Open Question Arguments

In online discussions about meta-ethics, terms like, “open question argument” are tossed around a lot. In this post, I’ll discuss open question arguments in detail.

One common misconception about open question arguments is that they are only directed at ethical naturalism; this is false. Open question arguments are supposed to be problems for any kind of analytic reductionism. G.E. Moore used the naturalistic fallacy and open question argument as ammunition against any reductive accounts of moral predicates and properties.

Before getting deeper into these topics, a few things need to be explained. Analytic and synthetic reductionism are two kinds of meta-ethical reductionism. The former not only aims to reduce normative properties to non-normative properties, but also to analyze normative predicates (or concepts) in terms of non-normative predicates (or concepts). The latter merely aims to reduce normative properties to non-normative properties, while maintaining that no analysis can be given that entirely eliminates normative predicates. In this post, I’ll be dealing primarily with analytic reductionism.

The open question argument is intended to support the charge that it is fallacious to give a conceptual analysis of normative predicates in terms of non-normative predicates (the naturalistic fallacy). Here is a reconstruction of the classic version of the argument (Miller 12-13):

1a. Suppose the predicate ‘good’ is synonymous with, or analytically equivalent to the naturalistic predicate ‘N’.

Then,

2a. It is part of the meaning of the claim ‘x is N’ that ‘x is good’.

But,

3a. Someone who seriously asked ‘Is an x which is N also good?’ would betray some conceptual confusion.

But,

4a. For any given natural property N it is always an open question whether an x which is N is good. That is to say, it is always a significant question, of any x which is N, whether it is good: asking the question ‘Is an x which is N also good?’ betrays no conceptual confusion.

5a. It cannot be the case that ‘good’ is synonymous with, or analytically equivalent to ‘N’.

So,

6a. The property of being good cannot as a matter of conceptual necessity be identical to the property of being N.

For any non-normative predicate ‘N’, it is always an open question whether or not anything possessing such a property also falls within the extension of ‘is good’. The reason this isn’t a problem just for ethical naturalists is that predicates like ‘is commanded by God’ and ‘would be assented to by an ideal observer’ can be substituted for the same result.

What are the responses to this argument? One famous reply was made by William Frankena, The basic objection is that the argument is question-begging due to premise 4a (Miller 14-15). Our belief that any statement leaves an open question can only be employed against a reductionist if it is justified, which is the very issue at hand. However, this objection employs a conception of question-begging that is far too liberal. Imagine a philosopher who holds to the justified true belief analysis of ‘knowledge’. She hears a Gettier counterexample and responds by saying that Gettier has begged the question, since if JTB is true, Jones does know that P, whereas if Gettier claims otherwise, he is assuming that JTB is false. Clearly something has gone wrong here. Providing a counterexample against an analysis that directly contradicts its central thesis is not begging the question. The JTB theorist is not entitled to directly appeal to her own theory as support against counterexamples. She must find flaws in the counterexamples, or ways to neutralize the intuitions elicited by them. Their dialectical force is not deflected by digging in your heels and claiming that they only disprove your theory if your theory is false. Analogously, contra Frankena, the analytic reductionist’s charge of question-begging is dialectically inappropriate (Huemer 69-70).

Another response is that ‘N and ‘goodness’ may have the same reference but they have different senses (Miller 16). The fact that the two terms have different senses, modes of presentation, or rules of use that determine their referents doesn’t preclude the fact that their referents are identical. This is a lesson learned from Frege’s example of the names “Hesperus” and “Phosphorus” referring to the same planet through different senses or modes of presentation [1]. I can refer to something by virtue of one mode of presentation without being aware of the fact that another mode of presentation determines the same referent as well. An example is, “John wants to read a book by Mark Twain” but, “John doesn’t want to read a book by Samuel Clemens,” because John believes that Mark Twain is a famous author who wrote ‘Huck Finn’ but he has never heard of Samuel Clemens.

One issue with the Fregean response is that it actually concedes that the two predicates aren’t conceptually identical. That would mean that this response is just a move from analytic to synthetic reductionism. So, it seems to just be an admission of defeat if the reductionist shifts from an analytic to a synthetic slant because of the classic open question argument. After reflecting on this objection, it should become clear why open question tests are still used for concept identity, but not property identity. We could mistake one referent for two when we employ two different senses to identify it (as is the case with ‘water’ and ‘H2O’), but when it comes to cases conceptual or definitional identity, competent speakers of the language thinking that it’s an open question that concept X and concept Y are identical is prima facie evidence that they are not identical. This is clear in cases of analytic or conceptual truths, such as bachelors are unmarried men. How else would we test supposed cases of analytic or conceptual truths?

