Sandra LaFave : Thinking Critically About the “Subjective/Objective” Distinction

Sandra LaFave is a lecturer in philosophy at the West Valley College in Saratoga, California, and this essay has obviously been written as an educational tool, i.e. it is aimed at her students (and perhaps her potential students, or philosophy students generally) rather than at fellow professional philosophers. The ‘”Subjective/Objective” Distinction’ is something in which I’ve been interested for a very long time, and about which (I’m rapidly drawing to the conclusion) I have some ideas which are unusual, perhaps radical, and (it’s just possible) maybe even slightly original, so I was very interested to read what a professional philosophy instructor had to say about it. What I was expecting from a document like this was a review of what philosophers had said on the subject through the ages, rather than her own personal opinion, but I actually got much more of the latter. Right from the start, Ms. LaFave makes it very obvious what she thinks on the subject:

The words “subjective” and ” objective” cause lots of confusion. Their misuse is responsible for subjectivism in ethics. Ethical subjectivism is the view that moral judgements are nothing but statements or expressions of personal opinion or feeling and thus that moral judgements cannot be supported or refuted by reason. Careless use of the terms “subjective” and “objective” also leads to odd views in metaphysics, e.g., the denial of material reality (idealism); and odd views in epistemology, e.g., the claim that all statements are equally warranted. In other words, if you’re careless about how you handle the concepts of subjectivity and objectivity, you can end up saying there’s no such thing as morality, reality, or truth!

What she’s really saying here is that such things as morality, reality, and truth obviously do exist, and that a philosophical viewpoint which implies otherwise must therefore be the result of confusion, carelessness and misuse of language. And I thought philosophy was about keeping an open mind and not jumping to conclusions!

(details below)

She immediately writes off metaphysical idealism and the conclusions to which it leads:

Metaphysical idealism was popular in philosophy in the early 1800’s, and re-emerged in the late 20th century as deconstruction or post-modernism. Once you understand how most people oversimplify the terms “subjective” and “objective”, it’s not hard to understand why good-hearted people get snookered by metaphysical idealism.
[…] the big “insight” [is that] whoever you are (Mother Teresa, Einstein, Charles Manson, Hitler, Neo, Trinity, etc.), you have access only to your experiences (“your reality”) and no one else’s, and whatever you say, it’s just your opinion (“your truth”). We simply can’t be objective. There is no Objective Reality or Objective Truth. Reality and truth differ for everyone, and always will.
This argument gets a lot of support in this age of Political Correctness. If we all have only our limited points of view, nobody has THE truth. For too long now, some people have disrespected others’ opinions in the name of “THE truth”. But this argument shows that the “Truth Fairy” doesn’t exist, and it’s time all the European/male/imperialist/capitalist/Christian folks learned a little proper humility. There’s nothing special about anyone’s point of view; everybody’s point of view is equally correct. Sound familiar?

She goes on to write off ethical subjectivism in a similar manner:

Subjectivism in ethics is really just another example of the same confusion about “subjective” and “objective”. The subjectivist says that because people have feelings about ethical matters, claims about ethical matters themselves must be subjective and therefore merely matters of opinion, and therefore not liable to adjudication by reason or other objective methods. In other words, nobody has “better” (more objective) views about ethical matters than anyone else.

You’d think that if any subject could legitimately be called a subjective domain, it would be that of artistic taste. But not for Ms. LaFave:

A similar debate exists in the contemporary art world, because of the same confusion about subjectivity and objectivity. Nowadays, some people say that no work of art is better than any other. The Campbell’s Soup logo is art; a pile of rocks or dog poop is art; the Aurora Borealis is art. Why? Because whether or not something is art is a “subjective” matter. Philosophers cringe.

Do they indeed?!

She describes what she calls “the ordinary non-philosophical (i.e., oversimplified) view”, which includes the idea that the word “subjective” is the complete opposite (negation or contradictory) of the word “objective”, and demonstrates quite effectively the total inadequacy of such a viewpoint to deal with the question. She then attempts to solve the problem using a system proposed by the philosopher John Searle which replaces the dichotomy “subjective” / “objective” with the four categories metaphysical and epistemological objectivity, and metaphysical and epistemological subjectivity. This new way of looking at things certainly removes a lot of the oversimplification and allows for the expression of finer distinctions between various states of objectivity and subjectivity, thereby allowing statements to be made in formal philosophical language which correspond much more closely to a ‘common sense’ view of the world, avoiding positions such as metaphysical idealism which appear to contradict it.

