Arshiya Shirin Husain ’26 (DCI Fellow)
“Subjective,” I’ve noticed, is a word that gets thrown around a lot in today’s day and age—not only in colloquial conversations, but also in mainstream media and politics.
I often hear people use subjectivity as a means to settle debates: “Oh, but morality is subjective,” one might say in order to resolve an argument on abortion or gun violence. While I can see how this is a reasonable defense, for reasons I’ve never been able to articulate well enough, it’s always bothered me.
The issue with the “subjectivity argument” (as I call it), in my opinion, is that it leaves no room for healthy debate, dialogue, or discussion.
My time so far as a DCI Fellow has taught me that there is an important distinction between respecting different opinions and understanding different opinions. Perhaps our world is too quick to do the former without paying any heed to the latter. In other words, in our attempt to become “respectful individuals,” we stop asking questions that are often difficult, yet necessary, to ask. In an ideal world, we want respect to go hand-in-hand with understanding.
As an example, I might not agree with somebody who proposes that the United States should have stricter immigration laws. But asking questions such as, “What makes you say that?” or, “Can you tell me more about why you think this?” will help me discover what the other person values and how their own life experiences come into play. Hearing the other side of the story might not change my own political views, but it will ignite a conversation that will allow me to humanize the people on the “other side.” Whereas in a world where I never asked the aforementioned questions, I would continue to feel disconnected from those with different opinions than mine. In the long run, this could lead to issues such as internal resentment being built up on either side.
As a DCI Fellow, I completed a series of lessons by the Constructive Dialogue Institute (CDI) titled Perspectives. One thing that struck me was the idea of how the same values can lie at the core of different opinions. For instance, you might value protecting all forms of life. Perhaps, for Person A, this could mean that they identify as a Republican and take a pro-life stance in the debate on abortion. For Person B, it could mean that they identify as a Democrat and advocate for stricter gun-control in America.
The point here is that disagreements will always exist, as will the subjective nature of most opinions and beliefs. Does this mean that there’s simply no point in arguing or deliberating? Certainly not. If anything, continued disagreement should push societies to engage in even more dialogue to try and see how people might see the world through different lenses.
Additionally, despite degrees of subjectivity, we might often find ourselves surprised to discover the similarities that lie at the hearts of supposedly different arguments. While our beliefs may differ, it is likely that our values do not.
A preconceived notion many have regarding deliberation is that all parties have to reach an agreement, since it is easy to think about deliberation as being only applicable when we are trying to come to a decision about something practical. The DCI taught me that this might be an underlying reason for why we may be afraid to engage in discussions in the first place. But if we all came into conversations with the goal to simply understand, rather than to convince, the world would be a better place.
This concept is further explored in Chapter 2 of Why We Argue (And How We Should): A Guide to Political Disagreement in an Age of Unreason by Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse. Aikin and Talisse emphasize the importance of developing a sense of cognitive command, a concept that focuses on controlled thinking and making active decisions rather than passive ones.
What good does it do anybody to move through the world not knowing why people think the way they do, or act the way they do? Sure, morality and beliefs may be subjective. But should we also not try to unearth the mysteries that lie beneath the surface? Should we not try to investigate the root causes of this subjectivity? If for no other reason than to solidify our own beliefs, as individuals.
Society has led us to believe that respecting different opinions and questioning different opinions is mutually exclusive. But this is simply a logical fallacy that, in the long run, only creates further divide and polarization. Look beyond the false dichotomy and you’re likely to find that we become more tolerant of others’ opinions when we can appreciate the reasoning behind them. After all, empathy is closely tied with the ability to understand others.