Part 1: know your words
In any given language, a word can have multiple meanings. At the same time, different words can share similar purposes. Some might have the same literal definition, but different nuance, as in the case of skinny and slender. Natural languages behave like this because they need to serve multiple purposes. They aren’t only used to convey information about the world, but to talk about our feelings, to make music and poetry, and to speculate about the nature of abstract topics, such as ethics or mathematics.
Good artists know how to exploit the emotional nature of language to move our emotions.
Good philosophers, in contrast, know that they have to define very clearly the meaning of the words they use. Otherwise, they could be misinterpreted. Bad philosophy is written in obscure language, intended to avoid criticism and to impress the minds of gullible students.
What’s the difference between a scientific theory and a scientific law? Is information lost when it enters a black hole? What’s information in the first place? These are some of the questions scientific philosophy asks. There are answers for all of them, but they are not the object of this article. Instead, I’d like to clarify a common misconception. Relative and subjective are used interchangeably in natural language, but scientific philosophy shows that they are very different properties.
Let’s understand what ‘subjective’ means. “Subjective” is used to describe an object or quality that depends on a subject to exist, or that belongs to a subject. Objective, on the other hand, denotes something that doesn’t depend on subjects to exist. We realize that by definition, nothing subjective can be objective. However, an object can possess both the qualities of being relative and of being objective.
Relative can be defined as “that which is not absolute, that depends on something else”.
I imagine some readers can be confused by this point. How can something depend on something else, and at the same time be objective? Objective doesn’t mean absolute (the opposite of relative).
I’ll explain with simple physical phenomena; sound waves.
When an ambulance is coming closer to us, we hear it with a higher pitch, when it goes away, we hear it with a lower pitch. This is called the Doppler effect.
Let’s say X is the ambulance, and A and B are subjects. The Ambulance is going towards B.
Despite the sound coming from the same source, due to its position, B would hear a higher pitch and A a lower pitch. This happens because the sound waves have a higher frequency when they reach B, and a lower frequency when they reach A. The movement of the ambulance modifies the sound waves.
To understand how this is different from subjective phenomena, we have to realize that if A and B switched positions, B would hear the lower pitch, and A the higher. If A and B took measurements of the sound waves with scientific instruments, both of their measurements would be correct, both would be different, and both would be objective. We should not confuse sound waves with how the brain interprets them inside our heads. Like colors, how the brain interprets sound waves is a subjective phenomenon.
Another good example is speed.
Speed is derived using distance traveled (displacement, movement), and time. Yet, speed is an objective property that we can measure, and have very different results depending on how we measure it. If you’re reading this article on a PC, we could say your speed is 0, but that statement is incomplete. Your speed is 0 in relation to your surroundings. Indeed, since you’re not moving in relation to your surroundings (the PC, the desk, the room, etc), therefore, your speed is 0. However, if we were to measure your speed in relation to the Sun, your speed would be 29.78 km/s, the speed at which the Earth orbits the Sun.
In this case, you are moving, and very fast. Which speed measurement is right, then? Both of them. This is how relative properties, such as speed, can be objective. In this case, “objective” is synonymous with material reality. Both measurements are right, and that’s as real as the chair you’re sitting on right now.
People usually confuse relative properties with subjective properties. Something can be at the same time relative and objective. This nature is constantly present in physics, the hardest of sciences. Yet this understanding is severely lacking in the mainstream discourse, especially in anything concerning ethics.
A common accusation is: “well, that’s a social construction“, used to disregard ideas and institutions.
Imagine if you showed someone a ruler, explained why it’s useful, and they responded: “Well the metric system is a social construction, so I will measure things with my hands instead. My hands are actually real“.
What if someone said, “traffic norms were made to control us, so I’ll ignore traffic lights“.
It’s usually asinine to point out that something is a social construction. Social constructions are systems or properties that depend on a collective of humans to exist. They are not subjective, and in most cases, they aren’t arbitrary. The metric system is a social construction. Ethics is a social construction. That doesn’t mean they are useless or less real, it just means that they depend on us to exist, unlike the natural world.
Indeed, because they depend on a collective of humans, and not on an individual, for us social beings social constructions might be as real as the natural world itself.
The only context in which it makes sense to point out that something is a social construction is when someone says that something can’t be changed, or when someone says that a social construction is natural, or when someone says that something is absolute.
I’m aware humans like to do all of the above. In a way, that was the original sin. Those in positions of power always like to present themselves as absolute to deter opposition and rebellion. It took us a long time to realize that humans construct society and ethics, that rules don’t come from a deity, that the way we do things is not permanent nor eternal, and that we can strive for something better.
However, I begin to lose my mind when people say that biological sex is a human construction, or that grammar is an instrument of oppression. I refuse to believe that people can’t learn, or that they are stupid. I firmly believe that people are confused in part by bad ideas, in part confused by natural language and a lack of understanding of philosophy. The grammar argument was used against me to justify not following grammar rules, supporting the idea that people should not care about grammar. A possible counter-argument is that grammar can be used as an instrument of oppression, but oppression is not an innate quality of established grammar itself. It makes as much sense as saying electricity is an instrument of oppression because it was used to execute innocent people. It’s nonsense, but nonsense thrives in the confusion of basic concepts.
It’s important to have a sense of what is the correct way of writing words, in the same way we agree and establish that a red light means “stop” and a green means “advance”, even if there is no intrinsic connection between the colors and their meaning.
