A question of objectivity & empathy

I saw this tweet the other day

The tweet touches on something important. Something similar to what I said here. Most people, parties and set of political beliefs are more complex than neatly being utterly terrible or unrelentingly excellent. Those who are unable to see any good in their political opponents, those who cannot acknowledge any good in those with whom they disagree, are hard to take seriously when they make other comments because they lack credible objectivity.

It was what I found interesting about my friend, Jeremy Marshall’s, tweet about Brexit and why I will enjoy trolling him periodically with good news stories about it:

But it is hard to take seriously those who can see literally no benefits of Brexit at all. Even with the vaccine story, some still insist the UK are short-changing the benevolent EU despite the European Chief Executive of AstraZeneca – and their majority European management team – saying that the issue is to do with the UK getting a contract in place 3-months earlier than the EU and resolving the (inevitable) production issues on this scale. Pascal Soriot explains the situation comprehensively here. The issue is solely down to the EU’s slow process, refusal to allow individual countries to make their own agreements and the UK’s faster process and earlier sign up. It really cannot be spun in any other way than a clear advantage of having left the EU.

I don’t mind admitting that I can see why some voted to remain in the EU. There are some good reasons for doing so. They weren’t ultimately convincing enough to overturn the cause for leaving for me, but it is clearly not true that the EU is only evil and unhelpful start to finish. There are clearly advantages to being in. But it is interesting that some simply cannot bring themselves to acknowledge that there is a credible case for leaving too and benefits to be had. Those who cannot acknowledge these things on either side simply lack objectivity on the matter.

Of course, we believe what we believe because we think it is right. That is, by definition, the reality of believing things. It is why I have never quite understood the accusation, ‘you just want to be right!’ Well, yes, I do. Who actively believes what they know to be wrong and then calls being wrong a virtue? That doesn’t make any sense. We believe what we believe to be right, best and true. That is the nature of believing it.

But believing what is right, best and true must surely be drawn from the evidence. It is tiresome when people insist how awful the Tories are (for example) and how virtuous are Labour (for another example), but refuse to acknowledge the inverse of that when they happen to adopt policies from each other. It is equally problematic whichever way the virtue is being claimed. Far too many people are concerned about looking virtuous, by supporting the right people and causes, rather than determining what they think is right based on whatever evidence they think most significant and then judging what and whom to support on that ground.

We have seen this polarisation in respect to Trump in America. It has been on show regarding Brexit in the UK. We are seeing it almost everywhere now in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. I am right, you are wrong, and now we have decided that, everything you think must be awful. Your position must be painted out to be the worst it can possibly be because then my rightness will shine more brightly. It might make us feel good for a moment, but it doesn’t say much to our objectivity, our desire for truth or our claims to follow evidence (such as we say we are doing so).

There are, of course, times when we make our case and – on the evidence we have and using the reasoning we’ve got – conclude that one position is better than another (or the several others available). In some cases, the case as we judge it is compellingly clear with almost nothing to commend the alternatives whereas in other cases weighing up the different positions might be much harder. But when there are two positions, there is usually something to commend the alternative. If we can’t recognise that when 40% or more of those having a say judge it differently, it really does speak to a lack of objectivity.

Let me give you an example. I am no supporter of abortion. I think it is a great evil. You have to go a very long way indeed to convince me that killing children in utero is a legitimate thing to do. But even in that heinous approach to birth control, I can see why so many are wedded to it. I can see the arguments – which range from matters of convenience right the way through to serious and potentially unmanageable financial and mental strain put on people – that mean it persists. None of those things are enough, in my view, to overcome the far more serious problem of putting children to death, but if we cannot even see why anybody is wedded to it – if we cannot acknowledge that there are good reasons for it (and I do not mean that those reasons are ultimately good, but that the reasons are legitimate of themselves and to which abortion is a solution, albeit an unimaginably horrific one) – we don’t stand much chance of making our case. It is only as we recognise the legitimate issues that lead people to utilise it, that we provide wide-reaching and significant (costly) alternatives, alongside our overwhelming and (in my view) unassailable moral case, we stand little chance of overturning the practice. But objectivity demands us to recognise that there are good arguments for it, even though those ‘good’ arguments do not render the thing good itself and do absolutely nothing to outweigh the moral case against it, which is ultimately and overwhelmingly decisive.

I am not saying that we have to be convinced of alternative positions to our own. I am not saying that we have to recognise good in every aspect of any alternative position. But I am saying objectivity demands that we at least understand why people who take different stances to us are making their case. If they are convinced by it, the chances are there is something good about it. It may not be convincing. It may not even come anywhere near defeating the case for our position. But if we cannot acknowledge any good in it, we stand little chance of convincing those that do of our position. They will simply question our objectivity, which makes it far easier to dismiss us in the end.

Of course, we can always just shout ‘evil’ and ‘moron’ at people. That seems to have gotten us a long way so far.