concepts section: copyright Robert Ellis 2009

Dispositional Objectivity

This page deals only with the specifically dispositional nature of objectivity. For objectivity in general please see the 'objectivity' article.

A 'disposition' is a tendency to behave in a certain way in certain circumstances. To describe objectivity as dispositional, then, is to say that objectivity is a quality (of a person) that leads them to behave in certain ways in certain circumstances. Another way of putting this would be to describe objectivity as a virtue, like courage or patience: though unlike these more specific virtues, objectivity as a concept includes and reconciles apparently conflicting virtues (see asymmetrical integration).

To see objectivity as dispositional is not a new idea - it can be found in the work of Thomas Nagel and Michael Polanyi, for example. The argument for this view of objectivity can be summarised straightforwardly: we only need to note our personal experience of objectivity on the one hand, and our lack of a God's-eye view on the other. Without a God's-eye view of the world, we can never experience or describe it as it is in itself, so impersonal objectivity is impossible. On the other hand, to deny all objectivity on these grounds is to deny our experience of increasing objectivity, both individually and culturally. The only possible alternative account of objectivity is to see it as a feature of ourselves.

One of the difficulties involved in any kind of dispositional claim is its assessment from outside. If a person (or indeed, and inanimate object) has a given quality that is only revealed to experience under certain circumstances, how do I know that the quality is present when those circumstances do not arise? I might never discover that glass is brittle unless I strike it a sharp blow, and similarly I might never discover that another person is relatively objective if they do not display their objectivity. However, since objectivity is a feature of our whole response to conditions, in most circumstances it would be difficult to observe a person carefully for long without encountering at least the grounds for some provisional conclusions about their level of objectivity. Our lack of information about people is also just one of the conditions we have to work with. We cannot even be sure about our own levels of objectivity, and it would certainly be easy to be deluded about it. The fact that we have limited information about dispositions does not stop the concept of a dispositional quality being the most useful one to employ to account for the objectivity we do observe, whether in ourselves or others.

Incrementality in objectivity is also necessary to the concept of dispositional objectivity. A person can be objective to a given extent, and cannot possess either objectivity or its absence absolutely, due to the absence of a God's-eye view.

If objectivity is a virtue, however, this does not necessarily imply that our moral judgements should always be based on assessments of virtue alone, as moral judgements need to try to address other conditions than just those of virtue, and to take into account our relative ignorance of virtue. For more on this see the virtue concept article.


Further Discussion

Thesis introduction (see particularly a.iii)

The heuristic process (discusses the question of objectivity in philosophy of science)

Lakatos and non-dualistic ethics


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