Partial Values: A Comparative Study in the Limits of Objectivity

Partial Values: A Comparative Study in the Limits of Objectivity

by Kevin DeLapp


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When, if ever, is it permissible to afford special consideration to friends and family? How can we strive to be objective in our thinking, and is this always a feasible or appropriate aim?

This book examines the categories of impartiality and objectivity by showing how they frame certain debates in epistemology, moral psychology, and metaethics, arguing that many traditional conceptions of objectivity fail to capture what is important to our identities as knowers, social beings, and moral agents. A new thesis of 'perspectival realism' is offered as a critique of strong objectivity, but in a way that avoids radical subjectivism or relativism. Locally-situated identities can provide their own criteria of epistemic and moral justification, and we may aspire to be impartial in a way that need not sacrifice particular perspectives and relationships. Arguments throughout the book draw heavily on resources from classical Chinese philosophy, and significant attention is given to applications of arguments to concrete issues in applied ethics, cross-cultural anthropology, and political science.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781786602138
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 06/13/2019
Series: Values and Identities: Crossing Philosophical Borders Series
Pages: 186
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.67(h) x 0.56(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Kevin DeLapp is Fleming Professor of Philosophy at Converse College. He is the author of Moral Realism(2013) and editor of Lying and Truthfulness(2016).

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Perspectival Realism

In this chapter, we try to get clearer on what objectivity is and the extent to which we truly want it as a moral ideal. After identifying three alleged attractions of objectivity in §1, §2 looks to the Ideal Observer Theories that were popular during the early modern period as historical incarnations of these attractions. §3 reflects on some of the limitations of such theories and highlights the ways in which those limitations reveal countervailing attractions to subjectivity concerning values. In an effort to accommodate both sets of attractions, a new hybrid position of perspectival realism is sketched, which will serve as a guiding thread through subsequent chapters.


Much of the history of Western philosophy has been characterized by what Susan Bordo has called the "flight to objectivity" — that is, the pursuit of a perspective that is "able to transcend history and discover an ultimate 'neutral framework' within which to situate other human endeavors or describe reality." As Bordo notes, this motivation has been part of philosophy's traditional self-conception as the discipline uniquely responsible for and capable of rationally refereeing other domains of discourse. As Bordo sees it, the flight to objectivity is also fundamentally a gendered phenomenon. Working psychoanalytically, Bordo diagnoses the philosophical anxieties of objectivity seekers such as Descartes as arising out of a repressed dread concerning the "separation from the organic female universe." While I do not dispute Bordo's feminist critique of Cartesianism, I believe that the flight to objectivity has roots that run much deeper. For, as we saw in the Introduction, it is a common move in any persistent disagreement — philosophical or mundane — for at least one party to stake a claim to being the objective one or to accuse the other of projecting something merely or exclusively subjective. As David Wiggins has phrased it, our will in general "craves objective reasons, and it often could not go forward unless it thought it had them." And pace Bordo, there is nothing uniquely modernist about these cravings. Plato, out of very different motivations and with his own cultural and psychosexual assumptions, felt the same pull as Descartes toward the ideals of epistemic certainty, moral universality, and metaphysical transcendence.

This perennial craving for objective reasons stems from at least three potential attractions. The first is justificatory. When someone is being objective, part of what that is thought to involve is that the persons are warranted in holding the view they do, for a reason that is independent of the fact that they happen to be holding it. Judging things objectively or being in touch with objective reality, it is thought, may grant to one's beliefs a claim to legitimacy that others, even those who might not share one's perspective, must acknowledge (likewise for any motives or actions that might follow from those beliefs). In this way, claims to objectivity are partly claims that one's beliefs, actions, and commitments are answerable to and respected by (if not fully endorsed by) any and all others who are being equally objective. Let us call this form of objectivity that aims at public justification universalism.

To rephrase the point, one of the attractions to objectivity is that it can give justification universally, regardless of anything peculiar to the individual seeking such justification. Such universal justification might even seem to be essential to what makes morality normative in the first place. Without the potential for open and public buy-in and consensus, a putative moral code would become merely descriptive of whichever idiosyncratic perspectives were offering it. As Wiggins puts it,

We expect a point of view that can be shared between the members of an actual society to give expression to a potentially enduring and transmissible shared sensibility. To adopt the moral point of view is to see one's thoughts, feelings and actions as answerable to the findings of such a shared sensibility.

The commitment to universal justification is deeply bound up with morality's normative authority because, as Wiggins notes, it embodies a hope that the kind of public consensus and cooperative rational discourse such a commitment involves will get us closer to the truth.

Universalism is often envisioned as a check and balance against self-serving bias and prejudice. Part of being objective in this sense is arriving at one's conclusions or explaining one's actions in ways that do not depend on anything arbitrary or contingent about oneself. In empirical science, such universality is familiar as the principle of replicability. And in normative ethics, it has been given perhaps its most forceful expression by deontological theories, such as Kant's categorical imperative (more on that in §1.2).

