I assert that people say something is right/wrong only basing on their desires. They do not want X to be done, either under particular circumstances or any. Desires, indeed, are real. Therefore, moral statements are relating to desires and, as follows from previous sentence, reality.

At the same time, desires are subjective: different people can have different and mutually contradictive desires. Therefore, such theory of morals would imply there are many systems of morality and neither of them is false, because they are based on desires, which are real.

My position is completely cognitivist: people are making moral judgements not necessarily in order to make others not to do things they think are wrong. They can do it in order to describe their mental state. The sentence "I'm hurt" has cognitive meaning, so can moral statements.

Further explanation regarding my position:

  1. People act only in accordance to desires and reflexes. Desires relate to conscious part and reflexes - to unconscious.

  2. Desires can contradict each other. Then the strongest desire takes over.

Everything that people do consciously, they do only in accordance with their will. If you see your friend passing by, you are greeting them. If not - you don't. Now, using analogy: if you see an extortioner threating you and you can't defend yourself, you give money. If not - you don't. Indeed, you would not want for such a situation to happen, but when it happens, other desires come into effect, relating to the reality and the possibility. Out of all possible actions people act in accordance with the most desirable. Some impossible actions may be even more desirable, but they are impossible and people must follow other desires then.

Also, reflexive utterances regarding rightness and wrongness do not belong to cognitive utterances and, therefore, are not a part of this discourse.

So, is it possible to be both moral realist and ethical subjectivist?

  • I think this position has the weakness of failing to provide moral protection to vulnerable subjects who may not be able to voice or may not know their moral entitlements. Is it immoral to steal electricity via loops of cable under the power wires? Is it immoral to waste the investors' money? Is it immoral to enforce those portions of the law that don't help refugees while conveniently forgetting those portions of the law that do help them? Jul 1, 2018 at 22:06
  • You claim that the stronger of conflicting possible desires wins. Yet a relevant moral may instead support the weaker of the two and encourage inflaming it by finding motivation(s) to strengthen it to the point that it wins. Wouldn't the fact that such morals exist imply that your initial assertion is incorrect?
    – Jed Schaaf
    Dec 24, 2023 at 7:20
  • @JedSchaaf Does that moral exist if there is no one to utter it?
    – rus9384
    Dec 24, 2023 at 13:48

4 Answers 4


I think it is, even if the combination is unusual.

Moral realism is roughly the view that some moral judgements are true and are known to be true. Now, the truth as such does not motivate. You tell me, say, that the shop across the road sells vodka. This is true, let's say, and I accept it as true. But because I do not drink alcohol - actually true - the truth does not motivate me because I have no desire to buy vodka.

I see no reason why the case should not be the case in ethics. You tell me, say, that promises should be kept. (Over-simple but it's just an example : anyone can substitute their own candidate moral truth.) This is true, let's say, and I accept it as known to be true. The catch is, though, that just as I have no desire to buy vodka, so I have no desire to act on moral truths. I note them but ignore them and am happy for things to be this way.

Since I accept that some moral judgements are true and are known to be true, I am a moral realist - maybe an unusual one, but I meet the conditions.

Need I stop there ? Not at all. My indifference to known moral truths can go along with a style of ethics which I prefer. This is one in which moral judgements express my emotions or attitudes and are designed to elicit or reinforce the same emotions or attitudes in others. All very AJ Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic, ch. 6. (Except that Ayer left the formulation of his position unsatisfactory and unsophisticated : contemporary 'expressivism' is working on remedying some of its defects : Neil Sinclair, ' Recent Work in Expressivism', Analysis, Vol. 69, No. 1 (JANUARY 2009), pp. 136-147.) This style of ethics makes me an ethical subjectivist.

Easily done, then : moral realism and ethical subjectivism combined.

