June 21

Genius or Third Grade Crayon Scribbles: Is Everything Subjective?

Is everything subjective?  The balance between subjectivity and objectivity continues to be a central issue in philosophy.

We see things not as they are but as we are. Immanuel Kant

The Trolley Problem

“The Trolley Problem” is a famous thought experiment in philosophy and ethics, introduced by philosopher Philippa Foot in 1967. Thanks to shows like the NBC sitcom The Good Place, it has found its way into popular culture, often used in Twitter conversations that seem profound but are usually quite pointless.

Here’s the gist of the Trolley Problem: A runaway trolley is heading down a track where it will kill five people who are tied up and unable to move. You are standing next to a lever that can divert the trolley onto another track. However, there is one person tied up on this second track.

You have two options:

  • Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people.
  • Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the second track, where it will kill one person.

The Dilemma

The underlying question is this: is it morally okay or even obligatory for you to pull the lever and kill one person —actively causing harm—to save five others? Or should you simply remain a bystander and allow events to take their natural course—allow harm to occur through inaction?

Like most philosophical problems, there is no right answer to the Trolley problem. The whole point is to make us aware of our limited agency and the dilemmas we face in life, especially when faced with moral conundrums.

You may believe it’s okay to sacrifice one person to save five others. Or you decide not to intervene because you are convinced it’s wrong to actively cause someone’s death, even if it means saving more lives.

The point is this: the answer is subjective, i.e., subject to your beliefs and values. Conversely, and this is really the key aspect we often tend to forget: everyone is entitled to their subjective opinions, too.

Is everything subjective?

There are no facts, only interpretations.  Friedrich Nietzsche.

So, let’s look at subjectivity with a great example: the diet wars.

A person on a Paleo diet might believe that eating meat is morally acceptable because it’s part of the natural food chain.

Someone on a vegan diet may believe that eating animals is morally wrong because it harms sentient beings. (Or, they may become Vegan just to annoy their friends.)

Regardless, you only need to step back to see how the ethical stance on dietary choices is subjective: it’s based entirely on individual values, beliefs about animal rights, and interpretations of natural practices. What one person sees as a moral obligation to avoid harm to animals, another might see as a normal and acceptable part of life. There are no absolute rights or wrongs.

Moral relativism—what is considered right or wrong—can and does vary across societies and timeframes. This is why judging a historical person by today’s standards is often ethically fraught.

Subjectivity is everywhere

A painting might be considered a masterpiece by one person and incomprehensible by another.

Or consider this example: just switch between two television channels on the left and right of the political spectrum, reporting the same “news”—it can seem like they came from different universes.

The truth is that we interact with the world through our senses and cognitive processes. Everything we experience is colored by our subjective lenses and cognitive biases and deeply influenced by cultural norms, beliefs, and personal values.

So, then is everything subjective?

I apologize, but this is where I need to bring the German philosopher Immanuel Kant into the discussion.

Kant’s philosophy

Kant argued that there are two distinct classes of experience: Phenomena and Noumena.

Phenomena are the objects and events as we experience them. For example, when you see, touch, or use a table, you experience the table as a phenomenon. Your senses and mind shape this experience, and you perceive the table as having specific properties (e.g., made of wood, brown in color, and rectangular in shape). Our sensory perceptions and cognitive faculties shape these experiences.

Noumena, however, are the things in themselves that exist independently of our perception. In the above example, Noumena is The Table's Essence: the table as it exists independently of anyone perceiving it.

While we can describe and interact with the table as a phenomenon, we can never fully grasp its true essence or existence apart from our perception.

Kant argues that everything we see is subjective because our understanding is limited to phenomena and always mediated by our subjective experience.

Here’s why Kant’s philosophy matters: we often forget how subjective things really are, and it causes all sorts of problems, both for us and others.

Why is it important to realize things are subjective?

Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant? Henry David Thoreau 

Fosters Empathy

Knowing that everyone’s opinion, including ours, is subjective can make us more empathetic and understanding. It’s easier to talk to someone with a differing viewpoint when you realize you have your own prejudices, too.

Empathy can be cultivated by practicing two key aspects: Active listening and not jumping to conclusions.

Instead of saying, “All superhero movies suck,” if we just added the qualifier, “I feel” all superhero movies suck,” our lives would have infinitely less friction.

Helps decision-making

The best decision-makers in the world share one common trait: their ability to question biases and seek contrary evidence.

There’s nothing greater than self-awareness, especially of our own biases, when we are about to make important decisions.

Makes us less judgy

There is no shortage of reasons we use to judge others. As someone quipped, "I don't judge people based on race, religion, or gender. I judge them based on grammar, use of emojis, and improper use of 'your' and 'you're.'"

Becoming less judgmental means being okay and not getting all riled up when you see people leave their empty shopping carts in a parking spot instead of returning them to the cart area.

Acknowledging subjectivity helps us respect diverse cultural and personal values, promoting a more inclusive and tolerant society.

In Short

Is everything subjective?  Maybe not, but the reality is there are very few universal truths. Mostly, it's just our opinions.

The subjectivity vs. objectivity debate is not just an abstract philosophical issue; it has practical implications for how we live our lives, interact with others, and make decisions.

Ultimately, recognizing that most of what we believe is subjective is the single most significant breakthrough we can achieve to break down barriers and have a frictionless life.

"Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one." Albert Einstein



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