But does this really advance matters very much? I can’t help feeling that Ms. LaFave’s ideas are only one step removed from the “the ordinary non-philosophical (i.e., oversimplified) view”, even if it’s a step in the right direction. They depend on certain underlying assumptions of a ‘common sense’ nature, e.g. that a physical world exists independently of our experiencing it. If we were talking about a tree falling in the forest or what a brontosaurus had for breakfast, then she would have no doubt whatsoever: of course those things exist in a metaphysically objective way, just as the Eiffel Tower does, whether we have any way of knowing about them or not!

I think Ms. LaFave sees philosophy first and foremost as a practical tool for clearly describing and analysing the everyday ‘common sense’ world in which most people live, and that what she basically wants to do is to adapt philosophy to this viewpoint. In other words, if a philosophical position leads to conclusions which are too far removed from the way the average person experiences the world, then this must be because the philosopher has made a mistake somewhere, and decidedly not because the views of the average person may be limited or mistaken. This is certainly a useful sort of philosophy for the practical ends to which most of her students will undoubtedly put what they learn on her courses, when they go on to be journalists, judges, politicians, social workers or whatever, and there can be no doubt that the world is in dire need of instruction on how to think clearly. But I think philosophy should go further than this, and rather than just describe and analyse the average person’s ‘common sense’ view of world, to question this view and to try to move thought forward – because the way the average person sees the world is limited, oversimplified and frequently mistaken! Time and again it has been shown, usually following some startling but undeniable scientific discovery (the world being round, relativity), that reality is actually very different to how it looks to us on a day-to-day basis. I would also say that the terrible state of the world that people create for themselves and each other is evidence enough that the normal ‘common sense’ view of politics, ethics, economics and human relations generally is no better. Unfortunately many philosophers are slightly too attached to the status quo, and rather than trying to open peoples’ minds to new possibilities and attempting to teach them better ways of thinking, they spend their time reinforcing people’s limited view of the world, just teaching them to think along the same lines but slightly more clearly. I get the impression that Ms. LaFave is a practical, pragmatic, down-to-earth sort of person, somewhat conservative with a small ‘c’, who if she’d lived in the middle ages would have said that obviously God made the earth with Heaven above and Hell below, and that any philosophical position which implies otherwise must be the result of confused thinking. I strongly suspect, in fact, that that ‘c’ could be made slightly larger. Anyone capable of disagreeing with, and in fact ridiculing as the result of confused thinking, the statement “it’s time all the European/male/imperialist/capitalist/Christian folks learned a little proper humility” definitely deserves the label ‘Conservative’ in my book!

I suppose a lot of people will say that it’s pretty arrogant of me, with my total lack of education in the field, to go around criticising a philosophy lecturer, and I suppose there’s a lot of truth in that. All I’m trying to do though, is to keep an open mind and not jump to conclusions. So, if I find John Searle’s system too limited and Sandra LaFave’s views too conservative, what have I got to offer in their place? Well, for a start I would ask, why settle for the mutually exclusive dichotomy “subjective” and “objective”, or even the four categories proposed by Mr. Searle, when you can have a sliding scale between “very subjective” at one end and “very objective” at the other? I find it useful to regard the world we live in as being (at least to a very large degree) a product of the mind, and the measure of how “objective” something is, as being the extent to which all minds produce the same reality. At the most subjective end of the scale we have dreams and personal taste, which are unique to the individual, and at the most objective end statements which are true by definition and perhaps the deepest levels of physical reality (sub-atomic particles and force fields perhaps) which are always experienced in the same way by everyone, everywhere, given the right methods and equipment (the sort of thing which the logical positivists do find it worthwhile to talk about!). The largest part by far, however, of what we generally call ‘reality’ is situated somewhere between these two extremes. This means that what most people call ‘objective reality’, i.e. ‘objective reality’ as we know it, the ‘objective reality’ in which we live our day-to-day lives, isn’t something fixed and absolute, but rather something relative and constantly changing, depending on who is doing the experiencing. It isn’t something which is the same for everyone, just sitting out there waiting to be discovered, but rather something we’re all making up as we go along. This means that each individual effectively lives in his or her own world, and also that each culture and society experiences its own unique reality – which goes a very long way to explaining the endless conflicts in the world at every level. Furthermore, if such a gigantic proportion of what we call ‘reality’ is actually the product of our own minds, then it’s our responsibility and, potentially at least, something we can control. There’s plenty of evidence in Ms. LaFave’s essay to suggest that for her too, consensus is the determining factor as regards objectivity. At one point she says that “an objective matter is one that everyone (who is sane, rational, and appropriately informed) will agree about”, and her measure of the truth of a statement is usually whether ‘any reasonable person’ would agree with it. I’m pretty sure, however, that she’s only talking about the extent to which more or less people are or are not aware of a set of pre-existing facts, and that she’d consider my ideas hopelessly relativistic. [But see below for more on this matter!]