Sometimes humans infer intrinsic connections where there are none. This is the case of biological sex. Yes, it exists, but its relation to human gender and behavior is similar to that of red lights and “stop”: made up. Are strict gender norms useful to modern humans? I don’t know. Some aspects might be useful, some might not be. But I sure as hell know that those who don’t conform to traditional gender norms should be left to live free of government or societal oppression. Nobody has any business telling us how to live, so we have no business telling them how to live as long as nobody else is being harmed.
Moving onto subjectivity, I’d like to clarify something: subjective doesn’t mean arbitrary.
Let me talk again about colors. Color is subjective. Without humans (or animals) to experience them, colors would not exist. Colors are the way the brain interprets light waves. Despite being subjective, colors are in no way arbitrary. Certain light waves correspond to certain colors. Some people experience color differently because their eyes behave differently. In their cases, we can also map light waves to certain colors, and not others. There is nothing arbitrary about colors, sounds, consciousness, thought, pain, and pleasure, yet they are all subjective experiences.
Opinions are subjective, but not all opinions are the same. My take on alien life is going to be inferior to that of a xenobiologist. My appreciation of classical music is going to be inferior to that of a violinist, because I have no idea what I’m listening to.
Subjectivity depends on subjects. Subjects are affected by the real world, their circumstances, and their particular interpretation of circumstances. I’m using the word “subjects”, and not “humans”, because this is true of animals as well. Pavlov’s dogs salivate because they learned an association. The stray cats in my backyard run when they see me because they learned an association. Humans aren’t that different. Our perceptions and behaviors have explanations, and we judge them under certain rules.
Subjectivity is not arbitrary. Even in art, we are pressed to make a case that it’s more than an opinion. It’s not mere expression. Whenever someone says “well, it’s my opinion” defending themselves, I believe they have been taught excessive self-esteem. You can have your opinion, but I don’t think it’s positive for anyone to hold garbage opinions. Garbage relative to a set of values that prioritizes rationality and knowledge, over prejudice and whim. Over partisan loyalty and propaganda. Over simple ignorance.
This is how we can enter the realm of ethics, and how ethics can be objective. Remember, relativity and objectivity are compatible.
Let’s say my friend got a new haircut. I believe it’s awful, but he really likes it. If he asks my opinion, should I say the truth? Or should I say a white lie?
Like the measurement of sound waves, there’s no single answer. There are multiple answers depending on your ethical framework, and all of them are true. Do you value your friend’s feelings more than truth? Is stating your opinion worth more than his self-esteem? Maybe you want to be consistent with the fact that you always say what you believe, regardless of consequences.
If this simple question demands at least a paragraph (I could keep going), how can we move to more complex problems?
To begin, we have to stop confusing absolute with objective. Absolute can be defined as universal, that which can be analyzed without relation to other things. Humans like absolutes because they are easy to understand, but they are hardly present in science and the physical world. Instead, what we find is constants, like the speed of light, that will always move at the same speed in a vacuum.
Absolutes are a staple in totalitarian regimes (the Church is always right, the leader is always right) but they are also present in humanist set of values, such as Human Rights.
For the most part we should avoid dealing with absolutes, since they encourage rigidity of thought. Even something as innocent as “first, do no harm” presents us a problem when dealing with euthanasia. Along with the sacredness of life, the rigid application of these principles causes unnecessary suffering across the globe.
Let’s go back to our example. One thing that we can conclude is that we don’t have enough information to make a decision. This happens all the time in science. Sometimes evidence is contradictory, sometimes there is not enough to thoroughly prove a point. This is answer is as valid as any other one. I’d even say that people, usually, jump to conclusions too fast.
What happens if we add more information? Let’s say my friend has confidence issues, and has been dealing with depression. In fact, he just went to the barber after a long time of not taking care of himself. Even if I dislike his haircut, I would be a complete asshole to tell him his haircut is bad. It’s not like he can make his hair grow back at will, so I would be sabotaging his recovery for no reason. Lying or saying the truth would essentially the same thing in this situation, in comparison to what’s at stake for him.
I don’t even need to lie. I could change the subject or say a half-truth “I’m glad you’re doing well, you look better like this”. He looks better than before, so I’m not lying. Even the way I framed this question presents a false dichotomy. It’s important to recognize false dichotomies, like absolutes, we like them because they’re easy to navigate.
There is another way to deal with ethical dilemmas, which is to have an ethical framework that helps you look for the answers, or gives you a default one. From ideology to religion, or even a cult, any set of ideas can give you an ethical framework. I’ll choose Stoicism here.
Stoics say that the best way to correct someone, is to do it indirectly, making them realize their mistake on their own. If you’re learning a language, and you pronounce a word in the wrong way, the teacher might use it in his next sentence, and pronounce it the right way. Like this, the student can learn, but he doesn’t face the embarrassment of being corrected in front of the class.
The Stoic approach to the haircut question could be the following: don’t criticize your friend haircut. Instead, the next time he gets a haircut and comes with a different one, say: “oh, I like this haircut better, it looks good on you”.
You get your message across without bruising your friend’s ego in the process.
It’s important when dealing with ethics, to understand that there is no need to find absolute ethical truths. Instead, what’s important is to be aware, and reflect on the value system we’re using to reason. Indeed, we might not need to use the same value system in every context. Most people don’t, and those who do are deemed fanatics by anyone sane.
I decided to write about this topic because we’re always faced with new ethical questions, and as of late, we’re getting them wrong. Dangerously wrong.