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Is Morality a Matter of Taste?

5. Definitions and Use of 'Objective'

5.1 Dictionary Definitions

Book cover: Enquiries Concerning the Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals by David Hume

Some critics have claimed that I have misappropriated the word 'objective' to suit my own philosophical position. I want to say just a few brief words on this point. All of the major dictionaries give a central sense of the word 'objective' as pertaining to things external to the mind. This is true and I accept this.

However, the major dictionaries list a second central meaning of the term as `impartial' and 'unbiased'. For example, the British Dictionary lists the second adjectival sense of 'objective' as 'undistorted by emotion or personal bias'. Likewise, the Penguin Macquarie Dictionary defines the second adjectival sense as 'free from personal feelings or prejudice; unbiased'.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary gives the third full definition as:

expressing or dealing with facts or conditions as perceived without distortion by personal feelings, prejudices, or interpretations . . . <an objective judgment>

In its Synonym Discussion of objective, it goes on to say:

FAIR, JUST, EQUITABLE, IMPARTIAL, UNBIASED, DISPASSIONATE, OBJECTIVE mean free from favor toward either or any side. . . . OBJECTIVE stresses a tendency to view events or persons as apart from oneself and one's own interest or feelings <I can't be objective about my own child>.

In common parlance, we sometimes ask people to 'be objective' in this sense as they think through making an important decision. Here are two examples:

  1. A good friend of ours is contemplating whether to accept a marriage proposal.
  2. Our neighbour is working through how to distribute her worldly goods after she dies.

In these circumstances, we advise our friend and neighbour to 'think objectively' about their decision. Of course, we aren't appealing to some metaphysical realm of 'objective' transcendent truths. We are asking them to reflect on their most settled and important preferences and to not be swayed by short-term feelings that will prejudice the outcomes they want. It is in this sense of 'impartiality' that ethics is objective.

Copyright © 2017

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