The phrase “subjective truth” is an oxymoron. If something is a truth, then it is simply true and we can leave out the word “subjective.” If we have a string of words that do not express a truth (e.g. “Oh yum!”), then we may want to use the word “subjective” but we can leave out the word “truth.” Consider ordinary cases where someone might say that a truth is “subjective”:
- Alex’s favorite color is green.
- Joe prefers vanilla ice cream to chocolate.
- Adam received a B on his history final.
Supposing that it really is the case that Alex’s favorite color is green, that Joe really does prefer vanilla, and that Adam really did receive a B, all three of these sentences express simple truths. These are simple facts about the world, the same world that we all live in. If (1) is true, then there is a person named Alex and he really does have a preference for the color green. The fact that Alex has a friend who prefers purple does not alter the truth of (1) at all, it simply makes a completely different proposition true:
- Alex’s friend prefers purple.
What is more, Alex’s friend does not make (1) half-way true or “kinda” true. Propositions (1) and (4) are both simply true, and their truth is completely compatible with one another just as much as the truth that “four and six makes ten” is completely compatible with the truth that “two and two makes four.” Obviously, the subjects “Alex” and “Alex’s friend,” are central to the meaning of (1) and (4), and so we may conclude that “subjective truths” are simply objective truths that include a reference to subjects, but that is hardly what people usually mean. It would be much easier to simply talk about truths that refer to people and truths that do not.
This suggests, however, another way that we may understand the idea of “subjective truths”: Perhaps there are sentences that do not include a reference to a subject, but that lack a truth value without such a reference and furthermore change their truth value depending on which subject we supply. Consider what would happen, for instance, if we deleted the reference to Joe in (2) and massaged what is left into something grammatically acceptable:
- Vanilla ice cream is preferred to chocolate.
Now we could simply interpret such a sentence as saying, “There is some subject S such that S prefers vanilla ice cream to chocolate,” in which case (2′) would be entailed by (2). Or we could interpret it as saying that all people, or nearly everyone, or most, have such a preference, but with all these options we are still simply left with plain old truths about the preferences of a population—more simple facts about one and the same reality. But we could also interpret (2′) in such a way that it is neither true nor false until we supply an answer to the question: “Preferred by whom?” If we supply Alex, who prefers chocolate, then the sentence comes out false, but if we supply Joe, the sentence comes out true. But again, the notion of subjective truth does not really help us here. Before we supply the missing subject, we do not have a truth at all. We simply have an incomplete thought that requires further expansion before we can evaluate its truth value. Although the words form a grammatically complete sentence, they do not indicate a logically complete proposition.
Our third sentence presents a harder case since I often hear students say that they prefer math class to history class because the grade they receive in math class is “objective,” whereas the grade they receive in history is “so subjective.” Now in a straight-forward way, (3) gives us just as much a simple truth as (1). If Adam really did receive a B on his paper, then this is a fact about the world and (3) is true. If he actually received an A, then (3) is false. What my students mean, however, is that Adam received his grade from a subject, the grader, and that there is no higher court of appeal than that subject’s opinion about what Adam’s grade should be. In math, a student can work out the right answer to a question on a test independently of the teacher and discover whether the teacher graded the test correctly or not. In history, the student can—and frequently does—have a different opinion about what the grade should be, but one does not ordinarily appeal in such cases to “the right answer.” Hence students are apt to say that grades on history papers are “merely a matter of opinion.” What people generally mean, then, when they say that such things are subjective is not about the grade that Adam did receive but about the grade that he should have received. With this in mind, consider three versions that include this normative element:
- Adam’s teacher thinks that Adam’s paper should have received a B.
- Adam thinks that his paper should have received an A.
- Adam’s paper should have received a C.
Now, (3a) and (3b) are really not facts about Adam’s paper but facts about the thoughts and opinions of people. But if these were real people with real thoughts, then these would be just as much claims about features of the real world as claims about the sky and the trees. If Adam really does think he deserves an A, then it is a simple truth that he thinks this. (3a) and (3b), therefore, are in the same class and can be analyzed in the same way as (1) and (4). What my students are really driving at is (3c). They seem to think that there simply is no fact of the matter about (3c) and all we have are the opinions of more or less qualified graders. But if there is no fact of the matter about (3c), then we still do not have a “subjective truth.” We simply have a string of words that is not true. It does not express, on their view, a fact about the world, so it simply does not express a truth. The only truths we can express would be truths about the grade he did, as a matter of fact, receive, or the grade that various people think he should have received, and these are plain, old, simple truths. In my view, we should perhaps reconsider the assumption that there is no fact of the matter about (3c), but we do not need to do this for the present argument. If there is a fact of the matter, then there will be a plain, old, simple truth, and if there is no fact of the matter then there will not. In neither case have we found the magical unicorn, “subjective truth.”