Being objective and realistic is a basic building block of an individual’s being just. It operates mainly in the intellectual/thinking domain.
- . . . in justice the same cases should be decided in the same way . . . By taking your own immediate interest and their animosity as the test of justice, you will prove yourselves to be rather waiters on expediency than judges of right . . . [Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, 431—413 BC, Chapter X.] (This is often rephrased and attributed to Benjamin Franklin as: “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”) [Benjamin Franklin]
- The main condition for the achievement of love is the overcoming of one’s narcissism. The narcissistic orientation is one in which one experiences as real only that which exists within oneself, while the phenomena in the outside world have no reality in themselves, but are experienced only from the viewpoint of their being useful or dangerous to one. The opposite pole to narcissism is objectivity; it is the faculty to see other people and things as they are, objectively, and to be able to separate this objective picture from a picture which is formed by one’s desires and fears. [Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving, Chapter IV, “The Practice of Love”.]
- Empathy begins with understanding life from another person’s perspective. Nobody has an objective experience of reality. [Widely attributed to Sterling K. Brown]
- Do not make the mistake of thinking that you have to agree with people and their beliefs to defend them from injustice. [Bernard McGill, Voice of Reason (2012), Preamble.]
Realism is a corollary of objectivity, as one cannot be objective without being firmly grounded in reality. It is an essential value, which takes on an added dimension when the facts are known. (Optimism play an important creative role when the reality is unclear.) We will spend much of our time considering and applying unconventional ways but without a sound foundation in reality, unconventionality is a pathway to chaos.
At these early stages of ethical development, foundational values like this are essential. Realism is especially germane when we see political and “religious” support for alternate versions of reality: in the United States today, these include denial of evolution and climate change, and fantasy-based economics. The problem is hardly new. Every young woman who ever married thinking she would turn a frog into a prince and every young man who was ever enticed by a woman’s outward appearance has taken off on a flight of fancy. People have spent their life savings chasing unrealistic fantasies. Usually, the fantasy turns into disorder and unhappiness.
The brilliant mathematician John Nash suffered from hallucinations. For years, he imagined that three loyal friends appeared by his side at times of crisis and emotional turmoil. In the film version of his life, a moment of revelation comes when he acknowledges that the little girl who had appeared to him for years could not be real because “she never gets old.” We might ask, what are the differences and the similarities between Nash’s hallucinations and our own.
Nash suffered from a recognized psychological pathology, probably an organic brain disorder. We normal people imagine ourselves to be rational actors, free from such disorders. Yet when entire nations imagine that they can conquer other nations with impunity, or enslave a race of people without future adverse consequences, or exhaust our planet’s oil and gas resources in a few generations, we are well-advised to consider whether our condition is any less, or more pathological than Nash’s was. Our roots are in our evolutionary past, out of which the features of our brains were constructed. This, too, is part of our reality.
Obstacle: wish fulfillment
Gustave Courbet, The Oak of Flagey (The Oak of Vercingetorix) (1864)
Objectivity is the quality of stepping outside the self: of seeing and reasoning from perspectives beyond self-interest and personal experience. It is the intellectual component of putting ourselves in the shoes of others. Empathy is a natural human quality but objectivity must be taught and cultivated.
Objectivity is essential to building and maintaining enduring ethical communities, and a just world. George Orwell warned that “ . . . the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world . . . the chances are that those lies, or at any rate similar lies will pass into history.” [“Looking Back On the Spanish War.”] This is not new with the 20th century. Constantine spread a collection of lies throughout the Western world. Most nation-states have been constructed around national myths. Every demagogue has manipulated people by promoting popular lies. Lies may endure for a time but they can never serve as the foundation for a just society.
In literature, Shakespeare illustrated this point through King Lear, whose narcissism leads to his own undoing.
Tell me, my daughters,–
Since now we will divest us both of rule,
Interest of territory, cares of state,–
Which of you shall we say doth love us most?
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge.
[Shakespeare, King Lear, Act I, Scene 1.]
Two of his daughters eagerly oblige him with flattering lies; but the third daughter, Cordelia, points out an inconvenient truth:
Good my lord,
You have begot me, bred me, loved me: I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honour you.
Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty:
Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all.
To be objective, we must be willing to see things as they are, not merely as we wish them to be. Humanity has paid, and continues to pay a heavy price for lacking objectivity. We would like to think that we have unlimited freedom to use Earth’s resources, and to populate the planet. Humanist ethics propose that we look honestly at the world as it is, and as it is likely to be depending on the course of action we choose.
