is one way to view ethics. But others embrace a more subjective “this-worldly” approach that argues moral values are strictly human inventions that stem from individual or cultural perceptions.
Proponents of ethical objectivism hold that moral values are absolute truths and never change. These values are universal, as they apply to all beings around the world and throughout time. Ethical objectivism allows straightforward application of logical rules to moral statements. It also facilitates the settling of moral disagreements because if two moral beliefs contradict each other, then only one can be right.
Ethical subjectivism asserts that there are no objective moral properties. Rather, moral statements are made true or false by attitudes and perceptions. Proponents of ethical subjectivism deny the absolute and universal nature of morality and instead believe that moral values do change through time and throughout the world. However, ethical views often have the internal appearance of objectivity because ethical claims often contain implied facts. For instance, when you say somebody is a good person, it feels as if you are making an objective statement even though the statement is not so much fact as it is perception.
Ethical objectivists believe that morality treats all people equally – no individual has different duties or is subject to different expectations simply because of who he is. If one person in a particular situation has a duty then anyone else in a similar position has the same duty. Thus, the situation – not the person – dictates the moral facts. In contrast, ethical subjectivism posits that different people have different moral duties, even if they are in relevantly similar situations. The objective features of the situation alone do not determine the moral facts.
Ethical subjectivism is problematic in that it offers no way for those participating in ethical debate to resolve their disagreements. Instead, it simply requires each side to tolerate and acknowledge the other's presentation. This avoids resolving the types of problems that ethics practices attempt to address – namely determining the right thing to do. Critics have argued that while ethical objectivism may be concrete in that it is able to explain how to resolve moral conflicts, it cannot explain how those conflicts originated. Unlike observable facts, ethical objectivism posits a sort of moral fact that is nonmaterial and unobservable. As a result, the scientific method cannot be applied to ethical objectivism.
Lisa Huddleston is a Cincinnati-based freelance writer with more than 15 years of experience in health-care public relations. She also served as an editor at Writer’s Digest Books, where she produced the annual “Children’s Writers & Illustrators Market” guide. Huddleston holds a Bachelor of Arts in communication from the University of Dayton.