Every time I hear someone use the words "objective" or "subjective" in a fuzzy way, I really get my knickers in a twist.
This page is a stub, created on 2020-11-03 (last updated on 2022-09-28). Its contents are notes on the issues and angles I want to address about this topic.
Look, I don't think that in any particular usage, many people are too confused by what anybody means when they characterize something as "subjective" or "objective". In that sense, you could say that such usages serve the purpose and interests of effective communication.
But my concern is a bit deeper than that: I'm worried about the cognitive effect that using words too casually can have, particularly if there's some nuance that has subconscious effects. So my complaint is not fundamentally about communication, but about thinking. And I think that these two concepts in particular are critically important to understand to have clear thinking and to enable effective communication more generally, to say nothing of subtle psychological effects and confidence in ethical principles.
I think the core of the problem is that, regardless of the operative or implicit meaning that people attach to these terms when they use them, the prevalent connotation is the "subjective" is arbitrary and is more easily dismissed as such, and the "objective" is "really true" and beyond challenge.
Emphatically, I realize that my fixation with this issue--and my particular approach to understanding these concepts--is informed by Objectivism and departs from both colloquial usage and "technical" usage in philosophy and academia in general. In a way, that's my whole point: The way these words are used is very muddled and imprecise, and that undermines clear thinking and, among other things, a proper understanding of (objective) certainty and comfort with uncertainty.
I'll also quickly add that I want to use these terms in their epistemological sense, not their metaphysical sense. So what I'm concerned with is how "objective" and "subjective" are used to refer to a state of knowledge or ability to establish a truth through some mental process, not about the status of some fact independent of a perceiver. For example, I'm not interested here in the phrase "objective fact" and using the word "objective" to underscore the absolutism of some fact. That facts and reality are what they are, independent of any observer or opinion or wish is a premise of my viewpoint here, but when I use the word "objective", I'm talking about the cognitive process in grasping those facts.
To avoid confusion on my usage (and this I don't think is too controversial), I want to make clear that when I say "fact", I'm talking about what is, and when I say "truth", I'm talking about a mind's (accurately) grasping what is.
I'll start with an inventory of how I've heard these words used that I'm objecting to:
Okay, so how do I use these words?
I take "objective" to mean something like "discoverable through a process of integrating observations and experiences in a logically non-contradictory way to understand or establish some claim, truth, or certainty". Objectivity is the process of connecting observations to certainty about the facts of reality (including, emphatically, abstract facts that are not directly perceivable through the senses, such as claims about the virtue of honesty).
By contrast, I take "subjective" to mean something like "true because I or society or some authority asserts, wishes, or believes it to be true". Subjectivity reflects the premise that there is no absolute reality and that facts are invented by the mind. Only the staunchest academic philosophers would insist that even what's given in perception is "subjective" (eg, whether there is a fork on the table), so for most normal people, "subjective" ends up being used only to describe more abstract claims or beliefs. We'll get to that later, but I point it out now because it reflects that my understanding of "subjective" as an invalid cognitive orientation to truth is not all that controversial when it comes to concrete, directly perceptual matters.
(How to objectively rely on experts is outside the scope of this post, and it's been covered pretty well by others already, and I'll try to dig up some links...)
Let's turn to each entry in my inventory of usage:
Personal versus Universal
I often hear the word "subjective" used to describe something that depends on some personal, unique, or individualized factor. Matters of taste, aesthetic and culinary, readily fall into this category.
"Chocolate is my favorite flavor of ice cream." is my go-to example. A variant of this, if you want to make analysis of universality more explicit, is "Chocolate ice cream tastes better than vanilla.".
While it's often not used in the same breath, the implication seems to be that "objective" would mean that the fact applies to all people or is independent of people, that it's "universal". A great example might be something like "The Earth is round.".
But you'll still get some academic philosophers insisting that even "The Earth is round." is subjective, precisely because all observations leading to such a claim are ultimately based on observations by individual people, and, well, their sense perception and cognitive processes are "subjective" on this view of that term, no matter how much many (or all) people's "subjective" observations might correspond to one another's.
So even in the extreme cases of what we would think would uncontroversially be "objective" on this view of the meaning of those ideas, we are led to imprecision and fuzziness, something that most people wouldn't be able to (or want to) untangle. So how would we analyze the myriad issues in the middle? For instance:
- "Honesty is a virtue.": subjective or objective?
- "Honesty is __." (fill in some definition): subjective or objective?
- "A virtue is __." (fill in some definition): subjective or objective?
- "Ibuprofen is contraindicated for muscle-growth.": subjective or objective?
Let's look at this last one in particular. Its greyness really drives the point home. Surely, there are many physiological differences between people that make ibuprofen use more or less problematic for muscle synthesis, to say nothing of factors like dosage and timing. So is this a "subjective" or "objective" claim? Some will argue that it's "subjective" because it depends on the person. Others may more readily feel "objective" is the more appropriate characterization because, while the full/explicit/qualified context of the claim is omitted, it's meant to reflect a generality or statistical claim. (But even those folks often are not really able to defend that on sound philosophic grounds).
