Tag Archives: moral realism

Defining Objective Morality, Subjectivism, Relativism, and More

Introduction

If you have ever been confused trying to figure out what someone means by “objective morality,” or got mixed up between moral subjectivism and relativism, you are not alone. Here, I will first define is meant by “objective morality” (or moral realism as it is known to ethicists), as well as subjectivism, relativism, absolute vs contextual moral claims, and first- and second-order moral judgments. In short, objective morality (or “moral realism”) is the view that there are true moral statements that are true independent of anyone’s desires, beliefs, or subjective states about those moral truths.

Defining Objective Morality

When people talking about objectivity, or objective facts, they are talking about things that are independent of what people believe or feel. Feelings and desires can be called “subjective states,” where subjective is the opposite of objective and depends on the individual. Gravity holds a person walking on Earth down, even if that person believes they can fly or not. In metaethics, objective morality often goes by another name, which is moral realism. “Realism” is a term used about pretty much every field, such as scientific realism. It implies that certain things exist.

Objective morality, or moral realism,[1] is taken to be the combination of three claims about moral reality: a semantic, alethic (this has to do with what things are possibly true), and metaphysical claim,[2] which together can be summarized as saying “there are objective moral truths.”[3]

  1. Semantic: Moral claims are either true or false
  2. Alethic: Some moral claims are true
  3. Metaphysical: Moral facts are objective (independent of subjective states about that fact), relevantly similar to certain amoral [non-moral] facts  

Objective morality means there are some moral truths that are independent of anyone’s beliefs, feelings, or preferences about that truth

The semantic thesis is that moral claims (or propositions) are the type of thing that can be true or false, as opposed to something like an emotion, which cannot be true or false. In other words, moral claims are truth-apt. The semantic thesis distinguishes cognitivism (moral propositions represent cognitive states) from non-cognitivism (moral propositions represent subjective states). This truth-aptness is consistent with moral relativism, as they can identity moral claims as true relative to some framework.[4]

The alethic thesis is that some moral propositions are true, as opposed to all of them being false. All moral propositions being false is called “moral error theory.” The most famous defender (and the first proposal to my knowledge) of moral error theory is J.L. Mackie in Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong.[5] Error theory is cognitivist, since it says they are either true or false, but the alethic claim that some are true distinguishes realism from error theory.

Finally, the metaphysical thesis is that moral facts are similar to amoral [non-moral] facts in that they are objective, independent of any subjective states about those facts.[6] Objective facts are taken to be “mind-independent.”[7] There are also subjective facts, such as I am happy, which depend on subjective states. However, the metaphysical thesis is limited to the types of amoral facts that are not dependent on subjective states. Another way to phrase this objectivity thesis is, “Which moral judgments are true does not depend on what we (either individually or collectively) accept.”[8] Additionally, the caveat that moral facts are independent of subjective states about those facts is important. If “torture is wrong” is true independent of any subjective states whatsoever, then we cannot say, “Torture is wrong because it causes unnecessary suffering or pain,” because suffering is itself a subjective state. Torture may be wrong in virtue of subjective states of suffering, but not in virtue of my approval of the statement “torture is wrong” or my disapproval of torture.  

Overall, objective morality is the claim that there are some moral truths (i.e. values or duties) that are objective, which means that they are independent of any beliefs, feelings, or preferences about the claim’s truth value. There are additional technicalities to consider on these semantics (independent of human subjective states vs any subjective states, including those of aliens, God, or an ideal observer) when considering some edge cases, including theistic morality.[9] The arguments for objective morality need to be carefully analyzed to consider whether they are arguments for independence from any subjective states or only independence from human subjective states while possibly leaving other subjective dependencies open.[10]

It is common in Christian circles to hear that ‘of course, morality is objective’ and also that without God, there are no objective moral values and duties. Given the frequency of this claim, and the centrality of ethical discussion in the Christian life, I am interested to see what the Bible has to say on the topic of the objectivity of Christian morality. This topic I take up in a future post.

