What are "correct" relationships between subjective preferences and collective needs?

Or is it still subjective?

That is, is there any point in arguing that "collectively we ought ..." e.g.:

  • give everyone education
  • conserve the environment
  • etc.

Clearly some of these are argued as collective values through politics, but what's the "hardness" of collectivist arguments? Are they still subjective? Why/how are they allowed to rise above the subjective?

  • I am not sure I understand your use of "subjective". On the standard use it means specific to a subject, so if something is argued over among subjects it is obviously not subjective. In practice, many subjects share certain social objectives (like well-being of children, non-violence, etc.) even if they do not share value systems, so "collectively we ought" refers to something that would advance such objectives. – Conifold Sep 10 '18 at 2:14
  • @Conifold But the question is also about whether "argued over among subjects" is possible. The problem is that everything is somewhat subjective, because it involves a concept of preference. E.g. to think of "do not kill" as objective, is plausible, but if someone claims that they believe "do kill", then one ought to realize that they're just different takes, none of which can be displayed objective, absolutely accurate, right or wrong. But that depends on preferences. – mavavilj Sep 10 '18 at 7:06
  • 1
    Nothing that is publicly discussed is subjective in the usual sense of the word, "do kill" is as objective as "do not kill". What you are talking about is something like "objectively right", and few would defend that for values today, so yes, "right" depends on individual values ("preferences"). But as I said, collectivist public policy need not be "right", objectively or not, nor even based on shared values, that majority sees it as beneficial is enough. – Conifold Sep 10 '18 at 7:28

Some collective values arise out of the combination of subjective preferences. For example, most of us may individually prefer to live somewhere where everyone has access to an education, so we establish this as a collective preference. Social choice theory studies ways in which subjective preferences may be combined that way. Also relevant is the notion of a public good -- a good that one cannot prevent others from enjoying; these are often vulnerable to free-riding. For example, everyone may prefer streets that aren't littered with trash. Even so, a (selfish) individual may prefer to litter because the impact on him personally is not so great and it's very convenient to litter. But if everyone prefers trash-free streets, then not littering is collectively preferred (which we can then try to enforce through fines, etc.). Thus, even if people individually would litter if not restrained from doing so, it may still be the case that the collective preference against littering arises from subjective preferences (because we all strongly prefer for other people not to litter).

This leads to the question of whether every collective value must be justified based on aggregating preferences expressed by individuals. One can try to find counterexamples. For one, one may argue that the collective should also take into account those who cannot express their preferences -- animals, babies, future generations, etc.

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