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Philosophy Blog

Life at the thought-face.

Monday, December 09, 2002

Truth and Opinion

"Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition."

This quotation from the Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, American Association of University Professors (AAUP), might seem pretty innocuous to most of us, but serious problems arise when you try to combine this salutary principle with the belief that there is no truth, only opinions. Consider this response to the website www.noindoctrination.org (which aims to reveal cases of outrageous political bias at U.S. universities):

"If students are informed (and usually are by leftists) that the PERSPECTIVE on information they are receiving is by definition a product of the teacher's mind, students are intelligent enough to weigh various views. However, when there is a pretense of ‘objectivity,’ nearly always a lockstep, status quo OPINION is being propagated."

I suspect that the author (apparently a Professor at California State, but I have no way of confirming this) is equivocating on objectivity. I might present an opinion as being objective, in which case I am making an epistemic claim, to the effect that it does not rest upon anything peculiar to me, that I expect others to agree with me. Thus my preference for chocolate ice-cream over strawberry is not objective in this sense, since the reasons I give are not one's I could expect others to share. Alternatively, I might claim that my opinion is about something objective, i.e. that my opinion is only correct if it says how things are independently of my thinking them so. Thus, it is an objective matter whether Oswald killed Kennedy, so any opinion I might have about it is either right or wrong independently of what I think. But I might form that opinion objectively, by examining the evidence, or subjective, by appealing to my hunches or penchant for conspiracy theories.

[FOOTNOTE: It is, I suppose, worth pointing out that every opinion I have is a 'product of [my] mind', whether or not it is objective in either the first or the second sense. This reveals that there is a third sense of the subjective-objective contrast which the author of this passage appears to have managed to add to the confusion: something is subjective if it is a feature of a thinking subject. Thus my pain is subjective in this sense, even if your knowledge of it is objective in the first sense, and there is an objective fact of the matter that I am in pain. The level of unclear thinking that you need to get this notion of objectivity confused with the others would automatically exclude anyone from a job teaching philosophy at a U.K. University.]

Now it seems to me that it is very hard to be certain one has achieved objectivity in the first sense, for one is always making judgements about the importance to attach to certain pieces of evidence, and different people will be inclined to make those judgements differently. However, there are times and cases where a differing judgement would be simply perverse. But equally, if we are not at least striving for objectivity in the epistemic sense, then what we are saying is no more interesting than listing our food preferences. What is dangerous, and must be rightly guarded against in academic circles, are unjustified claims to have achieved objectivity in this sense. Presenting your opinion as actually being objective, rather than just striving to be objective, will often mislead your students. When I tell a student that Locke's Essay was first published in 1690, I present that as an objective opinion about an objective fact. When I tell a student that Locke was not a mind-body dualist, I present that as a striving-to-be-objective opinion about an objective matter. When I tell a student that Locke's prose is ungainly, I present that as a subjective opinion about a subjective matter.

Where, if anywhere, there is objectivity in the second, metaphysical, sense is a substantial philosophical question which, despite the widely advertised claims of philosophically-illiterate 'theorists' in literature and sociology departments, is very far from being resolved one way or the other.

There are three common mistakes which seem to motivate the alleged Professor from California. One is the thought that one can infer from the difficulty of achieving objectivity in the first sense to the lack of objectivity in the second sense. The second is that one can infer from subjectivity in the second, metaphysical sense, to impossibility of objectivity in the first, epistemic, sense. The third is that someone who claims that there is an objective matter of fact about the question being discussed is forcing their opinions on others.

The first mistake is really a simplification of a correct point: one might be able infer from the impossibility of achieving agreement, plus the thought that this is a topic about which we are guaranteed to be able to know any facts that there are, to the conclusion that there are no objective facts. But neither premise has been proven. (Also, there are some very difficult issues about how the surface form of the claims in question combines with the basic properties of the truth-predicate to entail the Law of Excluded middle. But that is why questions of objectivity and relativity are so hard.)

The second mistake is also an exaggeration of a plausible point. If some issue is (metaphysically) subjective, then it is unlikely that all opinions can be brought to agreement. But the epistemic notion of subjectivity is a matter of degree. There is no reason at all to expect agreement about which flavour of ice-cream is better, but one can expect much greater agreement about the unpleasantness of eating raw worms, and universal agreement that being tortured is not a good thing. We recognize that some subjective matters turn on features which vary between individuals, others on features which vary between cultures and times, and yet others may turn on features which are common to all humans.

The third mistake is both amusing and depressing. It is an unthought about assumption that only relativists properly respect the freedom of others to make up their own minds. But if you are a relativist, the only reason you can offer anyone for agreeing with you is entirely personal: they want to be like you and your friends. Opinions are like fashion choices, so while you are free to think what you like, it takes an uncommon strength of mind not to simply follow the herd or to copy a dominant figure. And those who do not follow the herd are liable to ridicule, for their decision, according to the relativist, does not demonstrate the virtue of independent thought but the vice of bad taste. Even worse, it is the nature of markets that most shops only stock the fashionable goods.

But if you are an objectivist, fashion and personality is totally irrelevant: you could be the coolest person on the campus and still be mistaken. All that matters is the evidence you offer and the arguments you give. So in fact, if a teacher starts a debate with the assumption of objectivity (in the second, metaphysical, sense), there is a much greater risk of being disagreed with. Of course, a bad teacher can use their greater knowledge and experience to stifle debate, but even then the risk remains, for if the matter in hand is an objective one, it is always possible that they have made a mistake and that a student will point it out. To put it crudely, asserting that there is an objectively right answer to a question is very different from asserting that one has infallible knowledge.

.: posted by Tom Stoneham 11:55 AM