A book on ethics and philosophy of values

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e) The contemporary subjectivism

In the 20th century, subjectivism was revitalized, in its two forms, classical or creative. Within the narrow confines of this essay, it is sufficient to mention the two main doctrines which were sources of renewal.

Man is freedom, and for Sartre it seems incompatible with the idea of a value of the world (although for him freedom is strangely compatible with facticity, viz. the existence of things that the free man will use). Consequently, value can be revealed only to an active freedom which makes it exist as value by the sole fact of recognizing it as such. It follows that my freedom is the unique foundation of values and that nothing, absolutely nothing, justifies me in adopting this or that particular value, this or that particular scale of values 1.

On the other hand, we can see a resurgence of classical subjectivism in the critique of moral notions provided by emotivism (Ayer and Anderson). According to these authors, these notions have no cognitive meaning, that is to say they do no assign an objective predicate to something, but merely express subjective feelings, such as admiration or disgust. Thus, for example, the only meaning of “it is bad” is “Yuck!”. This doctrine based on the reflections of the early Wittgenstein (and before, of Carnap), denying the meaning of moral concepts, reaches the same results as classical subjectivism, which holds that qualities are mere subjective notions, wrongly attributed to the objective world.

Finally, subjectivism can be found in a vast number of contemporary authors, which use very different arguments to defend such a doctrine.
In general, desire is considered as the main cause of the subjectivity of values: The value of things being their ability to arouse the desire, and value being proportional to the strength of desire, we must admit that value is essentially subjective 2.
This brings a spinozist like Misrahi to define evaluation in a subjectivist manner, as the action by which we ‘calculate’ and define the value of an object or an action. This act seems to presuppose the objectivity of criteria, viz. of values enabling us to measure and judge the value of a man or an action. In fact, evaluation is the act by which consciousness posits values, in other words invents and defines worthy goals. This creation of values is the original act that makes empirical evaluation possible. Thus creative evaluation is the founding act of ethics 3.

At last, a lot of objectivist thinkers granted the main subjectivist idea, before trying laboriously to find in value a kind of objectivity. For example, Ruyer admits that value can only be subjective, since evaluation is made by a subject: it is impossible, in describing value, to disregard the agent, the subject. In this sense, value is subjective. An ideal is the ideal of a subject. The value or the form of a precious object is apprehended by a subject. We cannot see what ‘funny’, ‘graceful’, or ‘useful’ would mean, in a world deprived from consciousness, subject, and subjectivity 4. By an analogy with second qualities, e.g. color, he tries then to establish that values are connected, in a way, with objectivity.

It would be too long to examine in detail the various forms taken by the contemporary subjectivism. At this point, it seems to me that we have a fairly accurate idea of subjectivism – in both senses – so that we could proceed to consider its legitimacy. Can we be satisfied with subjectivism? Is it the axiological position which contains the answer to the problem of values?


1. Being and nothingness, 1st part
2. Ehrenfels, System der Werttheorie, Leipzig, 1897 and Ribot, Logic of feelings
3. What is ethics?
4. Philosophy of values, p. 242