Distinguishing Objective/Subjective, Universal/Relative, and Absolute/Contextual

Above we distinguished objective from subjective, but we need to introduce two more distinctions that are important and often get confused and intermixed with the objective/subjective distinction. Namely, we need to clarify the distinction between universal and relative moral theories, as well as absolute and contextual moral theories.

  • Objective moral truth = moral truth independent of any beliefs, feelings, or preferences about the claim’s truth value
  • Subjective moral truth = moral truth dependent on a belief, feeling, or preference about the claim’s truth value
  • Universal moral truth = moral truth that applies to all moral agents (usually an ethical theory)
  • Relative moral truth = moral truth that is true relative to a framework (individual or culture)
  • Absolute moral truth = moral truth that that holds for all agents in all contexts at all times
  • Contextual moral truth = moral truth that holds depending on the situational context

Subjective vs Relative

The first thing I want to emphasize is that moral relativism is logically independent of moral subjectivism. Neither implies the other, either can be true while the other one is false, both can be true, or both can be false. The Ethics Toolkit states that “it’s wrong to identify, as so many do, relativism with subjectivism.”[11] The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) states, “the subjectivist need not be a relativist.”[12] Susan Wolf states, “In principle, one may be a subjectivist without being a relativist.”[13] The ideas of subjective and relative truths are fairly well-defined ideas from epistemology, and these are the adaptation specific to moral truths. 

First, an ethical theory can be subjective but not relative. There is a prominent ethical theory, ideal observer theory, that is subjective but not relative (thus a form of universal subjectivism). It says that moral truths represent the preferences of a hypothetical “ideal observer,” where an ideal observer is one is neutral, fully informed, dispassionate, etc. In other words, when considering right and wrong, you ask, “What would an ideal observer do?” Ideal observer theory is also an example of the distinction between “independent of human subjective states” and “independent of all subjective states.” Ideal observer theory is consistently identified as a universal subjectivist theory, so its closely resembling theistic version, divine preference theory, is also universal subjectivist. Ideal observer theory is an example of why subjectivism cannot be equated with or logically connected to relativism.

Secondly, an ethical theory can also be relative but not subjective. As The Ethics Toolkit says, “Different societies might have different moralities for different objective reasons.”[14] For example, those reasons could include “the objective conditions of scarcity, the distribution of wealth, or, as some have argued, even the climate of that society.”[15] The SEP states, “It may be that what determines the difference in the two contexts [different individuals or cultures] is something ‘mind-dependent’—in which case it would be subjectivist relativism—but it need not be. Perhaps what determines the relevant difference is an entirely mind-independent affair, making for an objectivist relativism.”[16] Susan Wolf has a section in her paper “Two Levels of Pluralism” dedicated to explaining a form of “Relativism Without Subjectivism.”[17]

As Richard Joyce summarizes, “In short, the subjectivism vs. objectivism and the relativism vs. absolutism polarities are orthogonal to each other, and it is the former pair that matters when it comes to characterizing anti-realism.”[18] That moral relativism is (or can be) a form of moral realism, or objective morality, was also made by Gilbert Harman (though this reflects a recent change of mind).[19]

Although we have seen that subjectivism is or can be independent of relativism, they are often combined (call this subjectivist relativism or relativist subjectivism), since most theories that are relative are based on the preferences of individuals or cultures, and most of the time, theories that are subjective also hold that moral truth is relative to individual or culture. Susan Wolf states that “commonly relativism and subjectivism are linked: one suspects that moral standards may legitimately differ from one individual or society to another and” the offered explanation for why and how they differ is the “subjective judgments of the people to whom the standards apply.”[20] I think this common linkage between subjectivism and relativism is why they so often get confused,[21] even in philosophy or ethics journals or books.[22]

Absolute/Contextual Distinction

The last distinction to make is between absolute and contextual moral truths. Is it ever okay to lie? Most people would say yes, depending on the context. Consider the dreaded words, “Do I look fat in this dress?” Do you really need to think about it? The correct answer is always no. More seriously, the most common example of when it is considered okay to lie is if a Nazi came to your door asking if there were any Jews home. A true absolutist, such as Immanuel Kant, would have to say it is wrong to lie in this scenario, even if it resulted in the deaths of one or more people as a (more or less) direct result.[23] But just how far can this ‘context’ go?

