In Defense of Subjectivism

By R.N. Carmona

The motivations for Christians to reject subjectivism boils down to their tendency to think in binaries. What is also clear is that they are blind to subjectivism in their own circles or they ignore their hypocrisy. They often deride atheists with the charge of subjectivism while failing to see that epistemic subjectivism pervades Christian theology to such a degree that the enterprise has nothing close to a consensus on even the most important matters. Christian theology, indeed Christianity as a whole, is so intoxicated on the elixir of subjectivism that there are a vast number of contradictory theological schools and an even larger number of denominations. For all the talk of objectivism proceeding from God, he has been so notorious at authoring confusion that Christians cannot agree on a number of things: whether there is an elect or whether Jesus died for everyone; whether one can lose their salvation or not; whether or not there is a rapture; whether or not non-Christians can make it to heaven. There are also widespread disagreements on whether babies can be baptized and whether the gifts of the Spirit are still active or if they have ceased. This is to say nothing about the fact that disagreements in the past were resolved by way of violence, exile, and execution. Every now and again, Christians make it clear that they wish they were still able to brutalize, ostracize, or murder the voices of dissent.

When it conveniences them, Christians openly admit that subjectivism is fine, preferring to value their Pastor’s opinion more than the average pew-sitting brother in Christ. Their favorite apologist or theologian’s words take the most precedence. The evidentialists will follow William Lane Craig over a bridge if it came to it while the Aristotelians prefer Edward Feser. Meanwhile, Van Tillians have their own go-to theologians and fideists are sticking to Sola Scriptura and infallibility of the Bible or taking the more complicated route of following after Kierkegaard. In any case, for the Christian in any of these camps, the theology of his camp is so obviously superior to the theologies of the other groups. He can simply assert this with a clear conscience. This is not to give the impression that these schools are mutually exclusive, but in the majority of cases, Christians do not mix and match.

The tacit admission that all opinions are not equal is one that Christians rarely explore. Yet that is precisely the reason why subjectivism appeals to people. Furthermore, this is an appeal that even philosophers recognize. Marcus, a character in Rebecca Goldstein’s Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away, states the following:

There’s some ideal algorithm for working it out, for assigning weights to different opinions. Maybe we should give more weight to people who have lived lives that they find gratifying and that others find admirable. And, of course, for this to work the crowd has to be huge; it has to contain all these disparate vantage points, everybody who’s starting from their own chained-up position in the cave. It has to contain, in principle, everybody. I mean, if you’re including just men, or just landowners, or just people above a certain IQ, then the results aren’t going to be robust.

 Goldstein, Rebecca. Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy won’t Go Away. New York: Pantheon Books, 2014. 105. Print.

Giving more weight to admirable people who have lived satisfying lives is precisely what people tend to do. The issue with that is that admiration should not be our barometer. In moral matters, this works only because moral exemplars set a precedent for others to follow, e.g. Budda, Jesus. Concerning epistemic matters, our tune has to be different. No one takes advice from a mechanic when it comes to their teeth. No one would let the mechanic give them a medical opinion. People turn to experts on such matters. The failure to do so on other fronts traces to beliefs that are integral to someone’s identity; these beliefs are usually religious, but do not have to be as can be observed in people who believe in conspiracy theories, e.g., anti-vaxx. Getting one’s science from a Christian apologist would be ludicrous if Christianity were not so integral to one’s identity. This is the only reason Christians do not consult cosmologists about the origin of the universe because even the proverbial mistrust for science stems from the impression that science is invariably at odds with Christianity. What is at odds with the conclusions of science is Christianity, but I digress.

Kai Nielsen does not see a problem between subjectivism and objectivism in ethics. It is a problem of our own making. While he ultimately concludes that subjectivists have failed to make a philosophical claim that is not either incoherent or false, he thinks subjectivists are on to something. He states:

So far it looks as if ‘Is morality objective or subjective?’ is indeed a pseudoquestion, for ‘All moral claims are subjective’ is either plainly false, in an appropriate sense vacuous or opaque. Where subjectivism is vacuous, ‘There are no objective moral realities’ has no force because given the construction put on ‘moral realities,’ we do not understand what could count as an instance of such a reality.

