What is objective vs. subjective value?

Estimated reading time 5 mins.

Another vital question from a reader has prompted another public response as the clarification might be of interest to other readers. And more, if I’m to promote Objective Optimism, differentiating it from Subjective “Optimism,” it will be of great value to lay out the distinction in a post for future reference.

Following my recent post (which itself was a response to a question), “Is it evil to help others at your own peril?,” a reader commented:

You mention ‘objective values’ .

What is an ‘objective’ value and what is a ‘subjective’ value?

Also: What do you mean by ‘objective’ and what do you mean by ‘subjective’? If someone puts forward a theory which nobody else agrees with, then is that theory objective or subjective?

Intrinsic is not objective

While intrinsic value was not included in the question, I will in any case start with that, as it is often mistaken for objective value. The intrinsic theory of value holds that things are good in and of themselves, divorced from any relationship to a valuer, regardless of any injury or benefit to any actor involved—to any subject.

The subjective theory of value holds that reality is a product of man’s consciousness, and with that, value is created by the subject’s feelings, wishes, desires, or whims. “If I want it, it’s good for me.” To be subjective means to be arbitrary, irrational, or blindly emotional.

The objective theory of value, in contrast to both the above, holds that the good is,

“…neither an attribute of “things in themselves” nor of man’s emotional states, but an evaluation of the facts of reality by man’s consciousness according to a rational standard of value…The objective theory holds that the good is an aspect of reality in relation to man—and that it must be discovered, not invented, by man.”

Peikoff, Leonard. Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p.242

This means that if we’re to say that something is good for a person, it is not a matter of his feelings or whims but of objective fact. Given the nature of human beings, and of the particular subject, we may objectively say that something is of benefit or injury to the person. Water, for instance, is an objective value. The value of water is neither “in the water itself” nor because the subject wants it, but because of the nature of water in relation to human survival. Poison, likewise, can be said to be objectively bad for a person, as it will kill him in particular doses (doses set by reality, not one’s feelings). It doesn’t matter if a person says, “Maybe it’s bad for you, but I like poison. It tastes good and makes me feel good” (as a heroine addict might say). Reality will have the final say, and an objective approach looks out to reality and then judges what is good or bad given the context.

I strongly refer you to this short read from Ari Armstrong in The Objective Standard, Fall 2014 edition, “Economists “Subjective Value” and Ayn Rand’s Objective Value Reconciled.” It is highly clarifying on this critical point.

Objective vs. subjective

To be objective means to recognize the fact that reality exists independent of any perceiver’s consciousness while subjectivism is the belief that reality is not absolute but may be altered in whole or in part by the consciousness of the perceiver, according to his feelings or wishes. This latter is concretized in the expression, “It may be true for you, but it’s not my truth.” While this may be valid if taken superficially to mean that someone else’s experience is not the same as another’s, taken philosophically and literally, it is completely invalid.

Truth is a matter or objective reality, i.e., facts which are perceivable, but not invented, by man. And it is with this that we can judge the truth or falsehood of any proposed theory, whether anyone agrees with it or not. Many people did not agree that the Earth was round when it was first proposed, as it seemed obviously flat. But it was not a subjective theory. Rather, it was based on the facts of reality and was able to be demonstrated to be true, whether people wanted to believe it or not.

The same is true with health and nutrition science. While complicated, the human body has a nature and various actions and aspects of reality have a positive or negative effect on our health, regardless of how we feel about it. And just as there are true or false theories and principles in health science (most of them still to be proved and much left to be discovered), so there are true or false moral principles which can be derived from the observation of objective reality. Given the nature of human consciousness and the requirements for human survival, we can derive what are good actions to take and what are bad or detrimental actions; the former we may designate as “virtue” and the latter “vice.” And whether anyone agrees or not, reality will tell.

(To the “nature of human consciousness,” and as an example of objectivity vs. subjectivity, I have said elsewhere that even introspection can be said to be an objective pursuit, so long as the mind is regarded as the detached object under observation and consideration, as opposed to taking whatever feelings emerge from it as fact.)

Thinking versus feeling

In brief, when I refer to objective value versus subjective value, I mean that which is the result of careful, rational thought which takes into account the nature of the the subject and the nature of reality versus claims which are the result of irrationality and arbitrarily blind emotions. Thinking, here, refers to a process of identification and integration, which means the identification and integration of the facts of reality, facts which exist apart from and independent of any subject’s consciousness or feelings—or whether any subject exists at all to identify and integrate them. Existence exists. A is A. And this is absolute. To recognize this is to be objective.

I don’t know how helpful this has been for you, Valued Reader, but I hope it has led you toward slightly more clarity. Thank you once again for your question, and I’ll always invite more to help us in that goal.

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