However, this essay isn’t really about such metaphysical questions as what constitutes truth or reality. What she calls “the real heart of this essay” actually concerns ethical subjectivism:

Subjectivism in ethics is really just another example of the same confusion about “subjective” and “objective”. The subjectivist says that because people have feelings about ethical matters, claims about ethical matters themselves must be subjective and therefore merely matters of opinion, and therefore not liable to adjudication by reason or other objective methods. In other words, nobody has “better” (more objective) views about ethical matters than anyone else.
A moral subjectivist says in effect that moral judgments are either subjective or objective in the ordinary (over-simplified) senses described above. The subjectivist then assumes that if you feel a certain way about X, you can’t then be objective about X, since feelings are subjective and “subjective” and “objective” are supposed to be opposites. And if you can’t be objective, you can’t use math or logic, i.e., you can’t reason.

I imagine that anyone who considers himself a moral subjectivist will find this a crude caricature of his opinions, but let’s leave that aside for the moment. Ms. LaFave does not consider moral matters subjective, so she’s saying they are objective in some sense of the word – but in which? Although she fully accepts the normal ‘common sense’ view that there is an external, objective reality which exists regardless of whether we experience it or not, her qualification of ethical statements as objective does not imply that she wants to put them into this category. In other words she does not claim that they have an independent existence as natural laws, like the laws of physics and mathematics, which are sitting out there waiting to be discovered, in contrast to the religiously inclined, who would claim that moral laws are made by God for man, or Kant, who (if I understand his ideas correctly) regarded his ‘categorical imperative’ as something existing above and beyond human opinions. John Searle would describe such views as claiming that moral precepts and ethical statements are ‘metaphysically objective’, and that’s certainly not what Ms. LaFave is saying.

She states early on that ethical subjectivism, this school of thought to which she takes such great exception, “is the view that moral judgements are nothing but statements or expressions of personal opinion or feeling and thus that moral judgements cannot be supported or refuted by reason”, but it’s only the second part of the statement she objects to. For her, moral judgements are indeed matters of personal opinion or feeling, but they can be talked about rationally. As she puts it herself, using Searle’s terminology:

although moral feelings exist in a metaphysically subjective way, there can still be epistemological objectivity about them. Just as doctors can use epistemologically objective scientific methods to investigate metaphysically subjective matters like pain, so we can use epistemologically objective rational methods to investigate metaphysically subjective matters like moral feelings.

So far I agree completely. As far as I’m concerned moral precepts and ethical statements are entirely the product of human minds, and therefore 100% metaphysically subjective. I would also agree completely that this forms no impediment whatsoever to discussing such matters rationally. Where we start to part company, I think, is in the matter of how these matters should be discussed and exactly what sort of epistemological objectivity should be applied to them, and – strange and surprising though it may seem, especially to me! – I find my ideas more deserving of the label ‘objective’ than hers.

