The trouble with chronological subjectivism; or why we need an objective standard to move ahead

So, ‘daylight saving’ started today in NZ – spring forward, fall back and all that jazz. That means you should’ve set some clocks forward a few hours ago, in case you missed the memo. It’s actually not too late, you can still catch up!

a useful standard

This provides an excuse to share a thought. As part of my explorations in amateur philosophising I’ve discovered that in order to function in this world, you’ll run into difficulties if you invent your own concept of time and try to hold others to it. To illustrate, last night I set my phone’s clock forward. Pretty cool story, I know – and it doesn’t get too much more exciting. This piece of tech went against what its settings say it will and, trying to be helpful, set itself forward another hour while I slept. To cut the sad story short, this resulted in a few minutes of confusion, a tired-er Zachary, some bonus time to spend catching up on some reading, and a eureka moment.

Subjectivism doesn’t work when it comes to keeping time – you need some kind of standard above the opinions of individuals. It took a while for me to be sure of what the actual time was; if everyone was in the same state of confusion, it’d be quite a mess. In general when we make claims that we expect others to hold to the truth of or act in the light of, an external standard which corresponds to the claims is expected. A standard which is accessible, what is more.

Morality, if it is to be meaningful, is the same (I realise there are disanalogies too, but I don’t think they’re too relevant). It seems to me that the idea that morality is just subjective collapses straight down into scepticism and to denying that there is such a thing; and that as such without positing an objective set of moral facts one cannot talk meaningfully of the truth of egalitarianism, feminism, environmentalism, libertarianism, or whatever ones ideological opiate of choice may be. Note that just as my agnosticism concerning the ‘real’ time this morning didn’t impact whether there was a true time, whether we have access to all or any of these moral facts is a separate question to whether there are such facts. If there are no such facts, then we cannot, I think, talk of interpersonal obligations or duties, of rights, or ascribe value to any of our actions or traits. An additional question is what counts as a reliable guide, whether in matters of chronology or morality – I suspect only positing the intentional actions of an informed agent with good intentions (e.g. Dad bringing the clocks in the house into line with the standard time) will suffice, but I leave that strand for later development.

To conclude, if any person reading this wishes to deny the existence of objective moral duties, or to make up their own version of the correct time, then do be consistent about it – but also do consider an alternate possibility, that the best standard has in fact been pre-set and widely broadcast and that we can have our own rhythm of life set in accordance with its supreme faithfulness.

Some arguments for chronological subjectivism (picking your own time)
– time is a human construct
– beliefs about time are probably produced by cognitive modules evolved for other purposes and known to be quite unreliable
– humans are subjects, and the time is an item of human knowledge, therefore subjective
– metanarratives of objectivity are soo 19th century
– ‘the time’ is neither material, nor determined empirically – if it exists, it clearly doesn’t make much difference to anything
– people often disagree about what the time is, and some people claim to have no knowledge of it whatsoever
– some people (e.g. those provided watches in childhood) are more likely to have been brought up in a situation where they claim to have knowledge of the time than others
– we live in a pluralistic society and shouldn’t make absolutist claims about such things
– time is a very old concept, invented by Bronze Age savages (if not before) – we now have moved past such myths into an age of Science
– some people say that Science makes the best sense if we do it against a backdrop involving a notion of time transcending the individual experimenter or their lab – but we shouldn’t bow to pressure on this issue coming from some unenlightened people who feel things would be nicer if there were an over-arching standard. They need to grow up and live in the cold reality of the real world, taking heart from science and human progress (construed in a non-realist way).


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