Value Judgements: Objective Versus Subjective and What Lies In between

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Are objects "good-in-themselves"

Is the so-called “discerning eye” merely subjective or are objects “good-in-themselves?” Copyright image by Janet Cameron, all rights reserved.

Do you know exactly what you like? Do you have excellent taste in all things and feel others should respect that, and follow your example?

Do you think it’s a matter of each to his or her own, or do you believe objects have intrinsic value which the discerning eye can perceive?

Do you sometimes pander to tradition  and cheat a little, professing to adore Beethoven when, actually, you are well into Snoop Dogg?

How do you know what and who is right? It’s complicated…

Objective Versus Subjective

In our human world, there are things that we can measure or test and, therefore, verify or falsify. Consequently, there is no difficulty in discovering or describing the facts. These we call objective judgements.


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However, subjective comparisons pose a greater problem, for example: “Which chair is the most comfortable?” Much depends, not only on personal preference, but also on what the chair is for – an  armchair, an ergonomic chair for working at a desk, or a dining chair.

In his book Learning to Philosophise, E.R. Emmett points out that an  individual making comparisons describes the effect different people or objects have on him or her.  However, these people or objects  will not necessarily have the same effect on others.

Sometimes we infer judgements from incomplete evidence, but when these are judgements are about facts they may, in due course, be proved true or false.

Value Judgements

While statements of taste and statements of fact judgements are extremes, there are expressions of opinion which lie between the two, and we class these as “value judgements.” For example, a schoolteacher who gives a rating to an essay may intend to be objective, but may be, unintentionally, subjective. He may simply prefer the content of the essay submitted by one student, and dislike that of another. Therefore, he loses sight of his objectivity.

E.R. Emmett, in Learning to Philosophise, includes several examples showing that the words “better than” are ambiguous in meaning. “Better than, but in what way?” he asks.

We need to know the criteria in order to make such an assessment. The schoolteacher evaluating the essays needs to think not only about spelling and punctuation, an entertaining style and his own personal preference, but also about what effect the essay might have on people in general.

Emmett points out the danger of constantly needing to put people and things in orders of merit where it is impossible to be precise. However,  he concedes that marking, imperfect as it is, is of value, and that the only way of ensuring this is to have precise and appropriate criteria, so that it is possible to  decide whether the purposes are achieved.

The Unanswerableness of the Question of Intrinsic Value

Experts, says Emmett, are there to study what is agreeable to most people, and adds that a work of merit is a work of merit, even though the experts may not recognise it as such.

Reproduction of Sistine Chapel.

The ceiling of the English Martyrs Catholic Church, Goring By Sea, West  Sussex, which shows a reproduction by Gary Bevans of the original Sistine Chapel. Copyright image by Janet Cameron, all rights reserved.

An objectivist might say Jane Austen possessed greater literary merit than Barbara Taylor Bradford, but the subjectivist would point out that more people enjoy the latter. Who is right or wrong? What artwork is intrinsically beautiful or is beauty a matter of opinion? Emmett  concludes by saying that “good in itself” is a phrase that is empty and meaningless and that “intrinsic value” is purely relative.

R.S. Hartman, in Value Theory as a Formal System, says: “Whenever anybody thinks that a thing fulfils its definition he will call it good and whenever he thinks it does not fulfil its definition he will call it bad, and thus he will confirm axiology. [Axiology means “the science of value.”] Whether he rightly or wrongly thinks that a thing fulfils its definition is a different question – not one of axiology but of its application.”

Definition of the Difference Between “Merit” and “Value”

Let’s look at the difference between “merit” and “worth.”

Lincoln and Guba, in their paper, “Distinction between Merit and Worth” say, “Merit may be defined as an entity’s inherent, intrinsic, context-free value, while an entity’s worth is defined as its contextually determined place-bound value.”

To evaluate an entity’s merit requires the combined wisdom of a group of experts. To consider an entity’s worth, it needs to be seen in operation. This means, says Lincoln and Guba, that “…while merit may be determined in any number of ways, worth may be determined only by intensive field studies on site.”

The Problem with the Linguistic Philosophers

One of the problems with the linguistic philosophers is endemic in Emmett’s book which focuses on language and not issues. Many linguistic philosophers believe we should focus on how we use language in order to discover meanings and start to find solutions to philosophical puzzles.

On the other hand, while linguistic philosophy can help to clarify some points, and in this respect is extremely useful,  it cannot always deal with issues and provide answers to the real problems.

An example of an issue concerning prioritising values is as follows:

Priority of Values

In the novel, Sophie’s World, Josein Gaarder’s central protagonist considers this important question of priority of values.

“For example, it could be of value to drive a car and get quickly from one place to another. But if driving led to deforestation and polluting the natural environment you were facing a choice of values. After careful consideration, Sophie felt she had come to the conclusion that healthy forests and a pure environment were more valuable than getting to work quickly.”

Objective vs. Subjective Choices

Every day, in our ordinary lives, collectively or individually, we are forced to make choices similar to Sophie’s choice. If a certain speed limit saves just one life per year, is it worth all those lost man-hours as people try to get to work on time?

Currently, in UK, there are discussions in progress regarding prioritising the treatment of workers with anxiety or depression over and above whose who are not officially in paid employment, for example, pensioners and mothers. This may be economically justifiable, but it goes against certain values relating to equality of opportunity and care. Our lives are full of these difficult choices and it is important to prioritise our values in ways that are ethical and compassionate.

We need to decide (or intuit) wisely when to be objective and when to be subjective even though it is far from easy.

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