People sometimes describe questions as ‘philosophical’ as a way of saying that they don’t matter, but I often find that philosophical questions matter quite a lot (and not just questions of ethics or morality)—it’s just that the contexts where they matter are often not obvious. I’ve been reminded of this a few times recently by Adam Ragusea’s excellent podcast The Pub, about issues in North American public media. In February and March, Ragusea made a big to-do about the value of journalistic objectivity, and distinguishing that value from journalistic impartiality. Now, distinguishing objectivity from impartiality is a very philosophical task—it’s abstract, and doing it well requires being handy with niggling matters of logic and conceptual analysis. But whether one takes objectivity (or impartiality, or neither) as a guide to journalistic practice should matter to everyone who is affected by the news media.
When he got around to trying to define objectivity, Ragusea said that “An argument based on facts is objective. An argument based on ideology—or, heaven forbid, ‘belief’—is non-objective” (ep. 7). I think I see what Ragusea is getting at, but I wouldn’t want to put it quite that way, myself. In part for the kinds of reasons pointed out by Justin McBrayer in his much-read NYT column on facts vs. beliefs in the common core curriculum. For example, coming to “believe” a fact-based claim does not make it subjective. But I think Ragusea is using a notion of fact here that makes sense for journalism—a state of affairs that can be confirmed using journalistic methods like consulting sources, records, or experts. But for many purposes, the universe of facts is larger. So I’d like to say a little about how what is objective or subjective can vary with context, and why it matters. (There is, of course, a lot of philosophy about objectivity already that I won’t engage with here. If you’re interested there are some free resources here, here, and here.)
What is objectivity? Roughly put, I think the core notion of objectivity is this. You’ve got a bunch of things (let’s call them “discursive critters”) like sentences, claims, objects, properties, whatever. And they have what philosophers call “semantic values” or “outputs.” For example, sentences, claims, judgments, &c. can be either true or false; those are their semantic outputs. Objects can be real or not. Properties can apply or not. Standards of evaluation sort things into ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ or ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than other things.
When these critters are subjective, you can only figure out what the outputs are when they’re “for” or “to” someone. So subjective claims are true or false only for some person (a subject), not absolutely. Whether something is real or not ‘to’ someone is also subjective. The most straightforwardly subjective matters are preferences or how things seem. Thus, one might say Star Trek is better than Star Wars to me to mean I prefer Star Trek to Star Wars, while withholding any general commitment about which is better, independently of one’s preferences. Or, Joe might say The Eiffel Tower looks taller than the Tokyo Tower to me. What makes this true is just how things look to Joe, not which structure is actually taller.
These discursive critters are objective, on the other hand, when their outputs are determined without being “for” or “to” someone. A claim that is either true or false period, no matter what anyone thinks, is objective. It is also objective whether something is real or not, so long as we’re not talking about whether it seems real to this person or that person. If I say The Tokyo Tower is objectively taller than the Eiffel Tower, I mean it in such a way that its being true or false does not depend on what anyone thinks. If I say Star Trek is objectively better than Star Wars, I must be assuming some standard of evaluation such that the quality of science fiction franchises can be compared to each other, but that standard is not one that changes from person to person.
Some standards of evaluation will change from person to person—a standard like whatever makes me cry more will rank Star Trek higher for Helen if it makes her cry more, but will rank lower for Ryan if it does not make him cry as much as Star Wars does. This “most crying” standard is subjective, because it varies between people. Different things make different people cry more. But many evaluative standards are objective. For example, objective standards might include having a higher number of self-described fans, or grossing more in box office and advertising sales. Or they might involve cinematic or narrative qualities that are harder to quantify or agree on. Just because a standard is difficult to measure or quantify doesn’t mean that it is subjective.
Why does it matter? It’s fair and good to ask, when these distinctions have been made, what use the concepts of objectivity and subjectivity have. Basically: assuming we can identify which claims are objective in this sense, what good does it do us? I think that talk about what is objective and what is subjective serves mainly to sort out what kinds of disagreement are appropriate. For matters that are objective, we can disagree about what the semantic outputs are for everybody. So we can argue about whether claims are true or false, or whether objects are real, or whether properties apply to something. Generally speaking it’s better to believe true claims, believe in real things, and apply properties to things they apply to. For matters that are subjective, however, we can only disagree about what the outputs are ‘for’ or ‘to’ people. We can disagree about whether the Eiffel Tower seems taller than the Tokyo Tower to Joe, or to the average person, but not whether it seems taller to no subject.
One thing that concerns me about most objective/subjective talk is that statements that a question is “subjective” (or often: “just subjective”) often seems to indicate that a speaker thinks a question of truth or reality can’t really be sorted out. So if Helen and Ryan are arguing about whether Star Trek or Star Wars is better, and someone tells them “You know, though, it’s all just subjective, really,” that’s a way of saying that there’s no point in continuing to disagree. And I don’t think that’s usually right. (Put another way: the language of objectivity and subjectivity is a bit of metadiscursive technology, and technology can be misused!)
Three kinds of disagreement. It helps to sort out different kinds of disagreements. For the moment, there are three kinds of disagreement that interest me. First, there are mere differences of taste. Perhaps Helen likes Star Trek more than Star Wars, and Ryan has the opposite preference. Helen and Ryan might report their respective preferences to each other and leave it at that. Second, there are disagreements where one person tries to get another to see things her way. So Helen might try to convince Ryan that he, like her, should prefer Star Trek, and give various reasons for him to see one as better than the other. You might call these see-it-my-way arguments. Third, there are disagreements about (what you might call) facts, where substantive differences of opinion mean that at most one party can be right. Claiming that a matter is objective often means that it belongs in the third category of disagreement. And often, when someone claims that a matter is subjective they intend to place it in the first category. If I want to get Helen and Ryan to stop arguing, I might say “Well, you know, it’s all subjective.” But Helen and Ryan can still disagree in the second fashion—where Helen tries to get Ryan to see things her way—even they disagree about a subjective matter. And many times, apparently subjective questions admit of the third kind of disagreement as well.
