Monday, April 17, 2006

Thinking Outside the Box 6

Thinking Outside the Box 6

How objective can we really be?  Now there’s a good question.  I suppose if I were correcting a problem in mathematics set as an exam for my students, I could be called objective if I give the appropriate marks for method etc.  Mathematics is cut and dried obviously, and I suppose I could be said to be 100 per cent objective.  Now let’s add in some constraints.  Suppose a student gets a good mark, say 80%, in a trial Leaving Certificate Mathematics paper and I know that this student has not really been working, then I might suspect that he or she had seen the paper before.  I might also suspect that maybe he or she had been copying from another student.  However, I must also ask the question about how biased I am against this student.  Perhaps he or she has taken last minute grinds or simply was inspired.  How objective a mark then is this 80% so?  When it comes to literature I suppose it is harder still to be objective especially when marking essays or other such work of the imagination since questions of personal taste and style enter the scenario.  Within reason – presuming that there are acceptable standards of lay out, use of language, spelling etc – one could accept the fact that two correctors or examiners might give varying marks for an essay.  How much such marks would vary I do not quite know, but obviously total objectivity is not possible all of the time.

In the world of the Arts personal taste is highly important.  Sure there are certain agreed criteria of what makes good Art – no matter how clear or even nebulous they might be – among those arbiters of taste like critics, professors and other various experts.  At school we have certain agreed criteria for “student of the year” awarded to one of our sixth formers at the end of their student career with us.  Last academic year I believed that the candidate I voted for was the better choice of the two proposed, while I realised that I was distinctly biased towards one given that he had been outstanding in editing his Year Book and in his general attitude of helpfulness to other students and involvement in many voluntary activities.  However, I believe that I was as objective as I could be given the criteria, but at the same time my decision was also coloured by my own interests and preoccupations.

As regards the world of ethics, “business ethics” and “medical ethics” are the two categories of this philosophical science that spring readily to mind.  Agreed principles in both these areas have been literally hammered out over the years, and indeed many contentious areas continue to be discussed by the standards of these ethical principles.  This area is referred to within philosophy as “normative ethics” because it is concerned with elucidating “norms” or “rules” or “principles.”  Then there is still another more fundamental area of ethics namely “meta-ethics” which raises such basic questions as:  “Do moral beliefs reflect some objective truth?” or “Are moral beliefs dependent on personal desires of their holders?” or “Is rational argument about morality possible at all?”  Here we have the debate between subjectivism and objectivism in ethics.  How self-evident are moral truths ask the subjectivists? Then I remember the debate we had in our philosophy class back in the late 1970s about Joseph Fletcher’s famous “situation ethics” which argued quite plausibly than the situation coloured the ethical stance in each case.  I remember our Catholic philosopher (obviously an objectivist ethicist) referring to this particular stance by Fletcher as being laid on “the shifting sands of situationism” alluding metaphorically to the lack of solid ground in this ethical position.  I will discuss relativism and perspectivism in later posts.  In the meantime I’ll leave you with a quotation from the Talmud, quoted by Carl Gustave Jung and Stephen Covey (of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People fame) among others in the self-help world, to whet your appetite:  “We see the world not as it is, but as we are!”
The picture I have placed above centre is one of an ice sculpture I took in Salzburg, Austria in December 2005. Water or Ice or Both or More?

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