We can distinguish between two types of context, agential context and situational context. There may be other types of context we can discuss, such as spatiotemporal context,[24] but this is less helpful for producing a taxonomy of ethical views. Agential context is what distinguishes between relative and universal ethical truths, and situational context is what distinguishes between contextual and absolute truths.

Agential context addresses how many agents and on which agents the moral truth depends. Starting small and expanding our scope, we can go from individuals, to cultures, to the universal. Thus, we have the two types of relativism: individual relativism and cultural relativism, where truth is relative to the individual and culture, respectively. In relativism, the same ethical claim (e.g. abortion is wrong) can be true relative to America and false relative to Africa. That is, true for an American and false for an African, given their cultural context. A universal morality, which applies to all moral agents, is not considered a form of relativism.

By situational context, I mean different general situations or states of affairs that one may find oneself in or choose to do. For example, cheating on the ACT (versus cheating simpliciter, aka cheating without qualification), or killing during war (versus killing simpliciter). The situational context might be significant to moral truths. It may be morally permissible to kill someone for self-defense or during war, but not as a hitman or just for fun. If you agree, then you think context is important and are not a true absolutist. Situational context can get even more specific, such as hurting Susy’s feelings, which can potentially be a combination of agential and situational context where all the relationships involved matter.

However, the absolute-contextual spectrum is just that – it is a spectrum, and it is based on how much context is taken into consideration for the rightness or wrongness of an action. As you move up the ladder from individual to universal, you think ethical truths are less agent-specific, and up from contextual to absolute, you think ethical truths are less situation-specific. Most ethical theories are universal theories (though they can be relativized), meaning they intend to apply to all moral agents, or at least all human moral agents, and they take some type of situational context into consideration and are contextual theories. Act utilitarianism is about as contextual as you can get, where each action is evaluated completely independently, whereas rule utilitarianism generalizes this a bit. Graded absolutism, which is probably the most prominent evangelical Christian ethic, resolves some moral dilemmas by permitting violations of divine commands as long as it is required to obey some other divine command of greater magnitude. Figure 1 displays the relative-universal and contextual-absolute scales, where agential and situation context are shown is the relevant factors in distinguishing these scales, respectively.

Figure 1: Spectra representing the (left) universal vs relative distinction, which depends on agential context, and (right) the absolute vs contextual distinction, which depends on situational context.

In an approximate sense, the entire contextual spectrum, including agential and situational context, ranges from relative to contextual to absolute (which may be preferred since absolute is often understood as the opposite of relative), which is shown in Figure 2. Since most ethical theories that are universal are also contextual, this is not too problematic. It is conceptually possible to have a form of cultural or individual relativism that ignore situational context (and would be absolute in this respect), but this would be widely implausible and not worth discussing.[25] Another way of putting this is that only universal theories tend to restrict context even further beyond agents into specific situations, getting into forms of graded or ungraded absolutism. Cultural and individual relativism also contextualize with respect to situations, so they should be lower down the overall contextual spectrum, below “contextual.”

Figure 2: The full relative-absolute spectrum, including agential and situational context.

Overall, we have a continuous restriction of context from individual relativism to absolute, starting with ethical truths relative to specific agential frameworks in specific situations and then being true for all agents in relevant situations, finally ending in ethical truths that do not depend on the agent or the situation. In the next section, we look at three types of moral judgments: first- and second-order moral judgments as well as moral principles.

Types of Moral Judgments

Philosophers like to distinguish between first-order and second-order things, such as beliefs, evidence, or ethical judgments. A first-order belief would be something like “I believe there is an apple on the table.” Symbolically, this could be represented as Bp, or belief B in some proposition p. A second order belief would be “I believe that I believe there is an apple on the table.” Symbolically, this is BBp. You can have parallel results for knowledge, knowing that you know p would be KKp. Second order evidence, or evidence of evidence, might be a book that documents arguments and evidence against the textual reliability of the Bible; however, you have not read it so you do not know what first-order evidence the book presents. Knowing that there is first-order evidence for or against a position is second-order evidence. The first-order evidence could be the papyrus manuscripts from the first three centuries CE, for example.