Being able to justify ourselves universally is not the only alleged attraction of objectivity in the realm of values. A second attraction of objectivity can be the putative widening of moral consideration it would seem to entail. It is one thing to be objective in how one arrives at one's values, and it is another thing to apply those values to others objectively. In this second sense, objectivity is cast as that which is opposed to parochialism and nepotism. Thus, failures to adequately extend moral consideration — say, political rights — to certain groups or activities can be viewed as failures to be sufficiently objective in this sense. Let us call this form of objectivity that aims at broadening the scope of our thinking and the applicability of our moral considerations inclusivism.

A third motivation for the flight to objectivity is more psychological — even existential. Insofar as "objectivity" semantically suggests objects, it has ontic dimensions. Part of being an object, at least from the perspective of the "manifest image" of ordinary life, is being a thing that has an independent existence — independent, that is, of anyone else's subjectivity. Desks and trees are generally regarded as objective in this ontological sense (skeptical idealist anxieties notwithstanding). And this sense of objectivity is also at work when we condemn the "objectification" of persons: such objectification denies a person's subjectivity and blinds the objectifier to any connection their own subjectivities might or ought to have with the objectified. To objectify another is to treat them as if they were as ontically independent from oneself as a desk or tree, and thus that they may be used as mere objects accordingly.

The attraction to objectivity as an ideal in this third sense is the attraction of a kind of (re)connection with other persons as well as with independent reality at large. Let us call this form of objectivity that aims at this form of integration with independent reality ontic independence. J. L. Mackie has this ontic variety of objectivity in mind when he asserts that

to say that there are objective values would not be to say merely that there are some things which are valued by everyone, nor does it entail this. There could be agreement in valuing even if valuing is just something that people do, even if this activity is not further validated. Subjective agreement would give intersubjective values, but intersubjectivity is not objectivity. Nor is objectivity simply universalizability: someone might well be prepared to universalize his prescriptive judgments or approvals — that is, to prescribe and approve in just the same ways in all relevantly similar cases, even ones in which he was involved differently or not at all — and yet he could recognize that such prescribing and approving were his activities, nothing more.

To summarize, there are at least three apparent attractions to objectivity (O) as a philosophical ideal for values:

(O1) Universality of justification

(O2) Inclusivity of consideration

(O3) Connection with a realm of ontic independence

Although each brand of objectivity is in some sense normative (insofar as "objectivity" in each case is being held up as a standard to which values should aspire), the way that normativity is expressed differs: O1 is fundamentally epistemic, O2 operates in the context of first-order moral theory, and O3 is metaphysical or, since we are dealing here with values specifically, metaethical.


In addition to revealing some of the internal multiplicity housed within the concept of objectivity, these attractions also suggest that the "craving" we have for objectivity is much deeper and broader than the psychosexual anxieties Bordo identifies in Cartesianism. Yet, despite the timelessness of the attractions to objectivity, Bordo is nevertheless right to detect something unique in the early modern period. While the flight to objectivity may have begun long before, objectivity truly became a defining preoccupation for Western thought only in the European Enlightenment. This section traces this specific trajectory by investigating the prominent family of early modern theories known as Ideal Observer Theory. Unpacking this history will give us concrete examples of the three attractions to objectivity which we have adumbrated in §1.1 and will also help showcase some of the pitfalls to avoid and some of the resources to be mined as we attempt to articulate a theory that adequately satisfies our objective cravings.

In the wake of the Renaissance, European societies in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries found themselves dizzied by the destabilization of many traditional sources of cultural security. Religious identities had been complicated by reformers such as Martin Luther, the Copernican Revolution revealed a cosmos with the Earth no longer the center, and discoveries by Europeans of previously unknown lands and peoples problematized classical assumptions regarding geographical, racial, and civilizational hierarchies. Adding to the growing nexus of cultural disorientation was an emerging view of human nature as itself chaotic and individualistic. The twin specters of Bernard Mandeville and Thomas Hobbes (at least as they were read by most of their contemporaries) loomed large in the eighteenth century as graphic depictions of the natural barbarism, selfishness, and brutality of mankind.

Rather than examine all the forms that the flight to objectivity took during the early modern period, we shall focus on one particular and influential trajectory in that flight — what Roderick Firth has called Ideal Observer Theory. Firth identifies three eighteenth-century figures as particular devotees of this theory: Immanuel Kant, David Hume, and Adam Smith. This section will consider each of them in turn and argue that each reveals a notably different type of objective craving. But first an overview of Ideal Observer Theory in the general form in which Firth presents it.

