Sunday, November 6, 2011

Conflating Objectivity & Subjectivity (Rugby)

I thought I'd put together a post about one of the problems people have when engaging in rational discourse. It's a pretty big one, so I'll be using a very recent event in the world of rugby as an analogy to show where they're gong wrong.

Very often we come across an event or decision that has two components; one objective and one subjective. We are able to come to a consensus on the objective component by using evidence and reasoned argument. The subjective component is made up of taste, preference, interpretation etc and so to argue over a subjective judgement is to be the same as saying it is "right" to like strawberries or "wrong" to enjoy golf.

The example I'll be using is Sam Warbuton's red card and sending off in the Wales v France World Cup game. It would seem that the many rugby forums I frequent are still deep in debate over this, so nobody can comment saying it is in the past because for some people it is very much still going on.

If we break down the referee's decision into the components we can see where the problem lies. The objective part is the rules of the game and what is definied as a dangerous tackle. The subjective part is the part where the referee decides how severe the infringement was and therefore which card to use.

Nobody contests Alain Rolland's judgement that the tackle was dangerous. If the tackle was not dangerous according to the rules of the game (tackled player's feet in the air, dropped on his head) then we could objectively say that he was wrong in his decision i.e. according to the evidence he was wrong. If the tackle was dangerous according to the rules of the game and he had not acted then again we could say that he was wrong in his judgement. However, he was correct; the tackle was indeed dangerous.

All that remains is the subjective component. If we acknowledge that subjective value judgements are equal then to accuse Alain Rolland of being wrong or incorrect is incoherent (meaningless). But some people have tried to overcome this fact by invoking various failures at logic. Here they are:

  1. Lots of people disagree with Alain Rolland's decision - Doesn't matter. Let's say that I like eating polystyrene. Even if everybody else on the planet doesn't like eating the aromatic polymer it doesn't make sense to say that it is wrong for me to like eating it. You could make the case that it was dangerous for me to eat it, but that doesn't address whether there is a moral value in liking eating polystyrene.
  2. Other referees, pundits (or people of authority) disagree with his decision - Doesn't matter. Does the fact somebody of authority likes/dislikes something mean that we're wrong for disagreeing? Just because the pope, prime minister, Queen or some top scientist likes eating marmite it doesn't mean everybody should like it or is wrong for detesting the brown gunk.
  3. Alain Rolland makes subsequent decisions that differ from this one - Doesn't matter. Even if a tackle occurs that is identical in every way, the fact that he gives a different colour card in the future is meaningless and does not in any way validate other people's opinion. His original subjective opinion was based on more than just seeing a guy dropped on his head.

Arguing over subjective opinion is absurd, and we recognise this when we hear children arguing over silly things such as the "best" colour or "worst" flavour of ice-cream. However, for some reason, if you dress it up in shorts and throw a ball around then all of a sudden it gets complicated.

If you want less ambiguity then the rules need to be changed so that there is less interpretation for the referee. I'm sure they'd love to see that happen so they could spend less money on home security and painting over graffit. But I get the feeling that the game might suffer...

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