MWP 1.4.b The Dispositional Nature of Objectivity

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For objectivity to be dispositional means that it is people who are (incrementally) objective, rather than propositions. To talk of a person being objective is to talk about their dispositions: that is, the pattern of how they tend to behave in certain kinds of circumstances. A rubber band has a disposition to be stretchy, which we only experience in the circumstances when it is stretched, and a courageous person has a disposition to behave in a courageous way, by taking risks in order to create benefits. Objectivity is similarly a disposition of persons, which is displayed when they make judgements that address conditions more effectively than those without so much objectivity.

One theoretical problem with all dispositional qualities is that we might never experience them, because the conditions in which the disposition is revealed may never occur. Obviously a dispositional quality that is rarely evident is unlikely to be of much relevance to us (although this also depends on the power of the disposition – one that saved the world every hundred years would still be quite important to us!). However, objectivity is such a broad quality, and also one that is used every time a judgement is made, that this is unlikely to be a practical problem with dispositional objectivity. In any case, it could be argued that in some sense all qualities are dispositional: even a quality as basic as mass is only evident in some circumstances and not others. So there is no justification for rejecting dispositional qualities for anything other than practical concerns about the frequency of evidence of a given particular dispositional quality, unless one rejects the idea of qualities altogether.

Dispositional objectivity equates conceptually to the idea of virtue, as discussed in both virtue ethics and virtue epistemology, except that it is not merely an analysis of virtues recognised conventionally by our society. Nor is it based on a metaphysical belief like Aristotle’s notion of form. Since objectivity is determined by experiential adequacy, not by convention, it would be possible for dispositional objectivity to completely defy convention. For example, in a society where the convention is for virtuous women to be highly submissive, a relatively objective woman might have the confidence to try out provisional ideas that defied this view of women, despite social disapproval. However, in many cases there will be a substantial overlap between conventional virtues and the virtues of objectivity.

Dispositional objectivity being a kind of virtue does not reduce Middle Way Philosophy to a virtue ethics or virtue epistemology, if what that means is that all judgements can only be made about the justification of our general dispositions over a period of time rather than our specific judgements at one time. I cannot say that because Henry is a relatively objective man, therefore all judgements made by Henry are equally objective as a matter of definition. If Henry is relatively objective it will only be because of the experiential adequacy of his judgements at different specific times put together. I can thus judge any specific judgement on the grounds of the experiential adequacy with which it is made, as well as judging the character of the person who made them by putting together these different judgements. We are not limited to either diachronic or synchronic judgements, but either can inform the other.

The point that this account of objectivity is the objectivity of a person (whether at one time or over time) makes a big difference in other respects, because that objectivity can be understood in relation to our whole experience. We may be more objective, for example, because of the strength of our imagination, or our compassion, or our awareness of our bodies. None of these aspects of objectivity would even figure in an abstract, bloodless, left hemisphere dominated ‘view from nowhere’. In such an absolute disembodied position, assuming it was even possible without massive contradictions, we might imagine having an abstract knowledge of all objects and events, but we wouldn’t know what it felt like to be a finite being amongst them, and thus would have a less than perfect awareness after all – contradicting the idea of an absolute position again. This is perhaps why angels are sometimes said to envy men and women their flesh and blood.

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