Objectivity, subjectivity. This is a debate that has raged on for as long as debate has existed. Are there values we can know for sure, or are all things just opinions? This debate has heated more so in our current era, underlining everything from the debate about homosexuality, religion, military interventions abroad, the degeneration of the social fabric, to the discourse about how we should raise children. All asking the question, is it objectively true, or just your opinion?
I’m not here to dip a toe in any of those arguments. In fact this piece is politically neutral. But I just hope to draw your minds to the fact that objectivity exists. And that objective values can be derived from that, and the subjectivists have got it wrong.
But first, what is the position of the subjectivists? Subjectivists base their belief on two main axioms:
- Everything you experience, is filtered through your person. Therefore everything you believe is subjective to your minds and body’s interpretation.
As a consequence of this, people can agree on things, in large numbers. But it is merely that. And not a statement about fact.
- If you seek to explain any value judgement, say – “Kindness is good”, by asking yourself “Why” after each explanation, you will inevitably come to the conclusion that the foundation of all your justifications is simply “Because its good”. For example:
“Giving is good” – “Why?”
“Because it makes the world a happier place?” – “Why should we make the world a happier place?”
“Because there will be less sadness” – “Why should there be less sadness?”
“Because to be happy is better than to be sad” – “Why is it better to be happy than to be sad?”
“Because it’s good”.
Obviously, a person with conviction can stretch this out longer, but the subjectivist claim is that if you did this to the very granular depths to the value judgement, you would always circle back to “because its good”
And what “good” means is subjective. Again, the fact that some cultures agree on what base values constitute good, doesn’t make it a statement of fact.
So why is this absolutely wrong? Before I begin, let me clarify that I do not think ALL things fall in the realm of objectivity. Things like art, food and music are specifically made to be experienced personally. Hence, its against their essence of being to want to assign a monolithic experience to all of them. However, I do think there are basic rules in music which apply across all songs, and basic elements of story that apply across all forms of narrative, even if their creators are unaware of them. I believe there is some baseline objectivity to be found there, but let’s not put the cart before the horse. Is there such a thing as objectivity in the first place?
NEARER MY GOAL, TO THEE…
Let’s break apart and explore premise 2 before we go to the first.
The terms, good, bad, moral, immoral are useless without a reference. Why? Because they are merely descriptive. Without a reference to the thing they are describing, they don’t have any real meaning. For example: “speeding is bad.” If my reference was a road in a school area, I would be correct. If my reference was a Formula 1 race, I would be wrong. Because there, the whole goal of the sport, is to be faster, than the other drivers. Speeding there, would be good.
What does this tell us? That we define things as good or bad, depending on how far, or how close they get us to our goal. And there are goals, which do not require further proof or explanation, they simply are. These are “axiomatic ought’s” For example: Humans need air to survive. It is simply a fact about humans. It requires no justification, it simply is. Therefore, you could say, it is good for humans to breathe air, because it gets you closer to the goal of breathing, which is survival.
Fish ought to swim to travel in water. It is simply a fact about fish. You can say “It is good for fish to swim, because it gets them closer to the goal of movement under water”
Keep this in mind, it’ll be important in the finale.
A TALE OF TWO DEFINITIONS
So, what is objectivity? A big reason why this has caused so much debate is because the scientific definition and the philosophical definition often get mixed up.
What do I mean by that?
The scientific definition of objective, is:
A fact that isn’t affected by an individuals, feelings, biases or interpretations
The philosophical definition is:
A statement that is independent of a subject
If I asked you, “Are you objectively thinking now?” a scientist would say yes, because there are instruments we can use to measure brain waves and visualize neurons firing. Scientifically, we know for a fact we are thinking, independent of what we feel about it.
If you asked a philosopher, he would say no, because thinking is an experience, therefore we can’t say that we are objectively thinking, we just hold a belief that we are thinking. It then is, subjective.
Taking this premise to its logical conclusion, then we know nothing for certain. All of our external claims are based on the assumption that our senses correlate with reality. We don’t know, that the earth is round. We just assume our eyes correlate with the reality of what the telescope is recording. We don’t know if a meter is a meter, or an inch is an inch. Which makes it a wonder how we manage to build anything that works. The subjectivist view is untenable with how we actually live and act in reality. And it falsely equivocates the scientific definition with the philosophical one.
Not only that, but the subjectivist destroys himself. Why? Because we don’t actually know that reason is correct. If we can never assume our senses correlate with reality, how does the subjectivist know his reasoning for subjectivity is correct? He has merely assumed the conclusion of his argument (all things are opinion) without ever actually proving that the concept of “reason” is correct in the first place. If we can never actually know anything, how do subjectivists know that the idea of “knowing” is correct? It’s a classic subjectivist verbal magic trick. What should be your takeway, dear friend?
We can derive value judgments from facts of human nature, depending on how well or not they fulfil their axiomatic ought’s. “Ought” in this not meaning you have to (because free will), but there’s factual precedent you or society are likely to be better off, if you did. Does any single religion have it all figured out neatly? Probably not. Does any one philosopher have it figured it? Maybe not. How about any one legal system? Also probably not. But, it is not cause to abandon all moral considerations to cultural and moral relativism. Even less its more destructive counterpart nihilism (that nothing matters, to be crude). Objectivity exists to be found in discussing basic values, and that is a part of why discourse is so important.
- That the words good or moral are merely descriptive, hence require a reference to mean anything.
- Objectivity deals with objective facts, which are relative to subjects. It does not mean, that they are merely opinion.
Let me leave you with example. Gravity is objectively 10 meters per second, relative to the Earth, but less on the moon. Almost nonexistent, somewhere else in space. It doesn’t mean gravity, is just my opinion.
And that’s the whole truth. Thank you.
The above is based heavily off the debate between Alex O’ Conner and Rationality Rules on Youtube. Check out the full discussion for more insight in the links below:
Sam Harris is Wrong About Morality (It Can’t Be Objective) – https://youtu.be/ZUtXmT_sIxI
Rationality Rules – Debunked – https://youtu.be/VhcOPICugz4
My Views On Morality (Is It Objective?) – https://youtu.be/tJSLvTN7pys
Cosmic Skeptic’s Criticism – Debunked – https://youtu.be/G8li2UaUEz8
Also check out C.S Lewis’s “Mere Christianity” for a more religious perspective on the matter:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jesse Heymann is an aspiring lawyer, pop culture enthusiast, and writer, schooling at the Ghana Law School, Accra
Contact Info – email@example.com