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According to Mark Schroeder:

Relativist metaethical theories are usefully contrasted with contextualist theories for most purposes, but are committed to normative ethical consequences in a very similar way. In general, whereas contextualists say that one and the same moral sentence may make different claims in different contexts of utterance, even once we have narrowed our attention to a particular moral use of the words in question, relativists say that moral sentences make the same claim across such contexts, but that such claims are not absolutely true or false, but only relative to some perspective.

And that is footnoted to:

See especially MacFarlane [2014].

  • MacFarlane, John [2014]. Assessment-Sensitivity: Relative Truth and Its Applications. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Although Schroeder does purport to illustrate the distinction, his example(s) use highly abstract sentences with many placeholders; there's like 4 of them P--perspective, C--context, S--sentence and an 'R' which I have no exact idea what it is.

If you know ‘my context is C’ you can get from ‘ ‘stealing is wrong’ expresses a claim in C that is true with respect to P just in case S’ to ‘ ‘stealing is wrong’ expresses a claim in my context that is true with respect to P just in case S’. But in general, as before, claims of the form ‘ ‘R’ expresses a claim in my context that is true with respect to P just in case it is true that R with respect to P’ express a truth in every context, and so we are committed to the claim, ‘ ‘stealing is wrong’ expresses a claim in my context that is true with respect to P just in case it is true that stealing is wrong with respect to P’.

Does MacFarlane explain this distinction (between contextualism and relativism) in more intelligible fashion, e.g. with some concrete examples?

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  • I don't see any overlap or conflict between relativism and contextualism. The former is according to one's own epistemic perspective and the latter is about ontological background...So in this regard, I don't see any intelligence from MacFarlane's above explanation. – Double Knot Mar 29 at 4:00
  • @DoubleKnot: yeah, mathematically it turns out it is a pretty simple concept. It's just that many philosophers have a complicated ways of expressing simple things like that. – Fizz Mar 29 at 7:17
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I haven't read far enough into MacFarlane's book to fully answer this in the context of meta-ethics, but somewhere in the middle of the book (p. 106) the distinction with respect to common propositions is made as follows:

Suppose there are three possible contexts: c1, c2, and c3. The contexts all have the same agent but take place at different times (t1, t2, t3). The agent likes licorice at t1 and t2, but not at t3. Let p be the proposition that licorice is tasty ([footnote:] If you like, you can add “throughout the period t1 . . . t3”: we will assume that the taste of licorice does not change during this period.) We can compare R and C by looking at the truth values they assign to p at each possible combination of a context of use and context of assessment (see Tables 5.1 and 5.2).

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Note that the two "truth tables" are reflected along the main diagonal between the contextualist and the relativist.

A bit later (p. 144) that is made more clear/explicit:

On a simple contextualist view,

(1) This is tasty

is true, as used at a context c and assessed from any context, just in case the flavor of the referent of “this” at the time and world of c is evaluated positively by the taste of the agent of c (the speaker). On a simple relativist view, by contrast, (1) is true, as used at a context c and assessed from a context c2, just in case the flavor of the referent of “this” at the time and world of c is evaluated positively by the taste of the agent of c2 (the assessor).

This [to me] seems to be exact sense in which Schroeder is using these terms (as a contrast).

Also, of some terminological note... SEP calls the MacFarlane-style relativism [the] "New Relativism". And SEP the following bit of clarity (which is actually found in MacFarlane, but expressed there in much more complicated fashion):

while the contextualist can, no less than the relativist, recognize a “standards” or “judge” parameter, for the contextualist, its value will be supplied by the context of use, whereas the relativist takes it to be supplied completely independently of the context of use, by the context of evaluation (or, as MacFarlane calls it, the context of assessment).

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