objectivity vs subjectivity

2011-12-02

As I grow older, I find myself thinking about things differently that I did when I was younger. One way to over-generalize would be to say as a child, the world was black and white. There were good people and bad people, and things were right or wrong. This is, of course, a grossly incompetent way of looking at the world. The classic example is the man who steals medicine for his dying wife. The couple has several children and they can't afford the medicine legally. If she doesn't get it, she will certainly die soon. Is it right for the man to steal the medicine? Objectively, no, it's not right to steal under any circumstances. But what if it was your loved one? When you picture yourself in the problem, it gets foggier, it gets more grey and uncertain. This is subjectivity.

This is the wonderful thing about growing up. As a child, you would most likely say "No" to the first example of the man stealing for his wife. But when asked if it was right if it was your mom that was going to die, most of you would have broken down in tears and at least given it a good second thought, even if you didn't necessarily come to the conclusion that it would be right The correct answer would be to say stealing is wrong, period. The right answer ... is something only you can decide for yourself. That's part of being an adult: the realization that you can decide things for yourself, even right and wrong. That's also what I believe the meaning of life is. You have to decide what the meaning of your life is, there is no universal answer.

In this way, subjectivity is stronger than objectivity, because it empowers you to make the decision for yourself. Objectivity is limited in what it can offer you, because in a very fundamental way, something that's objective must also to some extent be static. For example, if I asked you to drop everything and go on a trip this week, across the country, I don't think most of you would be agreeable.

Now imagine you receive the awful news that your grandfather has passed away, and you have to drop everything to fly across the county to attend his funeral. Now the cross-country trip has a different meaning, and of course you would go. What changed? You received a new piece of information that profoundly affected your desire to do something. I would say that would be a dynamic attitude, where you can change your thinking and behavior based on new information. In this case, being dynamic helps because if you were set on not traveling for some reason, you'd miss an important family event. Now of course, this is an extreme example, but it does show that new information can profoundly change your thinking and behavior, and this can be desirable.