A book on ethics and philosophy of values

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e) Contemporary subjectivism

In the twentieth century, subjectivism found a new lease of life in both its classical and creative currents. In the limited context of our thesis, we will confine ourselves to mentioning the two main doctrines that led to this revival.

The human being is freedom, and it seems that for Sartre this is irreconcilable with the existence of a value that the world would have by itself (whereas, strangely, for him freedom is compatible with facticity, i.e. the existence of things that freedom will be able to use). As a result, 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 find a resurgence of classical subjectivism in Ayer and Anderson's emotivist critique of moral notions. For them, moral concepts have no cognitive meaning, i.e. they do not attribute an objective predicate to something, but only express subjective feelings such as disgust or admiration. For example, "this is bad" has no other meaning than "Berk" or "Baah". This doctrine, inspired, albeit unwillingly, by the reflections of the first Wittgenstein (and before Carnap), who denied any meaning to moral concepts, echoes the results of classical subjectivism, which asserts that qualities are merely subjective notions wrongly projected onto the objective world.

Finally, this subjectivism is found in a large number of contemporary authors, who use very different arguments to defend such a doctrine. Lavelle, for example, starts from moral language, and argues that the truth of subjectivism is affirmed by it itself: That value never resides in things, but in the activity that is applied to them, that transforms them, is already apparent in an expression like 'to assert' 2.
It is generally desire (following Spinoza) that is considered to be the main cause of the subjectivity of values: The value of things being their ability to provoke desire, and value being proportional to the strength of desire, it must be admitted that value is essentially subjective 3.
This leads a Spinozist like Misrahi to define evaluation according to a subjectivist approach as the act by which we 'calculate' and define the value of an object or an action. This act seems to presuppose the objectivity of the criteria, i.e. the values that enable us to measure and judge the value of a person or an action. In reality, evaluation is also, and above all, the act by which consciousness sets values, i.e. invents and defines goals considered worthy of being pursued and of being proposed to others for action. This creation of values is the original act that makes empirical evaluation possible. Thus creative evaluation is the founding act of ethics 4.

Ruyer, for example, accepts the idea that value can only be subjective, since evaluation is carried out by a subject: In describing value, it is impossible to disregard an agent, a subject, other than by provisional fiction. In this precise sense, value is subjective. An ideal is the ideal of a subject. The value or form of a precious object is apprehended by a subject. We can't see what would be funny or graceful or useful in an unconscious world without subjects or subjectivity 5. Using an analogy with second qualities, such as colour, he will try to show that values are linked, despite everything, in some way, to objectivity.

It would take too long to examine in detail the various forms that contemporary subjectivism has taken. Having reached this point, it seems that we have a sufficiently precise conception of subjectivism - in the two meanings we thought we could identify - for us to be able to move on to examining 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. Traité des valeurs
3. Ehrenfels, System der Werttheorie, Leipzig, 1897 and Ribot, Logic of feelings
4. Qu'est-ce que l'éthique ?
5. Philosophie de la valeur, p. 242