So here's the problem: What value have we really added by characterizing "Ibuprofen is contraindicated for muscle-growth." as either "subjective" or "objective"? Have we really added new understanding? Have we even aided communication and clarity? Maybe by calling it "subjective", we've gotten across the point that it depends on personal factors not explicit in the statement of the claim. But then why not use words we already have to characterize the nature of the claim, like "generally", "typically", "usually", "depending on the person", etc? The problem with using a word like "subjective" here is that, given the connotation that the "subjective" is "arbitrary" and that the "objective" is "for real real", it both undermines the genuinely true aspects of the claim and further erodes the idea that objective knowledge is possible at all. And at the risk of sounding dramatic, this ultimately renders everything some variant of "subjective", turning every discussion into a battle of whims. Strictly, that's based on a different meaning of the terms than "personal versus universal", but because of the connotations and that most people don't have clear definitions in their minds, "That is a subjective claim.", even if intended to reflect that it's based on individualized characteristics, ends up having the effect of "Your claim is as good as any other.". Few individual interactions may end up that extreme, but that is the trend I have observed time and again.
Okay, so what about calling that claim "objective"? Does that suffer similar problems? Well, maybe. While it seems like it has less directly the effect of rendering all knowledge arbitrary, the equation of "objective" with "universal" is still problematic and undermines clear thinking. For instance, imagine that this claim is false, that there's absolutely no correlation between ibuprofen and muscle synthesis. On the view that "objective" means "universal", one might still characterize the claim as "objective", just that it happens to be false. Fuzzy thinking abound! Think about what people mean to communicate when they say something like "That claim is objective." or even "That claim is objectively true.": They really mean that the claim itself is really really true. "Objective", in this context, is used to underscore the truthiness of some claim. Except in the narrowest, esoteric academic contexts, nobody means that the claim is free of personal characteristics of the subject, but may itself still be true or false.
We urgently need a term to describe the soundness of the cognitive process that led to a claim, and that's what I'm saying "objective" properly refers to. To overload the term to mean "universal" or anything else, when we readily have the words to accurately capture what we're trying to get across, only leads to confusion, either immediately or down the line. The benefit of "my" understanding of "objective" is that it matches the existing connotation: When a person has gone through a logical cognitive process to reach a claim or belief, they are indeed entitled to assert their claim as really really true, as really really corresponding to the metaphysical facts. There may yet be further refinement and contextual nuance, and nobody is immune to error, but there needs to be some standard for taking certain claims seriously and dismissing others. I think this is it.
An implication of my view, as applied to the personal-versus-universal nature of some claim, may strike people as counterintuitive or controversial or just plain ludicrous. If "objective" is independent of whether a claim depends on personal factors, statements like "Chocolate is my favorite flavor of ice cream." may well be objective. Why? Well, let's think through this: How is such a claim reached by a speaker? The speaker reflects on their experiences with different flavors of ice cream and introspects about their enjoyment of these various flavors, ultimately concluding that chocolate is the most enjoyable. (Let's assume here that that's what we mean by "favorite", and let's not quibble about whether the statement is meant to include all possible flavors of ice cream.) This, in pattern, is the same process that leads to any claim about anything, when done correctly. Indeed, assuming the speaker is not deluding themselves or failing to take certain facts or observations into account, this amounts to really really true knowledge. This is an "objective" claim. Because establishing the truth of this claim depends on an almost entirely internal process, few others would have the requisite data to challenge the claim. As a result, they, too, would be able to objectively claim that the speaker's favorite flavor of ice cream is chocolate, on the basis of information conveyed by the speaker, assuming they had good reason to trust the speaker's veracity. The specific items of data and the steps of the process to reach objective knowledge is different for the speaker than for others, but the point is that this claim about something personal to a person's tastes can be just as objective as "The Earth is round.". Let me put it more strongly: If "subjective" roughly means "true because I said so", no amount of my asserting that vanilla is my favorite flavor (however much I might even want that to be true) would actually make it really really true, if, in fact, I derive more enjoyment from chocolate. The same goes for anybody else's claim about my favorite flavor. So what someone's favorite flavor of ice cream is is a matter of metaphysical fact, and like any fact, it's accurately discoverable through some cognitive process, which would render a claim about this fact "objective". Yes, favorite flavor depends on personal characteristics (taste buds and brain structure, for instance), but none of that is "subjective". We don't need the word "subjective" to underscore the personal nature of the fact; the word "personal" readily communicates that much more clearly and precisely.
