Thursday, May 25, 2006

Column on Objectivity and Self-Knowledge

The Target: Objectivity

Tibor R. Machan

No one in his right mind thinks that objectivity is easy. It?s especially
hard when it comes to self-assessment.

Harvard University psychologist Daniel Gilbert chimed in on this topic in
a recent Op Ed piece for The New York Times, ?I?m O.K., You?re Biased.?
About a half a century ago the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein preceded
Gilbert when he told O. K. Bouwsma that "No one can write objectively
about himself and this is because there will always be some motive for
doing so. And the motives will change as you write. And this becomes
complicated, for the more one is intent on being 'objective' the more one
will notice the varying motives that enter in." (Wittgenstein,
Conversations 1949-51 [Hackett, 1986])

I think both Gilbert and Wittgenstein exaggerate the point, in part
because they confuses "objective" with "neutral" or "impartial."
Objectivity means being honest, sticking to facts and to reasonable
inferences and theories, and to distinguishing, rationally rather then
with prejudice or bias, what is more from what is less important. It does
not mean lacking motives, not caring. Just think, doctors who diagnose
illnesses, auto mechanics who check cars for problems, engineers who build
all kinds of structures?they all have motives, interests, yet they also
need to be objective lest their efforts routinely come a cropper.

Indeed, consider simply the fact that Gilbert and, indeed, Wittgenstein,
probably were strongly motivated to get it right about objectivity in
cases where one is judging oneself. Should we dismiss their prudent advice
about the prospects of gaining valid self-understanding because, well,
they had motives regarding the matter? Both Gilbert and Wittgenstein
needed to make sure they were being objective as they advanced their very
own ideas. If they had to have failed?if there was no way for them to be
objective so that what they came up with had to be biased?why should we
pay any attention to what they tell us?

The idea that people cannot help but fool themselves is a very old one,
indeed. It is largely the source of all those skeptical philosophies
according which none of us can really know the world, certainly not
whether what we think we know is really knowledge at all. These ideas are
ancient. But they overshoot their mark.

A much more sensible point would be to put out cautionary warnings about
the pitfalls that stand before objective knowledge and, especially,
self-knowledge. One such warning might be that, to quote, from his book
Thought (1973), the Princeton University philosopher Gilbert Harman, ?We
must take care not to adopt a very skeptical attitude nor become too
lenient about what is to count as knowledge.? If what objective knowledge
is supposed to be is impossible?some ideal of final, perfect truth?then,
of course, we cannot obtain it. But that is not the goal.

Instead, objectivity is the best grounded up to date rendering of what?s
what, one that can be improved in time, once further study has taken
place. And this goal is attainable, even if not easily come by. Surely
Professor Gilbert himself would credit himself with having achieved
objective knowledge about, well, the prospects of objective
self-knowledge, even though he no doubt had a strong stake in the outcome.

Leaving the matter resolved in favor of the skeptic is, of course,
paradoxical because skeptics themselves lay claim to objectivity?namely,
about whether we are capable of obtaining objective knowledge. But even
apart from this, there is one very undesirable consequence of skepticism.
It is the promotion of unrelenting self-doubt. This can easily give an
advantage to those who want to con the rest of us, folks who pretend to
get a hold of unique, intuitive, mystical and similar odd sorts of
?knowledge? to which they demand we all yield. How can we resist their
ploys if we systematically doubt ourselves?

The task before us is to make as sure as we can that our prejudices are
set aside, not to yield to the temptation to treat our wishes as truths.
And even those who study objectivity need to do this, lest their advice
loses credibility.

Machan is RC Hoiles Professor at the Argyros School of Business &
Economics, Chapman University, and author of Objectivity (Ashgate, 2004).

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