1-2.††††† Outside of human psychology, or the psychology of other intelligent animals, the concepts of beauty, good, and right have no meaning. These ideas are closely tied to the capabilities of sentient beings to experience pain and pleasure; without sentience (and some degree of self-consciousness) they could not exist.1 This is easiest to see with issues of right and wrong--the events of a lifeless universe are clearly amoralóbut I think it is equally true of beauty and similar judgments based on preference.

Accepting that these concepts exist only inside ourselves, it seems inevitable that we accept their complete subjectivity. If we cannot use evidence from outside ourselves to justify our claims, we have little left on which to base arguments about the value of one thing over another. Subjectivity also explains why throughout history and between contemporary cultures there is so much variation in what people find beautiful or good.

This does not necessarily mean we must remain mute whenever someone starts talking about the beauty of chewed gum or Hitlerís genius. Even realizing that there is no objective definition of good, we can still argue for what we individually believe to be good.2 In addition, we can debate meaningfully about how to reach certain fundamental goals. This is part of the reason that so much everyday conversation about subjective qualities does not appear to be meaningless. People are not usually debating, for example, that actions causing excessive pain are wrong. They are debating what the effects of certain policies will be and whose interests ought to be taken into consideration.

However, this is at best a partial solution to the problems of subjectivity. In cases where there is deep mismatch of value, we are left with few options. For example, I do not think a suicide bomberís problem is factual misinformation about how to reach a goal that we hold in common. I suspect that our thoughts diverge at a much more fundamental level, and if we tried to hold a debate, we would end up in gridlock. Each of us would be absolutely sure of our own correctness, but we would not be able to find any evidence to convince the other person.

 

3. At first glance, popularity seems a tempting solution to the problems of subjectivity. However, popularity does not actually provide a sensible answer. If it did, dissenting opinions would simply be factually incorrect instead of valid counterpoints against popular opinion. Abolitionists could never have argued that slavery was wrong, because initially they were a tiny minority in a society that wholeheartedly believed in slavery. On a more trivial note, the logo of a clothing brand would automatically become beautiful when enough people bought clothes emblazoned with that brand name. There are an infinite number of examples of this sort, ranging from the serious to the superficial, but they all support the idea that straight popularity cannot make a subjective quality less subjective.

 

4. Since it is impossible to use empirical evidence to decide between claims of realities beyond the senses, I donít think there is any way to decide the validity of one over another. All knowledge has its bases in the senses, whether our own observations or someone elseís observations that are then communicated to us. If we have no way of sensing a reality, we cannot know anything about its validity. One could perhaps use a sort of sidelong attempt at empirical evidence by claiming visionary knowledge. Other than that, the surest claim we can reasonably make is that we know nothing.

 

5. ††††††† Even as I say I accept it, subjectivity continues to bother me. In so many cases, using philosophy to examine how the world works reveals cohesiveness. Subjectivity always takes me in the opposite directionóthe more I think about it, the greater the mismatch seems between the rational argument and reality. I could sit here and write for pages about the complete subjectivity of value claims. Indeed, every time I try to write about this topic, I am driven towards the stance of complete subjectivity; this is the only viewpoint for which I can find any sensible arguments. But then I stand up and take a step back from what I have written, and inevitably, it all just seems so wrong (in every sense, factual, subjective, and all the shades in between). I look around me and see a world in which unfairness exists, flowers are beautiful, and Hitler was evil. Subjectivity just seems so insufficient a principle to explain all the very real values in the world.

Part of the explanation is that evolution has fashioned us to believe in subjective qualities on an instinctual, emotional level. Natural selection did not care which bipeds had the clearest metaphysical grasp of reality. Natural selection just favored whichever bipeds were best at surviving and passing on their genes. If the easiest way to do that was by selecting for individuals with a gut feeling that murder was wrong and cooperation was moral, those are the instincts that over time became a part of the inherited human mindset. If humans who believed symmetrical objects were intrinsically beautiful were better at selecting healthy mates, a belief in symmetrical beauty might over time become an ingrained part of human nature. Many subjective beliefs therefore have their roots in evolution.3

Even taking this into account, however, part of the answer is missing. It seems certain to me that right, wrong, and beauty exist only in the human psyche. In a lifeless universe, morality, beauty, and all other non-factual claims are nonexistent. It is the step from this to subjectivity where all explanations seem persistently incomplete.

 

 

1. I think itís fair, in the same way one imagines a gradient of free-will or a gradient of consciousness in animals, one can imagine a gradient of aesthetic or ethical sensitivity.Such a gradient also raises questions about how much we should attempt to move ourselves up the slopes.

 

2. Itís been a while since Iíve read Reichenbach, but I think he makes the point that, even if all ethics is subjective, we can still make claims about what we want the behavior of others to be even if those claims cannot be supported by ethical imperatives.

 

3. I find the experience similar to having the knowledge that color doesnít objectively exist, but still being unable to avoid the perception of color.