Science, morality, and politics are all highly contested areas and there has been a constant attempt to establish objectively valid statements about how the world is and how it ought to be. The idea of an objective social science, however, has often been linked with a view of value freedom that stresses the irreconcilable character of moral and political disputes. How, if at all, can there be objectivity in such disputes?
I have set out a view of objectivity in social science, which I summarised in my earlier post of February 2019. I want to outline that argument and then go on to consider the question of whether a similar stance can be taken in moral and political matters.
Immanuel Kant established, clearly and unequivocally, that we can never know things as they really are. We can know them only in the form that our observational apparatus and our physical and social standpoint allows us to experience it. All ‘phenomena’ of experience are, as Friedrich Nietzsche argued, perspectival constructs. This is what has led many to question the ideas of truth and objectivity. Such ideas, they argue, imply a ‘view from nowhere’: the ideas imply that we can grasp the noumena directly by detaching ourselves from all specific standpoints and bodily limitations and so see things as they really are. As there can be no view from nowhere, the critics argue, the ideas of objectivity and truth must be abandoned.
This argument would seem to require that we embrace the relativity and diversity of knowledge, accepting the impossibility of making any rational choice between rival viewpoints and so accepting the need for arbitrary choices. Knowledge comes down to the question of whose side we take, with what position we align ourselves. Our choice of alignment might depend upon our perceived economic, political, and moral interests, or it may be a matter of purely playful whim. This is the route that takes us away from the open society of science and towards technocracy, authoritarianism, or religious orthodoxy, or to postmodernism.
But there is an alternative. I have argued, following Karl Mannheim, that the diversity of standpoints offers us a route to objectivity and truth in factual matters. Recognising the relativity of all descriptions of the world, we can, nevertheless, combine diverse perspectival views into a more comprehensive—more objective and truthful—description. Rather than a view from nowhere, we should seek a ‘view from everywhere’.
What I mean by this is that we must compile the various standpoint-bound viewpoints in order to uncover a description within which all the partial viewpoints can be seen as authentic and so ‘truthful’. The view from everywhere—the common denominator of the partial views—is a deeper, more objective truth than any of the partial truths. It is a goal towards which we can constantly move, even if it is never quite achieved.
I have illustrated this through considering the varying perspectives on a room taken by observers located at various points within it. Each person sees the room from a different vantage point and judges lengths and angles from their own particular position. An objective description of the room as a cuboid with 90-degree angles makes sense of the partial descriptions given by the observers. Such a description is, in practice, made by each observer as he or she adjusts their mental image of the room on the basis of their past experience of visual illusions. It could, of course, be constructed by a scientific observer who compiles and synthesises the varying viewpoints and seeks a detached solution that can reconcile them. This is, in fact, what happens in the more complex situations in which scientists typically find themselves. They devise models of reality that ‘work’: models that allow practical and experimental interventions that have the consequences predicted by the model.
Similar considerations, I have suggested, apply in social science. An objective and truthful scientific description of a social structure is an imaginative construct that allows the variously located participants to understand their own sense of social structure as an authentic but partial feature of their location within that structure. This is not, it must be noted, a consensus theory of truth. The argument is based on the pragmatist position that the truth value of a description is judged by its practical consequences for the actions and experiences of the participants.
Scientific detachment, of course, can never be complete: that would be to claim the view from nowhere. Scientific detachment can only ever be partial and so our truth claims are contestable, not least by those whose viewpoints have been synthesised. The search for objectivity is an ongoing quest, reflecting a continual drive for detachment from social interests and values and from the limitations of the human sensory apparatus. This becomes possible to the extent that science is organised as an open society, an intersubjective community based on the free and open search for agreement.
The question arises, then, of whether similar principles can apply to the moral and political judgements that we make about those social structures. It is certainly possible for us to map a universe of moral ideas from which various different moral positions can be derived. For example, Talcott Parsons argued that the diverse forms of cultural reasoning could be understood in relation to a set of ‘pattern variables’ describing the dilemmas of choice faced by people when they make moral judgements. However, it does not seem possible to resolve moral disputes in this way.
It is simply not possible to say with any degree of objectivity or truth that a male standpoint is preferable to a female standpoint, that a Western standpoint is better than the Chinese standpoint, or even that liberalism is better than conservatism. As Max Weber argued, while ‘value-relevant’ statements may be assessed for their truth, value judgments always involve a clash of warring principles between which there can be no objective choice. Despite this, however, there is a sense in which some aspects of the principles I have set out can be applied to moral and political discourse.
Value choices are typically made unreflectively with an unthinking acceptance of the particular values into which a person is born and subsequently socialised. People are rarely aware of alternative ways of thinking or acting: they act habitually ands justify their actions as customary or traditional. Radical existentialism rejects this, holding that humans always have the ability to choose otherwise, to make a free, willed choice, and to ignore or abnegate this is a sign of ‘bad faith’. Humans must act freely and take responsibility for their freely chosen acts. Such action requires that people detach themselves from their taken-for-granted values and consider a full range of alternatives, establishing a new standpoint of decision, unique to themselves, from which they can take full responsibility.
But how is such existential detachment to be achieved? It cannot be achieved in isolation but through engagement and dialogue with other cultural traditions and value positions. There must be a critical and questioning engagement with others, respecting their differences in order to understand the principles and priorities that guide their choices. It is through such critical but respectful dialogue that we can steer a way through the moral maze.
The aim of this dialogue is not to achieve a view from everywhere, an objectively valid moral position: we have seen that that is impossible. Rather, it is to engage in a reasoned assessment of moral alternatives in order to establish the best possible foundation for our own choices, while respecting the choices of those who have engaged in a similar dialogue from their differing standpoints. This is unlikely to result in a moral consensus, but it can reduce the gulf that separates moral standpoints and provide the basis for a compromise around solutions to practical problems that maximise the informed satisfaction of the participants.
This must apply at all levels of a political system and is the basis on which a representative democracy must work. Where populist leaders and delegates rely on the majority views of largely uninformed masses, the democratic representative must listen to and engage with all expressed positions, assessing the varying strengths of support formed within informed constituencies. The representative must then make their own informed decision on the basis of their dialogue.
Of course, the view expressed here might be said to be a ‘Western’ point of view. It is, however, a view whose adherents are willing to engage in precisely such a dialogue with others about the foundations of their argument and so to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.