Objectivity Is II: Twisted Through Daily Life, Composing, 18/02/2015

Continued from last post . . . So we are left with a world where the only claim to objectivity is at best a lie, and at worst an excuse to turn away from genuine injustice. There are two sides to every story, so I must take the perspective of the dictator who runs government torture chambers and death camps with the same fidelity to objectivity in presenting their voice as the military resistance leader.

I choose this example because it’s stark and without nuance. It illustrates the problems that arise when humans attempt to achieve total objectivity: moral judgment becomes impossible because someone can develop a justification for any action. I’ve met a lot of philosophers during my time in the university system who believed in moral facts, but those moral facts are all so general that they’re almost meaningless. 

Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing re-enacts
moments when Indonesian government operatives killed
left-wing guerrillas, supporters, sympathizers, and
people who generally disagreed with government.
Legalized murder is common throughout history,
killing in the name of national security.
Yes, it’s clear that murder is wrong. Its wrongness is part of the definition of murder, a morally unacceptable killing. Knowing that doesn’t settle anything about what acts of killing are murder. 

A husband kills his wife in a domestic dispute? Yes. A sloppy driver kills a teenage cyclist at night? Maybe, but she can still sue the victim’s family for her emotional distress. Capital punishment? I and a lot of countries say yes, but a lot more say no. Soldiers in war? Depends on whose side you’re on. Civilians in war? See previous response. Assassinating subversives? I never want to work for a state security service. Euthanasia? Under debate. Abortion? Legal, but many are willing to kill to stop it.

Murder is wrong. Yes, an objective fact that produces such clear answers. 

One of the most dogmatic professors I ever had believed that philosophy had established a certain and objective moral fact, that slavery was wrong. Slavery is a horrifying institution, but I don’t think the philosophical and political debates of the Wilberforce era discovered any objective moral facts whose ground lies beyond human thought. 

What we really discovered is that you can’t be a democrat and hold slaves at the same time. You at least have to give them a pretence of individual freedom, and they’ll still hold you up for your hypocrisies.

Given how impossible objectivity is, should we even try to be objective? As far as I see it, while pure objectivity itself is only possible for God, humans can still take it as a guidepost. We’ll never be able to achieve it, but the ideal functions as a horizon, always infinitely distant, but providing us our proper orientation. 

Even if journalistic institutions usually don’t have a partisan agenda, they each have their own orientations. We’re able to tell which orientations are better or worse, not in terms of whether they achieve objectivity, but whether they’re fair, adequate, revealing, and strive for comprehensiveness. 

These four qualities constitute the human virtues of objectivity. As for what precisely those might be, I’ll walk through that tomorrow. To be continued . . . 


  1. I think the idea that social life is "real" is an illusion. Society is not an objective reality; it's a subjective ideality. It is not independent of the material reality that is given to us through intuition, to be sure. But society is simply not real.

    1. Such a large concept that I can't really respond in kind except to say that I approach the notion of social reality entirely differently. Because my own metaphysical approach to the world is rooted in ideas of relation and emergence (functions of a non-reductive materialist conception of existence), I don't really make such a strong difference between the real and ideal that you do.

      I'd certainly be interested in more detail of your distinction between real and ideal, though.

  2. I distinguish strongly between things and people. I try to be objective and realistic about things, subjective and idealistic about people. There is a material world and social history, coordinated in experience.

    I think there's more to life than existence, though your conception of it may be perfectly fine. i'm large. I contain multitudes.

  3. I'm pretty much on board, Adam. The question for me though, is whether we can at least approach some kind of integrated representation of partisan views (targeted at the non-partisan) or whether we simply just have to remain resigned to persistent insurmountable myopias?

    1. You'll get an answer when part three posts in about an hour.

    2. Ha cool. Looking now.