  • Expressivism is non-cognitive, meaning moral sentences are spoken only in order to directly change others' behaviour. But desires have cognitive meaning, say "I want to eat" has such meaning. Indeed, when you tell it to friend it does not mean "Feed me". Same analogy applies to morals in my view, making expressivism false.
    – rus9384
    Jul 1, 2018 at 17:04
  • 1
    You will have to expand on that. How does my desire to eat oysters have 'cognitive meaning' ? 'I want to eat' simply reports your desire, if true. At the limit, 'You should keep your promises' on an ethical subjectivist approach simply reports my attitude towards promise-making. In any case you are shifting the issue. You only asked if moral realism and ethical subjectivism can be combined. I argued that they can, conceptually. This has nothing to do with the truth or falsity of either viewpoint. So why does it matter, relevantly to your question, whether emotivism/ expressivism is false ?
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Jul 1, 2018 at 17:54
  • Well, accepting expressivism, one cannot be cognitivist and therefore subjectivist. Also, it is possible to rationally explain goodness/badness, what made one think so, and it is possible to persuade others something is good/bad. This is what makes me cognitivist.
    – rus9384
    Jul 1, 2018 at 21:39
  • @rus9384. Hi ! You did explain in the text box that you are a cognitivist. I was exploring the possibility that one could be an ethical cognitivie and accept that there are known moral truths but not care about them. There are many known truths that don't motivate me at all. It is the same with you. Then why can't moral truths be among them ? It is a logical possibility. So I could be a cognitivist but ignore moral truths as of no more interest to me than the price of potatoes, and espouse a form of ethical subjectivism which I prefer. Let me add : I like your questions, which are penetrating.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Jul 2, 2018 at 8:25

Depends on what we mean by Moral Realism. Typically, Moral Realists at least have to hold the following:

  1. Moral statements are truth-apt. (Cognitivism)
  2. At least one moral statement is actually true. (No Error-Theory)

This isn't specific enough to exclude the view you sketch. But some will add some further criteria to the label Moral Realism. Two come to mind. Firstly, we could exclude constructivism. Then we'd add:

  1. The truth value of at least one moral statement is not mind-dependent.

This is mostly done to contrast constructivism from non-constructivism. But many would f.e. accept Kantian Constructivism as a form of Moral Realism, hence not add that thesis. Secondly, we could exclude Relativism or Subjectivism:

  1. The truth value of true moral statements is not relative (or subjective) to something.

I think thesis 4 is added frequently.

Your view seems to be (or sound close to) a from of Humean Constructivism. Quoting that article:

For instance, Street argues that “the substantive content of a given agent’s reasons is a function of his or her particular, contingently given, evaluative starting points” (Street 2010, see also Lenman 2010: 180–181).

This would fit that moral statements are relating to desires: our desires would be or have some relation to our "evaluative starting points". From those, the truth value of other moral statements would follow.

This seems mind-dependent because the truth value is fixed to us and not to something else. Now, you say that desires "are real". I'd at least say that this isn't compatible with non-naturalism about moral facts (because then it wouldn't relate to desires). Whether

It is subjectivist iff we argue that the desires vary from person to person.

I also want to add that you're jumping the gun here:

I assert that people say something is right/wrong only basing on their desires. They do not want X to be done, either under particular circumstances or any. Desires, indeed, are real. Therefore, moral statements are relating to desires and, as follows from previous sentence, reality.

This is not just the premise that people make moral judgments based on their desires can be criticized. But if people assert right/wrong based on their desires then that doesn't necessarily mean that this influences the truth value of moral statements. For example, a justification for why this doesn't end up as Error Theory would be needed. This is mainly because the notion of

They do not want X to be done, either under particular circumstances or any

doesn't really make clear how something like Moral Error is possible. If someone is subjectivist or relativist then they can still behave wrong to their own standard. But if moral statements are just proposition on what someone doesn't want to be done (which also sounds quite non-cognitivist) then mustn't be the case.

  • About mind-dependency: I'd say mind is dependent on desires, not vice versa. At the same time, is mind the thing that contains desires, is it accepted property of mind in philosophy? | I can argue people act only in accordance to their desires. Yes, desires can contradict each other, yes, it's possible that one is tired of doing something but one believes it is his duty and wants to do it. | And it is possible to behave wrong to own standard. People can blame themselves and they do.
    – rus9384
    Jul 2, 2018 at 0:28

Ethics invalidates the premises of your question

Morals are the rules... the do's and don'ts... the standard by which we contemplate ("should I do this?") and then judge ("should I have done this?") actions.

