Two Kinds of Subjectivism

When discussing subjectivism in philosophy, it should be noted that the term denotes a plethora of positions in a variety of fields. Subjectivist theories in meta-ethics are about the metaphysics of morality, and sometimes about moral semantics as well. In popular circles, subjectivism is often brought up as a single position, usually about what constitutes values and duties .1 However, the idea of a unified position called “subjectivism” is quite misleading. Not only are there many incompatible positions that are all called subjectivist, but the basic notion of subjectivism actually breaks down into two distinct theories.

To understand the two distinct kinds of subjectivism, take a particular proposition whose subject matter is moral:

“One ought to help the Syrian refugees in some way.”

This moral proposition is obviously subject to various provisos.2 Let’s set aside the ways one could quibble about the proposition I chose, and look at what could make it true, given subjectivism about morality.

Agent Subjectivism:

Agent subjectivism would identify the truth-maker(s) of the moral proposition above with facts about the agent to whom it is applied. So, if one claims that Hans needs to take in some Syrian refugees or financially help them, what makes that claim true is some fact about Hans; hence the term “agent subjectivism.” In particular, the facts about Hans that would make the moral proposition true would be about his psychology. For instance, if Hans believes that he ought to take in Syrian refugees, and he desires to do so, that would make the moral proposition true given a simple agent subjectivism. A more complicated version may involve an ideally rational Hans and what he would desire or value.

Subjectivism of the agent-centered variety may commit one to various internalist theses. Agent subjectivism can easily be a form of existence internalism that connects moral facts/truths with reasons. If moral facts/truths are connected to Hans’s psychological makeup, and some sort of Humean theory of reasons is assumed, then moral facts/truths are necessarily reasons. Hans’s reasons are constituted by his desire-set, and moral facts/truths are constituted by Hans’s psychological makeup (his desire-set, among other things), so moral facts/truths and reasons are either identical, or one is constituted by the other. Obviously, then, Hans’s reasons and moral facts/truths are necessarily connected in some way.

If one adds a Humean conception of motivation, then agent subjectivism also entails a version of internalism about moral facts/truths and motivation. Aspects of the psychological makeup of Hans constitute moral facts/truths, and if those aspects are also what motivate Hans to act, then moral facts/truths are necessarily connected to motivation. The Humean conception of motivation says that desires are the impetus of moral motivation, and if those desires form a subset of the constitutive base of moral facts/truths for Hans, then moral facts/truths necessarily have some motivating force. So, this sort of subjectivism entails internalism about motivation and moral/facts truths, given a few supplemental theses.

Agent subjectivism also entails internalism about reasons and motivation, given both of the assumptions made above. If one grants that Humean theories of motivation and reasons are true, then reasons would be necessarily connected to motivation on agent subjectivism. The reasons of the subject of the proposition mentioned above are identical to, or constituted by, the truth-maker of that proposition, and the truth-maker also constitutes the impetus of the subject’s motivation, so the subject’s reasons are necessarily connected to what motivates him.

One interesting thing to note is that agent subjectivism does not obviously entail judgment internalism. Since the subject of the proposition is where the truth-makers lie, the proposition isn’t always about the speaker, but the agent. 3 There will be circumstances where a person sincerely makes a moral judgment but is not motivated, because the judgment isn’t about her. If Hannah makes the sincere moral judgment that Hans ought to help Syrian refugees, what makes that true is something about Hans, not Hannah. Hannah’s own psychological makeup may make a similar proposition about her false, even though it’s true when it’s said about Hans.

Speaker Subjectivism:

Speaker subjectivism identifies the truth-maker(s) of moral propositions with facts about the speaker who expresses the proposition. In the example used above, Hannah’s claim that Hans ought to help Syrian refugees would be made true by virtue of some fact(s) about Hannah’s psychological makeup.

Judgment internalism is more suited to speaker subjectivism, given some background assumptions. If we take for granted a theory of motivation that says a subject S is motivated to do X just if doing X falls within S’s set of desires 4. Assuming that the truth-maker for Hannah’s claim is some fact(s) about her psychology, including her desires, she would be necessarily motivated to act on her sincere moral judgments. 5

Existence internalism would also be entailed by speaker subjectivism, given similar assumptions as those made above. Given a narrow Humean theory reasons which identifies reasons with desires, or requires some looser but still necessary connection between the two, reasons would be necessarily connected to moral facts/truths. Moral facts/truths are just some (sub)set of facts about a speaker’s psychological makeup, and one’s reasons consist in a similar (sub)set, so the two are going to be quite tightly connected. The same goes for existence internalism about motivation and moral facts/truths, and about motivation and reasons. 6


Speaker subjectivism and agent subjectivism are two distinct theories, but in popular circles it seems as though “subjectivism” is taken to denote one particular position. In my experience, folks who either endorse or attack this simplified conception of subjectivism shift back and forth between formulations, and end up defending or criticizing something of their own making. Sometimes the way it’s described makes it sound like facts about the speaker make their moral judgments true or false, but other times facts about the agent who is the subject of such judgments are the truth-makers.

I would like to see some empirical work done in this area, because I think it’s an interesting phenomenon. The implications of the “folk notion” of subjectivism being incoherent are unclear to me, but if it’s established that it isn’t coherent, perhaps it could call into question certain assumptions about other alleged folk theories. Maybe the notion of people being pre-theoretical realists would become suspect, since ascribing determinate theories to “the folk” wouldn’t best explain the data. I don’t have access to any data of the kind discussed here, and I doubt that any serious work has been done in this area, but it could prove to be quite illuminating.

If any readers are aware of some work done in experimental philosophy that deals with folk theories of morality, let me know in the comments below.


  1. There are many ways to unpack subjectivism, and the one used in this post involves truth-makers. The way hinted at in this sentence about the folk notion of subjectivism is that of reducing values and duties to some set of facts about subjects. Nothing in this post hinges on which way I spell out subjectivism, since the basic distinction appears in both formulations. For this post, then, I’ll stick with the truth-maker analysis.
  2. Obvious ones involve clauses about there not being outweighing moral costs to you. This is also time sensitive, so in the future it’ll change to “One ought to have helped . . ” plus all relevant additional clauses
  3. Unless the speaker and agent are the same person.
  4. Think of this as a necessary condition. For it to be sufficient, we’d have to a long conjunction of conditions like no overriding desires, relevant beliefs, etc. Also, she obviously wouldn’t be motivated to act on her claims about Hans. She would be motivated to act on similar, more general claims, like “one ought to help Syrian refugees.”
  5. Keep in mind that all of these sorts of internalism can be modified to be defeasible
  6. The former kind of internalism would require a Humean theory of motivation, and the latter would require Humean theories of reasons and motivation.