Saturday, April 23, 2011

Subjective Objectivity

It’s the Easter weekend! This means that the work week finished one day early and many of us felt a lot of familiar ‘Friday-y’ feelings on Thursday. In my case, I have a pair of pants that I only wear on Friday that are particularly snazzy. You see, they’re dry-clean only, so I don’t want them getting dirty too fast, so I allow myself to wear them on Fridays to celebrate the end of the work week.

On Thursday morning, I found myself naturally reaching for my Friday pants. I began to think about the nature of days. Today wasn’t Friday, it was Thursday. Yet it was also the end of the work week, which made it substantially similar to a Friday. Further, I began to wonder what the days of the week really meant and this spiralled off into thinking about subjectivity and objectivity.

In moments like this, I’m reminded of my classes on post-modernism. Jean-Paul Baudrillard may argue that not only did last Thursday feel like Friday, last Thursday was in fact Friday. After all, what does Friday really mean? For most of us, the major thing that Friday means is that it’s the last day of the work week. Therefore, this week, Thursday was Friday not merely in our minds but in fact. How can this be?

Objective subjectivity
We think of things that are definite in our lives as objective. Friday is an objective thing: everyone agrees that it’s Friday. Yet cosmologically speaking, there is nothing objective about our days of the week. There is no fact of nature or anything external to society on which the days are based. Even having seven days is arbitrary; it just means that we can (almost) get four weeks into a phase of the moon. Yet three weeks of ten days would be even closer.

Even the year is arbitrary. It makes some sense in that it’s the time it takes for things to get warm, cold and warm again. Yet this means little to anyone living in the equator, and the point at which our year begins could be anywhere on the calendar. Indeed, in other cultures, New Year is at entirely different points of the Earth’s transit around the sun.

On the larger scale, there’s the disagreement over when the Millennium celebrations should have been. Most of us celebrated on New Year’s Eve 1999. As many rightly pointed out, mathematically speaking, the Millennium should have been celebrated a year later, as there was no year zero. My argument then and now was this: what is more important? Either we celebrate 2000 years since an arbitrary-chosen date that is meaningless to most people in the world and, even for those it does have meaning to, does not correspond to any actual historical event but to early estimations of the birth of someone who may or may not have been divine... or we celebrate the fact that all four digits of the year are changing all at once. Can we really argue that either is more important, or less arbitrary?

So strictly speaking, there is absolutely nothing about our calendar, except possibly the length of the year, which is objective; yet we see it as fundamentally objective. Why? because it’s shared by wider society. The European calendar is fundamental to organising our lives. It may be arbitrary, but it’s useful – if we say ‘I’ll see you on Monday’, everyone who uses the same calendar (which is most of the people we’re likely to be talking to) knows what we mean. That power, that utility, is what makes it seem objective.

Morality as a calendar
I suspect that the same holds true for other ‘objective’ elements. Take morality: is murder wrong because it is inherently, objectively wrong; or is it wrong because society decides it is wrong? Certainly, every human society since the dawn of history has had rules against murder (though many have varied in their definition of murder, or their exceptions that rendered killing acceptable). Does that mean it’s objective, or simply that rules against murder are useful for holding societies together? After all, if murder is acceptable, contract law breaks down. How can I get you to build a house for me if you can’t trust that I won’t kill you at the end instead of pay you? A society that condones killing in all cases is no society at all.

As with most things... it isn’t that simple. Hard cases may make bad laws, as lawyers remind us, but they’re also very useful for ironing out logical flaws. Take the classic case of the Hindu practice of Sati. This was the widespread but infrequent practice of wives burning themselves alive after their husband’s death in order to remit his sins and ensure his passage into paradise. Defenders of the practice pointed out that it was voluntary; yet as in today’s controversy over the Burkha, opponents say that this ‘choice’ was often illusory, governed as it was by societal values and rejection of the woman if she chose poorly.

A purely subjective view of morality cannot possibly condemn this, and supporters of objective morality hold up cases like this as an example of the failure of alternative systems of morality. The British colonials solved this via the time-honoured method of declaring their morals superior by virtue of possessing more guns than anyone else involved in the debate.

Is there a solution to this? Youtube user SisyphusRedeemed (whose channel I would heartily recommend) points out that in the philosophical literature, there is a lot of muddying of the water between the very ideas of ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’, particularly in the area of morality. I have not read this literature and do not intend to offer my insights as either original or conclusive, merely as interesting and personal. My attempt to add to the debate is this:

I reject the notion that if morality is based on societal norms that it is not useful. As we can see by the calendar, societal norms lead to a certain level of objectivity in what is otherwise subjective. The subjectivity of the calendar does not lead to anarchy and disagreements over what day it is (unless you’re dealing in real time with people in other time zones). There is no reason to believe that the lack of a purely objective basis for morality would lead to people doing whatever they want.

Not to avoid the question
Nevertheless, the problem of Sati remains. Can we criticise the British for imposing their morals on another culture, or should we say they did the right thing? As a student of anthropology, the issue of dealing with and judging other cultures is a familiar one. Early in the 20th Century, anthropology as a discipline turned away from judgment into complete cultural relativism. These days, there’s a trend away from that towards a limited relativism: that is, withholding judgment of a culture until one understands what it means to those inside it. We stay away from uninformed, kneejerk responses and judge from a position of wisdom instead of cultural and moral superiority.

I hope that by that, I have provided a pathway by which a morality which is not completely objective (yet also not entirely subjective) can provide real, practical solutions to the usual objection. Perhaps I will revise my thoughts once I delve further into the literature and immerse myself in the debate. For now, this suffices for my purposes.

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