The last response is that the argument presupposes that any true conceptual analysis will  be uninteresting and uninformative. But surely this isn’t true; mathematical analysis uncovers interesting and informative truths. So there must be something wrong here (Miller 15). Moore could answer that he is merely exploiting the paradox of analysis, where for any predicate ‘N’, it’s impossible to give an informative and true conceptual analysis of it; if the contents of ‘N’ are analyzed in terms of ‘N*’, and we already understand the contents of ‘N’ by virtue of being able to competently use it in our conceptual repertoire, then we must already know that ‘N’ is equivalent to ‘N*’. This generalizes to any instance of conceptual analysis, and therefore it applies to analytic reductionism about moral properties.

The paradox can be answered by making a distinction between ‘knowledge that’ and ‘knowledge how’. To know about a true analysis of ‘N’ is to possess propositional knowledge (knowledge that), and to grasp a concept such that one can competently use it is to possess know-how. One can know how to use concepts without possessing propositional knowledge of the means by which one does so and the ways in which it can be analyzed into simpler concepts. It is possible to gain knowledge upon hearing about a true reductive analysis of ‘goodness’ in terms of ‘N’ even if one already knows how to employ these predicates in ordinary circumstances (Miller 15-16). Another example is learning that ‘water’ is identical to ‘H2O’. One can know how to use ‘water’ but also gain knowledge upon reading a science textbook about the molecular composition of water. So the analytic reductionist can maintain that premise 4a may be true, but 5a doesn’t follow.

While it may seem as though the last objection is decisive against the argument, there are other versions which do appear to be more successful, but at the cost of narrowing the argument’s scope.

A way to avoid the last objection is to add an extra clause to what qualifies as properly seeing an open question (Miller 18-19):

1b. If ‘good’ and ‘N’ are analytically equivalent, then ceteris paribus competent speakers should, after conceptual reflection, come to find it natural to guide their evaluative judgments by the analysis.

2b. After conceptual reflection, the conviction that ‘Is an x which is N also good?’ is an open question persists among competent speakers. So after conceptual analysis they don’t come to find it natural to guide their evaluative judgments by the analysis of ‘good’ in terms of ‘N’.

So,

3b. We can conclude that ‘good’ and ‘N’ are not analytically equivalent, unless ceteris aren’t paribus (i.e. there is some explanation of why competent speakers do not come to find it natural to guide their evaluative judgments by the analysis).

This is not as ambitious an argument as the classic version. All this argument establishes is a shift of the dialectical burden unto the analytic reductionist to provide an explanation of why, on conscious reflection, people don’t find it natural to be guided by whatever analysis the reductionist puts forward.

The analytic reductionist could reply by saying that if somebody doesn’t grasp the conceptual connection between ‘good’ and ‘N’, then she is the victim of some sort of confusion (Miller 19). However, if the analytic reductionist has no other reason to think a normally competent speaker is displaying such confusion, then this response seems ad hoc at best, and question-begging at worst (if there’s no other evidence of linguistic/conceptual confusion in other areas).

So, without a viable explanation from the analytic reductionist that neutralizes premise 1b, the reconstructed open question argument can be regarded as successful. Even if we embrace the paradox of analysis objection, there would still be a problem, since this argument takes the distinction into account by virtue of the ‘conceptual reflection’ clause. The paradox merely maintains that one can be ignorant of a proper analysis of ‘N’ while being a competent user of ‘N’. The ‘conceptual reflection’ clause takes the proper analysis into account, so the paradox objection has no force.

One response to this argument is to deny judgment internalism. The argument presupposes that judgment internalism is true, since the ‘conceptual reflection’ clause maintains that because somebody still finds it unnatural to guide their behavior by a given reductive analysis, there must be a gap between the two predicates. On judgment externalism, one can recognize and genuinely make normative judgments without being motivated to guide her actions by them (amoralists aren’t conceptual impossibilities).

