It is often argued that quality is subjective, but I am convinced this line of thinking is wrong. I can enjoy reading trash and listening to schmaltzy music, but I don’t think that the trash is as good as Shakespeare or the schmaltz as good as Bach. I can separate quality from enjoyment.
Quantity and Quality: Objective and Subjective
It is easy to do counting, and so it is easy to find out the quantity of things. I eat so many calories, and if I eat this bar of chocolate I will have eaten so many more (and the results are fairly predictable). The quality of the chocolate is trickier. It certainly has to do with how much of what goes into it. (The proportion of cocoa butter, I am told, is quite important for chocolate.) So quantity does matter for quality — they’re not entirely separate. But the quality is trickier to count.
It is often argued that quality is subjective — that if I like a particular kind of chocolate, for example, then that is what high quality chocolate is (for me). I am convinced that this line of reasoning is wrong. I can enjoy reading trash and listening to schmaltzy music, but I don’t think that the trash is as good as Shakespeare or the schmaltz as good as Bach. I can separate quality from enjoyment.
The argument for quality being subjective is really saying that quality is the same as my enjoyment. My enjoyment is subjective, and therefore quality is subjective. The mistake is the first part of the argument: that quality is (only) enjoyment. I can recognise the difference between a good and bad wine, I can even recognise that it is far superior to beer, and still prefer to drink beer. I can recognise the extraordinary quality in (some of) Picasso’s painting and still prefer something beautiful and lower quality to be hanging in my living room. (Another option is to go for Matisse — high quality and beautiful; my artistic prejudices are showing, I think.)
The argument for quality being subjective is usually the contrast with the idea of quantity being subjective. The argument is that we can all agree on counting stuff, and so quantity is taken to be objective.
This has its truth: there are aspects of reality that are readily verifiable, and these can matter a lot. A bridge needs to be able to bear a certain amount of load or the results can be fatal. A road can carry a certain amount of traffic before it is jammed full.
The problem is that ‘objective’ is then taken to mean that the matter is settled. We need a bridge of this strength, we need a road that can carry this many cars. But this is wrong. This counting doesn’t count what is destroyed by the road. It doesn’t take into account who wants the bridge and for what.
Here’s an example of what I mean. In Australia, where I’m from, the government of Queensland (one of the states of Australia) built a freeway from Brisbane, the state’s capital, to the Gold Coast. It needed to carry so many cars. And so a six-lane monstrosity was built. Why did it need to be built? So people could commute to work in Brisbane from the Gold Coast. Freeways cost millions of dollars per kilometre. The Gold Coast is about 60-80 kilometres from Brisbane. For this kind of money, the government could have equipped many thousands of people with laptops so they could work from home and ‘tele-commute’; they could have set up neighbourhood technology centres so that people could ‘tele-commute’ from these places. Thinking more creatively, they could have funded small businesses on the Gold Coast (with low interest loans — this could well have made a profit instead of costing tens of millions). All of these would have reduced the environmental and social costs of commuting.
The quality of life can be negatively affected even when the ‘objective’ numbers are quite clear.
Part 2 of this post takes a look at the risk of mixing up quantity and quality — especially when it comes to improving the quality of our lives.
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