[Originally posted at LessGovernment.com.]
The debate surrounding subjective and objective knowledge is age-old and will probably endure to the end of human existence and beyond. In all the years this site [LessGovernment.com] has been online, I have never offered any sort of comprehensive summation of my views on this issue, so I would like to attempt to do that briefly here.
As a disclaimer, please keep in mind that this is the perspective of a layman whose only real interest in philosophy is limited to basic logic and concepts rooted in reality, as opposed to mystical musing about whether existence exists and whether it is anything more than a perpetual dream within an immaterial cosmic consciousness. Philosophy is a tool for discovering truth and enhancing my life with relevant, coherent, consistent principles. Any persons who want to send me treatises on the virtues of solipsism or dualism can, therefore, save themselves the trouble.
Let me begin by offering some definitions.
Objectivism – the philosophical position that certain truths are true everywhere, independent of human thoughts, emotions, opinions, etc. Ethical objectivism or moderate moral realism is the position that certain acts are objectively right or wrong, independent of human opinion.
Subjectivism – a philosophical tenet that accords primacy to subjective experience as fundamental of all measure and law. Ethical subjectivism is the meta-ethical belief that all ethical sentences reduce to factual statements about the attitudes of individuals.
Truth – conformity with fact or reality; a verified or indisputable fact, proposition, principle, or the like.
Generally, I will be referring to objectivism and subjectivism in the context of ethical considerations, but there might be broader implications if the reader chooses to apply them.
Truth in and of itself is a fairly straightforward idea, but there is a depth to the analysis one might engage in that is beyond the scope of this article and possibly beyond my ability to care. As such, I’m content with the above definition and will elaborate only in stating that truth may be categorized as self-evident, empirical or deductive.
“I exist” is an example of a self-evident truth, because someone making the statement must exist in order to do so. Likewise, “I do not exist” is self-refuting, because someone making the statement must exist in order to claim that he doesn’t exist. An empirical truth is one than can be observed and tested. This encompasses science and general everyday observations about the universe. Deductive truth is usually found through logic, wherein a series of premises lead to a conclusion. Faulty premises can and often do result in faulty conclusions.
So there’s that, but is any of this truth objective or — *gasp* — absolute?
In short, it is irrelevant. If the human senses are so unreliable, and human logic so imprecise, that the identification of objective truth and accessibility of objective reality remain inexorably out of our grasp; and even if we are to ignore the performative contradiction of asserting that nothing is absolutely true — then the only conclusion one can draw from this is that humans are limited and that there might be aspects of existence that are beyond our ability to detect. As such, if we cannot detect something, which means neither the thing itself nor its effects are testable or observable at all, then that thing — the higher, unknowable truth — is functionally nonexistent to humans and irrelevant. Even if what we can test and observe does not produce any manner of objective or absolute truth, it is pointless to argue in favor of proceeding otherwise on the grounds that truth is unknowable or inaccessible.
Maybe this position can be dubbed “irrelevantism.” I don’t know if there is an existing term or phrase that suffices.
In terms of ethics, then, it becomes apparent that quibbles over objectivity and subjectivity are quite meaningless. The simple solution is to subject ethical propositions to the same rigor one might reserve for any other claim, namely logic and empirical testing. If ethical claims evaluated in this manner are not objective, then neither is any science or discipline ever conceived by mankind, and such status is impossible to attain. It becomes moot to consider anything beyond whether a particular claim is consistent with known reality.
So it is for this reason that I am sympathetic toward objectivism but ultimately convinced by neither objectivism nor subjectivism. Objectivists (including the big-O Randian variants) defeat their own cause by claiming objectivity through reason but reaching so many opposing conclusions that they might as well just call themselves relativists. The Randian philosophy isn’t even internally consistent (which is a whole other article). In the subjectivist camp, as alluded to previously, it is impossible to even make claims without contradicting the core premise of subjectivism. Some might call this consistency, but I call it garbled nonsense.
My solution to this mess is to consider any ethical proposition that checks out under logical and empirical scrutiny to be valid, until which time the available data points to something else. So goes science. Murray Rothbard’s proposals are mostly good in this regard (though he frequently referred to rights and such, and while I think certain right-ish principles derive from reality, I’ve yet to see a coherent defense of rights as they are usually posed). Robert Nozick’s philosophical ideas always struck me as intriguing, though, like the Randian Objectivists, some of his conclusions fall short of his purported principles. David D. Friedman is uber-practical, and his bookThe Machinery of Freedom is partly responsible for my acceptance of anarchism, but libertarian consequentialism is an ethical black hole that can “logically” justify almost anything.
In the older school, Lysander Spooner remains perhaps one of the best proponents of natural law — arguably my favorite — and his No Treason papers have yet to be successfully challenged to my knowledge. However, he too was regrettably mired in the concept of rights without any real explanation of whether such things even exist external to cultural conventions. Other philosophers — Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Jefferson, Stirner, Proudhon, Thoreau, Nietzsche, Kant — all made their venerable contributions to human thought as well as their respective fair shares of absurdity.
Not long ago, I reviewed a book by Stefan Molyneux titled Universally Preferable Behaviour: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics. While I did not (and still do not) feel qualified to judge whether the ethical “beast” (to borrow Molyneux’s metaphor) has been conquered, I can speak for myself in saying that UPB succeeds where other systems have failed. The reason it succeeds is that it is not a system, per se, that attempts to tell a person what he should or should not do. Rather, it is a framework for evaluating the truth value of ethical statements. For example, “Murder is moral” self-detonates because it requires one person to be moral by murdering and another to be immoral by not murdering. This is, of course, incredibly simplistic, so rather than risk misrepresenting the book, I must recommend reading it for oneself, as it and several others are freely available in digital format at Freedomainradio.com. To date, UPB is the most logical and comprehensible approach to ethics that I’ve encountered. That by no means makes it objective or even true, but like any other proposal subject to rational analysis, it either stands or does not.
Critiques of UPB have been posted at RationalAnimal.net (Part 1 and Part 2) and Back to the Drawing Board, and I encourage anyone who has read the book to take a look at these two sites.
All of the above in consideration, my conclusion for the time being is that there is no reason to proceed as though ethics cannot be regarded as objective, at least to the reason-centric extent apprehensible by humans. We know that murder and theft are mostly undesirable, with only certain segments of the population embracing them as viable foundations for an ideal society (theruling class, typically, along with those who benefit from the violence of the ruling class). As David Friedman observed, “The direct use of force is such a poor solution to any problem, it is generally employed only by small children and large nations.”
It strikes me as truly pointless to engage in prolonged debates over whether murder, theft and a general disregard for self-sovereignty constitute moral virtues, evils or neither. Humanity has spent thousands of years on the path of slavery and slaughter. Governments and their armies haven’t solved these problems. Even when they try to, the end result often either involves a mere changing of the guard or is even worse than the original situation. To call the track record of religion in terms of peace and prosperity abysmal is a grand understatement. The collusion of humanity’s two main authoritative institutions is perhaps the most dreaded scenario of all for those of us who value progress and liberty.
So even if one considers objective human ethics to be dubious, unknowable or outright impossible, that is a poor excuse for approaching life as though nothing can be good, bad, right or wrong. If objectivity is beyond our reach as humans, then we can depend only on the science and logic that have given us modern medicine, computers and spaceflight. If objectivity is out there but remains undiscovered, that is likewise a poor excuse for dismissing ethics, as doing so amounts to little more than a self-fulfilling prophecy. If objectivity exists and can be demonstrated, then I eagerly long to discover the proof of this.