Philosophy 25 - 2.3.1 Strive for Objectivity

We are likely to assume that our experience or our perspective is generally true for others. To be more objective in thinking about issues, problems, or values, we should actively engage in strategies that remove us from our naturally subjective mindset. In this section, we will explore several strategies for approaching philosophical problems with less subjective bias.

Abstract from Specific Circumstances

Most people’s point of view is based on generalizing from their specific circumstances and experiences. However, if your view of morality, consciousness, or free will is tied to notions that come from a specific time or location, then your view is not likely to be objective. Your personal experience has limitations when it comes to understanding what is going on in the world at large. To arrive at more general and representative notions, use your imagination to separate the specific properties of your experience from your worldview. This process of abstraction can make the concept appropriately general. For instance, if you wish to imagine a governing arrangement among citizens, you will probably default to the governmental organizations you are familiar with in your community, state, or nation. But these institutions differ from the way government works in other countries or in different eras of history. So when you think about justice in political organizations, it is important to imagine those not limited by your personal experience, moment in history, or location.

In some cases, however, the specific features of your experience are indispensable to the philosophical position you wish to take. In such instances, your specific experience provides critical information that needs to be preserved. For example, the prevailing views in philosophy as well as any other subject are biased in that they reflect the views of the dominant cultural group who wrote the texts. If you are a person who belongs to a nondominant or minority group or a group that has been historically marginalized, your personal experience may shed new light on a problem. In such cases, specific experience can help you, as well as others, reshape the general view so that it is more comprehensive and inclusive. In these cases, abstracting from the particular circumstances may not be useful.

Promote Alternative Points of View

Actively considering points of view contrary to your own is most useful in political or ethical areas of philosophy. But a similar strategy may also be useful in metaphysics or epistemology. For instance, when considering issues in metaphysics, you may believe that parts of experience—like consciousness, God, or free will—cannot be explained by the natural sciences. Or, conversely, you may think there is a scientific explanation for everything. When considering these views philosophically, try to actively promote the alternative point of view. Sometimes this strategy is called steelmanning the opposing argument. When you steelman an argument, you make the strongest possible case in favor of it. This is the opposite of strawmanning an argument, in which you construct a weaker version of the argument to easily defeat it. You may be tempted to strawman arguments you naturally disagree with, but you will become a better philosopher when you steelman those arguments instead.

Connections

Learn more about the strawman fallacy in the chapter on logic and reasoning.

Identify Counterexamples

Generating counterexamples is an effective way to test your own or others’ claims. A counterexample is an instance that renders an argument invalid by satisfying all the premises of the claim but demonstrating the conclusion is false. Suppose someone wants to argue that the only legitimate way to know something is to have direct experience of it. To produce a counterexample to this claim, we must imagine something that everyone knows is true but that would be impossible to experience directly. Here is an example: I know my mother was born. Clearly, given that I was born, I had a mother, and she, too, must have been born to have given birth to me. My mother’s birth necessarily preceded my birth by many years, so it would be impossible for me to have any direct experience of my mother’s birth. And yet, just as surely as I know I was born, I know that my mother was born. Counterexamples are powerful tools to use in evaluating philosophical arguments. If you practice using this tool, you will become a better critical thinker.

Connections

See the section on counterexamples in the chapter on logic and reasoning for more discussion of this topic.

Maintain Skepticism of Strong Emotions

While emotions play an important role in thinking, they can also cloud judgment. Strong reactions to claims made by philosophers, other students, your professor, or anyone else may prevent you from considering the argument objectively. You should be wary of any strong attachment or aversion you feel toward a philosophical claim. Emotions can guide us, but they may threaten our ability to objectively consider the arguments being made.

To respond to strong emotions, use the tools of metacognition to reflect on the source of those emotions and attempt to manage them. There may be good reasons for your emotions, but recognize that those reasons, not the emotions themselves, are philosophically relevant. Manage emotions by taking a step back from your personal investment in the issue and considering it from another perspective. Sometimes a short break can allow the immediate emotional reaction to subside. Sometimes imaginative strategies can help; for example, substitute the features of the problem that trigger strong emotions for features that are more neutral. This advice is not to suggest that emotions are harmful or have no place in philosophical thinking. Instead, the purpose of this strategy is to remind you that the way to derive meaning and guidance from your emotions is to reflect on them and think through the causes, origins, or reasons for the emotions.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax