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.
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 . . .