Three kinds of disagreement:
1) differences of taste
2) see-it-my-way disagreement
3) disagreement about the facts
If Helen and Ryan are at a polite dinner party where none of the other guests care much for science fiction, their disagreement might be disruptive. If their elaborate appeals to finer aspects of storytelling are tedious for the other guests, perhaps they should treat their disagreement in the first way and leave the matter alone. If Helen and Ryan are trying to help a friend get into science fiction, though, and they want to agree on a recommendation, it might be appropriate for them to treat the disagreement in the second fashion and try to get the way they see things to match up. Finally, if Helen and Ryan are on an award committee, it might be best for them to treat their disagreement in the third way, and try to convince the other of the more objective merits of each sci-fi franchise.
Different universes of facts. Now, questions about which media franchises are better are not usually super-important, and it may not seem important to figure out when such questions are subjective or objective. But there are other contexts where it matters a good deal more. And I think it’s important in those contexts to be aware that there are different universes of objective facts. For example, there are journalistic facts—those that can be fact-checked and reported. I suspect that journalistic facts are for the most part just facts that can be corroborated by witnesses, by documentation, or by experts (at least for American journalism. In many European countries, ideological reporting is not frowned upon the same way). I think Adam Ragusea had such a standard in mind when he said that questions about ideology are outside of the realm of facts.
Perhaps in politics, where ideologies are expected to clash, only non-ideological facts are considered political facts. However, there is still a difference between the journalistic and the political case. It is plausibly a breach of journalistic objectivity to advocate for seeing things in a particular ideological light, whereas politicians can argue in this way with each other and to the public. So whereas straightforward journalism should treat ideological disagreement as differences of taste (the first kind of disagreement above), politicians can make see-it-my-way arguments (the second kind of disagreement above).
And in other contexts there are still more facts. Political theorists and philosophers argue about which political ideologies are better, and they don’t take themselves to be arguing about something ‘merely’ subjective. Furthermore, they’re not even trying to get others to see things their way, like politicians in speeches. They use various arguments to try to figure out which views are right. And analytic philosophers tend to think that all kinds of things are objective: political views, moral claims, aesthetic judgments, and many more. Probably because analytic philosophers are accustomed to seeking the truth about these matters, and settling their disagreements with arguments. So in different contexts—journalism, politics in practice, and political theory—ideological facts can be treated like differences of taste, see-it-my-way disagreements, or disagreements about facts. They run the full spectrum from fully subjective disagreements where something is only true to someone and no one way is clearly better than another, to see-it-my-way disagreements where something is only true to someone but some ways of looking at matters are better, to objective disagreements where there is a truth independent of any person’s perspective.
The moral I want to draw here is that the way people use terms like objective changes with context, according to what people agree on and what kinds of things people can see themselves coming to agreement on. And I think people’s instincts about what’s subjective or objective tends to shift according to the way they engage with different subject matters. Now, these are just conjectures on my part and they should be tested empirically (can I get a collaborator on that?). But what I suspect is this: someone who just consumes movies and television for entertainment is likely to think that whether a film is good or not is subjective. People who make or criticize films for a living, though, are probably more likely to think that there are some objective facts about films that make them better or worse. Most people probably think whether something is funny is subjective, but a lot of comedians and some comedy critics think there are facts about what’s funny and what isn’t (although they probably concede that whether someone enjoys a joke is subjective). A lot of folks in the West think that matters of politics or morality—or philosophy—are subjective, whereas people who sort out political or moral (or philosophical) questions for a living are probably more likely to think that they’re objective. Myself, I’m tempted to call anything ‘objective’ so long as it can be treated objectively in some context, any context. That goes for claims about justice, about values, about aesthetics, and even humor (though it’s important to relate those claims back to objective standards of evaluation). But perhaps that’s just because I’m a philosopher.
I worry that people often think something is objective or subjective absolutely, so that if political ideologies are treated as subjective at a dinner party, they’re subjective period. I think when we give into this thought, we give up on the possibility of learning a lot of things. Some of those things, like what makes humor work, or whether Star Trek really is better than Star Wars, are interesting. But others, like what justice is and what it is for something to be right or wrong, are also important and we shouldn’t be quick to give up on the idea of objective truth, just because agreement can be hard to reach. As a parting observation: I know a number of folks who are interested in social justice, and are wary of talk about “objectivity.” They tend to think that calls for objectivity are ruses to recenter discussions around the perspective of privilege. I do agree that this often happens, but I think that’s a rhetorical problem, not a philosophical problem. I think that giving up on objectivity because of that is throwing out the baby with the dishwater. (Similar things might be said about tone-policing. I think it’s nice to be civil and polite, other things being equal, but even J.S. Mill, ultra-privileged boy extraordinary, knew that calls for civility in discussions of justice served more often to cut off productive discussion than to facilitate it. See the last paragraph of On Liberty, Chapter II.) Real objectivity is important, especially regarding social justice. The existence of structural oppression is, I would argue, real and important and objective. It matters in part because whether it’s real is not a matter of perspective or opinion, even though it is controversial. It’s like climate change or poverty; it’s real for everybody whether you believe in it or not. A little bit of sloppy philosophy goes a long way toward obscuring the truth.
Thanks to Joe McCaffrey for indulging me as I nattered on about this for weeks, and for helping me shape up my thoughts. Joe does not endorse the content of this post in any way. (But that’s just his opinion.)