Saturday, April 19, 2014

Is It Objective or Subjective? – Clearing Up a Confusion

The terms 'objective' and 'subjective' are central and commonly used terms in discussions of facts, and in our discourse in general. They appear in everything from political and scientific discussions to informal conversations at the dinner table. But what do they mean? Do they have a clear and self-evident meaning?
It is seems commonly assumed that the meaning of these two terms is unequivocal and self-evident – that elaboration about what they mean is unnecessary. This is, however, far from the case.

Two distinct meanings
The root of most of the confusion over the terms 'objective' and 'subjective' is that both these terms have two distinct meanings, and the distinction between these is often overlooked. The one sense in which we use the terms can be said to be ontological, while the other is epistemological.[1] Expressed in common terms, we use both words in a sense that relates to “what is” in general – what we describe – and in another sense that relates to our knowledge of the world – how we describe something.
When we say that something is objective in the ontological sense, this means that we can describe it in third-person terms – in terms that are not about our direct experience, but about “objects” in the widest sense; for instance, an equation, a flying arrow, a firing neuron etc. In contrast to this, when something is subjective in the ontological sense of the term, it means that it relates to the first-person perspective – to our direct experience; the experience of an equation, the experience of a flying arrow, the experience of love etc.
So, for instance, if an arrow is flying over your head that is an objective fact in the ontological sense of this word, and if you experience this arrow then this – your particular experience – is a subjective fact in the ontological sense of the word.
In the other sense of the terms – the epistemological sense – these two words are each other's total opposites. When a description of something is objective, this means that it is not distorted or biased, while a subjective description is one that is exactly that: distorted and biased. Expressed in simpler terms, an objective description is simply a description that is true, while a subjective description is untrue. The term 'subjective fact', in the epistemological sense of this term, is therefore an oxymoron, since there obviously cannot be untrue truths. There can only be objective facts in the epistemological sense of this term – otherwise, we are not talking about facts in the first place. But, again, we can meaningfully talk about subjective facts in the ontological sense of subjectivity – if I, for instance, feel tired, this is a subjective fact about me, in the ontological sense of this term, but it is an objective description of my subjective state in the epistemological sense of the term 'objective'. It is not difficult to see how confusion about these terms can easily arise.

Points of confusion: Generalizable facts and unspecific questions
An objection might go something like: there really are truths that are not objective. For instance, just take the statement “Jones is beautiful.” Is this true or false? I think that Jones is beautiful, but this is not an objective fact – it is a subjective fact that is true for me, but not necessarily for everybody else. It is just my preference, ergo, it is a subjective fact.
If you think Jones is beautiful, this is indeed an objective fact about your experience, in the epistemological sense of the term objective (again, all facts are objective in the epistemological sense of the term; so the word 'fact' alone actually means 'objective fact'). First of all, this objection confuses a generalizable fact with an objective – a true – fact. Although these terms are commonly confused, they are not the same, since a description obviously need not be generalizable in order for it to be true – that a fact is specific and only true in one case does not negate its truth.
Another source of confusion in the question posed above, and in discussions about subjectivity and objectivity in general, is that the question being asked is unclear and not well-defined. To take the objection above as an example of this, asking whether someone is beautiful or not is an unclear question that overlooks that beauty is not an intrinsic feature of human beings even though we might experience it in that way. Whether something or someone is beautiful or not basically depends on what is going on inside the head of the beholder, and it is therefore an unclear, even meaningless, question to merely ask whether somebody is beautiful, because the question only has a clear meaning if we ask according to who. This does not, however, make the question about beauty a subjective one in the epistemological sense of this term; how beautiful we perceive someone to be is a fact – no matter who we ask, it does not change how pretty we find Jones in a specific moment (and if something does change how pretty we think Jones is, this change will still be a fact about our experience).
An assumption that seems to lurk in the objection and above, and which seems common in general, is that subjectivity in the ontological sense implies epistemological subjectivity – that we only can talk in a distorted and biased way about our own conscious experience – but this does not follow. We can talk about our experience as unbiased as we can talk about anything; after all, everything we can understand and speak about appears in our conscious experience, so if we can speak unbiased about anything, we can also speak unbiased about our conscious experience.