Similarly, you can talk of first- and second-order ethical (or moral) judgments, which, roughly, correspond to applied ethics and metaethics, respectively. “Cheating on a test is wrong” is a first-order ethical judgment, while “moral truths are objective” is a second-order ethical judgment. Additionally, we can talk about moral principles, which are general principles that are prominent in normative ethics. Thus, we can give definitions of these three types of moral claims, noting that “judgments” here could just as easily be replaced with “facts,” “propositions,” or “truths.”

  • first-order ethical judgments = ethical judgments with a specific context, such as those in thought experiments like the trolley problem, drowning child, violinist argument, etc.
  • second-order ethical judgments = ethical judgments about first-order ethical judgments (metaethical judgments), such as “ethical facts are relative to the individual”
  • moral principles = general abstract principles in ethical theories, such as “maximize the good”

These three types of moral claims are important in ethics for various reasons. For example, it is (or may be) consistent for a relativist to claim that first-order moral truths are relative to specific frameworks, but second-order moral truths are absolutely true (true in all frameworks). Thus, moral relativism may not be self-defeating.[26]

Let’s talk more about the distinction between moral principles and first-order ethical judgments, as their difference is not well-defined. If push came to shove, moral principles should probably be classified as a subset of first-order ethical judgments, as first- and second-order judgments should be mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive of morality (at least, of the relevant moral claims of interest to us). However, it is helpful to distinguish the “up-close-and-personal” judgments of the first-order, those arising frequently in thought experiments, and the “impersonal” judgments of abstract moral principles, usually seen in the broad statements of normative ethical theories. This difference is important in moral epistemology and our reliance on intuitions during thought experiments. For example, Peter Singer is skeptical of the reliability of intuitions in thought experiments, but he accepts intuitions about abstract moral principles.[27] I think I tend to agree with this.

Conclusion

Various questions for the Christian arise upon investigation of the above topics, such as the objectivity of Christian morality. Additionally, the above distinctions raise the question of where the proper Christian ethic lies on the full relative-absolute spectrum, and why. I hope to investigate these questions and others in the future.  

This blog post set out to establish some working definitions to have more rigorous and productive conversation around objective morality (moral realism), moral subjectivism and relativism, absolute and contextual moral truths, and types of moral judgments. All of these definitions will important as to dive into arguments for and against objective morality and relativism, as well as other metaethical topics.

In sum, objective morality (moral realism) is the commitment to the view that there are some objective moral truths, truths that are independent of any subjective states about the claim’s truth value. Subjective moral truths are those that depend on someone’s beliefs, feelings, or preferences about the moral claim in question.  Subjectivism is distinct from relativism, where relativism says that moral truths are true relative to a framework, either individual or cultural. Absolute moral truths do not consider any context, while contextual moral truths consider situational context. There are first-order moral judgments, which are up-close-and-personal judgments with specific context, while second-order moral judgments (metaethical judgments) are moral judgments about first-order moral judgments. Finally, there moral principles, which are general abstract principles used in ethical theories.

In upcoming posts, we will explore various arguments for objective morality as well as whether the Bible teaches objective morality or not.  

Endnotes

[1] Moral realism and objective morality (moral objectivism) are not exactly synonyms, but we are simplifying terms for now. I elaborate on some of the complications with terms such as minimalism moral realism, moral universalism (moral objectivism), universal subjectivism, and more throughout the other footnotes.

[2] Simplified from Väyrynen, Pekka. “Moral Realism” in Borchert, Donald M. (ed.) Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2nd Edition. Vol. 6. (2005), p. 379-380.

