Objectivism or Subjectivism ?

by Ben Best

"The temper of Realism is to de-antropomorphize; to order man and mind to their proper place among the world of finite things; on the one hand, to divest physical things of the coloring which they have received from the vanity or arrogance of the mind; on the other, to assign them along with minds their due measure of self-existence."
-- Samuel Alexander

"The most acquisitive person is so busy re-investing that he never learns to cash in. 'Realistic people' who pursue 'practical aims' are rarely as realistic or practical, in the long run of life as the dreamers who pursue their dreams."
-- Hans Selye

It seems odd that Ayn Rand would select the word "Objectivism" for her philosophical system and yet devote so little time or space to defining "objectivity", and even less time analyzing "subjectivity". "Subjectivity" she associates with whim and dismisses as irrational. Economic libertarians, however, had long accepted the Subjective Theory of Values as a cornerstone of the Austrian School of Economics (along with the corollary "law of diminishing marginal utility") and with good reason supported the view that value lies in the eye of the beholder. Ayn Rand's "Objective Theory of Value" states that there is an objective ("real") correspondence between a creature's nature and its values (meaning, values are a real product of physiology and external reality and cannot be arbitrary, falsified or devised). There is no real conflict, of course, between these theories, only the semantic conflict of defining "subjectivity" in the one case to be "arbitrary whim" and in the other to be "individual perspective".

In THE VIRTUE OF SELFISHNESS Ayn Rand develops an argument to derive values from facts (derive an "ought" from an "is"). And not simply values, but moral values. As she expresses it, the science of ethics provides the values & goals which human survival requires.

Survival is Rand's ultimate link between facts & values -- humans who do not work to promote their survival are not fulfilling their role as "man qua man". But there are many people who prefer death to life and choose death by committing suicide. Are the preferences of these people morally evil? I can feel sad to think that people seek death rather than life, but I do not believe that anyone has a duty to survive. Rand said that humans are free to make the wrong choices, but are not free to succeed with those choices. But she has loaded the issue by equating success with surviving -- the only "proper" goal in her view.

I favor emphasizing survival as a cornerstone of ethical theory as my subjective preference rather than as an objective fact. I ask, "For those who value survival, what are the best goals, values & techniques to survive?" Survival is very important to me, and I believe that the ultimate survivors are those who seek to maintain youth & life for as long as possible: life-extensionists & cryonicists. Ayn Rand smoked cigarettes and when she died Leonard Peikoff was insulting in response to the suggestion that she be cryonically preserved. (For more on the survivalist ethics of life extension, see my essay Why Life Extension?.)

For most people "mere" survival is not a critical issue -- it is a background assumption. Goals in addition to survival are more critically important. Perhaps it was their pioneering egoist/individualist survivor backbround that led early Americans to emphasize the fundamental values of "Life, Liberty and the PURSUIT of Happiness" in contrast to the French "Liberty, Equality & Fraternity" or the socialist "equality & security". I prefer the American values, but I do not brand the others as morally evil.

Deriving moral values from preference values is as unfounded as deriving values from facts. I seek to live with people who value freedom, economic growth and progress of science & technology as I do, but if others prefer to subject themselves to the poverty & authoritarianism of life in a religious order or theocracy I cannot say they have made the wrong choice for themselves. Imposing preferences in the name of "objective value" is nothing short of collectivism.

Are the terrorists who killed thousands of people in the World Trade Center objectively evil? Were the mass murders of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot objectively evil? What about those who molest, mutilate & murder children (or adults)? I hate & fear such people and if I can take any effective action to purge society of such people I will do so. I can use the word evil to describe people I hate & will fight, but I still regard this as a manifestation of my subjective values -- and a basis of values for a society in which I want to live. I can also hate & fight socialists & Keynesians who have wrongheaded ideas about how to achieve the peaceful & prosperous society I seek -- but I recognize that my hatred is a manifestation of my frustration rather than of objective fact (some of my best friends have been socialists).

A distinction is sometimes made between descriptive science & normative science -- the latter purportedly being a science of values. Medicine, engineering and economics are given as examples of normative science. A physician ought to give penicillin G if the patient is to be cured of syphilis. Yet the science of medicine only determines that penicillin G cures syphilis, engineering only determines that suspension bridges give the best support and sound economics only determines that socialism hampers economic growth. Medicine, engineering and economics as sciences can make no determination about whether it is desirable for a patient to be cured, for a bridge to stand or for a society to experience economic growth. Science & technology can provide tools to fulfill goals, but subjective values are the ultimate source of those goals.

The choices of definitions for words should ideally take cognizance of the empirical experience of reality, linguistic convention and logical consistency. It would be naive not to expect conflict among these factors. In the case of "subjectivity" and "objectivity" the problem is additionally complicated by the very abstractness of the concepts and the difficulties involved in finding empirical referents in reality. An attempt will be made here to inspect the usage and sensicalness of these words.

The term "objective" could be used to correspond to the idea "apart from individual point of view" and this usage would correspond well with convention. Conversely, "subjective" can be used to refer to "from the point of view of an individual". Thus, two people standing to the east and west side of a tree, respectively, would see the same tree objectively and different aspects of the tree subjectively. Very frequently subjective assessments are mistakenly uttered as objective facts out of ignorance of the role of viewpoint.