The interests behind knowledge and its “situatedness”
Another common objection against the claim that we can talk objectively, i.e. unbiased and factually, about anything is that we are always personally motivated in some way when we describe something, and that every description we make therefore is bound to be subjective – to be biased and not really factual. What this objection misses, however, is that whether a claim is true or false does not depend on how it has arisen or how it is used. Even if some people have made a discovery about the world with a certain motive, and no matter how morally and politically motivated that motive is – for instance, the motive to make a powerful weapon for war – that does not change the fact that the discovery they made is true.
A similar objection refers to the fact that our knowledge always is situated – it exists in a certain place and time – and therefore it must be subjective. Again, the same reply is true: the fact that our knowledge exists in a certain place and time does not make it untrue. For instance, the fact that the claim “the moon is closer to earth than the sun” just came out of my brain and now appears in your conscious experience – in a certain place and time in this world – does not make this claim false or biased in any way. It is simply a non sequitur to say that it does, and this non sequitur seems to arise exactly from confusing the ontological and the epistemological sense of the term 'subjective': it can be argued that all our knowledge is subjective in the ontological sense – that it appears in our conscious experience – but it does not follow from this that it should be subjective in the epistemological sense of the word, which it cannot be to the extend that we really have knowledge in the first place. This is why the distinction between the two different meanings of this same term is so important to be aware of.

The fact that there are two distinct meanings of both the terms 'objective' and 'subjective' reveals that we cannot merely use these terms as if their meaning is self-evident and as though the terms only have a single clear meaning. They clearly don't, and for that reason we should acquire the habit of making it clear in what sense we use the terms when we use them, and to ask ourselves in what sense they are used when we see them used. Are they being used in the ontological or in the epistemological sense? It is rarely unequivocal or self-evident.

[1] The same distinction can be found in John Searle's The Construction of Social Reality.

