“You’re Not Objective So Your Opinion Doesn’t Count”

Author Guest Author Published on 03/13/2013

By Steve Wagner

To Respond, Distinguish Two Types of Objectivity

Let’s paint the scene: you are in a college class discussion on embryonic stem cell research and you make a simple case against the research because it kills an innocent human being. Your professor asks you if you are objective on the matter. Stunned a bit, you hesitate and say, “Well, no...but...” Before you can explain, the professor then turns to the class and announces, “Well it’s obvious that your opinion doesn’t really count here, since it’s not objective.”

There’s something wrong here, but what is it? The professor is using an equivocation (using two different meanings of a word in one argument) on the word objective to simply ignore the good?faith case you’ve made. You can protest that she’s not being reasonable, but the damage has been done. You’re disqualified.

Instead, cut the problem off at the roots by targeting her equivocation before she can use it against you. When she asks, “Are you objective?” ask, “What do you mean by objective? Do you mean psychologically objective—not committed to a particular view? Or do you mean rationally objective—able to discern the difference between good reasons and bad ones regardless of what view I hold?”

See, the professor is disqualifying you for lacking psychological objectivity (having a view or bias on ESCR) as if this obviously makes rational objectivity impossible. It’s as if she’s trying to lead a dispassionate discussion of the merits of the issue and your bias is sure to get in the way.

But if psychologically objective people are the only ones who can weigh in on the topic, only two kinds of people can participate: those who have looked at all of the evidence and really believe it is a 50/50 split (they can’t make up their minds either way) and those who don’t care about the issue enough to have studied it. Most students will be of the latter type. My question: “Would you rather listen to the thoughts and arguments of someone who knows nothing about a topic and couldn’t care less about it, or listen to someone who has studied and has a view to defend?” After all, many who are psychologically objective are not going to have much to contribute!

Here’s another question for the teacher: “Are you saying that if I have a view on this, I can’t change my position based on a good argument? Are you alleging that I can’t listen to other points of view and evaluate them fairly and judge them on their merits even if they show my view is false?”

The professor is using an equivocation on the word objective to disqualify you. She is claiming you are not objective, as if you are not rationally objective and can’t evaluate the arguments fairly. But you only lack psychological objectivity (which she also lacks, at least on the question of whether objectivity matters!). She persuades the class that you should be disqualified (for not being rationally objective) by pointing to the fact that you’re not psychologically objective. By asking for a distinction between two senses of the word “objective,” you help the class see that the professor’s criticism fails. She is equivocating.

As JP Moreland points out in the second section of “Truth, Contemporary Philosophy, and the Postmodern Turn,” this difference between psychological objectivity and rational objectivity is key. “Psychological objectivity is detachment, the absence of bias, a lack of commitment either way on a topic.” Notice that whether one has reasons or evidence is irrelevant to psychological objectivity. If you have a view one way or another, you are not psychologically objective, regardless of whether you simply feel one view is correct or whether you have spent years studying all of the arguments for or against. Psychological objectivity is not objectivity about reasons; it’s objectivity about commitment. And you’re not placing your bet (probably because you haven’t studied the topic much or don’t care about it).

On the other hand, rational objectivity is an ability to “discern the difference between genuinely good and bad reasons/evidence for a belief about that topic.” Certainly a psychological bias on a question may make rational objectivity more difficult, but it certainly doesn’t make it impossible. As Moreland points out in his presentation for Stand to Reason’s 2005 Master’s Series, how many times have you held a view firmly on a matter, but have heard a good argument and exclaimed, “That’s a good point!”? All but the most obstinate and arrogant among us have experienced this. And it shows we can be rationally objective, even if we are convinced we are correct on a matter. So those who are psychologically biased can be rationally objective.

In addition, those who are psychologically objective have a liability that doesn’t plague the psychologically biased. Those who don’t care about an issue are going to have less inner motivation to consider the issue carefully. So they may be more liable to make mistakes in thinking or gloss over important nuances. They also may be more liable to make up their minds based on non(?)rational forms of persuasion (also called rhetoric) like images and storytelling. This is not to say those who are psychologically objective can’t be rationally objective (let’s not make the opposite error of the professor!). Of course they can. The point here is simple: both the person who has a horse in the race and one who couldn’t care less have challenges to overcome in order to fairly evaluate the evidence of which horse is the best.

(orig. 06/05, rev. 04/08)