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Objectivism, Subjectivism, and Relativism in Ethics

Social Philosophy and Policy - 2008

Volume 25, Issue 1


This issue of the journal contains the papers from the 2006 conference

Objectivism, Subjectivism, and Relativism in Ethics.

The following, of particular interest to RoR readers, are included in this collection:



“Why Moral Judgments Can Be Objective”

Tibor Machan



Are we able to make objective moral judgments? This perennial philosophical topic needs often to be revisited because it is central to human life. Judging how people conduct themselves, the institutions they devise, whether, in short, they are doing what's right or what's wrong, is ubiquitous. In this essay I defend the objectivity of ethical judgments by deploying a neo-Aristotelian naturalism by which to keep the “is-ought” gap at bay and place morality on an objective footing. I do this with the aid of the ideas of Ayn Rand as well as, but only by implication and association, those of Martha Nussbaum and Philippa Foot.


“The Importance of Metaphysical Realism for Ethical Knowledge”

Douglas B. Rasmussen



In this essay, I consider whether the alleged demise of metaphysical realism does actually provide a better way for defending the cognitive status of ethical judgments. I argue that the rejection of a realist ontology and epistemology does not help to establish the claim that ethical knowledge is possible. More specifically, I argue that Hilary Putnam's argument does not succeed in making a case for ethical knowledge. In fact, his account of the procedures by which our valuations are warranted—the criteria of idealized inquiry—ultimately begs the question in a number of crucial ways. Moreover, it prejudices the moral and political discussion in certain ideological respects. Finally, though Putnam has apparently modified to some extent his approach to the issue of realism in recent years, I will point out that these modifications are not fundamental and do not help to advance the case for ethical knowledge. I note also that Martha C. Nussbaum's appeal to Putnam’s argument actually works against her attempt to make a case for an Aristotelian conception of human flourishing. Ultimately, I conclude that metaphysical realism is vital for ethical knowledge.


“The Importance of the Subject in Objective Morality: Distinguishing Objective from Intrinsic Value”

Tara Smith



This essay contends that the debate between subjectivism and objectivism in ethics is better understood as a dispute among three alternatives: subjectivism, objectivism, and intrinsicism. Ayn Rand has identified intrinsicism – the belief that certain things are good “in, by, and of” themselves – as the doctrine that is actually operative in many defenses of moral objectivity. What intrinsicism fails to appreciate, however, is the significant role of the subject, the person to whom and for whom anything can be valuable.


Objective value, in Rand's view, is relational. Its existence depends on contributions of both external reality and human consciousness. Values are not reducible to psychological states, as in subjectivism, but nor are they independent of them, as in intrinsicism. Objectivity in ethics is attained neither through revelation of the intrinsic property of goodness nor through the subject's creation of goodness, but through a rational procedure of evaluation that is governed by the method of objectivity.


This essay is in three parts, explaining Rand's view of exactly what intrinsicism is; elaborating on her view of the nature of moral objectivity; and highlighting certain features that make plain the differences between an intrinsicist and an objectivist account of value.


“Evaluative Concepts and Objective Values: Rand on Moral Objectivity”

Darryl Wright



Those familiar with Ayn Rand's ethical writings may know that she discusses issues in metaethics, and that she defended the objectivity of morality during the heyday of early non-cognitivism. But neither her metaethics, in general, nor her views on moral objectivity, in particular, have received wide study. This article elucidates some aspects of her thought in these areas, focusing on Rand's conception of the way in which moral values serve a biologically based human need, and on her account of moral values as both essentially practical and epistemically objective in a sense fundamentally continuous with the objectivity of science. The bearing of her epistemological writings on her ethical thought is emphasized throughout, and her epistemology is defended against a line of criticism inspired by John McDowell's criticism of the so-called “myth of the given.”


Social Philosophy and Policy - 2008


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on 9/09/2008, 9:19am

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