Thursday, 30 May 2013

Chili Flavoured Ice Cream

This is another in what could be called a series of articles on the raging debate over objectivity and subjectivity.  I’ll try to make this particular article freestanding, but those who want context could look at:


One might be forgiven for thinking that a popular argument for the existence of god, or at least the Christian God, is that based on the claim that objective moral values and duties do exist.  A simple Google search on the string “objective moral values” appears to return just under half a million hits.  However, we’ve experienced the vagaries of Google before.  Suffice to say, these are the figures after repeated clicking on the last o in Goooooooooogle, without looking at “similar results” (I did something similar with Bing as well):

·         “objective moral values” – 472 (Bing 543)

o   as above without “Craig” – 450 (Bing 622)

o   as above without “god” – 463 (Bing 248)

o   as above with neither “Craig” nor “god” – 460 (Bing 240)

o   as above with neither “theism” nor “theist” – 473 (Bing 569)

§  as above without “Craig” – 442 (Bing 564)

§  as above without “god” – 441 (Bing 242)

§  as above with neither “Craig” nor “god” – 417 (Bing 235)

The figures are a little screwy, but the conclusion that there isn’t really that much interest in “objective moral values” seems to be reasonably well founded.

Nevertheless, let us soldier on.

During my interchange with a chap with the handle LNC over at the Reasonable Faith forums (link above), he was if not evasive at least inconsistent in his definition of “objective”.  I just want to focus in on one particular aspect of the debate; centred on the idea that objective is the opposite of subjective.  I don’t want to use LNC’s grammar-based definitions here because, to be frank, they are ludicrous.  Instead I’ll try to explain what I think people generally mean by subjective and objective in these types of debates.

A common example used involves ice cream.  The argument might be something like this (thanks to LNC for the example):

Really, you are saying that right and wrong do exist, but they are subjective?  That’s your argument?  Do you know the difference between what are called moral realism and moral non-realism?  How do you take personal preferences and apply them beyond yourself?  For example, I like coconut ice cream.  That is my personal preference.  That doesn’t make coconut ice cream the “right” ice cream and all others “wrong.”  I have expressed my subjective preference.  Just because I like it, doesn’t make it right for everyone.  The same can be said for subjective morality.  You may prefer not murdering people while James Holmes prefers shooting people, even killing them.  If morality is subjective, then both of you are right and both of you are wrong.  Your morality is right for you and Holmes morality is wrong for you and vice versa.  If there is no objective standard, then there is not legitimate way for you to say that he is wrong and you are right.

Okay.  Let’s address the realism/non-realism thing first.  By “coconut ice cream”, I am assuming that LNC means “coconut flavoured ice cream”, which is ice cream that might be flavoured naturally with real bits of coconut.  I am not assuming that he means some sort of ice confection made of nothing but coconut.  So it’s the flavour that matters – an ice confection made almost entirely from coconut but with flavorants added would not be “coconut ice cream” for the purposes of the discussion.  If, for example, the right combination of flavorants to achieve a chocolate flavour were added, it would more accurately be described as “chocolate flavoured coconut-based ice confection”.

If one were a realist with respect to “coconut ice cream”, one would argue that there is in fact a real coconut flavour.  Such a realist would not be referring to a combination of flavours that are not coconut in themselves and which, under certain circumstances can result in a coconut flavour, but an actual, real, unitary thing – “coconut flavour” that conceptually could be distilled from a coconut and added by the spoonful to whatever food product you wanted.  There is no such thing, of course, and I don’t even think LNC (or indeed WLC) would argue that there was. 

With respect to “coconut flavour”, we are all non-realists.  We know that this flavour is just something that emerges from the combination of certain chemicals interacting with our senses of taste and smell.  The impression of “coconut-ness” of the ice cream occurs in our head, along with the impression that leads one to state “this coconut ice cream is more delicious than the chocolate”.

If we considered chili flavoured ice cream instead, we could identify a single compound that we know has a specific impact on the human mouth – capsaicin.  We can say, with some level of confidence, that if capsaicin was in your ice cream in greater than trace quantities, you’d be soon aware of it (unless your TRPV1 receptors were defective, desensitised or destroyed).

With chili flavoured ice cream we can make both subjective and objective assessments.

I could hand out samples of chili flavoured ice cream to unsuspecting punters and afterwards ask if it was “hot”.  The responses from my victims would be subjective, and possibly even violent.  They (when not hitting me) would be saying that the chili flavoured ice cream was “too hot for me” or “not too hot for me” or “funny tasting to me” or “delicious to me, can I have some more”.

Alternatively, I could send a sample off to a laboratory.  The boffins could analyse the sample and provide a report on how much capsaicin was in it.  If I sent them a range of samples, from different batches of ice cream for example, they could even tell me which has more or less capsaicin than the others.  This response would be objective.  The report that there is 0.28mg/g of capsaicin in the ice cream is not the result of a subjective assessment.

What the boffins could not detect is the objective level of deliciousness associated with the chili flavoured ice cream, in much the same way as they cannot detect the objective level of deliciousness associated with coconut ice cream.  Deliciousness is not real.

The boffins might, after some research, be able to assess just which combination of chemicals reliably results in an impression of “coconut-ness” – but to argue that we can quantify the chemical combination that we associate with “coconut” is to miss the point.  In other words, while the “coconut flavour” is not real, it is nevertheless more real than the “deliciousness” of the coconut ice cream.


Now we are in a position to say something about “objective” and “subjective”.

Objective implies that an assessment may be made based on something real, like the volatile aromatics that we associate with flavour, or the capsaicin that we associate with a hot chili.  An objective assessment can be repeated reliably: one kilo of chili flavoured ice cream containing almost three grams of capsaicin always contains almost three grams of capsaicin – it’s not half a gram for me and twelve for you.

When an assessment is subjective, however, it is based on something which cannot be measured or quantified, or on a perception which particular to a person or a situation.  A subjective assessment cannot be repeated reliably: even the most avid fan of chili flavoured ice cream today would have probably hated it as a child, and while I think it sounds perfectly delicious it would be irrational of me to assume that it would necessarily be delicious for you also.

So, the question we are left with is:

What are “objective moral values” tied to that would justify a claim, by theists, that they exist?


Anyone who identifies something real that could be argued to justify the “objective moral values” claim, for instance “the minimisation of suffering and the maximisation of well-being”, may be interested in a reading a book called “The Moral Landscape”.  Theists might not like it though.

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