Sunday, March 6, 2011

On the equivocation between distinct definitions of OBJECTIVE and SUBJECTIVE

It almost pains me to enter into a discussion of semantics, but alas I think I must. The topic of whether morality is objective or subjective is an important issue, but very few people actually spend time on what they mean when they state that morality is objective or subjective, which definitely confuses the issue, given that there are two completely different objective/subjective dichotomies that could be relevant to a debate on morality.
Dichotomy 1
OBJECTIVE - not dependent on the mind for existence; actual
SUBJECTIVE - dependent on the mind or on an individual's perception for its existence
Dichotomy 2
OBJECTIVE - (of a person or their judgment) not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts
SUBJECTIVE - based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions
(New Oxford American Dictionary)
Dichotomy 1 seems to be the one used most by moral subjectivists.  When using Dichotomy 1, it is hardly arguable that morality is or could be objective. But, it's not really a victory for moral subjectivists, because using this dichotomy, it is hard to argue that any field of human thought is objective. Mathematics, for instance, is solely dependent upon a mind that defined the values of the various symbols. "1+1=2" is only true because a mind defines (1), (+), (=), and (2) in such a way that it is coherent. The same goes for other forms of logic (and thus anything that applies logic, i.e. science), which are all based on axiomatic systems that require a mind to relate different ideas in a coherent manner. 
What is clear, it seems, is that to have any useful discussion, we ought to use Dichotomy 2, given that I think we can all bow to the arguments posed in favor of subjectivity in Dichotomy 1. For the discussion to be meaningful, we must discuss whether or not personal feelings, taste, and opinions can be transcended in order to develop a coherent, reasonable, universally binding ethical system.

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