Ari Armstrong, Exclusives, Media, Uncategorized

Armstrong: Striving for objectivity

Many people like to feel that they’re right more than they want to be right. They use words as weapons to vanquish foes rather than as tools to understand reality. A result is that our political discourse is plagued by hyper-partisanship, conspiracism, fact-impoverished claims, baseless smears, and dropped context.

None of us is immune to bias. All of us need to hold up a mirror to see where we might be letting bias get the better of us and where our beliefs and claims might be running ahead of evidence and reason. We “need” to do this—if we care about aligning our beliefs with the facts. And often the people who most self-righteously condemn the biases of others are among those who most need to examine their own biases.

To be sure, even if we all were much better at working through our biases, we’d still reach pretty dramatic disagreements about various moral and political issues. Reality is a complicated place, moral reasoning can be hard, we all have unique experiences and observations, the future is hard to predict, and we never have perfect information. People are fallible, and our knowledge necessarily is limited.

Still, we could discover more to agree about, reach better beliefs and outcomes, and disagree more respectfully and productively if “we”—each of us individually—could better rein in our biases and generally be more reasonable.

The best way that I know of to become more reasonable and to better check our biases is to think more about what rationality entails and what sorts of pitfalls tend to lead people astray.

Thankfully, Michael Huemer, a philosopher at the University of Colorado, Boulder, has out a new, very accessible (and economically priced!) book, Knowledge, Reality, and Value, that addresses these issues (among many others). In his first few chapters, he discusses rationality, objectivity, bias, truth, and related matters. (Disclosure: Huemer gave me a hardcover copy of the book as a “thank you” for me proofreading the text.)

In my podcast with Huemer, in which we focus on his chapters on rationality and objectivity, we discussed a couple of things that I’ve written about in previous columns.

In my last column, I discussed the legislative effort to improve the teaching of media literacy. An aspect of this is the distinction between fact and opinion. Huemer points out that this distinction is far more complex than people often presume.

I think one of the big problems is that a lot of people presume that any moral claim necessarily cannot be a fact but must be mere opinion. To start with an obvious example, I asked Huemer whether or not it is a fact that slavery is wrong, and of course he confirmed that it is a fact.

Huemer said, “One of the things that you might be taught . . . is moral anti-realism,” the view that “there are no objective moral values. And [teachers] wouldn’t explicitly say that, they would just presuppose that.” Huemer pointed out that moral anti-realism is a controversial view that most professional philosophers reject. “So if you have a high school teacher who’s presupposing that there aren’t any [moral facts] . . . don’t listen to the high school teacher.”

Of course, in the context of news media, generally it is not the role of news reporters to write about moral facts. Reporters (if they are any good) do necessarily presuppose a great many moral facts in conducting their work, starting with the fact that truth matters. Generally, though, in terms of a reporter’s story, at issue are basic facts of recent history and broader points of context that bear on the basic facts. This context can include, for example, a review of public discussions concerning moral facts, so news reporters can end up writing explicitly about moral issues. That’s just usually not the main point of news reporting.

The most obvious way that a news reporter can show bias is by intentionally distorting facts to promote some agenda. More subtly, a reporter might handle facts sloppily because of some agenda, omit relevant facts or context, insert unfounded or gratuitous swipes at political opponents, or try to guide the reader to the reporter’s political conclusions when the facts of the story don’t support them.

Generally news publications leave explicit discussions of morality to the “opinion” pages. I worry that this terminology reinforces the view that matters of morals and of policy cannot (also) be matters of fact. I also worry that some people who write “mere opinion” pieces fall into the presumption that they’re not dealing with “facts” and therefore don’t have to worry as much about accuracy and context. For these reasons, I’d rather refer to “morals and policy” pieces or just “editorials.”

Editorial (or op-ed) writers tend to focus on highly complex and controversial questions of ethics and policy, not matters that are obvious or that everyone agrees on. Because of this, some people might get the idea that moral disagreements are a lot more pervasive than they really are. It’s worth remembering that almost everyone in our society agrees on a huge range of basic moral facts. As examples: slavery is wrong, government agents ought not harm or punish people for no good reason, hurting people or taking their stuff for no good reason is wrong, torturing animals is bad. We tend to disagree about a narrow range of moral and policy issues that are hard to suss out. That there are moral facts hardly implies that all moral facts are obvious.

Another thing that Huemer discusses is the difference between objectivity and neutrality (something I’ve written about in the context of news media). Huemer writes in his book, “What I am recommending is that, if you take a side, you nevertheless treat the other side fairly, even while defending your side. I am recommending that you treat intellectual debate as a mutual truth-seeking enterprise, rather than as a personal contest. This is an idea of crucial import, so it’s worth repeating. You can and should treat the other side fairly, even though you think they are wrong.”

I hope that many people read Huemer’s book and think seriously especially about his remarks on intellectual virtues. Bluntly, I’m really worried about the state of our country and about the future that my five-year-old will live in. Ultimately, the most important thing we can do to help achieve a better future is to promote rationality and objectivity in ourselves and culture-wide.

Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism.  He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.

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