This post is a translated and edited version of a post previously published on

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Basis of Moral Realism

Source: thexiiplayer

In my post on the common self-contradiction of the apparent moral relativist I pointed out that a moral relativist cannot consistently make claims about what we ought to do, and I further claimed that, unlike what apparent moral relativists profess to believe, we actually do have moral obligations, which is to say that moral realism is true. I did not, however, provide any justification for this latter claim. In this essay I should like to do that and to clarify what our moral obligations are most fundamentally, which amounts to clarifying the basis of moral realism — of moral truth.
What provides the core foundation of moral realism is a simple fact obvious from the experience of all of us:
A continuum of more or less pleasant experiences exists, and what ultimately matters is where consciousness falls on this felicific continuum; being as far toward the positive end of this continuum is what ultimately matters.
This, I claim, is a fact, not a human invention, and to not realize this fact is to fail to realize the perhaps most important fact of all as it is the fact that all morality relates to ultimately. For what this fact implies is that the goal of bringing consciousness as high as possible on the felicific continuum is what we ultimately should attain. It is the fact that bridges the gap claimed to exist between 'is' and 'ought'.
Such a claim about a link between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ may seem controversial and misguided, as all claims of this sort are widely held to be, yet it is in fact the notion that such a link cannot be drawn that is misguided. First, the idea that 'is' and 'ought' should be divorced from each other in any deep sense is a hard one to maintain for the reason that 'is' includes all that exists, including any 'ought’ — or value — that we have or could possibly think about, and to insist that we cannot base an 'ought' on an 'is' is therefore to insist that we cannot base an 'ought' on anything at all. So all talk about ‘ought’ must ultimately be based on ‘is’ in some way, as there is nothing else it can be based on, and nothing else we can talk about ultimately. As Henry Sidgwick noted in The Methods of Ethics: “On any theory, [my emphasis] our view about what ought to be must be largely derived, in its details, from our knowledge of what is […]”
Second, a strict separation of facts and values — of ‘is’ and ‘ought’ — is also hard to maintain for the reason that, as philosophers Hillary Putnam and Sam Harris have both pointed out,[1] the two are entangled. Not only are all values we hold and could hold themselves certain facts about the world, respectively about its actual and potential states, but the only way we can arrive at any fact in the first place is via values — one must stick to the ‘oughts’ of valid reasoning and observation in order to say anything about what ‘is’ in the first place. As Harris notes: “Scientific “is” statements rest on implicit “oughts” all the way down.”[2]
Third, the a priori claim commonly made regarding that ‘ought’ cannot possibly be derived from ‘is’ is simply an invalid one to make, because it amounts to no more than the dogmatic assumption that facts that dictate ‘shoulds’ cannot exist — that value and ‘oughts’ are nowhere to be found in the realm of ‘is’ — and that simply cannot be asserted a priori, and, as experience reveals, it is indeed a wrong assumption.[3] Furthermore, even if we had looked far and wide and found no facts that dictate any ‘shoulds’, that would still not prove that facts that dictate ‘shoulds’ cannot be found in the world, as it could then still be the case that such facts exist, but that we were unable to uncover them. Fortunately, the most basic and relevant truth is on the table — the truth that is perhaps the easiest of all to realize if we only care to look sincerely.
A final point worth making in relation to the strong separation claimed to exist between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ is that we all recognize that 'is' and 'ought' are closely related in the sense that, given that we have a certain goal, what we should do is a matter fact — a matter of 'is'. For instance, if one has the goal of baking a bread, it is a fact that one should get certain ingredients and do certain things with them in order to do so. This is not controversial: given that we have certain values, certain 'shoulds' do follow, and these 'shoulds' are a matter of fact. What is controversial, however, is whether there is a value, a goal, that we ultimately should, and in some sense truly do, have in the first place. Yet this is exactly what the above-mentioned fact provides the answer to, namely that there is such a truly valuable ultimate value: being as far toward the positive end of the continuum of more or less pleasant experiences.
It may be objected that this continuum does not capture all that matters, yet this objection arises from two failures. The first one is the mistake of defining the felicific continuum too narrowly, namely in a way that excludes anything of value. For the felicific continuum does not merely refer to a continuum of pleasure and pain in any narrow sense, but to all possible degrees of well- and ill-being; it includes everything from spiritual selflessness to justice and fairness, and everything else that is part of, or contributes to, the happiness or suffering of consciousness. The second failure is to be blamed on language, or, rather, it is a failure of language, as language simply fails to capture what the extremes, or even the moderate high and lows, of the felicific continuum refer and amount to. We all have but a limited experience with the possibilities along the felicific continuum, and most of us do not visit its powerful extremes most of the time, and to the extent we have visited these extremes in the past, what we can recall, and hence what words can remind us about these experiences, is weak at best. Consequently, the words “we should move consciousness as high on the felicific continuum as possible — we should avoid suffering and attain happiness,” do sound extremely tame, and no doubt completely fail to give a sense of what they actually refer to. Yet they convey an all-important truth nonetheless.
It is of course also possible to stubbornly maintain that nothing truly matters. Such an objection is, however, simply wrong. Again, it is a fact, one that is quite obvious from our experience, that it matters where consciousness falls on the felicific continuum, and if one does not realize this fact, the only remedy is to look harder, or perhaps rather closer.[4] And it is important to do so, because, again, it is the very fact that makes all the difference when it comes to morality.[5] If there were nothing of value ultimately, there would be no morality, no 'should' in any truly normative sense, but only arbitrary 'shoulds’, which would be the case in a world devoid of the existence, or potential existence, of a continuum of more or less pleasant experiences.
This is where moral relativists go wrong: they miss the fact that something that really matters has arisen and exists in the universe — that something truly worth valuing is found in the realm of ‘is’, and which provides us what we should do in this world. Again: given that we have a certain value or goal, it is clear that certain ‘shoulds’ do follow, and the fact is that we do have an ultimate value: being as far toward the positive end of the continuum of more or less pleasant experiences. None of us have chosen this ultimate value. We are, as consciousness, in some sense subject to this continuum: the higher states along it are inherently better than the lower ones, and therefore inherently normative. And with this fundamental value in place, the specific ‘shoulds’ do follow and are also a matter of facts about the world.
It is no doubt an open empirical question what these facts are — what specific states of experience that are more positive, more valuable, than others for different beings, and how to best navigate toward the best ones — but whether there is a continuum of more and less valuable experiences in the first place is not. Anyone who looks honestly at their own direct experience, or sincerely considers the difference between, say, the experience of being tortured and the experience of ecstatic joy, will realize that there undeniably are more and less valuable states of experience, and that being further toward the good end of this spectrum ultimately is what matters — it actually, truly, factually matters.[6]

