Machan's Musings - Revisiting Objectivity

removed's picture
Submitted by removed on Fri, 2006-02-03 21:37

Revisiting Objectivity

Tibor R. Machan

In ordinary terms, to achieve objectivity one needs to check one's own
likes and dislikes and guard against their influence and also check for
influences coming from outside, such as flattery, on the psychological
front, or obstruction of visibility on the perceptual. To avoid bias one
needs discipline and self-understanding. If I know that I am partial to
those who are tall, blonde or athletic, while working as a teacher, juror
or judge, I need to make doubly sure that what I think of their
performance, the merit of their work or their legal status isn't based on
my liking (or disliking) them for irrelevant reasons. One can generalize
this and figure out if prejudice is unavoidable or whether discipline can
overcome it.

Some argue there is no way to overcome prejudice, bias or the
determination of one's culture or community when one thinks about
anything. Indeed, they claim, everything we think is unavoidably
influenced by such factors. Some even go so far as to claim that the very
fact of having a human mind guarantees that the world won't be understood
as it really is but only as it appears to us.

This and related positions are, however, troublesome to uphold
consistently because they also indict the person who advances them. They make
it appear that one need not take the skeptical positions seriously since
they, too, are just prejudices and thus quite unreliable.

Actually, human beings are well able, but rarely fully willing, to rid
themselves of prejudices. We can turn our minds to consider things
carefully, consider how others would see matters, and even do so as human beings
as such, free of prejudice or bias, never mind specific background. A
human being's mind need not be prejudiced or biased at all since it is
just the sort of organ that can gain understanding without shaping the
world at the same time. It is akin to when one grabs a cup, hammer or
baseball—just doing that need not have any influence on what is being
grabbed. (On the other hand, if what one uses to grab something has on it
paint or glue or some other stuff that can easily be transferred, the
situation is different. Similarly, if one has many prejudices, biases,
preconceptions one hasn't purged, one's judgments will reflect this and
will be unreliable. But that isn't necessary by any means.)

Scientists, engineers, jurors, judges at athletic events or beauty
pageants, as well as philosophers, do manage to understand the world, or at
least parts of it, all the time, more or less successfully. Yet even to
say that assumes that now and then success can be had, otherwise how would
we even know that sometimes we fail? What would our failed efforts compare

Consider, in this connection, jury selection, where one gets the
impression that to have an opinion at all disqualifies someone on grounds
of bias! Now, it may well be that many people haven't worked hard enough
to keep their biases at bay when it really matters. This may be what
attorneys worry about. The general impression created by the process,
however, is that we are entirely unable to set our biases aside. For
various reasons many people, often even the majority, fail to keep in
check their biases, or refuse to do so or are prevented from doing so by
bullies or adverse circumstances. This happens with some juries, so that
jury experts are sometimes able to "predict" how jurors will vote in the
end, suggesting clearly that the facts will not matter to such folks. But
this still doesn't show that objectivity is impossible, only that it takes
hard work not all are willing or able to exert.

But really, the major problem with denying that people can be objective is
that such a denial implies that it, too, is non-objective, biased,
prejudiced. And then what good does it do us?

Back during the 2000 election debacle I listened a bit to Bill O’Reilly
of Fox TV. I wanted to know how he sees matters, but all I got was the
remark—he seemed to treat it as a confession of sorts—that no one can be
objective about what transpired there, not even journalists. I immediately
switched from Fox to some other news station because, well, if O’Reilly
thinks he cannot be objective in his reporting, he probably isn’t going to
try to be objective. In that case, however, what’s the point of listening
to him?

Objectivity is not automatic. It must be achieved. But it can be, with
the appropriate effort.


Machan is RC Hoiles Professor of business ethics & free enterprise at the
Argyros School of Business & Economics, Chapman University, and a research
fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He wrote the book
Objectivity, published by Ashgate in 2004.

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sjw's picture

Wes: No, I didn't mean that. And I'd agree that it's an essential aspect of objectivity to introspect regarding your emotions, it's a germane point that I should have mentioned, so thanks for calling me on it. Both the psychological and epistemological forms of analysis, evaluation, and revision are essential to objectivity.

Charles: Certainly one must know the reasons for one's emotions, and they must be based in reality, so introspection is crucial (which doesn't imply that there's "bias" lurking around). I didn't intend to imply otherwise, but I can see that I did by leaving that out in my response.


Charles Henrikson's picture

If you do not monitor your likes/dislikes, or at least challenge them now and again, isn't that faith that you have objectivity? Certainty can be felt just as much by those of faith; and many of those may also have the tools of integration and reduction: everything integrates and reduces to a superior being?

Isn't the key to objectivity a scientific methodological framework applied to philosophy based off the irreducible premise that existence exists?

If you have the tools of integration and reduction, but you start with view points that are entirely divorced from reality, integrating those and reducing them to axioms will not lead you to objectivity—but to subjectivity.


Wes's picture

I'm not arguing for emotional decision making but for the time-saving devices based on past experience. But I think our sticking point is on the idea of integration. Your previous post read as if integration made self-analysis unnecessary or redundant.

Older emotionalists

sjw's picture

Indeed older people who have been emotionalists all their lives have a huge amount of work to do and are going to turf it left and right, but not all adults.

I agree that asking yourself why you do something is essential for good mental hygiene, but that includes everyone not just old people. What happens as you get older, if you are rational anyways, is that it becomes easier and easier to answer why you are doing something, whereas a lot of teenagers are impulsive and don't know why.

But it's one thing to know why you're doing something, it's an entirely different thing to know that it's right given the changing circumstances, which is why it's so crucial to not operate on auto-pilot, ever.

Sticking point on integration

Wes's picture

Heuristics aren’t so easily shed. The only people who can constantly shrug off or adopt them and become whole new people are adolescents and teenagers. Older people have ingrained responses that are more difficult to shed and this requires the occasional questioning of motives. Or the reapplication of reduction and integration.

The key to objectivity

sjw's picture

Tibor, the key to objectivity isn't about monitoring your own likes and dislikes, it's about integration and reduction. A person who doesn't/can't perform this operation is indeed easy prey to bias and would feel compelled to keep an eye on bias as a lone unarmed man might feel the need to check over his shoulder as he walks down a dark alley.

But someone who is armed with the tools of integration and reduction feels no such fear of his likes and dislikes since his likes and dislikes are no threat to his objectivity. It is ironic for the emotionalist, but only the rational man is truly able to freely experience his emotions.

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