[3] McGrath, Sarah. “Moral realism without convergence.” Philosophical Topics 38.2 (2010): 59-90, p. 61

[4] If we used “objectively” true rather than true in the semantic thesis, then the combination of (1) and (2) would be objective morality, and then (3) could be the distinguishing factor for “robust” moral realism (1-3) vs minimal moral realism (1 and 2). Moral relativists would still say moral truths are “really true,” so torturing children is “really wrong” to (presumably most or all) moral relativists, so the charge that moral relativists cannot say what Hitler did is “really wrong” is false. It is just that the claim is made relative to a framework. I can’t remember or find where I saw this point made, but unfortunately this idea still seemingly pervades the metaethical literature, where “really” is often (intentionally) assumed as a synonym for “objectively.” However, to say something is “really” true just is to affirm its truth. If by really you mean objectively, then just say “objectively.” Then, obviously relativists would disagree but the point is obscured by this handwaving tactic. The claim “you can’t call the Nazis really wrong” reduces to “you can’t call the Nazis objectively wrong” and the reasonable response is, “Uh yeah, that’s the definition of relativism.” A similar point is made on IEP.

This assumption of equating “really” and “objectively” is made by Tan, Seow Hon. “The problems with moral subjectivism.” Think 46 (2016): 25-36, p. 31, 34-35; Dworkin, Ronald. “Objectivity and truth: You’d better believe it.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 25.2 (1996): 87-139, throughout; Bennigson, Thomas. “Is relativism really self-refuting?.” Philosophical Studies (1999): 211-236, p. 211 (this paper defends moral relativism but says relativism claims, “There is no sense to, or at least no answer to, the question of which is really right – there are no framework-neutral facts.”); Kramer, Matthew H. Moral Realism as a Moral Doctrine. Vol. 3. John Wiley & Sons, 2009, p. 200-201. Strangely, Kramer cites Simon Blackburn (a quasi-realist) in support of his reasoning here when Blackburn is essentially making the same point that I am making. Claims about what is “really true” reduce to things that are “true.” Blackburn talks about these word additions, “We can add flowers without end.” Relativists affirm that there are moral truths, just that they depend on what people believe. To claim that it is objectively true is to claim more than just that something is true (in the strictest sense and in the dialectical context here it is relevant). I think Blackburn may be assuming a type of truth minimalism here though, which I do not defend. In sum, saying relativists can’t say Nazism was “really wrong” is mere rhetoric and not substance.

[5] Mackie, John. Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. Penguin UK, (1990). His main argument is 1) moral propositions aim to be objective (they are implicitly objective truth claims), 2) there are no objective moral propositions (i.e. moral values or duties), 3) therefore, all moral propositions are false. He summarizes the argument on p. 35 as “But the denial of objective values will have to be put forward not as the result of an analytic approach, but as an ‘error theory’, a theory that although most people in making moral judgements implicitly claim, among other things, to be pointing to something objectively prescriptive, these claims are all false. It is this that makes the name ‘moral scepticism’ appropriate.” He then uses two arguments for the second proposition, that there are no objective moral values or duties, which are the argument from relativity (which is really from disagreement), and the argument from queerness.

[6] There are also substantial metaphysical complications that I would prefer to minimize. First, there is the question of whether there are moral properties in the external world (in the fabric of reality). The “metaphysical thesis” from the Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s “Moral Realism” article affirms moral properties, which is what makes moral facts “obtain,” but I wanted to ensure this wording does not commit myself to a particular metaphysics like truthmaker theory. If we say there are moral properties, there are still “robust” or “modest” forms of moral realism referring to primary vs secondary status of these properties, where secondary properties may be response-dependent, such as color properties. A final problem with identifying moral properties is that it is hard to make sense of a very prominent understanding of substances (Aristotle’s substance theory) with this (as opposed to Hume’s bundle theory). Moral discourse is covered with identifying actions as having properties, but on substance theory objects have properties but an action (as an event) does not (I may return to this problem in the future). If we neglect the idea of moral properties, a difficulty comes here when we consider non-human subjective states, such as the subjective states of an “ideal observer” or God. If a moral truth is categorical in the Kantian sense, then it is independent of any rational agent’s subjective states; this truth would be objective in a rationalist sense, then. I will only really be considering the rationalist or robust ontological senses of objectivity.

On any understanding of objective morality, with or without identifying moral properties, “There is some ‘reality’…that ‘makes true’ certain claims.” (Horgan, Terry, and Mark Timmons. “What does moral phenomenology tell us about moral objectivity?” Social Philosophy & Policy 25.1 (2008), p. 272.)

