Objectivity as Empathy


It’s frustrating to live at a time when it is not possible to have a serious debate about policy, because we cannot even agree on the state of reality.

Facts have become partisan. Any disagreement over facts is attributed to malice. Being persuadable is, at best, evidence of weak principles and intellect or, at worst, evidence of being disingenuous and untrustworthy. As though all earthly facts should be immediately self-evident to everyone in existence.

Meanwhile, objectivity gets a bad reputation in that it is viewed as being insincere, pretentious, disinterested, and cold. It is not surprising, as people can weaponize objectivity as a pretence for being dismissive, cynical, and impersonal. Everyone has experienced the frustration of a conversation in which the other person claims to be willing to hear your argument, but only if you happened to bring peer reviewed research to the party that supports your every premise.

But I believe that objectivity can be better practiced and understood as a willingness to listen to a person’s argument without running it through one’s own perspective, experiences, and prejudices. Essentially, the ability to actively listen, without being distracted by our natural compulsion to find exception. Instead of using objectivity as a weapon to impede a conversation, objectivity becomes a way of promoting conversation by conveying an open mind, which might be persuaded, and by giving the other party the benefit of the doubt.

This is not to say that one should accept an argument uncritically, but merely that conversations can proceed more smoothly without an oppositional stance, whereby we are constantly contrasting that person’s beliefs and experiences against our own. One can later challenge the other person’s premises and anecdotes and assertions of fact on their own time. Understanding another person’s perception of reality – and accepting that it might be different than your own or even empirically inaccurate without ascribing malice to that person – is itself a valuable exercise in empathy.

Posted in: Progress

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