There are also some interesting cases where a claim is phrased as though it's universal, such as "Chocolate ice cream tastes better than vanilla.", and then everybody gets wound up about whether that's true and what it means and then, more often than not, the issue is just dismissed as "subjective". I don't think that's helpful here. What's important to observe in statements like this is that a lot is implicit: There's no such thing as "taste" without a "taster", so someone has to be the implicit taster. Or perhaps it's meant to be a statistical statement about which of chocolate or vanilla tastes better to most people. To equate "subjective" and "objective" with "personal" and "universal", respectively, distracts from getting value out of this statement, since we dismiss the statement as "subjective", often before we're able to untangle what we really mean by the statement. If we operated on "my" view of "objective", the statement could more readily be approached as "There's an objective truth about the matter; what could it be?". Once you identify the implicit premises of the statement, it's clear to see how it's a matter of objective inquiry.
I hasten to reiterate that maybe few individual instances of using the words "subjective" and "objective" to mean "personal" and "universal", respectively, lead to immediate confusion in communication. The scope of that problem is beside my point. I'm more worried about the cognitive effects I sketched out above. I care about clear, effective communication, but I'm not a pragmatist: I'm not okay with "whatever gets my point across" in a given moment. It's why I'm a staunch opponent of non-words like "irregardless", even if they cause no immediate or direct confusion. It's a matter of being principled in language because the principle reflects a causality between language and long-term interests. More urgently than the needs of any instance of communication, I care about clear thinking; that is the long-term interest my "fixation" serves, and that is what ultimately facilitates effective communication consistently and sustainably.
Situational versus Context-Free
It's usually in explicit discussions of ethics that I hear people use the word "subjective" to refer to an idea or claim or (alleged) principle as being situational, relative to some context. Sometimes we hear the phrase "situational ethics". This would be something like "Whether you should lie in a given situation depends on various factors, like what the immediate consequences might be and if it serves some greater good.". And some people will thereby characterize the whole phenomenon of honesty as "subjective". By contrast, if your view is something like "You should never lie.", then the claim is context-free (sometimes "absolute"), and some people will thereby call it "objective". While I'm not a Kant scholar, I'm pretty sure that the ability to make convincing claims like that and cash-in on this mistaken understanding of "objectivity" is in part what has seduced so many people to Kant's views.
Now, if I understand Kant correctly, this kind of context-free claim is what's called "universalizable" (though there may be other criteria as well). And it seems there are two dimensions to this: that it applies in all situations and that it applies to all people. The latter sense is much more like the personal versus universal distinction I discussed above, but the former is more about circumstances, rather than about the people (the subjects!). I think it's worthwhile to separate these out, because we often hear people dismissing a principle or idea as "subjective" if it doesn't apply in all contexts, even if for any particular context, it could otherwise apply to all people. What a mess.
Now, I don't want to get side-tracked by why "context-free" and "absolute" is a false equivalence, or why "situational" versus "absolute" is a false dichotomy. A great deal has been written about this in Objectivist scholarship, particularly as applies to ethics. But I'll summarize here: A moral principle like the virtue of honesty is an identification of causality, not an edict. It identifies what will happen if you are loyal to the facts of reality or if you try to fake them. And it basically says "If you want to achieve your happiness and prosperity in reality, you mustn't attempt to fake the facts.". And while that is an absolute claim, it's absolute precisely because it does specify the context. And it's why only then that we can have intelligent discussions about lies of omission, lying to protect privacy, and lying to a home invader demanding to know where your children are.
See, if we take this nuanced understanding of the relationship of honesty to lying to say that whether to lie is "situational", and we equate "situational" with "subjective", then it completely undermines in one's mind the validity and absolutism of the whole phenomenon of honesty. It just depends on the circumstances, and there are no absolute principles, so we just muddle through and try to balance various concerns and considerations. Many a TV show has dramatized how this fuzzy thinking leads to disaster after disaster, and I know of no better than Gossip Girl.
On the other side, to equate "objective" with "context-free" is similarly problematic. (I do think it's right to regard "objective" as being "absolute" within a given context of knowledge, experience, and observation, but we can't get into that here.) It is literally impossible for something to be truly context-free, but technical nit-picking aside, the problem here is that for (nearly?) any claim, someone can find a context in which that claim doesn't seem to hold anymore. Especially if you're an Objectivist or have a libertarian orientation, "Don't initiate force." sounds like something nice and "context-free" / "non-situational" / "universal", but if you really understand the principle of rights, you know that there are abnormal circumstances where such a principle doesn't even arise (eg, certain kinds of emergency situations), which is to say that qua statement of causality, this is not the context from which the principle was derived and to which it is therefore not necessarily applicable. The end result here is that folks then claim that nothing is truly context-free / absolute, and therefore, nothing is objective, and therefore, no such claim or alleged principle is really, really true.
Am I being dramatic? Yes, a little. But this is, in essence, what happens, little by little, slowly eroding confidence in knowledge as such.
Abstract versus Concrete
Opinion-based versus Fact-based
Experiential versus Measurable
Think: The experience of brightness versus some measurable quantity that describes the brightness. Related framing: Qualitative versus Quantitative
Controversial versus Uncontroversial
Persuasive/Judgmental versus Neutral
Internal versus External
[So why does this matter?]