Scientific "objectivity" is an attempt to reduce descriptions of the world to sensory information which those with "normally" functioning sense organs (usually vision) can experience uniformly. This represents an attempt to rise above the individual point of view and is frequently rooted in the belief that inter-subjective agreement comes closest to objectivity. Attempts to achieve an objectivity beyond human sensation can be seen in the analysis of optical illusion or in efforts to distinguish the elements of sense-data which are due to neurophysiology from the physical components. Thus, that a wavelength of light appears "blue" is subjective in the sense that "blueness" is a product of neurophysiological response.

Uniformity of sensation (with notable exceptions such as colorblindness and ability to taste phenylthiocarbamide) seems great enough that it serves, for most purposes, as a touchstone for objectivity (inter-subjectivity), whereas values tend to be so individual as to be beyond corroboration, and therefore "subjective". Many may agree that a shirt is blue or an ice cream scoop is vanilla, but the respective valuations of these facts will be far from uniform. Thus, the valuations could be called subjective facts rather than objective facts.

One source of confusion arises from the semantic tangle which follows from "I like strawberry" as construed to be a subjective fact as opposed to "Ben likes strawberry" as an objective fact. This can be further complicated by saying that the pleasure I get from vanilla, is as objective a fact to me of the nature of my physiology and vanilla, as is the fact that I see a leaf to be green. To use "objective" in this sense would be to describe it as independent of my will. Grammatically, this may be correlated with the "subjective case", "I", which possesses more will and perspective than the "objective case", "me", which is more object-like.

The role of desire in the exercise of reason is doubtless responsible for much of the poor reputation of "subjectivity". Being "objective" is taken to mean trying to see a thing apart from cultural and individual narrowness. As likely as not "being objective" will mean an attempt to resist believing what one wants to believe. A worldview constituted of comfortable fantasies rather than a self-disciplined realism represents subjectivity in the worst sense of the word. Even so, the search for "objective ideology" or "objective justice" untainted by personal interests may be futile. To discount vested interests may result in self-abnegation as well as miss the point of ideology and justice. There is a "justice" in individuals pursuing their personal preferences (self-fulfillment), rather than being "fair".

Not only science, but business frequently strives for an objectivity apart from emotion -- which takes the form of a repression of feeling. A person at a cash register would be well advised for business success to display (if not feel) no reaction to a customer purchasing toilet paper, condoms, tampax or sex magazines. Anger or shame is to be repressed in business relationships as simplistic and self-defeating. Business formality represses spontaneous responses which could squelch a transaction. It is in this sense of repression and denial of emotion, body & self that objectivity assumes its more sinister aspect.

The objectivity-subjectivity conflict can be interpreted as a conflict between "the world according to desire" (expression of self) and "desire according to the world" (repression of self). While a self-disciplined cognizance of reality and the requisites of action are essential to survival, the manifestation and fulfillment of self are at the core of all that makes life worthwhile. The conflicting values here are often represented by the opposition between engineers & artists, work & play, responsiveness & expressiveness or perhaps even the left & right hemispheres of the brain. To the extent that subjectivity represents the manifestations of self, it would seem to be the ultimate expression of egoism. This assumes that self-expression does not involve an attempt to fake reality, though it may make reality. The "objectivity" of a man renouncing his own esthetic responses to sell his body to a homosexual he finds repulsive may be less realistic than a responsiveness to his own subjectivity.

Is cool detachment from self in value-assessment & value-indulgence rational but pleasure-destroying? A detachment from values can mean a detachment from life. Such schizophrenia can make life seem an unreal accident with which the self refuses to be "contaminated-with" through involvement. Other people seem to be less like subjects and more like objects to the extent to which they seem unresponsive and uncommunicative of real thought or feeling. The ultimate in objectivity may be to treat oneself as a subject and all others as objects. It is but a short step from this to treating oneself as an object as well (self-estrangement and repression). In this case, one becomes unresponsive and uncommunicative to oneself as well as to the others.

All actions are a response to subjective and objective inputs. To dash from an onrushing truck is as much a response to a truck as it is an expression of a will to live. Most actions involve far more individually unique intermeshings of subjective and objective components than this example. Repressed individuals with little sense of self will seek a lifestyle which keeps them "busy" with "objective" preoccupations which have little relation to self-actualization. Such people seem to be objects with no self at all, or very little.

Individuals who frequently identify themselves with the objectivity of engineering science and discount artistic or social values may frequently also reject lucrative advantages in sales or managerial work. In fact, the "objective" (money-making, productive) character of work relations may seem more boring than autotelic problem-solving engaged in for the purpose of knowing reality, feeling efficacious or improving the rational processes. Thus, the final thrust of this "urge for objectivity" is seen to actually be a subjective one.

One might attempt in vain to find objective standards by which to resolve the "conflict" between self-discipline and self-indulgence (each of which have inherent satisfactions as well as objective importance). But below the level of the subject-object dichotomy there must exist some course of action which most promotes the life of the individual in the world. There can be little doubt that today's repression can be tomorrow's fortunes, and the basis for a deep self-actualization. But chronic repression for the future may be as self-destructive as incautious indulgence. There are no ready answers, no objective (ie, applicable to everyone at all times) answers.

Thus, while the objective-subjective dichotomy may be mutually exclusive from an epistemological point of view, it may not be so from a normative view. The deepest self-actualizations are often rooted in a profound conformity to inflexible reality. The seeking of subjective fulfillment within the constraints of reality accommodates both objective necessity and subjective want.

For a critique of the metaphysical view that subjectivism is the most indubitable reality, see my comments to Timotheus in my essay on Freewill & Determinism.