I made a claim that ethics are completely subjective; that there is no one correct answer to a question in the form of:

Is insert activity or behaviour here ethical or not?

It was suggested that I try that claim here. So, are ethics subjective?

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    I think this question is much too broad; it will provoke discussion and is therefore not fitted for a Q&A format. I think you need to add at least some references and be a bit more specific in order to get an answer.
    – Ben
    Commented Feb 20, 2013 at 21:17
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    You might try re-framing this as a reference request or something similar to avoid ChaosAndOrder's quite reasonable concern.
    – Dennis
    Commented Feb 20, 2013 at 21:45
  • Surely it is. As absurd example I can give you a rock - you can't reason it to be ethical. As a normal example - anyone who don't agree with some supposedly objective ethics. Those who talk about "objective moral" have wrongly replaced 'intersubjective' with 'objective'.
    – zaa
    Commented Feb 20, 2013 at 21:52
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    In my comment it was about subjectivity. But the question is too broad also.
    – zaa
    Commented Feb 20, 2013 at 21:55
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    Okay, note taken.
    – zaa
    Commented Feb 20, 2013 at 22:00

2 Answers 2


Short answer

Philosophy is the human implementation of the "garbage in - garbage out" principle which in this situation means that with differently chosen "input" (starting premises or axioms, maybe also some nontraditional logic) you can get different "output" (ethics).
So ethics can be called subjective (as it depends on your subjective choice).

Not so short answer

In addition to the short answer it's interesting to know how humans manage to live in such relative peace and even in something what can be called an agreement about many ethical questions. That is so because we are similar (thanks to biology and sociology).

We can found the idea of natural similarity in many forms and times in the history of philosophy.
1) Natural law theories which, simplifying, find the base of morality in studies of human nature (or, according to the SEP, in ethics and philosophy of law). There have been many natural law theorists, best known of them are Aquinas and Hobbes.
2) Intersubjectivity - simplifying, it's a phenomenon of related or even shared subjective states, values etc. This article (from sources of the Wiki article) has a very good introduction on the term; from classical/mainstream philosophers there's Husserl (a phenomenologist).
3) Also there's an assumption of similarity when one tries to persuade another into an ethical system. Such an action supposes that there exist shared values or premises which can be used to convince the counterpart.

So what does philosophy do with this similarity? It uses conceptual analysis to dissect and clarify notions of morality (sometimes hoping to give a definite answer about what's good and bad), which, if used to reach the one true definition of morality, is the same as trying to make compromises between many subjective ideas - which is difficult to do also because of emotion-influenced motivated reasoning.

My first try to answer question here. Be nice and tear it apart!

  • So many wiki links because I found them better for introduction/start.
    – zaa
    Commented Feb 20, 2013 at 23:45
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    Nice job on the short answer actually recognizing my understanding accurately, I think the not so short answer is based on philosophers versions of english words being different than the rest of us.. glad to see some of you understand normal english and there is an understanding of my stance amongst you folks. Also you mention "humans manage to live in such relative peace", hah have a look around the world man.. how many active wars do you think there are right this moment? Commented Feb 21, 2013 at 16:39
  • About peace I had in mind something like that en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_ongoing_military_conflicts And there's lot of less bloody conflicts. The good news is that situation keeps improving.
    – zaa
    Commented Feb 21, 2013 at 19:13

What you're asking is a question about Metaethics. See this SEP article.

The position you're taking is some form of non-factivism or anti-realism. As stated, your view is ambiguous over VERY many possibilities.

Here is the entry on Moral Anti-Realism.

As you're reading through that article you can look at some of the related entries like Moral Relativism.

Depending on how you state your position, it may be a VERY unpopular one that almost no academic philosopher defends. For instance, the opening line of the Moral Relativism entry is as follows:

Moral relativism has the unusual distinction—both within philosophy and outside it—of being attributed to others, almost always as a criticism, far more often than it is explicitly professed by anyone.

I might also add that these sorts of relativist/subjectivist views are very popular among undergrads without much philosophical training. Most Intro Ethics courses treat these topics in the beginning to disabuse students of the naive formulation of these views. You might be interested (if you are a college student) in taking a class in ethics (especially one with a section that covers metaethics) to become better acquainted with the philosophical landscape with respect to ethics.

Without more information you can't get a better answer to your question. I'd suggest reading through some of these articles and coming back with a more specific question.

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    This is a reasonable (read: good) answer given the incredibly broad question (which ought to be closed) but at least gives the OP a start on some of the key ethical issues. I would skip the article on Metaethics though and jump right into 3 main "groupings" of things people ought to learn in an intro ethics course: 1) the difference between descriptive ethics and normative ethics, 2) realism vs anti-realism and relativism vs universalism (objectivism), and 3) the majors ethical categories in these fields (deontology, conquesequentialism, pragmatics, etc). Just my two cents, anyways. :)
    – stoicfury
    Commented Feb 20, 2013 at 22:50
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    @stoicfury I'll toss my two cents in with your two cents, so now you have four cents. In other words, I agree with everything you just said.
    – Dennis
    Commented Feb 20, 2013 at 23:12

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