Technical and Analytical Readings
- Massimo Pigliucci, Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk (University of Chicago Press, 2010).
- Michel Bitbol, Pierre Kerszberg and Jean Petitot, eds., Constituting Objectivity: Transcendental Perspectives on Modern Physics (Springer, 2009).
- Thomas L. Haskell, Objectivity Is Not Neutrality: Explanatory Schemes In History (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997).
- Nicholas Rescher, Objectivity: The Obligations of Impersonal Reason (University of Notre Dame Press, 1997).
- Richard Rorty, Objectivity, Relativism and Truth (Cambridge University Press, 1990).
- S. George Couvalis, The Philosophy of Science: Science and Objectivity (Sage Publications, 1997).
- Kent Greenawalt, Law and Objectivity (Oxford University Press, 1992).
- Brian Leiter, ed., Objectivity in Law and Morals (Cambridge University Press, 2000).
- Matthew H. Kramer, Objectivity and the Rule of Law (Cambridge University Press, 2007).
- Michael D. Murray and Christie H. DeSanctis, Objective Legal Writing and Analysis (Foundation Press, 2006).
- Charles Travis, Objectivity and the Parochial (Oxford University Press, 2010).
- Richard A. Posner, Divergent Paths: The Academy and the Judiciary (Harvard University Press, 2016): “The book has two parts. The first, and longer, identifies problems facing the modern federal judiciary; the second offers suggestions for how law schools might alleviate them.”
Leonardo’s rejection of Church teachings on the soul was done without drama or angst. He was naturally comfortable with scientific humanism and tended to look at facts. [Walter Isaacson, Leonardo da Vinci, (Simon & Schuster, 2017), p. 422.]
- Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, Objectivity (Zone Books, 2007).
- Tyler Burge, Origins of Objectivity (Oxford University Press, 2010).
- Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity Question" and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge University Press, 1988).
- Ann Campbell Keller, Science in Environmental Policy: The Politics of Objective Advice (The MIT Press, 2009).
- Tobias Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim, Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won (Crown Archetype, 2011), and about how what most sports fans perceive as causative is merely a product of random chance.
- Patrick Radden Keefe, Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty (Doubleday, 2021): “Even when detailing the most sordid episodes, Keefe’s narrative voice is calm and admirably restrained, allowing his prodigious reporting to speak for itself . . .”
- Joshua Prager, The Family Roe: An American Story (W.W. Norton & Company, 2021): “If you like your stories the way too many of us now do — pat, with the narrative reverse-engineered to validate your priors — this book is not for you. But it is if you want an honest glimpse into the American soul, into the foul and sometimes fruitful marriage of activism and commerce, into the ways in which people can be and believe contradictory things, into the inner and outer lives of women squelched and tossed by reproductive tyranny.”
Tragically, the narrative of human objectivity is illustrated most prolifically through its counterparts.
- Massimo Pigliucci, Denying Evolution: Creationism, Scientism, and the Nature of Science (Sinauer Associates, 2002).
- Farhad Manjoo, True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society (Wiley, 2008).
- John W. Dower, Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor / Hiroshima / 9-11 / Iraq (W. W. Norton & Co., 2010), arguing that irrational contempt toward the other led to the military misadventures of Pearl Harbor and the 2003 war against Iraq.
- Joseph Ellis, American Dialogue: The Founders and Us (Knopf, 2018): “ . . . the dispassionate historian calmly takes the gloves off. Since the 1980s, Ellis argues, the political right has engaged in a persistent, well-funded and “radically revisionist” act of historical fraud, painting government as “demonic” in the eyes of its creators.”
- John Biskupic, The Chief: The Life and Turbulent Times of Chief Justice John Roberts (Basic Books, 2019): seeing John Roberts as objective is difficult at best.
- Matthew Dallek, Birchers: How the John Birch Society Radicalized the American Right (Basic Books, 2023): “. . . a number of the founding members were business leaders, and all of them felt deeply aggrieved. “Rich, white and almost uniformly Christian,” Dallek writes, the first Birchers nevertheless believed they had been “abandoned” and “exiled to the margins.” They railed against Communism, the civil rights movement and the New Deal.”
