Here’s a scene lived by all of us much too often. Some student tries to avoid some epistemological conclusion by distinguishing what is objectively true from what is subjectively true (e.g., that you can’t know that the earth is flat because that claim is false). I used to cringe at the response that purported object of knowledge is subjectively true, at least on the inside, but have become somewhat inured to it because it is so common. It’s bad enough, though, that I want the cringe response back.
Then I find epistemologists talking the same way about justification. Should we cringe here as well? Let’s see.
When one distinguishes objective and subjective justification, notice what one is not doing. Some theories of justification or rationality are subjective: Lehrer’s and Foley’s, for example. Some cringe at such theories, but I think we should rejoice! In any case, calling a theory subjective or objective is perfectly fine. But the distinction between objective and subjective justification is not the distinction between kinds of theories of justification. Instead, the purveyors of this distinction mean something different. The might mean the following: there are standards for justification, and a belief is subjectively justified when the person in question takes the belief in question to have met the standards.
There’s nothing grammatically wrong with qualifiers that block the following qualifier-dropping inference:
X is F-ly Y, or, X is an F-modified Y.
So, X is Y.
We have lots of instances of this phenomenon: decoy ducks, former senators, previously pristine landscapes, fictional entities, etc. But the inference is enough of a “quick and dirty” rule that careful philosophy ought to find a way around language for which the inference would be a mistake.
The reason such care is important is this: taken as above, subjective justification is no more a kind of justification than subjective truth is a kind of truth. So if this is what the distinction comes to, then subjective justification is not a normative property of a belief. So it can’t sneak in a different kind of normativity regarding belief when one’s favored approach to the normative status of belief turns out to be subject to objection based on subjective factors that the approach doesn’t take into account.
A specific example may help. I’ll use as an example a theory that nobody believes (I think): a theory that identifies justified belief with true belief. Call this theory, uhhhm… errr …, the SIMPLE theory of justification and its defenders SIMPLEtons. Counterexamples to SIMPLE abound, but SIMPLEtons may try to dance around the problems by pointing out the distinction between subjective and objective justification, holding that the distinction allows a defense of their theory. How does it do that? I can’t really tell, but I think it can only work if our sense of the normative acceptability of beliefs that runs contrary to SIMPLE is handled by the notion of subjective justification deployed. But, if subjective justification is nothing but the taking of a belief to be justified, it is not a normative property of the belief in question, but merely a further psychological state with the target belief as content. So it is not itself a kind of justification and is not itself a normative property of any belief, and thus doesn’t explain the normative acceptability involved in the counterexamples to SIMPLE.
All of this is predicated on the idea that the distinction between objective and subjective justification is the difference, roughly, between perceived and actual justification. There are permutations to be found here, however. Perhaps, for example, the distinction is between actual justification and normatively adequate perceived justification. In such a case, subjective justification is the justified taking of a belief to be (really) justified. That is a normative property of a belief when it obtains, but notice that it can’t obtain on the SIMPLE view above, for that would require that the taking in question is true. Versions of this problem plagues weaker, reliabilist theories as well–this point is just a generalization of the new evil demon problem.
So there is a dilemma here for the objective/subjective distinction. To the extent that the distinction can address the permutations of the objection that are easy to construct, it can’t itself be a normative property and won’t be a kind of justification. To the extent that it is a normative property, it will be easy to see how to adapt the objection to make the problem re-appear. That leaves, as far as I can tell, nowhere to go for the distinction to help at all.
So my bottom line is this: ‘subjective justification’ is either shorthand for “a subjective theory of justification” or it is a normative feature a belief can have only to the extent that it cannot block certain kinds of objections to a theory. What’s left for those who still want the notion to do more philosophical work is to join the company of those who talk of subjective truth as if it were a kind of truth.