Objective vs. Subjective in Philosophy and Religion

Differentiating Between the Objective and the Subjective

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Distinctions between objectivity and subjectivity lie at the heart of debates and conflicts in philosophy, morality, journalism, science, and more. Very often "objective" is treated as a vital goal while "subjective" is used as a criticism. Objective judgments are good; subjective judgments are arbitrary. Objective standards are good; subjective standards are corrupt.

Reality isn't so clean and neat: there are areas where objectivity is preferable, but other areas where subjectivity is better.

Objectivity, Subjectivity, and Philosophy

In philosophy, the distinction between objective and subjective normally refers to judgements and claims which people make. Objective judgements and claims are assumed to be free from personal considerations, emotional perspectives, etc. Subjective judgements and claims, however, are assumed to be heavily (if not entirely) influenced by such personal considerations.

Thus, the statement "I am six feet tall" is considered to be objective because such precise measurement is presumed to be uninfluenced by personal preferences. Moreover, the accuracy of the measurement can be checked and re-checked by independent observers.

In contrast, the statement "I like tall men" is an entirely subjective judgment because it can be informed solely by personal preferences - indeed, it is a statement of personal preference.

Is Objectivity Possible?

Of course, the degree to which any objectivity can be achieved - and, hence, whether or not the distinction between objective and subjective exists - is a matter of great debate in philosophy.

Many argue that true objectivity cannot be achieved except perhaps in matters like mathematics while everything else must be reduced to degrees of subjectivity. Others argue for a less stringent definition of objectivity which allows for fallibility but which is nevertheless focused on standards that are independent of the preferences of the speaker.

Thus the measurement of a person's height at six feet may be treated as objective even though the measurement can't be precise down to the nanometer, the measuring device may not be completely accurate, the person who did the measuring is fallible, and so forth.

Even the choice of measurement units is arguably subjective to some degree, but in a very real objective sense a person is six feet tall, or they are not regardless of our subjective preferences, desires, or feelings.

Objectivity, Subjectivity, and Atheism

Because of the very fundamental nature of the distinction between objectivity and subjectivity, atheists who engage in any sort of philosophical discussion with theists on issues like morality, history, justice, and of course the need to understand these concepts. Indeed, it's hard to think of a common debate between atheists and theists where these concepts don't play a basic role, either explicitly or implicitly.

The easiest example is the question of morality: it's very, very common for religious apologists to argue that only their beliefs provide an objective foundation for morality. Is this true and, if it is, is it a problem for subjectivity to be a part of morality? Another very common example comes from historiography or the philosophy of history: to what degree are religious scriptures a source of objective historical facts and to what degree are they subjective accounts — or even just theological propaganda?

How do you tell the difference?

Knowledge of philosophy is useful in just about every area of possible debate, in large part because philosophy can help you better understand and use basic concepts like these. On the other hand, since people aren't very familiar with these concepts, you may end up spending more time explaining the basics than debating the higher-level issues.

That's not objectively a bad thing, but it may be subjectively disappointing if it's not what you were hoping to do.