A strong argument can be made that when the United States and other nations carved out the State of Israel after World War II, they failed to account for or respect the interests of people already in that region. Zionist politics offer a study in non-objectivity.
- John B. Judis, Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014): “ . . . Judis, a senior editor at The New Republic, is a careful historian, looking at the origins of the conflict in Palestine, the rise of the American pro-Israel lobby and, finally, the fateful encounter between the lobby and Truman over the three years from his accession to the presidency to the creation of the new nation.”
- John J. Mersheimer and Stephen M. Walt, The Israeli Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007).
- Alison Weir, Against Our Better Judgment: The Hidden History of How the U.S. Was Used to Create Israel (Create Space Independent Publishing Platform, 2014).
- Georges Rouault, Three Judges (ca. 1936)
- Gustave Courbet, Village Street in Winter (1865)
- Gustave Courbet, The Sleepers (1866)
- Gustave Courbet, The Source of the Lison (1866)
- Gustave Courbet, Deer in a Snowy Landscape (1867)
- Edouard Manet, Argenteuil (1874)
- Edouard Manet, The Conservatory (1879)
Film and Stage
- 12 Angry Men, about a jury of men who cared about justice
- They Won’t Forget, a dramatization of the real-life story of Leo Frank, who was accused and convicted of murdering a 14-year-old girl, then was lynched by the Ku Klux Klan, is the antithesis of “12 Angry Men”
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
- Prison Songs: “Historical Recordings from Parchman Farm 1947-48”, from the Alan Lomax collection (51’)
- “Negro Prison Blues and Songs”, recorded by Alan Lomax (70’)
- Dick Gaughan, “Handful of Earth” (1980) (45’): “1982 was three years into the Thatcher Years, a period of acute polarisation, between Left and Right wing, between nationalist and unionist, in both Scotland and in Northern Ireland, and between the haves and the have-nots. Have we really not moved on? Are we still looking at the same things? Despite Handful of Earth being released 38 years ago, these songs still reflect the times, still call out the oppressors and still support the oppressed.”
"My country again! Mr. Wilson, _you_ have a country; but what country have _I_, or any one like me, born of slave mothers? What laws are there for us? We don't make them, -- we don't consent to them, -- we have nothing to do with them; all they do for us is to crush us, and keep us down. Haven't I heard your Fourth-of-July speeches? Don't you tell us all, once a year, that governments derive their just power from the consent of the governed? Can't a fellow _think_, that hears such things? Can't he put this and that together, and see what it comes to?" [Harriett Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Life Among the Lowly (1852), Volume 1, Chapter XI, “In Which Property Gets into an Improper State of Mind”.]
"These feelings are quite natural, George," said the good-natured man, blowing his nose. "Yes, they're natural, but it is my duty not to encourage 'em in you. Yes, my boy, I'm sorry for you, now; it's a bad case--very bad; but the apostle says, `Let everyone abide in the condition in which he is called.' We must all submit to the indications of Providence, George, -- don't you see?" George stood with his head drawn back, his arms folded tightly over his broad breast, and a bitter smile curling his lips. "I wonder, Mr. Wilson, if the Indians should come and take you a prisoner away from your wife and children, and want to keep you all your life hoeing corn for them, if you'd think it your duty to abide in the condition in which you were called. I rather think that you'd think the first stray horse you could find an indication of Providence--shouldn't you?" The little old gentleman stared with both eyes at this illustration of the case; but, though not much of a reasoner, he had the sense in which some logicians on this particular subject do not excel, -- that of saying nothing, where nothing could be said. So, as he stood carefully stroking his umbrella, and folding and patting down all the creases in it, he proceeded on with his exhortations in a general way. [Harriett Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Life Among the Lowly (1852), Volume 1, Chapter XI, “In Which Property Gets into an Improper State of Mind”.]
Novels from the dark or at least skeptical side:
- Ottessa Moshfegh, Death in Her Hands: A Novel (Penguin Press, 2020): “. . . although Vesta purchases a groovy all-black ninja bodysuit, not much actual sleuthing gets done. Most of the action takes place in her teeming mind. She invents elaborate scenarios around Magda’s ostensible killing.” (how much of the narrative to believe?).
- Yan Lianke, Hard Like Water: A Novel (Grove, 2021): “Cheat On Your Partner or Change the World: In This Novel, It’s All the Same”; “. . . the novel pokes fun at how easily an ideology can be contorted to satisfy individual desires.”