What Is Objectivity? Part 2

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In part 1 of this post, we looked at contemporary notions of objectivity, as reported by philosopher Tom Howe.   In part 2 we continue to flesh out the concept of objectivity.

Tom Howe quotes philosopher Mary Hawkesworth:

In the context of philosophical and scientific investigations, an objective account implies a grasp of the actual qualities and relations of objects as they exist independent of the inquirer’s thoughts and desires regarding them. In the spheres of ethics, law, and administration, objectivity suggests impersonal and impartial standards and decision procedures that produce disinterested and equitable judgments. Objectivity, then, promises to free us from distortion, bias, and error in intellectual inquiry and from arbitrariness, self-interest, and caprice in ethical, legal, and administrative decisions.

We see the idea of existence “independent of the inquirer’s thoughts and desires regarding them.”  The moral fact, “It is wrong to torture a child for fun,” is objective if it is true independent of the inquirer’s thoughts.  Whether a person believes this statement is true or not is irrelevant to its truth.

In addition, Hawkesworth introduces the concept of “impersonal and impartial standards.”  The statement, “It is wrong to torture a child for fun,” is objective if it can be judged by a standard which is impersonal and impartial.

Howe finishes his survey of contemporary views on objectivity with the following summary:

First, there is a recurring theme . . . that in some sense objectivity involves the notion of a neutral judgment that strives to be free from all biases, prejudices, presuppositions, preconceived ideas, preunderstandings, or other factors that might distort one’s understanding or conclusions.

Objectivity is almost universally equated with what Richard Bernstein calls “objectivism,” which he defines as “a basic conviction that there is or must be some permanent, ahistorical matrix or framework to which we can ultimately appeal in determining the nature of rationality, knowledge, truth, reality, goodness, or rightness.”

Objectivity, then, is about judgment without the undue influence of bias or prejudice.  The worldview of the judge is taken out of the judgment as much as possible.  The judge is to tell it like it is.

In a second, and arguably more important sense, objectivity is, as Richard Bernstein states, a “permanent, ahistorical matrix or framework to which we can ultimately appeal” to on issues of morality, truth, and knowledge.  Any person that denies that this ahistorical and permanent framework exists is thus denying that objectivity exists.  Ironically, the person who claims that ahistorical objectivity does not exist believes this to be true for all time.  To deny objectivity is to affirm it.