The Peculiar Similarity of Subjectivists and Solipsists

by Benjamin Studebaker

A thought occurred to me this morning that I think well worth sharing about subjectivism and solipsism, and how these two ideas are much more similar to one another than perhaps they appear. I want to share it.

Subjectivism is, at least how I’m going to use it here, the denial of the existence of an objective reality that exists independently of outside observation. Many people are moral subjectivists–they believe that morality is a human construct that does not relate to anything real or definite that exists outside of what various human beings have constructed in their minds. Moral objectivists (not Randian objectivists, they are not today’s subject), by contrast, claim that their moral beliefs are universally true, that they are not merely the subjective outputs of their respective minds but true ideas. When a person violates an objectivist’s moral principles, the objectivist does not merely believe that the deviant behavior is offensive to him personally, he believes the behavior is an offense to a morality that would be existent even if he himself did not exist. By contrast, when a person violates a subjectivist’s moral principles, the subjectivist can only take private offense, and he must readily admit that if he did not exist, no offense could be taken except insofar as other human beings happened to share elements of his subjective viewpoint.

So if you kill someone for no good reason and I’m an objectivist, I do not merely judge you to be wrong myself, I hold that you would be wrong whether I was there to make the judgement or not. If you kill someone for no good reason and I’m a subjectivist, I have to hold that any negative judgement I make of you stops with me, that it is not real, that it is only the manifestation of my particular subjective feelings. Killing someone for no good reason is a fundamentally different thing to an objectivist and a subjectivist. The subjectivist has to acknowledge that his moral issue with killing is happenstance, that there is nothing objectively wrong with killing, that it just makes him uncomfortable. The objectivist, by contrast, makes no such reservations. His condemnation is absolute and universal.

Subjectivists disagree with objectivists because they do not think that objectivists can adequately substantiate their belief that their moral principles exist independent of one’s perspective. They observe that all objectivist moral systems inevitably come back to some first principle or circularity. Whether it’s the principle of utility, the categorical imperative, the virtues, or something else entirely, inevitably the objectivist must make an axiomatic assertion, and this is dissatisfying to subjectivists. Other objectivist loopholes, like reflective equilibrium (the idea that the objective truth candidacy of a set of ideas is established when these ideas are in harmony with each other and do not conflict with one another) are similarly dissatisfying. A subjectivist might, for instance, question whether consistency implies truth value, or suppose that there might be multiple fully consistent ways of conceptualizing morality.

Solipsism at first brush appears an entirely different animal. Solipsists believe that only their minds exist, that the entire world and all other beings are projections, imaginings, or in some other way creations of their minds. I suspect that most people have, at some point in their lives, had, at least very briefly, vaguely solipsist thoughts. As a third grader, I briefly thought that all the other kids in my class were robots that existed to interact with me for some purpose unknown to my conscious mind. Solipsism seems manifestly ridiculous, but it is impossible to refute, because solipsists do not believe that the independent existence of others cannot be adequately substantiated. It is impossible to enter the mind of another or to directly experience another person’s perspective. If I claim to be a solipsist, you may very well know I am wrong (because you know that you are a real person), but you will be unable to prove that to me. By the same token, if you claimed to be a solipsist, I would know you were wrong, but I could not say or do anything that would provide adequate evidence for you that I existed.

In both the subjectivist and solipsist cases, the argument comes down to standards of proof. Both subjectivists and solipsists demand a standard of proof from their opponents that these opponents cannot meet. However, instead of claiming mere uncertainty about the nature of existence–and indeed, there is a level of uncertainty about nearly every claim, even those that we are most confident in–subjectivists and solipsists go one step further and make the inverse truth claim. The subjectivists do not merely claim that we cannot be sure if we have grasped objective morality, they claim that there is no such thing as objective morality. By the same token, the solipsists do not merely claim that we cannot know for sure if other beings exist independently of our own minds, they claim that these beings do not exist independently, that they are in fact mental projections. This is a tremendous inequity in standards of proof, and it makes in both cases a huge whopper of an assumption–that if there is any doubt, the privileged default position is the position of subjectivism/solipsism.

Why should subjectivism or solipsism be the default position? Often times we are uncertain about what we should believe to be true, but we must nonetheless take courses of action (even inaction is a kind of action), and the action we take will imply belief. I may be uncertain about whether or not climate change is happening, but whether I think, given what we know, we should take action to prevent it or not will imply a belief of some kind. Subjectivists and solipsists need not merely to establish that there is reason to be uncertain about claims to objectivity or the existence of other beings, they must show that, given this level of uncertainty, we are better off if we act as though we know objectivity/the existence of other beings to be false propositions. This requires not merely a good skeptical argument, but an accompanying normative moral argument, which will itself involve a series of substantive moral claims. If I think we are better off assuming subjectivism/solipsism, I will have to give reasons that we will be better people or the world will be a better place given that assumption than it would be if we assumed objectivism/the independent existence of others.

The irony is that if these arguments are to be universal and absolutely binding, they would have to be objective, and a subjectivist cannot, by definition, appeal to objective moral claims. Therefore, all a subjectivist can say is that he has private reasons he thinks that, given uncertainty, he ought to be a subjectivist. Those reasons would have no inherent objective value to anyone else, and would consequently pose no threat to the objectivist position. If the subjectivist admits that his arguments are only appealing on a subjective level, then there is nothing about them that compels objectivists to accept them.

Interestingly, the solipsist has a more defensible position, because the solipsist can simultaneously be an objectivist and give reasons for assuming solipsism in the face of uncertainty that he claims are universal and should have force on all people regardless of perspective, such that those who deny solipsism would have to defend themselves from those reasons. That said, there’s a pretty good reason to not be a solipsist in the face of uncertainty about the independent existence of other beings–if we deny that other beings are real, we can no longer have moral obligations to them, because in order to have moral duties to a being, it has to exist. A world in which we are all solipsists would consequently be amoral, and life would be nasty, brutish, and short.

In sum, both subjectivism and solipsism rely on the assumption that, in the face of uncertainty, they are, or ought to be, the default positions. This assumption requires a defense, and given the extent to which both ideas themselves erode the foundations of morality, it will likely be very hard, if not impossible, for defenders of these positions to give good moral arguments for presuming them in the face of uncertainty.