I am a subjectivist, except when I’m not

I’m a subjectivist.  I believe the following: We only know the world through our imperfect senses and flawed brains, and our human categories and constructs and definitions are only approximations of reality, changing eternally and subject to endless debate, reinterpretation, misremembrance, bias and malfeasance.

However, for scientific or factual claims, I demand objectivity.  Isn’t that a contradiction?  No, and here’s why.

As far as human spheres go, I believe everything is subjective. If I have a bad experience with a cow as a kid, for example, that’s going to color my decision of whether or not to work on a dairy farm. When deciding if killing cows for hamburger is moral or not, my experiences shape my judgment.

When it comes to claims of fact, it’s entirely because our brains are such subjective messes that I demand an objective approach. The scientific method — of ruthlessly testing assumptions, using double-blind studies, bringing in as many observers as possible to try to decode — is necessary to try as much as possible to eliminate subjective biases. But when it comes to morality, that approach cannot work, because each individual human has so many diverse opinions about what is/isn’t moral and “right.” You can’t develop a double-blind test to “prove” whether or not cannibalism or gay marriage or euthanasia or abortion or adultery or anything else is moral or not. By definition, morality is a human concept.

One thing that humbles me when it comes to how little we understand about the world is the placebo effect. The human mind has immense powers over the bodies containing them, and in many cases, we can think ourselves well or unwell. So many quacks and charlatans in the world prey on that with their miracle diets or herbal remedies or snake oil. If you can convince someone that your $500 sugar pill is actually a super secret cure, and they part with their $500 and believe you fervently enough as they take it, for some percentage of the time, those people actually can get well (for a while, at least). A perfect example of why anecdotal evidence — subjective opinion — in no way substitutes for a rigorous, peer-reviewed, detailed study of an issue.

Remember that cold remedy Airborne? Our former nanny would swear by the stuff. It definitely had a placebo-like effect upon her. But it was basically overpriced vitamins and sugar, and I think the courts were right to rule in favor of the recent class action suit. She would have been better off taking regular vitamin C (which has been shown to have an effect on your vulnerability to cold/flu) and saving her money.

So it’s one thing to objectively show that Airborne is useless. It’s another thing to judge whether or not the people selling it were immoral. I don’t know if they knew it was junk or not, but I suspect the Airborne manufacturers thought it was a worthwhile product.

In the one case — is this product effective? — that’s a matter of objective, scientific debate. In the other case — are the makers of this product immoral to sell it? — that’s a matter of subjective opinion.

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