(This post is part of a weekly series for Know Thyself 2019, a 365 day journal project. Start here!)
This week’s journal topic: Objectivity and Subjectivity
These terms seem frighteningly philosophical, right? What’s this? you ask. More stuffy classroom terms that serve scant purpose in everyday life? Actually, the terms objectivity and subjectivity are used fairly regularly in intelligent conversation about politics, science, and ethics. And if it’s not the specific terms that are invoked, the concepts behind them are nonetheless are.
Say you’re having an argument with someone who finishes his speech by saying, “I’m just reporting the objective facts – you have to accept that I’m right about this.” What does he mean by objective facts and why does stating them provide evidence to support his view?
Simply defined, objectivity is the characteristic which expresses the idea that a statement is free of perspectives, value judgments, or bias from personal interests. To emphasize that a statement is an “objective fact” is to iterate to your listener that the statement is “faithful to the facts” and corresponds to truths that exist apart from human perspective, opinion, or experience. By reporting that a statement is objective, the speaker appeals to an authority outside him/herself – the authority (i.e. power) of factual evidence.
In the case of the argument mentioned above, the speaker wants you to acquiesce to the authority of your commitment to scientific norms and/or evidence. Therefore, he’s saying that you should side with him because the evidence he’s given you is not his mere opinion – rather, it’s actual fact that should press on your human rationality in a certain way and convince you. An objective fact is not centered in a particular person – each and every human being can (and should) relate to that statement in the same way.
Let’s return to the argument that you’re having. That person has just appealed to “objective facts” and expects you to be swayed. If you responded, “Those might be objective facts to you, but my experience tells me otherwise!” then you’d be appealing to subjectivity.
Subjectivity is a characteristic which expresses the idea that a statement may reflect bias due to personal objectives, value judgments, emotions, experiences, and sense experiences.
In contrast with objective facts, subjective facts are often less successful at convincing others. The reason is that other people cannot relate to your experiences the way that you relate to your own experiences. Find a flaw in the phrase Vanilla is the best flavor of ice cream. If Vanilla is the best flavour of ice cream, is a fact, then certainly it’s a subjective one. A subjective fact is centered on a particular person – and unless you are that person you cannot relate to that fact in a way that makes it seem convincing.
Subjective facts are less convincing also because they lack the authority of objective facts. Remember that objective facts claim the authority of having unbiased evidence. You can argue all day about the best flavor of ice cream, but stating your vote for vanilla over-and-over-again is guaranteed to convince no one whose subjective experience tells him that chocolate is more choice-worthy.
Key words for objectivity: according to science, everyone can agree, it’s obvious, the fact is…
Key words for subjectivity: in my opinion, to me, I think, I feel, it seems to me, personally…
- Are you persuaded by appeals to objective facts? (Do you think that facts have authority?)
- Do you seek objective facts before making decisions, or do you prefer to go with your “gut”?
- Recall arguments with family, friends, and coworkers. Do people understand the difference between objectivity and subjectivity?
- Read something from the media. Before thinking about it, ask yourself if it “feels” true. Then evaluate it for subjectivity – strip the emotions, judgments, opinions. What’s left of the message?
- At what age did scientific evidence become convincing to you? What taught you about evidence?
- Anti-vaxxers are passionate about their subjective experience (i.e. what they witnessed in their children) that vaccines cause autism, and they spread their “facts” as if they are objective facts. Is this a type of lying, or is it their right to spread their subjective facts?
- List five deeply-held beliefs you have about yourself. Which are objective facts and which are subjective?
How to Get the most out of Know Thyself 2019:
Don’t rush through the questions. Try to do only one question every morning, leaving space to add thoughts that might come up later during the day. The journal is designed to help you develop a consistent, daily practice of self-reflection.
If you liked this week’s post, please like or comment! I appreciate the feedback and use it to choose future topics. If you want to see more posts like this one, let me know!