Rebirth of Reason


Machan's Musings-Revisiting Objectivity
by 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 it. It makes
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 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 is 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.
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