[7] A final problem arises from the generic definition of objective as “mind-independent.” If God is a mind, then everything in the universe is mind-dependent in some sense because a (disembodied) mind created the entire universe. Does that mean that all facts about the world are subjective? This hardly makes any sense. A parallel is seen when taking about mental causation: human minds can exert causal effects resulting in changes in the external world that is mind-independent, but this causal type of mind-dependence is not the sense in what we mean by mind-independent. This point is made by William Lane Craig here. Thus, it is better to explicitly render “mind-independent” as independent of any subjective states.

[8] McGrath, Sarah. “Moral realism without convergence.” Philosophical Topics 38.2 (2010): 59-90, p. 61.

[9] A less robust definition would be to say that objective morality is independent of any human subjective states. However, this could leave the option of alien preferences being the guidelines of morality. Additionally, one moral theory, ideal observer theory, identifies moral truths with the preferences of an ideal observer (the question of the existence of the ideal observer is irrelevant). This theory is called a universal subjectivist theory since it is independent of any human and thus applies to all (i.e. universally), but it depends on subjective states of an observer. If one affirms that the ideal observer exists and is God, it is called divine preference theory (see Thomas Carson’s work). However, there is a substantial distinction between divine preferences and divine commands. Divine preferences are clearly subjective, but divine commands are not clearly dependent on God’s subjective states. For example, William of Ockham famously bit the bullet on the arbitrariness objection by not allowing any restriction on God’s commands from God’s moral nature, which maximizes God’s freedom. Therefore, an Ockhamist DCT would seem to be independent of any subjective states (since commands are not subjective states, especially when one identifies those commands as exegeted from the biblical text).

However, most modern DCTs are not Ockhamist and have a grounding relation between God’s commands and God’s nature or His commands and His will. A grounding relation (I think) confers a dependence of some sort, especially in this sense because God’s nature or His will puts a restriction on the range of possible divine commands (if this is included in the grounding relation). A grounding relation between God’s commands and God’s nature would allow for DCT to remain objective, and this view is considered a hybrid view where moral values are based on God’s nature and moral obligations come from God’s commands, and values are more fundamental than obligations. This view is presented by Adams’ Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics, William Lane Craig accepts and defends this view, and this is a plausible solution to the Euthyphro Dilemma.

The grounding or identification of moral obligations in or with the divine will, however, is more likely to still be considered subjectivist. I don’t know enough about this view (defended by Mark Murphy and Philip Quinn) to say much. Christian Miller in “Divine Will Theory: Desires or Intentions?” suggests that while Murphy and Quinn focus on grounding moral obligations in divine intentions, it would be better to focus on divine desires. I think now (according to Christian Miller’s “Divine Desire Theory and Obligation”) these theories are considered distinctly and identified by divine intention theory and divine desire theory, respectively. Either way, my understanding is that intentional states are very much mind-dependent and subjective, and desires are explicitly subjective states. Therefore, it seems like divine will theory in either desire or intentions form would be a type of universal subjectivism. However, a divine command theory with commands grounded in God’s nature (or ungrounded) would remain objective. I will investigate these ideas more in-depth when investigating theistic morality and its objectivity.

[10] Additionally, perhaps “subjective” could mean subject-dependent, dependent on anything about some subject, instead of dependent on the subjective states of some subject. That would be a different story, as subject-dependent is different than mind-dependent. However, I have never seen anyone ever use this definition, so I will not consider this further.

[11] Baggini, Julian, and Peter S. Fosl. The Ethics toolkit: A compendium of ethical concepts and methods. Wiley-Blackwell, 2007, p. 130. All references are to the pdf of the epub version (no page numbers are given).

[12] https://stanford.library.sydney.edu.au/archives/win2014/entries/moral-anti-realism/moral-subjectivism-versus-relativism.html

[13] Wolf, Susan. “Two levels of pluralism.” Ethics 102.4 (1992): 785-798, p. 786.

[14] The Ethics Toolkit, p. 133.  

[15] Ibid, p. 130.

[16] https://stanford.library.sydney.edu.au/archives/win2014/entries/moral-anti-realism/moral-subjectivism-versus-relativism.html (Emphasis in original).  

