I’ve been recently interested in subjectivism and how serious the objections to it are in the end. In part, this is a project of thinking how well or badly off the view comes out when we compare it to expressivism. In this post, I am interested in the claim that subjectivism makes morality objectionably dependent on our attitudes. The strategy which subjectivists have often recently adopted is to try to argue that subjectivists can usually give similar responses to objections as expressivists. Here, I want to use this strategy to explore the mind-dependence objection.
Here’s the objection as it is usually formulated against expressivists:
1. For the expressivists to think that kicking dogs is wrong is to hold an attitude of moral disapproval to kicking dogs.
2. Therefore, if we didn’t morally disapprove of kicking dogs, it wouldn’t be wrong.
3. But, kicking dogs would be wrong even if everybody approved of it.
4. Therefore, expressivism makes morality objectionably mind-dependent.
We all know Blackburn’s response to this objection. This is to deny that expressivism commits you to premise 2. According to him, 2. is a first-order moral claim. To utter 2. is to express approval toward a certain possible moral sensibility. This sensitivity is such that it lets its own attitudes toward kicking dogs be affected by what attitudes toward kicking dogs people have. As Blackburn put it in Spreading the Word (1984, 198):
“Suppose someone said ‘if we had different sentiments, it would be right to kick dogs’. Apparently, he endorses a certain sensibility: one which lets information about what people feel dictate its attitude to kicking dogs. But nice people do not endorse such sensibility. What makes it wrong to kick dogs is the cruelty and pain to animals”.
This response can be simplified by ignoring the higher-order attitude account of conditionals which Blackburn accepted at the time. As I see it, the basic idea is that we consider a scenario in which dogs are kicked and we do not disapprove of it. To utter 2. is to express one’s current lack of disapproval toward kicking dogs in those circumstances. Given that we currently do disapprove of kicking dogs in that counterfactual scenario, we cannot be asked to accept 2 according to expressivists. Rather, in order to express our disapproval toward kicking dogs in the described counter-factual scenario, we can only strongly assert 3.
A similar objection can be formulated against subjectivists:
A) For subjectivists, for me to think that kicking dogs is wrong is for me to believe that I disapprove of kicking dogs.
B) Therefore, if I didn’t morally disapprove of kicking dogs, it wouldn’t be wrong.
C) But, kicking dogs would be wrong even if I approved of it.
D) Therefore, subjectivism makes morality objectionably mind-dependent.
It seems to me that subjectivists could offer a similar response to this objection as expressivists. They too could understand B) as an internal, moralising claim. On this understanding, the antecedent of the subjunctive conditional describes a hypothetical situation in which I lack attitudes of disapproval towards kicking dogs. The wrongness-claim in the consequent then reports what my attitudes toward kicking dogs in those circumstances are. However, there’s no reason for the subjectivists to claim the consequent reports my attitudes toward kicking dogs as they are in the hypothetical situation. Rather, it can report my current actual attitudes toward dogs being kicked in those circumstances. And, because I currently am against kicking dogs even in the hypothetical circumstances in which I would not disapprove of kicking dogs, B) comes out as false and C) as true. As a result, the objection seems to fail for the same reason as it does against expressivism.
Thus, the way forward for subjectivists is to say that moral words like ‘wrong’ describe our actual attitudes even in the context of modal sentences that describe scenarios in which we have different attitudes. This is in the same way as according to expressivists these words express our actual attitudes even in the contexts of modal sentences that describe scenarios in which we have different attitudes.
If we understand subjectivism in this way, we end up with what is called ‘actually-rigidified speaker subjectivism’ (Schroeder 2008, 17, fn. 2). This is the view according to which ‘X is wrong’ is true iff and just because I actually now disapprove of X. Now, I know that there are objections to this kind of actualisation moves with the kind of modal problems I have been discussing. Here I would like to know what the most serious of these problems are.
I’m also interested in whether these are only objections to the subjectivist response to the problem or whether they also affect the expressivist response. Given that these responses are so similar to one another, it’s hard for me to see an objection here that could only affect Blackburn but not subjectivists or subjectivists but not Blackburn. So, for example, Zangwill’s claim that these responses make moral mind-independence a matter of having a certain moral stand rather than a matter of a conceptual truth seems to equally apply to both responses if it applies to one of them. I’d be delighted though if there were objections that only affected one of these responses and not the other.