The statement “Mozart’s music is better than Beethoven’s” is usually considered a subjective opinion.
But this statement has the same form as “Mozart’s music is better than the music of the three-year old girl who lives upstairs from me and bangs on her toy piano sometimes.”
Is this latter statement also subjective? Calling it “subjective” or “a matter of opinion” feels wrong; someone who disagrees with me on this issue would be weird in a way someone who disagrees with me about chocolate vs. vanilla ice cream isn’t. But the girl-upstairs question seems similar enough to the Beethoven question that admitting the existence of an objective answer here seems to force belief in an objective answer about the relative merit of Beethoven.
And of course part of the answer here is the extent of human variation. For whatever reasons – different genetics, different life experiences, whatever – people have different tastes in music. The human music-appreciating-organ varies enough that some people can prefer Mozart to Beethoven and other people can express the opposite preference. But it doesn’t vary enough that any person’s music-appreciating-organ could prefer the girl upstairs.
Or to give another example, for whatever reason some people’s taste buds prefer vanilla and other people’s taste buds prefer chocolate, but basic regularities in human design – like the evolutionary need for sugar and the neural connections between sugar receptors and pleasure pathways – suggest that pretty much everyone will prefer either of those to horseradish ice cream.
But let’s take another example: was Mozart’s music more original than Beethoven’s? This question sounds a lot like the first question of whether Mozart’s music was better. And it shares the same sort of weird half-subjective half-objectiveness (let’s call it ambijectivity) – it seems completely open to disagreement whether Mozart or Beethoven was more original, but there are other questions – like “Was Mozart’s music more original than that of the average Elvis impersonator?” for which no sane disagreement is possible.
But it’s a lot harder to believe there’s an originality-detecting organ in the brain than that there’s a music-appreciation-organ or a taste-detecting-organ. Even for the very vague and sloppy definition of “organ” being used here.
Or another question: is Pluto a planet? The correct answer is “meh, stop arguing about definitions, whether something is a planet or not isn’t an objective fact about the universe”. But is my left foot a planet? Here the correct answer is “no”.
So I think of ambijective statements as being undefined over a whole set of possible meanings. For example, “is X a planet” is undefined over:
1. is X larger than most moons, but smaller than most stars?
2. is X spherical under its own gravity?
3. does X orbit a star directly?
4. does X have a regular orbit in terms of ellipticalness and orientation to the plane?
5. is X a natural body made of rock and gas and stuff like that?
Pluto satisfies 2, 3, and 5, but arguably not 1 and 4, therefore it’s “subjective” whether or not it’s a planet insofar as you can choose which of these definitions you want to use. My left foot doesn’t satisfy any of these criteria, so anyone claiming it’s a planet doesn’t have a leg to stand on.
Moving back to the first question: whose music is better, Mozart’s or Beethoven’s? We can cash out “better” in several ways:
1. I enjoy it more
2. You enjoy it more
3. More people prefer it
4. It’s more famous
5. It satisfies the sorts of rules music theorists talk about more precisely
Worse, each of these definitions is itself underspecified. For example, criteria 1 could vary based on which song we’re talking about – do I have to enjoy Beethoven’s best song more than Mozart’s best song, or the average Beethoven song more than the average Mozart song?
It could vary based on when you’re asking the question – maybe Mozart speaks to me when I’m sad, but Beethoven when I’m happy; is this averaged over all possible moods, and are we weighting it for the moods I’m most likely to have?
It could vary based on what you mean by “enjoy” – maybe Mozart creates more powerful emotions in me, but I am more impressed by Beethoven’s technical precision, plus maybe Mozart only produces sad emotions in me and Beethoven inspires me to love, and what if I am impelled to listen to Mozart songs more often but when I do listen to Beethoven I find I like him better but that mysteriously fails to translate into more Beethoven-listening time?
We could probably break even these sub-sub-questions down, and go through the same procedure for each of our original five criteria, until we have hundreds or thousands of extremely specific questions. Eventually we will bottom out in objective questions, the sort you could solve by scientific experiment if you wanted to – for example, if we decided on a very specific rating system for songs, we could ask me to rate a specific performance of one randomly chosen Beethoven song and one randomly chosen Mozart song each morning when I woke up.
(In practice, maybe there are infinitely many questions, but at some point the questions become so similar that the difference between them become noise that we no longer care about. For example, “do I prefer Beethoven at 10:00 AM” and “do I prefer Beethoven at 10:00 AM + 1 microsecond”.)
So suppose we have 1000 objective questions which all combine to form the question “Who is better, Beethoven or Mozart?” The “subjectivity” comes in not just in who we’re talking about (eg my music-appreciation-organ which is a little different from your music-appreciation-organ) but in how we weight these different questions in composing the meta-question “better”. This is a purely linguistic problem – if we have any disputes after this, we’re arguing about definitions.
This explains why it’s not “subjective” that Mozart is better than my upstairs neighbor. All those 1000 questions are very closely correlated, so it may be that my upstairs neighbor doesn’t win on any of them, and therefore there’s no way to compose the term “better” in which my neighbor could possibly be better than Mozart. Or maybe my neighbor only wins on two of the thousand questions, and no one has a definition of “better” which weights those questions higher than the remaining 998.
This post is mostly just so I have a word to refer to this kind of thinking quickly next time I get stuck in a subjective vs. objective dispute.