Monday, July 25, 2005

Conversations with Angie: The difference between subjective and objective statements


Here I go back to the moral argument again. I'll restate it.

1. If there is no God, then there are no objective moral values.
2. There are objective moral values.
3. Therefore, there is a God.

I'll take these premises one at a time and begin with the first premise. Although this is probably going to be redundant to you, I first want to clarify what I mean by "objective moral values." I'm just doing this for clarity's sake.

There are two kinds of claims a person can make--an objective claim and a subjective claim. An objective claim is a claim about something external to the perciever. For example, the claim that "The earth is round" is about "the earth." Objective claims can be either true or false, but it has nothing to do with the beliefs or preferences of anybody. The earth would be round whether anybody knew about it or not. The shape of the earth is something people discover, not invent. It isn't a convention or a truth that's arrived at by taking a vote.

Subjective claims may sometimes appear to be referring to something external to the perciever because of the way they are phrased, but in reality, subjective claims are about the person making the claim. For example, the claim that "Ice cream tastes good," isn't really about ice cream. After all, ice cream may taste good to one person but not to another. Rather, the claim is about the tastes of the person making the claim. To say that ice cream tastes good is simply to say that you like the flavour of ice cream.

There are a couple of thumb rules you can use to distinguish between an objective claim and a subjective claim. If two claims that contradict each other cannot both be true, then they are objective, but if they CAN both be true, then they are NOT objective.

Take, for example, these two statements:

Ice cream tastes good.
Ice cream tastes bad.

Both of these statements can be true at the same time, because one person may like ice cream, and another person doesn't. In reality, the two claims don't contradict at all since they aren't even referring to the same thing. They aren't referring to ice cream, but to the tastes and preferences of the two different speakers. These are subjective statements.

Take these other statements:

The earth is round.
The earth is not round.

You can see that both of these statements can't be true at the same time and in the same sense. They're objective. They both refer to the same thing--the earth.

Another thumb rule to distinguish between a subjective claim and an objective claim is to ask whether or not it's possible for them to be wrong. If they could be wrong, then they are objective statements. Subjective statements can never be wrong. Can you imagine two people arguing over whether or not ice cream tastes good? It wouldn't make sense to have such an argument since maybe it's good for one person, but bad for another. It isn't possible to be wrong in your personal preferences for ice cream. But it IS possible to be wrong about the shape of the earth. If your belief in the shape of the earth fails to correspond with reality, then your belief is wrong.

to be continued...

Conversations with Angie:  The meaning of objective moral values


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