Another reconstruction of the open question argument that wears its internalism on its sleeves goes like this (Miller 19-20):

1c. There is a conceptual or internal link between making a moral judgment and being motivated, ceteris paribus, to act as that judgment prescribes. Absent some weakness of the will or other psychological affliction, judging that a type of action is morally good entails being motivated to perform actions of that type. Someone with no psychological afflictions who apparently judges that a type of action is morally good but consistently claims that he sees no reason to perform actions of this type doesn’t grasp the concept of ‘moral goodness’.

2c. Competent and reflect speakers are convinced that they are able to imagine clear-headed (and otherwise psychologically healthy) beings who judge that ‘N’ obtains but who fail to find appropriate reason or motive to act in accordance with that judgment.

3c. If there were a conceptual link between judging that ‘N’ obtains and being motivated to act accordingly, we would expect competent and reflective speakers of English to have some conviction described in 2c.

So,

4c. Unless there is some other explanation of the conviction in 2c, we are entitled to conclude that there is no conceptual link between judging that ‘N’ obtains and being motivated to act accordingly.

So,

5c. Unless there is some other explanation of the conviction described in 2c, we are entitled to conclude that the judgment that ‘N’ obtains isn’t a moral judgment (from 1c).

So,

6c. Unless there is some other explanation of the conviction mentioned in 2c, we are entitled to conclude that the property of being morally good is not identical or reducible to the property of being N as a matter of conceptual necessity.

Just like the prior reconstruction, this one escapes the charge of question-begging (if it was legitimate to begin with) and the paradox of analysis objection.

How can an analytic reductionist reply? One way is to deny judgment internalism, as mentioned above. This is a plausible move if one finds amoralists conceptually possible. However, this move may also qualify as a concession that analytic reductionists can’t be judgment internalists, thus narrowing the conceptual space amenable to analytic reductionism.

A second move is simply to adopt synthetic reductionism, which is basically just the sense-reference objection. The issue with this is that it isn’t an objection an analytic reductionist can make, as it constitutes an admission that their thesis is false. This may be attractive, though, to people who find judgment externalism unattractive, and are more willing to give up analytic reductionism than judgment internalism.

While the open question argument is clearly not a knockdown argument against analytic reductionists, it does establish a strong presumption against analytic reductionist theories that include judgment internalism as a component. While there are ways for the analytic reductionist to respond, most moves constitute an abandonment of the very thesis being defended.

 

Endnotes:

[1]. Senses and modes of presentation are distinct but related concepts in Frege’s philosophy of language. The theoretical differences between the two ideas are immaterial to my point in this section, but ought to be taken into account if one wants to understand Frege’s theory of meaning.

Works cited:

Huemer, Michael. Ethical Intuitionism. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Print.

Miller, Alexander. Contemporary Metaethics: An Introduction. Second ed. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2013. Print.

The Myth of the Given: An Overview

There is an alluring appeal to claiming that there are some things that are just given when discussing the regress problem in epistemology; if some things are simply given, then we can stop the justificatory regress. The regress of justification is a motivating problem for classical epistemology. If I claim to know something, call it P, I can be asked to provide a reason why I believe that P is true. I can provide a reason Q to believe that P, and that reason Q transmits justification to P in so far as Q is itself justified. But how exactly is Q justified? Well, I can say that reason W provides a justification for believing that Q, and Q provides a reason to believe that P in so far as Q is itself justified by W. You can see the regress forming.

The regress problem has several proposed solutions. One could adopt the stance of Peter Klein and claim that the regress is not vicious. He adopts an infinitist evidentialism, and believes that as long as we consistently provide evidence for each belief, we have an ever growing chain of reasons rooted in evidence. The problem here is that if we never have some sort of story about how the whole chain of reasons is justified; it’s like having an infinite number of mirrors reflecting an image off of each other, but we have no idea how the reflection originated.

Another way to address the regress problem is by claiming that we just eventually repeat ourselves when asked to provide justification for our beliefs. The coherentist can take the position that we eventually repeat a previous belief when asked to justify enough beliefs. For the coherentist, we have a set of beliefs that is itself justified as a whole by a web of mutual support among the beliefs in the set. Mutual support is generally explained as a variety of inferential connections among the beliefs in a coherent set, and the more connections between beliefs are formed, the more support for the whole is provided. There are several problems with this approach. One problem is that it isn’t at all obvious how coherence is a guide to truth, in so far as truth is defined as correspondence between some parts of reality and some propositions about those parts of reality. A second problem is, depending on one’s account of coherence, there can be several contradictory coherent sets of beliefs, and no obvious way to adjudicate between them.

