1.  When listeners and readers say they seek neutral journalists and judges, what do they mean?

2. What assumptions are being made about human capabilities when neutrality is expected?

3. What assumption is made about our world when someone seeks the advice of "neutral" observers?


Journalists are often lampooned for their lack of neutrality. Similarly, judges are often judged by a standard motivated by similar expectations.  Somehow many of us expect journalists and judges in the interest of fairness to form their opinions (and here I am almost drawing a blank. What do calls for neutrality want?) in a manner captured well by the confirmation hearings of Justice Roberts when he said that the role of a judge is that of the umpire, calling balls and strikes presumably by a constant set of standards.

What would it mean for you or me to be neutral about judgments enhancing the well-being and flourishing of particular  groups of humans, often at the expense of other humans. In other words, when a judge must decide whether a particular definition of "life" is going to be the one used in the rules and regulations in a particular country, she or he necessarily will make a judgment that assists the rights and beliefs of some citizens and is an affront to other citizens. Or take the situation of a journalist observing the body-camera video of a shooting. If certain elements and possibilities are mentioned in the report (while others are forgotten or unexplored), the journalist will assuredly move emotions and perspectives in a direction that is or is not relatively friendly to the interpretation probably offered by the Chief of Police in that jurisdiction. 

The neutrality or what some would call "objectivity" of the journalist or judge strikes me as chimerical. The standard is murky and evades our grasp whenever we attempt to grip it. I first thought about this question in law school because I was bemused when even the most left-wing professors would deride the behavior of Justice William O. Douglas. Justice Douglas would often say to his law clerks when composing an opinion, "Here is what I will conclude. Now construct the reasoning and find precedents to support this opinion." I could not quite figure out the intense hostility to Douglas' behavior until I started inferring from their comments about the Justices they respected. And to make matters all the more confusing, the judges they praised were often less ideologically matched to the professors' views than were the opinions of Justice Douglas. 

I now realize that what Douglas was doing was so clearly managed reasoning where the conclusion appears first with reason being the mere window dressing to hide the complete basis for the conclusion. But some Justices were law school heroes because they piled reason on top of reason, followed by a "therefore we conclude. . .." The image they were projecting was that their decisions flowed from reasons to conclusions, i.e., in the more textbook-approved format for sound  judgments.

The idea that proper reasons lead to a particular conclusion, namely mine, puts a heavier load on reasons than they can faithfully bear. Those with whom we disagree are not necessarily unreasonable, and those who agree with our view of the world are certainly not necessarily careful thinkers.  By all means the prudent use of reasons is a hallmark of optimal human cognition. However, reflective judgments are a confluence of reasons, evidence, curiosity, listening to multiple viewpoints, kindness and a large array of cautious value priorities.

A neutral person would look at children saturated with napalm and say what? That same person would see police assassinated and say what? Mr. or Ms. Neutral would notice the racial disparity of those in American prisons and say what? I know we all think the answer to those questions is clear because we have already decided what the conclusion in these situations should be. But a neutral observer is someone who apparently does not have a background of ready-made conclusions.  The neutral is the person from nowhere with no background, no predilections, no biases, no specific dreams about what the world should be like. In other words, the neutral person is an unfeeling automaton. 

I think the closest we can get and therefore the most we can expect from observers is what Robert Heilbroner and Gunnar Myrdal called "soft objectivity." A person with soft objectivity recognizes her or his biases, tells people what those biases are, and promises to have open ears and eyes when encountering the perspectives of those who see the world differently. Even that degree of fairness is difficult for us to achieve, but it is probably as much as we dare expect from one another.

If any of us had what Hillary Putnam called "god's eye" then we could properly be the ultimate arbiter of what the world is and is not like. Then the "neutral" observer would be the person whose reports precisely mimic reality as perceived by Mr. or Ms. God's Eye. In other words, our world is not revealed to us in a form such that reasonable people see it one way and fools see it differently. Hence, neutrality is but another argumentative method by which I sanitize and legitimize the conclusions I prefer and then rebuke contrary conclusions with a charge of lack of neutrality.

1. Does our polity depend on the deceit of pretending that partisanship is the habit of a poor thinker?

SEE https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-damage-justice-ginsburg-did-to-the-supreme-court/2016/07/15/7c80f054-4ab8-11e6-90a8-fb84201e0645_story.html?wpisrc=nl_opinions&wpmm=1


Yes, it certainly does, but only if one believes that Justice Roberts or any of us is capable of "just calling the balls and the strikes."


AuthorM Neil Browne