When I’m working on a geography paper, I tend to approach it from the angle of a problem I’d like to critique. Why do I want to critique something? Often, it’s because I don’t like it. Does this always call my observations or arguments into question?
The traditional debate
When it comes to the social sciences, we see a division into two broad camps, which for present purposes I’ll call ‘positivist’ and ‘interpretivist.’ The positivists aspire, more or less, to the standards of detachment and rigor found within much of the natural sciences. On their view, emotion, interest, and desire are likely to lead us astray from the truth, because we will overlook facts that don’t conform with our expectations. The ideal social scientist is dispassionate, thoughtful, and wholly transparent about their methodology. Above all, objectivity means suspending normative judgment- moral claims have no place in any work that purports to be scientific. If we allow value judgments to cloud our research, then we will see things as we feel they ought to be rather than as they are.
The interpretivists, seeing that the positivist approach is not one that lends itself well to the idea of social critique, take the opposite view. Very often, they argue, subjectivity motivates even the dispassionate research of the natural sciences. The objectivity to which positivists aspire is an impossible ideal, as subjective considerations are all but unavoidable. Even if detachment works in the natural sciences, when we investigate the human social world, we cannot avoid our place in it, and hence, our own subjectivity. Therefore, objectivity is undesirable and we should make room for desire, value judgments, and other forms of subjectivity.
The positivists accuse the interpretivists of failing to meet the standards of science, sloppy methodology, and general inaccuracy in social research. The interpretivists counter that the positivists’ methodology prevents them from seeing underlying social structure, and that positvists use the language of objectivity to mask the subjective considerations motivating their own research.
I think both sides’ claims have some merit, and I think the best way to make sense of both is to reject a premise they both share.
A way out
Both sides in the traditional debate, I believe, presuppose a Humean view of desire and normative judgment. David Hume famously argued:
"Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them." Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Part III, Sect. 3
In short: all rationality is instrumental. Reason can only ever help us to best satisfy the set of our desires, and to show us which desires might contradict other ones we possess. Individual desires are not, in themselves, rational or irrational, and they are not open to rational criticism. To illustrate, one of Hume’s most notorious claims:
“It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.” Hume, ibid.
Desires and emotions, then, simply come upon us, and the only task for rationality when presented with them is to make sense of them as they relate to our other desires. All it means for a claim to be normative is that it is a claim about what best fulfills our desires.
For the positivists, this means focusing purely on the question at hand, so that our ability to be rational is not tainted by other considerations. For the interpretivists, this means opening up questions of desire and addressing them more directly; if rationality is at bottom motivated by desire, then making sense of the social world requires us to acknowledge it.
I reject both approaches. I won’t give an argument against the Humean view of reason or normativity here (though there is one that I happily recommend), but I think it makes sense to reject it in the social sciences. If we accept that certain desires are open to rational criticism, then more options are open to us. So, then, what does that mean?
Thomas Nagel draws an important distinction:
"The assumption that a motivating desire underlies every intentional act depends, I believe, on a confusion between two sorts of desires: motivated and unmotivated. It has been pointed out before that many desires, like many beliefs, are arrived at by decision and after deliberation. They need not simply assail us, though there are certain desires that do, like the appetites and in certain cases the emotions. …The desires which simply come to us are unmotivated though they can be explained. Hunger is produced by a lack of food, but it is not motivated thereby. A desire to shop for groceries, after discovering nothing appetizing in the refrigerator, is on the other hand motivated by hunger. Rational or motivational explanation is just as much in order for that desire as for the action itself.” Nagel, The Possibility of Altruism, p. 29
When we combine this with the idea that desires are open to normative (rational or moral) criticism, we get an important observation. Some desires might themselves be motivated or unmotivated, as might some emotions. For example, when you become angry with someone who has intentionally deceived you, your anger is motivated by the normative principle that people should not deceive others.
In the social sciences, this could mean that my dislike of a certain state of affairs is not simply a disliking that has come upon me- it is motivated by normative considerations. On this view, it is not my desire that is the source of my disapproval, but instead certain principles.
Objectivity of another kind
Aspiring to objectivity in social research means acknowledging the normative principles that motivate your research- especially in the realm of social critique. It also means acknowledging the standpoint from where you conduct your research, and how that might affect your normative claims. This a more honest way of dealing with the topic than merely appealing to a personal subjectivity, which is often used as a conversation-ender. When we bring normative claims out into the open, rather than trying to toss them out of the room (as positivists do), or sweep them under the rug of desire and subjectivity as (interpretivists do), we are offered a much richer conceptual vocabulary for dealing with them. We can more freely make use of the language of moral philosophy, provided we are up-front about the moral principles we employ.
Where I think those motivated by interpretivist intuitions went wrong is in letting the positivists define objectivity. I agree with much of their critique of the positivist account of objectivity, but I think we shouldn’t leap from that to the proposition that all objectivity is suspect. I still think objectivity is a good goal, just not on the terms that positivists have defined. With a new kind of objectivity in mind, we can make better sense of social critique, and can have a more extensive terminology for engaging in it.