One of the classes I'm taking this term is called Justice in Global Perspective. Basically, it's an ethics course dealing with global issues such as democracy, various forms of justice, globalization/Westernization, human rights, and international politics/development. This class is cross-listed with both the philosophy department and the international development department at Dalhousie. It's a very interesting course for me, because I am an idealist, and most of the theorists we are reading present and defend idealistic views on these subjects.
The class is structured so that once a week, we have an hour for more in-depth group discussion on the subjects we covered during the week. Students are asked to email the professor with questions to bring up in the discussion. Last week, our prof, Sue, said one question that kept coming up was "Why do these theorists keep discussing subjects in a way that is idealistic or utopian? Isn't that a bad way of going about trying to change things?" This same question was brought up again this week, but was reframed. The subject was epistemology (theory of knowledge), and the author's view was that in order to gain true knowledge, there has to be a commitment to understanding beyond one's own assumptions/life story: we all start out with assumptions that shape the way we learn and inform what we choose to learn about. The author's view is essentially that we only choose to learn about what we already care about, so to be truly knowledgeable, it is necessary to gain information from a framework of caring about the subject – the commitment is not to the subject necessarily, but to knowledge itself. The question became, "Isn't that just moving from one bias to another?"
Essentially, the question is one of objectivity. Is it possible to be objective? Philosophers, of course, disagree on this point. Some have a view of objectivity as a sort of "god's eye view". (You'll notice in this blog I often choose not to capitalize the names of gods, countries, religions, and even some people. This is a conscious decision, not a mistake. It is not necessarily meant to be disrespectful, but rather to level the ideological playing field, in a way.) This "god's eye view" is that we as people can be and are able to step outside ourselves – our skins, our global locations, our positions in society, our experiences, our religions, our beliefs, our cultures – and view the world in a neutral and inclusive way, as in the way the christian god would do, looking down on the earth from heaven above. Other philosophers believe objectivity is not possible at all, because it is impossible for us to leave the various lenses through which we look at the world at the door; we always see the world according to our own skins, global locations, societal positions, experiences, religions, beliefs, and cultures. This position is that of the "situated knower".
The particular theorist (Susan Babbitt) we were discussing shares this view, but is slightly more optimistic on the question of whether we can actually be objective. The idea is that while we may always be "situated knowers", that does not mean our story ends there, or that we are trapped by this. We can still gain knowledge, and become more objective knowers, by becoming committed to knowledge that is not based only on assumptions; that a process of critical analysis can be employed to help us move past our assumptions about a subject and that through this process we can become more objective.
As an idealist, I'm used to being ridiculed a little bit by those who prefer to be mired down in the pragmatic truths of the matters at hand. I believe that ideals must be defended in order to know where we are falling short in practice, and to have something to both inspire us to improve and measure our progress. Sometimes it's tough being an idealist. It gets discouraging sometimes to look around the world, because sometimes all I see is our failures in society. But, I am committed to the idea of gaining knowledge and understanding. I agree with Babbitt. I don't think we are able to ever step outside our own frameworks completely, and that the ways in which we see the world are directly related to our own experiences. However, that "god's eye view" looks very appealing to me. It would be so nice to be able to step outside of the things that negatively inform my views of the world, and see from a neutral vantage point. For me, I think recognizing myself as located in the world in a particular way is a stepping stone, a starting point. You cannot change what you don't accept.
"You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one. I hope someday you'll join us and the world will live as one." – John Lennon, Imagine