[17] Wolf, Susan. “Two levels of pluralism.” Ethics 102.4 (1992): 785-798, pp. 792-797.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Harman, Gilbert. “Moral relativism is moral realism.” Philosophical Studies 172.4 (2015): 855-863.

[20] Wolf, Susan. “Two levels of pluralism.” Ethics 102.4 (1992): 785-798, p. 786. She explains the full line of reasoning to get to subjectivism as (p. 786), “Pondering the existence of persistent disagreement leads one to relativism. Pondering the conditions under which relativism would be true leads one to subjectivism.”

[21] This agrees with a point made in The Ethics Toolkit on p. 133. “Tt may be possible to speak of a subjectivism that’s collective or social. For this reason many conflate social relativism with social subjectivism. But while different social subjects are likely, according to subjectivism, to yield different moralities, relativism is possible even if subjectivism is wrong. Different societies might have different moralities for different objective reasons.”

[22] I might prepare a giant list of all the places I have seen relativism confused with subjectivism or vice versa, as this distinction has caused me much pain to sort out (and is in part why I was so delayed in finishing this post). Two such places I have seen it that are absolutely inexcusable are The Professional Ethics Toolkit and Michael Huemer’s Ethical Intuitionism.

[23] Kant himself used an example of lying to a murderer at your door who is looking for the would-be victim, and he says it is wrong to lie in such a scenario. This example was, post-World War II, adapted to be a Nazi at the door looking for Jews, and this example is commonly used to show the absurdity of Kant’s absolutist deontology. However, this seemingly obvious extrapolation of Kant’s views has been challenged, see Varden, H. (2010), “Kant and Lying to the Murderer at the Door…One More Time: Kant’s Legal Philosophy and Lies to Murderers and Nazis.” Journal of Social Philosophy, 41: 403-421. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9833.2010.01507.x. I do not know enough to comment.

[24] By spatiotemporal context, I mean something like “France in the 1800s” or “1920s USA” or “at the McDonalds down the street in Texas in 2021.” These give a time (or time period) and spatial location or geography. This type of context is likely more important for a cultural relativist that thinks moral truths are relative to a culture (or a subjectivist who thinks moral truths depend on cultural subjective states), which usually has spatiotemporally significant moral factors that contribute to moral truth values according to a relativist or subjectivist.

[25] An example would be saying that lying is always wrong for Bob, but lying is always permissible for Alice, no matter the situation of either of them. Another example could be that in France, abortion is always wrong no matter the reasoning, but in China, abortion is always permissible for any reason whatsoever.

[26] I will likely revisit this in the future to see how well a relativist can hold her ground here. There are different ways of pushing on this claim. I am not sure if it works or not. Naïve global relativism is straightforwardly self-defeating, though.

[27] Singer may use a strong intuition to justify the principle, “We ought to be preventing as much suffering as we can without sacrificing something else of comparable moral importance,” but reject the reliability of intuitions in his own Drowning Child thought experiment. Singer even offers an evolutionary debunking argument for these types of intuitions in Singer, Peter. “Ethics and Intuitions.” The Journal of Ethics 9.3-4 (2005): 331-352. However, this is consistent for Singer to offer an argument of this sort, since his interlocuters accept the reliability of first-order contextual intuitions. This point was made in my least favorite paper ever: Timmerman, Travis. “Sometimes there is nothing wrong with letting a child drown.” Analysis 75.2 (2015): 204-212, p. 211. The way he words it is that Singer “famously rejects the reliability of intuitions about first-order normative judgments” but “is not similarly skeptical of the reliability of intuitions about abstract moral principles.” It is for this reason I mention this dichotomy, with which I have great sympathies. This is the same idea behind talking about “up-close-and-personal” intuitions versus “impersonal” intuitions, which I take to correspond to first-order moral claims and moral principles, respectively. These two ‘types’ of intuitions, in connection to Singer’s views and evolutionary debunking argument, was discussed but challenged in Holtzman, Geoffrey S. “Famine, Affluence and Intuitions: Evolutionary Debunking Proves Too Much.” Disputatio 10.48 (2018): 57-70.