Skip to main content.
July 26th, 2003

Moral Subjectivism

(Also posted at Crooked Timber)

Over at Crescat Sententia, Will Baude has been defending subjectivism about morality. Will doesn’t defend the traditional positivist view that "Murder is wrong" means (roughly) "Boo for murder!", but rather that it means "I disapprove of murder". Freespace’s Timothy Sandefur responds to Will with several moral and legal arguments. This seems to me to be a mistake. Will’s making a metaphysical and semantic claim, and the right responses will be based on metaphysics or semantics. Fortunately, there are plenty of the latter kind of argument.



Argument from indirect speech reports


Consider the following little discourse.


Mr Bigot: Homosexuality is wrong.
Brian: Mr Bigot said that homosexuality is wrong.


My statement seems obviously right – I just reported what Mr Bigot said. But it’s hard to see how this could be true on a subjectivist theory. Normally, when I say S said that p, what I say is true just in case the proposition expressed by p is a proposition that S expressed. For instance, if I say You said I am an idiot, that’s true just in case you said that Brian is an idiot, not just if you self-ascribe idiocy. Generally, indexicals in speech reports get their meaning from the reporter’s setting, not from the speaker’s setting. The subjectivist thinks that ‘wrong’ is just another indexical. So my report should mean "Mr Bigot said that I disapprove of homosexuality." But he said no such thing.


Argument from direct speech report (due to Ernest Lepore and Herman Cappelen)


If "Homosexuality is wrong" just means "I disapprove of homosexuality" then I should be able to say the following thing in response to Mr Bigot.


When Mr Bigot said, "Homosexuality is wrong" he spoke truly, even though homosexuality is not wrong.


After all, Mr Bigot does disapprove of homosexuality, so by subjectivist lights the first clause is true. And homosexuality is not wrong, so the second clause is true. But then the sentence is true, even though native speakers would naturally take it to be a contradiction.


Argument from deleted material (due to Jason Stanley)


Here’s a surprising fact about indexicals in English. In the following, Jill’s statement can’t mean that she lives in the Ritz.


Jack [pointing at the Savoy]: I live there
Jill [pointing at the Ritz]: So do I


This is odd, because you might have thought that when Jill says ‘So do I’, she’d be picking up on the words Jack used, and effectively saying "I live there". And since she says that by pointing at the Ritz, you might then think she meant she lives in the Ritz. It’s certainly conceivable that there could be a language in which that was how statements like Jill’s are interpreted. But English is not such a language. (Neither, I think, is any other natural language.) But consider how moral talk works.


Brian: Murder is wrong.
Mr Bigot: So is homosexuality.


The subjectivist wants to say that by that statement Mr Bigot is saying that he disapproves of homosexuality. But if moral terms are indexicals like the subjectivist says they are, then Mr Bigot’s statement should mean that Brian disapproves of homosexuality, just like Jill’s statement means that she lives where Jack is pointing.


What does this mean for ethics


One response to all these arguments would be that ethical terms are just very special kinds of indexicals. For instance, one might try and argue that somehow speakers don’t realise, even tacitly, that they are using different rules for embedded ethical terms as they do for other indexicals. But sui generis theories are as a rule pretty bad, and I think they should be avoided like the plague.


There are a few other responses that are consistent with subjectivist intuitions. One could go with Ayer’s position that "Murder is wrong" means "Boo for murder!". (Though it’s necessary to be careful here – this view of Ayer’s is inconsistent with his views on the nature of truth.) One could adopt a position of one of the modern day non-cognitivists, such as Blackburn or Gibbard. (I’m not enough of an expert to accurately present their views here. If you’re really committed, try their books here or here.) And, finally, one could think that the data shows that our native moral concept is an objective concept. But you might think for independent reasons that there are no such things as objective moral concepts. And then you’ll be an error theorist about morality. As Blackburn (I think) puts it, your theory of evil will be like the atheist’s theory of sin. This would be a fairly radical position, but I think it’s better than a theory that involves changing the meaning of our moral terms.

UPDATE: Edited to remove a silly error in the first argument.

Posted by Brian Weatherson in Uncategorized

3 Comments »

This entry was posted on Saturday, July 26th, 2003 at 3:59 pm and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

3 Responses to “Moral Subjectivism”

  1. Luka Yovetich says:

    I know there’s a good possibility that no one will see this but thought I’d give a set of questions anyway.

    Brian, are you saying that you think noncognitivism fails because it involves changing the meaning of moral terms? If so, I have another question. Do you think that it is plausible that some of our aesthetic judgments are noncognitivist? That is, do you think that it’s plausible that, at least sometimes, we use our aesthetic value terms in a way that is factually questionable? (Like saying “That movie was good” means something like “Yea to that movie”?

    And if you think that we sometimes (enough times to make it somewhat common) use those terms in that way and not moral terms in that way can you tell me why? Because both types of value judgments seem very similar to me. So similar that I would be somewhat surprised if they didn’t have this feature in common.

  2. Brian Weatherson says:

    I don’t think non-cognitivism changes the meanings of terms. I think the kind of cognitivist subjectivism suggested here changes the meaning of the moral terms. I have other concerns about non-cognitivism, but meaning change is not among them.

    Actually, I think it’s rare that we just mean “Yea to that movie” by saying “That movie was good”. What I could believe is that we mean lots of things, and the most that can be coherently extracted from that is “Yea to that movie”. But I’m inclined to let syntax govern semantics where possible, and the syntax suggests that this sentence attributes some property to the movie, not some relation between the movie and me.

  3. Luka Yovetich says:

    Ooops! I misread that last paragraph. Sorry.

    But now that you mention it, I guess I don’t know what you mean by ‘changing the meaning of our moral terms’ if you think that the cognitivist subjectivists do it but the non-cognitivists don’t. It seems like the non-cogs change the meaning of moral terms (or the whole sentences they are a part of) from what looks like a cognitivist sense (identifying a property of an action or person or whatever). But maybe I just don’t fully understand the relevant terms here.

    Lastly, I guess I just have had too much experience with the following type of conversation to think that it’s all that rare for us to make aesthetic judgments like ‘that movie was good’ in a non-cognitivist manner:

    Jones: “That movie was good.”
    Smith: “What was so good about it?”
    Jones: “I don’t know. I just liked it I guess.It’s just a matter of taste.”

    Now, you might want to say that Jones doesn’t mean “Yea to that movie” when he says he likes it. But that he is identifying a property of the movie (goodness) and trusts that his positive reaction to movies tracks goodness, or something like that. Right? But his saying that it’s just a matter of taste (which is said a lot to me in discussions about art or movies) seems to me to imply that the speaker thinks that there might not be an objective fact of the matter?

    I have another question for you if you have the time. Do you think that it’s possible that we use these value terms in different ways at different times? That there are cognitivist senses of some value terms and non-cognitivist (or at least anti-realist) senses?