Ethics are the standard by which we create morals. If the morals are the "law", then ethics are the "constitution". Ethics are the means by which we create morals.

For example: if one moral is "you shall not murder", the corresponding ethic is "human life is invaluable and should not be needlessly wasted".

So when you say...

I assert that people say something is right/wrong only basing on their desires

...I say your assertion is wrong because people consider many ethical values that are not based on their immediate desires. For example people desire wealth, and companionship. As the same time they consider the ethics of ownership, and ethics of partnership/fidelity. So therefore — even though it would be very nice for them to get hold of that other person's property, or desirable companion, they do not base their morals on that.

So since that assertion is wrong, then that breaks down the argument you had for posing the question in the first place. Yes there are many moral systems but they do connect back to ethics. And ethics are not only based on desires, but to a great degree to prevent people from doing things we do not want done to ourselves.

  • Do you have a reference for your definitions of morals and ethics? They do strike me as odd, but that may be due to my thinking being tainted by Kant.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jul 2, 2018 at 8:52
  • @PhilipKlöcking How about simply Wikipedia. "Ethics or moral philosophy is a branch of philosophy that involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct."
    – MichaelK
    Jul 2, 2018 at 8:54
  • I see a rough correspondence, but there seems to be a huge gap between "systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong" and the picture of it being the actual form and standard of moral habits. Also, how this is an answer to the verbatim question about the possibility of bringing ethical subjectivism and moral realism together could be elaborated more clearly.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jul 2, 2018 at 8:59
  • @PhilipKlöcking Edited.
    – MichaelK
    Jul 2, 2018 at 9:06
  • People can have contradicting desires. One may want to be rich, yet not wanting to steal money from others, even if one knows it is the only way for him/her to be rich. I see no problem of reducing everything to desires. Psychological egoists prior to me already did it.
    – rus9384
    Jul 2, 2018 at 9:41

To Christians, ethics / morality are indeed subjective: God doesn't expect people to follow rules that they don't know about. But even more interestingly, regarding rules that don't apply to me... God wants people who do know better to work in order to protect the sensibilities of folks who don't know better, until such a time as they learn the truth (if/when that time comes). Look at this:

Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God.

So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.

But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall. (1 Corinthians 8:1-15, NIV)

This is consistent with one rule that Jesus made a big deal about...

"...do to others what you would have them do to you." (Matthew 7:12b, NIV)

...and which is by no means unique to Jesus' teaching.

  • But how is reality of these morals argued? Also, I'm not sure that subjectivity means "doesn't expect people to follow rules that they don't know about". Subjectivism means objective morality is unknown and cannot be known since it does not exist.
    – rus9384
    Jul 1, 2018 at 22:27
  • For analogy, William Lane Craig mentioned once that Big Bang Theory / the Standard Model don't provide an "advantaged" time, i.e. the true base time for the rest of the universe. But that doesn't mean there couldn't be one! On the contrary, the Standard Model works just fine if you take this or that traveler to be the "super-time"; and under monotheism, it's clear that that is compatible with God existing right there. Likewise with morality, objective morality may be unknowable for any ordinary judge, but the advantaged judge would be able to know it as it varies subject to subject. Jul 1, 2018 at 23:49
  • "To Christians, ethics / morality are indeed subjective: God doesn't expect people to follow rules that they don't know about." -- Only certain sects of Christianity hold this position. Many hold the position that as God is absolute, so are morals, and so His expectation does not differ - God will judge all according to the same rule. Or alternately (in Christian terms), sufficient morals are universally known (Romans 1) in order to condemn all people as sinners (Romans 3) and therefore they all need a Savior (John 3:16-18).
    – Jed Schaaf
    Dec 24, 2023 at 7:33

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