In meta-ethics there are two distinct and tangentially related positions that are often conflated with or confused for each other by laypeople. Moral relativism and moral subjectivism are two distinct stances on the nature of the truth conditions for moral propositions. In this post I will not specifically deal with moral subjectivism and moral relativism as such, but instead I will deal with the broader categories of relativism and subjectivism. Everything said applies equally to moral propositions as much as, say, color propositions or propositions about smells. Before I go into what the specific differences are that make these distinct positions, though, a quick terminological shift is necessary. In the contemporary literature it is becoming more commonplace to call ‘subjectivism’ ‘response-dependence’ (cf. Wedgwood 1997). From now on I will use response-dependence in the place of subjectivism, and if I slip back into use of ‘subjectivism’, treat it as interchangeable.
Relativism about x, y, or z will have an essential element that makes it a form of relativism: there is an indexical element of the truth conditions for a certain class of sentences or propositions. Some examples of indexicals are, “I”, “you”, and “we”. What these terms do is index the reference of the sentence in which they are used to a particular state of affairs. The reference shifts with the context of the use of the indexical. What this means is if I use “I’m hungry” and you use the same sentence but aren’t experiencing the sensation of hunger like I am, you’ve uttered something false while I’ve uttered something true. Or if you say “there is a dog over there” and point to the sleeping beagle on the couch, you’ve uttered something true; while if I said the same thing while in the bathroom and pointed to the empty tub, I would be uttering a falsehood. This allows for the possibility of two superficially similar sentences having different truth-values. So a cultural relativism will be indexed to a particular culture or society, while an individualistic relativism will be indexed to a particular person.
Subjectivism or response-dependence, on the other hand, is a view about the nature of the truth-conditions of a particular class of propositions that may or may not include an indexical element. Response-dependence is characterized in many different ways in the literature, so being able to capture the contents of every characterization with a generalized formulation is impossible. A rough sketch, however, is feasible: Response-dependence is a view about the mind-dependent nature of the truth-conditions for propositions of a particular class. An historical example is John Locke’s view of secondary qualities as sensations in human minds caused by dispositions of objects in the external world.
What the distinction I laid out between response-dependence and relativism allows for is objectivist relativism and subjectivist relativism as well as subjective universalism/absolutism and objective universalism/absolutism. If what determines the truth-conditions for certain sentences has an indexical element but is an objective, mind-independent state of affairs such as being tall, then this is a case of objectivist relativism. The proposition “Rachel is a tall person” has relative but objective truth conditions insofar as the truth conditions are not constituted by mental states or events of some kind. The relativity of the proposition of tallness has to do with the context in which the statement is uttered. If the statement is uttered around a group of basketball players, and Rachel is just five foot eleven inches, then that statement would be false, but if uttered at her family reunion where there tends to be a pattern of shortness among her relatives and she is one of a few people there over five feet tall, then the statement would be true.
Furthermore, there could be a class of propositions with mind-dependent truth conditions but those truth conditions aren’t relative to any indexical element, which allows for the truth-making of some proposition by the same mental states or events across the board. The example of colors as intersubjective invariants but response-dependent is a perfect example of this possibility: Colors could be Lockean secondary qualities, but every observer who can experience ‘being appeared to blue-ly’ experiences it as the same qualitative state. This would be a case of subjectivist universalism/absolutism. This would be a case of what is called relation-designation (Joyce 2007). The relation-designation is between the invariant qualitative experience of seeing blue and the thing that causes that experience to occur in an observer.
In a meta-ethical context, the relation-designating account could hold in a class of maximally rational hypothetical observers who all would be in the same mental-state in the same observational scenario in which they find themselves. The scenario could be some agent doing something the hypothetical observers call moral or immoral given the fact that when they observe the action they are put in a mental state of disapproval, disgust, or whatever – as long as the state is invariant across hypothetical observers. The morality or immorality of the action is response-dependent, and designated by the relation the hypothetical observers have to the state of affairs being observed. This scenario would be a case of moral subjectivist universalism/absolutism.
An example of subjectivist relativism, on the other hand, could be propositions about the deliciousness of liverwurst. Lastly, examples of objectivist universalism/absolutism would be mathematical equations such as 13+4=17 and propositions about natural facts like “water is H2O”; both examples have objective and universal truth conditions (assuming the coherence theory of truth is false).
Hopefully this has clarified the difference between subjective, objective, relative, and universal/absolute. In the popular level literature about things like meta-ethics and truth these distinct positions get conflated constantly, so I hope that I’ve done my part in explaining why these conflations are wrong and lead to confusion.
Joyce, Richard. “Moral subjectivism versus moral relativism.” . Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 1 Jan. 2007. Web. 18 June 2014. <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-anti-realism/moral-subjectivism-versus-relativism.html>.
Wedgwood, Ralph. “The Essence of Response-Dependence.” European Review of Philosophy: 31-54. Print.