For her, moral judgements are matters of personal opinion or feeling, but not mere matters of individual opinion. What she finds important, and what she regards as being more ‘objective’ than anyone’s personal opinion, are opinions which have been “democratically” agreed upon by a large group – presumably with extra weight being given to the opinions of the qualified experts in the field:

Most philosophers would say ethical statements are NOT mere matters of opinion, because there is wide interpersonal and intercultural agreement about what sort of person is a good person, and what sort of behavior is morally problematic. Certainly there are disagreements about ethical matters, but disagreements tend to be over which of several commonly-accepted moral precepts should be applied to a particular case.

So, we haven’t moved very far away from ethical subjectivism: ethical statements are still matters of opinion, but the opinion of the large majority takes precedence over that of any individual. We end up at what I would consider the pretty conservative position which, rather than saying that nobody has “better” (more objective) views about ethical matters than anyone else, attributes a certain objectivity to “commonly-accepted moral precepts”. In other words, what’s right and true is what ‘society’ decrees to be right and true, and for the word ‘society’, we can, in practice, easily substitute the expression ‘the establishment’, i.e. the government, the universities, the churches, and the vast majority of ‘reasonable people’. This is the sort of attitude which says, for instance, that walking around naked in public is morally unacceptable behaviour, simply because ‘society’ says it is. The “European/male/imperialist/capitalist/Christian folks” can sleep easy in their beds again: no crazy, left-wing eccentrics are going to cast doubts on their moral superiority!

I have a very different approach to the application of ‘epistemological objectivity’ to ethical questions. For me ethical principles and moral precepts are simply tools invented by groups of people at various times and in various places for the purpose of promoting certain kinds of behaviour, which are called ‘good’, and repressing others, which are called ‘bad’. The concepts ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are also human inventions, and are entirely relative and subjective. They refer simply to that which is helpful and unhelpful respectively in achieving whatever aim one is trying to achieve. Any discussion of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, or indeed of any moral and ethical matters, is entirely meaningless unless it’s preceded by a clear definition of what we are trying to achieve, i.e. what the ethical principles in question are supposed to be guiding us towards.

Unfortunately different groups of people have very different ideas about what we, as a race or as a society, are trying to achieve, and therefore very different ideas about ethical questions. It makes an enormous difference whether our aim here on earth is to be as happy as possible, to prepare for the next life, to advance human culture or to achieve victory over our enemies and prove that we are the master race, and it’s useless to talk about “commonly-accepted moral precepts” and “interpersonal and intercultural agreement about what sort of person is a good person” without starting from the beginning and looking at the basic aims which lie behind ethical questions.

That different groups of people have completely different ideas about why we are here on earth and what we are trying to achieve in life, has always been the source of much conflict. But I think that one of the main reasons why, after so many millennia of human development, there are so few signs of any improvement in the situation is the fact that the initial, most basic aims behind ethical ideas are always left unstated, even by the most reasonable and well-meaning people. The end result is the sort of sloppiness we find in the US constitution, which talks about certain truths being ‘self-evident’; as far as I’m concerned everything must be questioned and nothing is ‘self-evident’! Thinking at such a basic level seems to be very difficult, perhaps because it implies examining and questioning one’s own basic aims. Most people are unable or unwilling to do that, and in practice just tend to assume that we all want the same thing really but that ‘the others’ are mistaken in their methods of trying to achieve it.

Once clarity has been achieved at this basic level, i.e. once we have a clear and honest account of what we are trying to achieve, then and only then can epistemologically objective rational methods be used to investigate ethical statements, i.e. to examine the extent to which any particular ethical principle is or is not logically consistent with the aim in question, and whether any given moral precept, rule or law is going to be helpful or not in trying to achieve it. Looking at things this way, the ‘moral feelings’ and opinions which, for Ms. LaFave, ultimately form the basis for ethical discussion, become much less important. Instead, morals become a much more rational matter altogether, hopefully with a proportionally greater chance of some real progress!


