Does objectivity exist?

Christopher asked:

Does objectivity exist? I agreed with what I read in ‘A View from Nowhere,’ but isn’t math still objective? I mean how is 2+2=4 subjective? I guess the argument could be made that 2+2=4 is subjective because I didn’t write it II+II=IV, but that’s just using different symbols to represent the same thing. It still has the same objective value and meaning.

Answer by Craig Skinner

Yes, objectivity exists.

We can usefully distinguish 5 notions of objectivity:

* physical
* metaphysical
* mathematical
* dispositional
* evaluative

I shall briefly deal with each, then show how an example (moral objectivity) fares on each notion.

Physical: something is physically objective if it is part of the fabric and furniture of the physical world, such as a plant, planet, chair or table. And this existence is independent of our thought. If all life went extinct, Mars would still orbit the Sun, waves lap on Earth’s shores.

Metaphysical: paradigmatic example is Plato’s forms. But few now believe in a transcendental reality separate from the everyday, sensible, world. Some consider them abstract objects, although I think it is hard to rigorously distinguish abstract, fictional and non-existent objects.

Mathematical: such truths, as you say, are objective. They are a priori, necessary, same for all of us, independent of our wishes. Whether mathematical objects (such as numbers) exist (and whether best construed as physical, mental, abstract, fictional or nonexistent ?) is more controversial, but this doesn’t affect the objectivity of maths.

Dispositional: whereas primary qualities, such as size or shape, are physically objective, secondary qualities can be seen as dispositional. For example, redness in a postbox is an objective disposition to cause a normal human, viewing it in good light, to see redly and declare the box red. In this sense, then, grass is objectively green, the daytime, cloudless sky blue.

Evaluative: we draw up standards for everything from judging vegetables to playing bridge. And we make objective judgments (evaluations) according to these standards. So, to award the trophy to the golfer who went round in the least number of strokes is an objectively just evaluation based on publically agreed standards.

Let us see how moral objectivity fares.

Physical: we could account for descriptive ethics in terms of the evolved facts of human nature (innate, hard-wired moral sense, in turn reducible to physical brain states), but this, if successful, explains rather than justifies, and normative ethics is unaccounted for (‘no ought from is’).

Metaphysical: for the Platonist, moral objectivity is guaranteed by the Form of the Good. But most people, these days, would say such transcendental moral facts are ‘queer entities’ (as Mackie calls them), never mind how we could access them or be motivated by them.

Mathematical: nobody thinks moral facts are mathematical, but some moral philosophers (e.g. Kant, Ross) liken moral to mathematical truths (timeless, necessary etc). But, sadly, whereas everybody agrees as regards maths truths, the alleged moral intuition doesn’t yield agreement: what was self-evidently morally right to Moore was not so to Ross and vice versa.

Dispositional: more promising, and is work in progress. An objectively moral fact is seen as a disposition of a state of affairs to arouse approval/disapproval (approbation/disapprobation) in a normal human observer e.g. a cat’s being set alight for fun would be objectively wrong, disposing to arousal of intense disapproval in an onlooker. The account relies on the notion of an ethically normal observer, or ‘ideal’ observer, or, as you suggest, on the impartial view or ‘view from nowhere’, or on imaginary consensus reached behind a ‘veil of ignorance’.

Evaluative: normative ethics is clearly objective in the evaluative sense (an act is right if it fits the society’s agreed standards for rightness). But, as a sole account, it is unsatisfactory, because then the moral rules have no more standing than those of chess or etiquette, save that they deal with weightier matters.

So, in summary, normative ethical objectivity can’t plausibly be seen as physical, metaphysical or mathematical. Dispositional objectivity is more promising, whilst evaluative objectivity is trivially true but fails to give more than truth by convention.

I avoid the slippery terms ‘mind (in)dependence’ and ‘subjectivity’. Some physically objective things are clearly completely independent of any (non-divine) minds. But if the mental includes theories, concepts, sentences, abstract objects, and human conventions, it is hard to find a serious ethical stance that doesn’t include the mind in some way. For instances, in utilitarianism ‘happiness’ is clearly a mental phenomenon; ‘willing’ in Kantianism is a mental activity; reaching consensus in contractarianism is mental activity, and so on.


Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

As far as my understanding reaches, ‘objectivity’ is a word with a well-defined dictionary meaning. I have never come across an argument for its actual existence, so there is a first time for everything! But I can’t see objectivity existing. In which way? As a thing? As a law of nature or science? As a wave, a particle, residual energy, what? I think the ‘no’s’ have it. Objectivity plainly refers back to the human being and that creature’s intellectual understanding. So it is a concept; and concepts don’t exist as such, because they are ideas. As far as I can see they are all of human manufacture and 100% mental.

Your little game with numbers doesn’t change anything. Although it is true that any 2 items added to any two other items always come out at 4 items, and 2+2 in the abstract is always 4, this is an objective fact only to the extent that the underlying notion is of a perfectly law-abiding mechanism, i.e. a thoughtless, soulless, inanimate ‘object’. I hope you get the gist of this. Delete intellect from the world and ‘objectivity’ is deleted along with it. If computers survive us and keep ‘objectively’ performing their algorithms, what can be called ‘objective’ about it? Nothing. You need a consciousness capable of discerning that objectivity and distinguishing it from the ‘subjective’ aspects of the same rational (i.e. human) intelligence.


One thought on “Does objectivity exist?

  1. Interesting answers. I think it is possible that we can gather objective data. For example the weight of a person under conditions as they exist on earth, or the approximate size of a planet, or the height of a tabletop from a floor. These are objective facts and facts can be termed objective even though we may not be able to be objective about what the facts mean. If I tell someone I see a green light and they agree I can never be sure what “green” truly means to them and how it differs from my idea of green, but when I say this is “1 metre” I can know that I am talking about a measurement that is the same for everyone. If I say to someone draw a line with its edge exactly one metre from the edge of another line, when they comply, both people only need an objective means of discovering whether the two lines in fact are one metre away. We simply find a way to measure an very exact metre of distance. Isnt that part of what is meant by “objectivity”?

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