According to Firth, Ideal Observer Theory holds that the meaning of moral statements such as "Eating meat is wrong" is that they would provoke certain reactions (approbation or disapprobation, as the case may be) from a hypothetical omniscient and disinterested agent. "Disinterest," as Firth analyzes it, means "impartial." The specific form of impartiality the Ideal Observer embodies is not merely logical consistency, for one could be consistently (i.e., repeatedly and predictably) partial or biased. Instead, the Ideal Observer is impartial in the sense of "not being influenced by interests of the kind which are commonly described as 'particular'— interests, that is to say, which are directed toward a particular person or thing but not toward other persons or things of the same kind." In a related way, the Ideal Observer is also "dispassionate," in that the moral reactions of such an agent are unaffected by emotions that are analogously particular. For these reasons, we can think of Ideal Observer Theory as a form of both metaethical generalism (the view that morality is and should be articulable in terms of abstract principles, rather than being customized to particular case-by-case considerations) and rationalism (the view that moral decision-making, discourse, and action proceed in ways governed primarily, if not exclusively, by formal ratiocination).

Firth additionally presents his Ideal Observer Theory as "absolutist" in the sense that "ethical statements can be true or false ... without special reference to the people who happen to be asserting them." In contemporary metaethical jargon, this is cognitivism — the view that moral language is propositional, in that moral utterances purport to be (whether or not any of them actually are) either true or false in correspondence to facts that exist independently of any individual or culture. In virtue of the externality of such moral truth-makers, Firth also says his view amounts to a rejection of metaethical relativism, according to which the truth-makers for moral statements are relative to the context of the speaker uttering them. (We shall revisit in much more detail these different metaethical alternatives and the arguments for and against them in §4.1.)

Based on this characterization, Ideal Observer Theory would certainly seem to represent an attempt to satisfy some of the "objective cravings" discussed in §1.1. A dispassionate and impartial agent would be a standard to which any individual, no matter how situated in their particularities, could aspire. This captures the universalist attraction of objectivity (O1). The generalism of the Ideal Observer's detached vantage point might also give us the inclusivity attraction of objectivity (O2). Yet Firth's account explicitly disavows the ontic independence attraction of objectivity (O3). For Firth, despite rejecting the view that moral truth is relative to cultures or actual individuals, Ideal Observer Theory nevertheless insists that moral truth is relative to the reactions of a hypothetical perspective. In Firth's terminology, this means the theory is "objective" in that it rejects cultural relativism, but still "dispositional," in that moral values are defined by reference to the dispositions of the Ideal Observer, as well as "relational," in that moral value would cease to exist in the absence of either of its relata; namely, the dispositional reactions of the Ideal Observer, on the one hand, and the empirical situations or acts that trigger these reactions on the other hand. Such dependence on the reactions of an Ideal Observer, no matter how hypothetical, leaves unfilled the craving for objectivity in the sense of connection to a fully independent reality. (We shall return to metaethical dispositionalism and relationalism, and the extent to which they are or are not compatible with ontic objectivity, in §4.2.)

Equipped with this general framework of Ideal Observer Theory, let us see how the three early modern thinkers whom Firth mentions — Kant, Hume, and Smith — expressed their own objective cravings. The primary goals of analyzing these historical versions of Ideal Observer Theory are twofold: first, doing so will help substantiate the initial claim of this chapter, namely, that much Western philosophy is motivated by certain alleged attractions of objectivity as an ideal; second, in the process of examining the specific forms of objectivity and impartiality envisioned by each thinker, we will come to recognize not only the attractions to objectivity but also the need to accommodate certain aspects of subjectivity and partiality. The final section of this chapter will then sketch an alternative to Ideal Observer Theories capable of satisfying both our objective and our subjective cravings.

a. Kant's Disinterested Judge

Although historically later than Hume or Smith, we shall begin with Kant for the reason that his account is arguably the most extreme in its flight to objectivity and the most in-line with the strict tenets of Firth's archetypal Ideal Observer Theory.

According to Kant, our minds (like everything in nature) are defined by and intrinsically seek rules and generalities. This is not merely a psychological fact about us, says Kant, for if it were it would amount to a purely descriptive statement about the way our minds work; when in actuality, our innate attraction to rules and generalities has normative force as well. It is not that we always do correctly infer the conclusion of valid deductive arguments, for instance, but that we ought to do so. Anything normative — anything, that is, expressing an ought — thereby expresses an "objective necessity." This means, for Kant, that we cannot help but feel the pull of the ought as nonarbitrary. For example, if you wish not to have high blood pressure, you ought to avoid eating too much sodium. The force of this ought is "objective" in the sense that what grounds it is something outside your own individual opinion or preference: you might not like the fact that eating things with lots of sodium may cause higher blood pressure, especially if you find the taste of high-sodium foods delicious, but it is nevertheless a fact you cannot alter. The ought in this case is therefore "necessary" (i.e., you cannot change it to better accommodate your wishes), whether or not you ultimately decide to thereby avoid high-sodium foods (i.e., although it is "necessary," it is not "compulsory"). Thus, Kant observes that "every imperative [ought] expresses the objective necessitation of actions which are subjectively contingent."


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Copyright © 2018 Kevin DeLapp.
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Table of Contents

1. A Partial History of Impartiality / 2. Epistemic Objectivity / 3. Moral Objectivity / 4. Metaethical Objectivity / 5. Applications / Bibliography / Index

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