Update 25/09/2014:

Having written all of the above, it occurred to me that John Searle’s system of four categories (metaphysical and epistemological objectivity, and metaphysical and epistemological subjectivity) has a certain advantage over what I describe above as my own alternative (a sliding scale between “very subjective” at one end and “very objective” at the other, with the measure of how “objective” something is being the extent to which everyone agrees on it). In his system it’s very easy to designate large areas of life as being 100% subjective or objective, whereas my ‘sliding scale’ analogy reserves these descriptions for the two extremes, with most things falling somewhere between them. This gives the impression that for me any idea held by a large percentage of the population (the idea that God exists, for instance) is in some way “objective”, which is very far from what I actually think in practice. I even say something slightly later which completely contradicts this idea: “As far as I’m concerned moral precepts and ethical statements are entirely the product of human minds, and therefore 100% metaphysically subjective.” Having thought about all this for a while, I’m still not entirely sure whether (as I very much hope) this contradiction is just the result of my not yet having found the right words to express my ideas clearly, or whether it’s the symptom of a deeper confusion about the ideas themselves. Perhaps I’m confusing the concepts of ‘reality’ and ‘objectivity’, which are certainly not quite the same thing and may perhaps even be entirely different. I certainly regard ‘reality’ as something which exists in different degrees and which is better expressed by the idea of a ‘sliding scale’ than by the dichotomy real/unreal, e.g. a horse is more ‘real’ than a dinosaur, which is more ‘real’ than a unicorn, which is more ‘real’ than a flupsqurge (a mythical beast invented by me about ten seconds ago). The concept of ‘truth’ is very much related to that of ‘reality’, true statements being those which correspond to the ‘real’ world, and for most people ‘objectivity’ is very much related to ‘truth’, but I fear I have a lot of work to do before I can clearly express how I think these various concepts are related. I would say that if I can’t express my ideas clearly to others, then they can’t really be 100% clear to me, but I hope eventually to be able to produce something a lot better than what I express in this little essay. For the moment, however, I can’t deny that my ideas aren’t as well thought-out as they should be and that there’s definite room for improvement, and I humbly thank Sandra LaFave for making me aware of this. So, in spite of all my criticism, her article was useful to me after all!


Update 29/04/2015:

While preparing these comments for publication I re-read my sentence “I imagine that anyone who considers himself a moral subjectivist will find this a crude caricature of his opinions” and decided to look up ethical subjectivism in Wikipedia just to make sure I wasn’t talking rubbish. I hoped to find a simple description of what a moral subjectivist actually asserts, but it turned out not to be nearly so simple. I was soon opening page after page, and getting ever more lost among the overlapping multidimensional categories which have been invented in attempts to classify the amazing variety of concepts and possibilities which inhabit the world of philosophical ethics. At a certain point I started to feel the need for some sort of taxonomy to help me find my way around in this jungle. The Wikipedia entry on meta-ethics was very useful but still only provided a very simplified description of this complex field, and it was only after I’d read Geoffrey Sayre-McCord’s excellent article on meta-ethics in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy that I finally started to feel I was getting to grips with the subject. I’m still finding my way around in the jungle, and I haven’t quite managed to work out where my ideas fit in (if they fit in at all, that is), but one thing which has become very clear to me is that the subject of morals is one with which some of the best minds the human race has ever produced have been wrestling for thousands of years, without yet managing to come to any final, non-controversial conclusions. Any account of ethics which regards it as a simple and self-evident matter, and which provides easy answers to the difficult questions it poses, is therefore necessarily incorrect or at least incomplete.

Re-reading my response to Sandra LaFave’s essay in the light of what I now know, I find it more than a little over-simplified. But there again, so is her essay. I still imagine that anyone who considers himself a moral subjectivist will find it a crude caricature of his opinions, but I think she’s objecting equally as much to a whole list of other ethical positions, including but undoubtedly not limited to non-cognitivism, moral skepticism, moral nihilism and moral relativism – in fact anything other that her own brand of moral realism. So she’s simplifying things, and I assume this was deliberate. It probably also wasn’t a bad idea on her part, seeing how complicted things can otherwise become. As far as I’m concerned, since I first wrote these comments last July I’ve learned quite a bit about the subject and have become a lot less confident of my own opinions – which I regard as progress. I still stand by everything I wrote though.



author Sandra LaFave
title Thinking Critically About the “Subjective”/”Objective” Distinction
first published ?
language English
publisher / version read HTML version downloaded from Sandra LaFave’s Web Page
read 10/07/2014
download / read online Sandra LaFave’s Web Page


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