Nielsen, Kai. “Does Ethical Subjectivism Have a Coherent Form?” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, vol. 35, no. 1, 1974, pp. 93–99. JSTOR, Accessed 13 Dec. 2020.

Nielsen goes on to grant that the subjectivist could be saying that it makes no sense to speak of moral realities. If that is the case, then asking for an objective justification of moral claims is akin to demanding a valid inductive inference when one is only willing to accept a deductive one. The Problem of Induction has been identified as pseudoproblem by other philosophers as well, most notably C.S. Peirce who identified all forms of reasoning within one another. Peirce, in other words, equated the three modes of reasoning. The image below makes his equivalence clear:

The Christian objectivist is demanding more than a simple justification of a moral claim. He is demanding a fixed reality on which all moral and epistemic claims rest. This importunate exigency stems from an outmoded foundationalism. Christians have an unresting need for absolute certainty in a claim and so, they settle for verisimilitude rather than accepting that even truth is not fixed. That is not to say that an immoral act was right in the past when it was generally agreed upon. Instead, the intention is to point out that truth is rarely, if ever, static. Given enough time, even a seemingly immutable truth will change or cease to be true. The sunrise has been true for 4.5 billion years. Someday, the Sun will not rise. This sort of relativism is uncontroversial spatiotemporally and may, in fact, underlie the manner in which reality is constituted. Location and time are never fixed and always in flux. Our epistemic positions should follow suit, without controversy. Of course, we do not want our moral positions to look this why, but upon reminding ourselves that all opinions are not equal, we can always remain open to better perspectives.

This is the best hope for subjectivism. Christians might not have the utmost confidence in a subjectivist’s capacity to identify the best opinions, but then, the Christian would have to address their own hypocrisy because it is clear that the same deity cannot be guiding them to one theology while drawing others in disparate directions, unless God himself is drunk on the elixir. Nietzsche believed in the internalization of man, namely the idea that sufficiently realized adults come to internalize external moral authority, primarily one’s parents. At some point in adulthood, the voice of one’s conscience is no longer mom’s or dad’s, but one’s own. Implicit in that is that we can come to question our parent’s choices and even, their values. Likewise, we come to question the decisions and values of our nations, particularly by way of identifying issues in the way our officials govern.

Therefore, if we can internalize authority to this extent, the charge that subjectivists cannot identify better opinions is false. In fact, in my own country, the United States, what prevents widespread acceptance of better opinions are perceived threats to one’s political identity. This is why the Right is so intent on believing that the Left wants to murder babies, take everyone’s guns away, and censor dissent. When a belief or affiliation has become so crucial to one’s identity that neither are questioned, moral progress is stalled. This is precisely what is entailed in the subjectivist position, however: some opinions have no right to be at the table and are of no value at all, and thus, should not be paid mind to. For subjectivism to truly flourish, only the brightest and the best need sit at the table, which should alarm absolutely no one because this is how most of us consent to be governed, except for in cases when the people with less qualified opinions get their way.

In any event, the fear of subjectivism is overstated. As has been made abundantly clear, Christians only take issue with opinions when they are not in keeping with Christianity or even, when those opinions are not in agreement with their specific denomination or theological school. Atheists, by contrast, do not disqualify opinions out of hand. For instance, while the vast majority of Christians continue to worship a vengeful God that will impose post-mortal retributive justice on anyone who did not accept Jesus as Lord and Savior, it is becoming pressingly obvious to most people that retributive justice is quickly approaching obsolescence and that it needs to be supplanted with a rehabilitative and reformative approach. All opinions are not equal and if that is the only thing subjectivism has going for it, it is a lot more than the Christian would like to admit.

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