moralobjectivity.net concepts section: copyright Robert Ellis 2011
Objectivity in Middle Way philosophy does not refer to an absolute position beyond all human experience. If such a 'God's eye view' position exists in any sense, then we have no access to it. Instead, objectivity is used to refer to an incremental human quality - the capacity to address conditions, and to move beyond the limitations of previous assumptions that prevented us from addressing conditions. We are all objective to some degree, and anyone capable of reading this article will have developed their objectivity to some extent since childhood by increasing their capacity for awareness of the world around (and within) them.
This use of the term 'objectivity' is not an innovation. It is widely used in this sense in ordinary conversation, for example whenever we talk about "taking a more objective attitude" or "being more objective about something". When we talk in this way, we do not expect the person urged to be more objective to suddenly break into an absolute God's-eye view of the universe. It seems to be only philosophers, and occasionally scientists or other theorists, who are in the habit of using "objective" in an absolute way and expressing surprise (or even apparent confusion) if I use it in an incremental way. It is this use of the word "objective" that actually works against the development of objectivity by setting up perfection as an enemy of goodness. There are also philosophers who have used the term "objective" in this more practically useful way, including Thomas Nagel (see thesis introduction 1.a.iii). So I make no apologies for using the word 'objective' in a way which relates to ordinary language, but which is much more helpful than the way it is still often used by philosophers.
Objectivity is the philosophical way of describing integration. It is a degree of unification of our energies and awareness in moving beyond the limitations of our previous assumptions, and as such involves critical and investigatory attitudes as well as the overcoming of attachments to metaphysical beliefs, limitations of meaning, or obsession with the fulfilment of certain limited desires. Objectivity has scientific, aesthetic and moral dimensions, but these aspects of objectivity are unavoidably interdependent, just as the integrations of desire, meaning and belief are interdependent. For more on the moral dimension of objectivity and its relationship to scientific objectivity, see the separate article on moral objectivity.
Objectivity can also be seen at a social level in the progress of science. As scientific relativists have pointed out, there is no proof that newer scientific theories that seem to fit the evidence better are absolutely justified. What justifies these theories, then, is not the "truth" of the findings, but the objectivity of the investigation. Scientific investigation is relatively successful in understanding conditions because of the attitudes and methods of the scientists. Their attitudes provide personal attitudes of objectivity, whilst the tradition of disciplined enquiry provide social attitudes of objectivity. It is the fact that modern scientific theory has been produced in this way that gives it relatively more justification than, say, Ptolomaic, Aristotelian, or Vedic science, or indeed than modern pseudo-sciences such as astrology or homeopathy.
Objectivity does not need to be sought in metaphysical absolutes, but is found in our experience and recognised in common language. We need look no further for it. What we do need to do is abandon the fruitless terms of enquiry which place objectivity anywhere other than experience, and recognise the huge role that dualistic assumptions can play in unnecessarily limiting that objectivity.
Links to related discussion
Moral objectivity (concept page)
Relativism (introductory page)
Thesis introduction (including discussion of the meaning of 'objectivity')
The heuristic process (thesis)
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