COLUMN: Stop calling things subjective


Ian Palacios, Columnist

Imagine discussing whether we should be allowed to own assault rifles with your friend. “We need to ban them because they can be used for mass murders, and there are better alternatives for defense and hunting,” you claim.

Your friend nods along as you continue. “And so if we ban assault rifles, we’ll be able to save lives while still preserving people’s freedom and ability to defend themselves. So, don’t you agree?”

Your friend takes a moment to think and then responds: “You offered strong reasons, and I think everything you said is plausible, but I just don’t see it the same way as you. Isn’t the answer really just subjective anyway? You have your opinion, and I have mine.”

What do you think of your friend’s response? Was it helpful? Did it further the conversation or bring us closer to knowing whether or not we should have assault rifles? Did she support her belief with arguments, or did she simply get away with holding an unjustified belief?

Though many things actually are subjective—like whether a joke is funny—this mindset of mislabeling issues as subjective is a problem. It halts productive conversation, and it lets people get away with unwarranted beliefs.

If a question is subjective, then the answer to that question simply depends on my beliefs or attitudes towards it. If you ask me, “Is tofu good?” I might say, “Well, for me it is, but maybe not for you,” and that’s perfectly fine. In the end anyway, whatever answer you choose doesn’t matter much, and we can’t blame you for liking or disliking tofu.

But now if I ask you, “Is beating homeless people up for fun wrong?” You’ll say, “Of course it is” and proceed to look at me funny.

Ah! But then I remember: what’s right and wrong is simply subjective, and so the answer simply depends on what I like. I like tofu, you don’t. I like beating homeless people up for fun, and you don’t. We have our differences, and that’s okay.

Do you see the problem?

Now, I don’t believe we should beat up homeless people, but the fact of the matter is that if I actually did believe that, and I thought it was subjective, no argument you give may ever change my mind. If we think it’s objective, however, then we could at least see that one of us is wrong and work forward from there.

You can try to give reasons why hurting people is wrong, but if I assert once again that the answer is just subjective, I can dodge any objection and any argument you give—even though I’d be obviously wrong.

Similarly, if we take this position with controversial issues like abortion or gun rights, we see the problem. We can never find the actual answer if we can’t agree that there is one, and people won’t change their minds, even when they really should.


Ian Palacios is a junior English and philosophy major. He can be reached at 581-2812 or