A more elaborate case for moral truth is found in my book, Moral Truths: The Foundation of Ethics.

[1] Putnam, H. (2002). The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy and Other Essays. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Harris, S. (2010/2011). The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. New York: Free Press.
A presentation on the issue by Putnam can be found here:
[2] Harris, S. (2010/2011). The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. New York: Free Press. p. 219.
[3] Einstein seemed to express this common, but fallacious a priori separation of value and what ‘is’ as clearly and succinctly as possible when he wrote: “For the scientist, there is only “being,” but no wishing, no valuing, no good, no evil; no goal.” (Einstein, A. (1950/2005). Out of My Later Years. Edison, N.J: Castle Books. p. 122).
Einstein was surely right about the first part: there is only “being” for the scientist — there is always only “being” for everyone. The crucial point, however, is the fundamental fact of value, which is the fact that reveals that “being,” or what is, includes a sphere of more or less value — it actually does include good and evil — and that sphere is as real as atoms, headaches and mountains, as any scientist who sincerely notices what human consciousness is like will be able to confirm.
Furthermore, one could also dispute Einstein’s claim about there not being a goal for the scientists by raising Putnam’s points about the fact/value dichotomy. For instance, does the scientist not at least have a goal and wish to describe the world accurately?
[4] “But,” it may be objected, “should we want that which is truly valuable? Should we want that which is truly worth wanting?”
I think asking this question is a symptom of confusion, on many levels. First of all, the question arises from a failure to understand the meaning of the term “truly valuable,” as what it refers to is that we not only should want to be as high on the felicific continuum as possible, but that we in fact already do want it most deeply, and cannot ultimately want anything else most deeply. The truth is that we are subject to the continuum of more or less pleasant states of experiences, which means that we, consciousness, find being as high as possible on this continuum inherently valuable. It is what is inherently valuable to us; it is our inherently normative goal. We actually have no choice in the matter. Secondly, the question also gets the relationship between ‘should’ and that which is truly valuable the wrong way around. For we do not, and cannot, derive that which is truly valuable based on ‘oughts’ — we can only derive ‘oughts’ based on that which is truly valuable.
It is of course true that our actual want for something does not imply that we should want it, yet our actual, expressed wants are not what is referred to by that which we want most deeply. What we want most deeply refers to what we should want, meaning what we would want if we had perfect knowledge — what would bring us highest on the felicific continuum. Unfortunately, this is rarely what we want in practice.
The difference between what we actually want and what we should want, or what we want most deeply, is closely related to the difference between what is known as classical utilitarianism — “act so as to maximize well-being” — and preference utilitarianism — “act so as to maximize the fulfillment of wants.” The difference between them comes down to the difference between our deepest wants and the wants we hold explicitly in our minds. Hence, to the extent we in fact want that which we should want, that which is in our deepest interest (which, undoubtedly, we often do not), there actually is no difference between classical and preference utilitarianism.
Who ‘we’ are and whose deepest interests it is we should act according to is made clear in my book: Moral Truths: The Foundation of Ethics.
[5] I think we all do recognize this fact implicitly, as its truth is evident from our everyday experience, for instance, when we stub a toe or feel selfless joy. So it is a fact we in some sense know, at least dimly, but we rarely dare put our words and convictions in alignment with this dimly acknowledged fact and fully realize and admit it.
[6] One is tempted to say that anyone who sincerely denies the reality of this spectrum, and that it matters where one falls on it, must so far have experienced a very narrow range of this spectrum, never far from its zero-point.

Last revised: 16-02-2016