The objectivity of numbers is a mirage

Numbers are seductive.

Numbers seem to offer an objectivity that words can’t.

Let’s take an example of a morally objectionable practice that all reasonable people in the West now agree on: slavery.

If slavery is bad then anything that even approaches slavery is also bad, right? So let’s imagine that there are some number of people in the world who still function much as if they are enslaved.

Theoretically they still function under some sort of employer-employee relationship and they have a right of departure, but the truth is they don’t. Something about their circumstance is such that they don’t really have other options and their fate is so entwined with their employer and they are so taken advantage of that in fact their life looks much like that of a slave.

But let’s also assume that for a variety of reasons this situation never persists in just this way for more than a year for hardly anyone. There are always more people to take their place and either through luck or marriage or some practice of the state, everyone seems to leave this slave-like state after roughly one year.

OK, so let’s compare that with chattel slavery, where a person is literally owned by a master to do with as they see fit. Now let’s also imagine that such slaves are known to have an average working life of, say, 40 years.

The rationalist analysis would be to say that then the moral harm of the former case is just as bad as the latter case, at least insofar as every 50 people who went through the former, temporary, enslavement were equal in moral harm to one person who had to live an entire life as a slave.

But that’s just not true.

If all those other people who went through that horrible year otherwise had lives that were, for all intents and purposes, basically free ones, then that system is vastly morally better than people living their whole lives as slaves.

Any form of slavery, temporary or otherwise, is morally repugnant, but the tragedy of one person robbed of an independent existence is much greater than many people losing out for a small piece of their lives.

It should be obvious that this isn’t to say that temporary slavery is OK, but people are uniquely idiotic about any kind of binary (particular these days), so let’s just say it again. Both systems are very bad.

The point is, though, that any 50 years lost to slavery within a community is not the same as one person losing 50 years to slavery. The latter is worse, because every person should taste real freedom.

The objectivity of numbers is a mirage — it disappears when you get close.

It is difficult to know even how to count anything.

For example: if I hand you an apple, I might ask you how many objects I just handed you.

The obvious answer is one object: one apple, but that answer depends on a subjective judgement of what is meant by “object.” You could also say I handed you a stem, a skin, a pulp, a core and probably at least three seeds (remains to be determined).

I might have handed you, say, about ten bites of foods. Or I handed you two objects: a quarter cup of juice in an especially complicated container.

You could also say that I handed you an uncountable billions or trilions of atoms and God only knows how many quarks.

Enumerating aspects of complex moral questions offers a thin veneer of objectivity. If numbers had a mouth, then quantification might be said to be writing checks that its ass can’t cash.