Class notes for 23-25 May

Main points

When we first broached the topic of subjectivism, I said that Williams would pursue a particular question: what do we need to show in order to have confidence in our moral beliefs?

We took a detour through a specific claim about moral relativism, that if moral relativism is true, we should be more tolerant of behavior that we regard as immoral. That kind of tolerance would amount to reduced confidence in our moral beliefs since we would be less willing to act on them.

Moral relativism is a kind of subjectivism. It holds that the justification for moral beliefs is relative to the beliefs of a particular kind of subject, a society. When we ended our detour, we asked about the relationship between subjectivism and indifference: if morality is subjective, should we be indifferent towards behavior that seems morally wrong to us?

The question is similar to the one that we asked about the relationship between moral relativism and tolerance. The answer was too.

Then we turned to the difference between science and morality. Williams characterized this difference in terms of the availability of what he called the “mid-air position”.

Finally, we talked about whether those who hold that morality is subjective or those who believe it is objective can have the greatest confidence in their moral beliefs.

The mid-air position

We spent a fair amount of time talking about what responses to disagreement make sense in a variety of different cases: matters of taste, matters of fact, and matters of friendship and love. The first and third are subjective questions (e.g. “is this better than that?”, “do you love this person or not?”), the second is an objective one (e.g. “is it a dog or a horse?”).

The subjectivity of the question does not always show that it is not worth caring about one’s answer: that’s true of the third set of cases, at least. Those trying to “defuse” subjectivism will want to insist that morality is like that. One can still care just as much despite acknowledging the subjective nature of moral thought.

Their opponents disagree. We don’t accept the kind of diversity in moral belief that we do in love and friendship. When well-meaning, intelligent, and experienced people disagree with me about a moral issue, I often withhold judgment: maybe they are right, maybe I should think more about it. Isn’t that a set of thoughts associated with the “mid-air position”?

Furthermore, if people differed as much in their moral beliefs as they do in who they love, we would be in a mess. Perhaps that can be reconciled with the subjectivist’s point in the previous paragraph. There are social pressures to align our moral beliefs and social pressures against aligning our love interests too closely. Perhaps these adequately explain the difference. Perhaps not.


If there is an objective truth about morality, it could turn out to be quite horrible. Perhaps we’re morally required to torment small children or to make what strike us as invidious distinctions among adults, for instance.

Can you make sense of that? That is, what would it be like to really believe that you’re morally required to do things that you are sure are wrong? And how would anyone prove to you that you should revel in doing what now strikes you as awful things? By contrast, I think I can understand how someone might prove to me that there is no such thing as gravity.

I think this is a rarely noted problem for those who think there are objective facts about morality. Take Shafer-Landau, for instance. On the one hand, he correctly points out that if there were objective facts about morality, it could be the case that our moral beliefs are what they seem to be. When I think “racial discrimination is wrong” I’m thinking about the behavior of racists, namely, that it’s wrong and it would be wrong even if I believed otherwise. The moral truths would pose a kind of constraint on moral thinking that I believe exists but that subjectivists have trouble making sense of. (The “kind of constraint” is the idea that racism, e.g., would be wrong even if I were brought up to think that it was OK).

On the other hand, Shafer-Landau notes that there are no definitive moral proofs and that the record for reasoned resolution of moral conflicts is, at best, mixed.

The problem is that in order to be confident in my moral beliefs, I need to have some reason for thinking that I am justified in believing what I do.

Subjectivism makes that relatively easy. But if morality is an objective matter, how do I know that my beliefs line up with the objective truth? We would have a story about how we come to have moral knowledge that would enable us to dismiss the possibility that we are wildly off about what morality requires. I know what the explanation is in the case of science: it involves experiments, observations, and the possibility of replication. What’s the parallel method for coming to have moral knowledge? We would need something like that in order to have confidence in our moral beliefs if we thought that morality is objective.

Or, at least, that’s the way it seems to me.

Thanks for a wonderful quarter!