A third way to deal with the regress problem is probably the most common move people make when faced with this problem: an appeal to the given. What I mean by this is that there is some sort of foundation of knowledge that does not itself require further justification to transmit justification to other beliefs. In short, there are basic beliefs that do not themselves require reasons for justification. In the words of Wilfred Sellars, “the point of the epistemological category of the given is . . . to explicate the idea that empirical knowledge rests on a ‘foundation’ of non-inferential knowledge of matter of fact” (§3). Sellars goes on:

One of the many forms taken by the Myth of the Given is that there is, indeed must be, a structure of particular matter of fact such that (a) each fact can not only be noninferentially known to be the case, but presupposes no other knowledge either of particular matter of fact, or of general truths; and (b) such that the non-inferential knowledge of facts belonging to this structure constitutes the ultimate court of appeals for all factual claims – particular and general – about the world. (§32)

The given isn’t the same as non-inferential knowledge. One can maintain that the given is a myth and we have non-inferential knowledge. For instance, on reliablism we could have reliably functioning faculties such that when I approach a red door, a mental state forms and I non-inferentially believe that there is a red door in front of me. Sellars is making a more specific claim. To understand what exactly he’s saying, I need to introduce two concepts: Epistemic Independence (EI) and Epistemic Efficacy (EE):

EI: The Given is epistemically independent iff whatever positive epistemic status our cognitive encounter with the object has, it does not depend on the epistemic status of any other cognitive state.

EE: The Given is epistemically efficacious iff it can transmit positive epistemic status to other cognitive states. (deVries 2005)

The given must satisfy both of these conditions to obtain its status as a true regress stopper. So, the given must be some sort of state where I know that P without requiring any other facts to justify my belief that P, and my belief that P can itself transmit justification to other beliefs. There are generally two options when trying to find the given: It is either a state with conceptual content or a state without conceptual content. If a person claims that a particular state has conceptual content, and can provide reasons to believe that P, yet does not itself require justification, then that state would be an instance of the given. Now, the problem with this form of the given is that there is the possibility of concepts being misapplied. I’m not saying that we necessarily apply concepts consciously; I’m saying that when we impose a conceptual order on a state of experience such that we can form beliefs about the state of experience that can enter into the logical space of reasons, and can itself be used as a reason, then there is the possibility that those concepts have been applied incorrectly. So, we need a reason to believe that the conceptual order has been correctly mapped onto the state of experience, such that we have a properly subsumed manifold of experience that can itself provide justificatory reasons for other beliefs. Any reason to believe that we’ve properly applied our concepts to a state of experience would itself be a state that is conceptually ordered, and we would then need reasons to believe that those concepts have been properly applied. The regress ensues once again.

If one instead claimed that the state is non-conceptual, then the problem of conceptual mapping is not a problem. However, it isn’t at all obvious how a non-conceptual state can provide reasons for beliefs that are conceptually ordered; how exactly does some sort of causal state provide a reason to believe something? There is no inferential connection between a non-conceptual and a conceptual state. In other words, a non-conceptual state is not in the logical space of reasons, and so it cannot be a reason to believe something.

So, we have the dilemma that leads to belief that the given is a myth. The given is either conceptual or non-conceptual. If the given is conceptual, it is epistemically efficacious, but not epistemically independent, since there needs to be reason to believe that the concepts have been properly applied. (If one was an externalist instead, this wouldn’t be a problem. However, given Sellars’s theory of concepts, it would still be a problem for the externalist since to have one concept requires us to have a whole battery of concepts; so any application of a concept would presuppose some sort of knowledge of a whole host of other concepts. This assumes Sellars’s coherence theory of concepts, which is contentious.) If the given is non-conceptual, then it isn’t obvious how it could be a state that is in a position within the logical space of reasons such that it can transmit justification; it is not epistemically efficacious, even if it’s epistemically independent given its non-conceptual status.

