Thinking Critically About the "Subjective"/"Objective" DistinctionSubmitted by dexterszyd on Mon, 04/01/2013 - 18:26
The words "subjective" and "objective" cause lots of confusion. In a way, their misuse is responsible for the confusion about subjectivism in ethics (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).
The ordinary non-philosophical (i.e., oversimplified) view is that the word "subjective" is the complete opposite of the word "objective." If something is subjective, it's not objective; if something is objective, it's not subjective. "Subjective" is supposed to mean "from someone’s point of view." "Objective" means "not just from someone’s point of view." An objective matter is one that everyone (who is sane, rational, and appropriately informed) will agree about. "Subjectivity" connotes lack of objectivity. Ethical "subjectivism" is the view that since we can’t be "objective" about morality, morality must be purely "subjective."
Furthermore, on the ordinary non-philosophical view, "subjective" goes with words like "belief" or "opinion." The idea is that subjective matters are not certain. "Objective," on the other hand, means "certain" or "factual." "Objective" matters are those that can be measured or quantified. For example, the answers to questions such as "How many desks are in this room?" and "What is the current temperature in this room?" would be objective. Note that these questions have precise mathematical answers, and anyone with access to the appropriate properly-working measuring devices would agree what those answers are.
To summarize, on the ordinary (oversimplified) view:
"Subjective" = private stuff: beliefs, feelings, emotions, opinions, etc.
"Objective" = public stuff: publicly-observable events, knowledge, facts
This way of making the distinction leads to philosophical trouble.
Consider your experience of a headache versus your experience of the Eiffel Tower. Naturally, you have your own personal private "subjective" experience of the headache, and nobody else can have your headache for you. So each person's headache is subjective. Now of course you could apply this very same reasoning to your experience of the Eiffel Tower. There you are in Paris, looking at the Eiffel Tower, and you think, "Gee, no one else is having this precise experience of the Eiffel Tower, so this experience of mine is just as subjective as my headache!" And that wouldn't be wrong, of course, in a way; it's true that no one else has your precise experience of the Eiffel Tower either.
The really fun philosophical problems begin when people use the ordinary subjective-objective distinction in combination with another presupposition: that everything has to be EITHER subjective OR objective. For example, suppose you have a headache. You feel it, and nobody else does, so it’s subjective. But look what other notions go with "subjective": if it’s subjective, it’s just your opinion! (Some people even say that because the headache does not exist as a physical object, like the Eiffel Tower, it doesn’t exist at all! It’s really all in your mind. This is the philosophy behind Christian Science.) But this seems wrong. Your pain is indubitably real and perfectly objective for you, in the sense that it's not just your opinion. Note your pain seems also to be objective for your doctor, e.g., when she says "You’ll feel a little discomfort" or "I’ll give you some Demerol for that pain." Your doctor does not ignore or belittle your pain (I hope!).
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