In a number of recent posts the issue of "when does life begin" has come up. Nothing new for this blog, to be sure. Zhubin (the man who got me started blogging) has repeatedly made the claim that that question can only be answered "subjectively." His point is that because the answer is not objective it should be left to every individual to decide on their own (thus paving the way for abortion (even late term), embryonic stem cell research, etc.).
As a result of his argument I've spent a good deal of time thinking about subjectivity and objectivity, and the way those can play into this debate. I've spent some time talking about this in comments sections before, but I think it's something that warrants it's own post.
My working premise here is basically that subjectivity is completely irrelevant to the question of when life begins. Let's take a step back though, because I think Zhubin is right, that the answer itself is subjective.
What do we mean when we say "subjective"? Only that it cannot be known without reference to a person's internal state of mind. Objective means the opposite - that the answer can be known by looking at the world. Subjective questions are things like, "Do you feel hot or cold? What is your favorite color? Why are you marrying him? What things do you value?" Objective questions are things like "Is this an apple tree? How many apples are on the tree? If I drop the apple why does it fall to the ground?" It's not a difficult distinction.
Notice though that just because a question is subjective does not mean that the answer is relative (by relative I mean that every answer is as good as every answer). Objective questions cannot be relative (I'm pretty sure... if anyone can come up with one, I'll withdraw this claim). On the other hand, subjective questions can be relative. For example, "what is your favorite color" is a completely relative claim. It's a question of opinion.
But just because some subjective questions are relative doesn't mean they all are. In fact, I would say that most subjective questions (or at least the interesting ones) aren't relative. For example, "why are you marrying him?" is a subjective question to which there are better and worse answers. A very good answer would be "because I love him." A very bad answer would be "because then I get to go on a honeymoon."
We can all see quite clearly what makes the good answer good and the bad answer bad (if you need me to explain it, I suppose I can...). Not only that, but we'd all agree that the good answer is the better one, and the bad answer is the worse one. Maybe someone could say something about what's missing for the good answer, or what the bad answer has going for it, but ultimately we're all going to agree that the good answer is the better one, and the bad answer is the worse of the two.
The fact that we would all agree on this speaks volumes about the fact that subjectivity does not equal relativity. First, this shows an expectation that we all carry. Unlike with an opinion, we expect that a person will give a reasoned response to the question "why are you marrying him?" This is the kind of question we would think about before giving the answer, and we naturally assume that others would think about it too. Secondly this shows a universality to the answer. There might ultimately be lots of good reasons that answer the question, and different people might weigh the good options slightly differently. But when you get right down to it, there's a heck of a lot more agreement about what constitutes a good answer then there is disagreement. It'd be a rare person who says a honeymoon is an appropriate reason to get married.
Beyond the the fact that we all agree roughly on the answer is a more important point: the fact that there is a good answer and a bad answer reveals that the subjective is susceptible to reason, and is not merely the product of opinion. We can evaluate, appraise, debate, construct, hone and share our subjective conclusions. Using reason as a tool we can come to a better subjective answer to a question. We all do this, all the time. Or at least I hope we do... We aren't simply born with a set of subjective views, nor do we simply happen upon them in our lives. Our subjective views are learned. Through our experiences, through our classes, through our families and heroes and examples. Our subjective views can change and transform over time, as we learn new things and allow reason to continue to work on our ideals (I suppose it can also work the other way too, that we can continue to let prejudices and lack of reason affect our subjective views).
The ultimate point here is that, because our subjective views can be influenced by reason they are not relative. Reason directs us to the better answers, and away from the worst. There is no necessary connection between subjectivity and relativity. To say so is to deny that reason plays a role in developing our subjective views. We might not all reason to the same result, but we're probably all going to get pretty close, and narrow the disagreements down to just a few points. The resulting disagreements aren't a reason to disengage, but rather a call for us to actively work towards consensus. Working together - listening carefully, advocating constructively, and reasoning precisely - will move us all in the direction of the best results.
And... to bring this all back around to the abortion issue: Zhubin has said we should leave it to the individual mother to answer the question "when is life worth protecting" because the answer to that question is subjective. My response is: so what? There are still better and worse answers to that question, and it is our duty to put our reason to work coming to the best resolution of that question that we possibly can. The subjectivity of the question just gives us all the more reason to engage our reason.
No more a rake and no more a bachelor
I was wedded and it whetted my thirst