Another point that needs to be made is that any doxastic mental state will necessarily be conceptually structured. An essential component of beliefs is that they are conceptually structured; if it isn’t conceptually structured, it isn’t a belief. An entailment of this fact is that no doxastic mental state can satisfy the epistemic independence requirement to qualify as an instance of the given. If a doxastic mental state is essentially conceptually structured, then the concepts involved in a particular state can, in principle, be misapplied. So, the conceptual mapping has the possibility of misrepresenting that which is being mapped. So, there is the possibility of that doxastic state being conceptually confused, which means that assenting to that state requires a reason to believe that the state being assented to is not conceptually confused. One needs a reason to think that the proposition ‘this doxastic state isn’t conceptually confused’ is true. But, whatever reason provided to believe that that proposition is true is itself open to the same challenge if it is a doxastic state as well. So, the regress problem can’t be solved by appeal to a doxastic mental state.

Willem deVries provides a concise reconstruction in his SEP entry on Sellars:

1. A cognitive state is epistemically independent if it possesses its epistemic status independently of its being inferred or inferrable from some other cognitive state. [Definition of epistemic independence]

2. A cognitive state is epistemically efficacious — is capable of epistemically supporting other cognitive states — if the epistemic status of those other states can be validly inferred (formally or materially) from its epistemic status. [Definition of epistemic efficacy]

3. The doctrine of the given is that any empirical knowledge that p requires some (or is itself) basic, that is, epistemically independent, knowledge (that g, h, i, …) which is epistemically efficacious with respect to p. [Definition of doctrine of the given]

4. Inferential relations are always between items with propositional form. [By the nature of inference]

5. Therefore, non-propositional items (such as sense data) are epistemically inefficacious and cannot serve as what is given.
[From 2 and 4]

6. No inferentially acquired, propositionally structured mental state is epistemically independent. [From 1]

7. Examination of multiple candidates for non-inferentially acquired, propositionally structured cognitive states indicates that their epistemic status presupposes the possession by the knowing subject of other empirical knowledge, both of particulars and of general empirical truths.
[From Sellars’s analyses of statements about sense-data and appearances in Parts 1-IV of EPM and his analysis of epistemic authority in Part VIII]

8. Presupposition is an epistemic and therefore an inferential relation. [Assumed (See PRE)]

9. Non-inferentially acquired empirical knowledge that presupposes the possession by the knowing subject of other empirical knowledge is not epistemically independent. [From 1, 7, and 8]

10. Any empirical, propositional cognition is acquired either inferentially or non-inferentially. [Excluded middle]

11. Therefore, propositionally structured cognitions, whether inferentially or non-inferentially acquired, are never epistemically independent and cannot serve as the given. [6, 9, 10, constructive dilemma]

12.Every cognition is either propositionally structured or not. [Excluded middle]

13. Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that no item of empirical knowledge can serve the function of a given. [5,11, 12, constructive dilemma]

deVries uses the term ‘propositionally structured’ rather than conceptually ordered, but the point remains the same. A propositionally structured mental state is going to be conceptually ordered, so the two forms of the problem overlap. The main point is that any propositionally structured mental state must be both epistemically efficient and epistemically independent to count as an instance of the given. But no propositionally structured mental state can fill both those roles, since any such state must if epistemically efficient will presuppose other knowledge, and so it cannot be independent. The only state that could qualify as epistemically independent is non-conceptual; such a state could not be epistemically efficacious though, since it could not provide the means to form inferential connections such that it can transmit justification to belief states.

To sum up: A basic belief must be both epistemically independent to maintain its status as basic, and epistemically efficacious to be capable of justifying other beliefs; otherwise it would be useless as a foundation for knowledge. However, if such a state is epistemically efficacious, it cannot be epistemically independent. Any instance of a conceptually ordered state is, in principle, capable of being an instance of misapplied concepts to the manifold of experience being captured; so, any such state presupposes that the concepts are correctly applied. However, once one admits that, it follows that any attempt to provide a reason to believe that the concepts have been correctly applied is itself open to the same question. If such a state is to be epistemically independent, then it cannot be epistemically efficacious. A non-conceptual state seems to be the only possible thing that could be epistemically independent, but it cannot also be epistemically efficacious. Non-conceptual states are not the sort of things that qualify as reasons. So, those states cannot fulfill the epistemic efficacy requirement. So, they cannot count as instances of the given.

Works Cited:

deVries, W. (2005). Wilfrid Sellars. New York: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Sellars, W. (1956). Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind. In H. Feigl & M. Scriven (Eds.), Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science (Vol. I, pp. 253-329). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

(deVries’s reconstruction of Sellars’s argument can be found here:http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/sellars/#4)

On the Distinction between Relativism & Subjectivism

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.

Works Cited:

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.