What does it mean to be Objective?

The term “Objective” is thrown about quite a bit in matters pertaining to the debate about morality and ethics. It is also utilized in criticism against certain views or arguments, where not being “objective” in your analysis of facts is considered bad. When a person studies a subject, they are to be “objective” in their study. So, what exactly does “objective” mean? Are we really using it appropriately in our daily conversations? Why is it good to be “objective” and how does that impact our faith in something?

It is always insightful and helpful to begin with a dictionary, so let us begin there. In reviewing the various forms of the term “objective,” there are many different definitions that can be found at Dictionary.com. Here are a few that stood out to me:

  1. (adjective) Existing independently of perception or an individual’s conceptions; undistorted by emotion or personal bias; of or relating to actual and external phenomena as opposed to thoughts, feelings, etc.
  2. (Noun) Something that one’s efforts or actions are intended to attain or accomplish.
  3. (adjective) Not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice; based on facts; unbiased.
  4. (adjective) Intent upon or dealing with things external to the mind; being the object of perception or thought;
  5. (adjective) of or relating to something that can be known, or to something that is an object or a part of an object; existing independent of thought or an observe as part of reality.

In reviewing these definitions, and in light of the context of the term’s use as mentioned, we can get three definitions that more effectively define “objective.”

  1. (Noun) Something that one’s efforts or actions are intended to attain or accomplish.
  2. (adjective) The state of existing (of some thing or object) independently from human thought, that can be known or discovered, and that ‘is as it is’ regardless of humanity’s awareness of it.
  3. (adjective, as in “to be objective.”) to evaluate an object based upon itself rather than to allow one’s personal feelings, emotions, and preconceptions to effect what can be learned from the object itself.

Just as an objective in one’s life, or an objective for an organization to achieve, exists independently from the person or organization attempting to achieve it, so to can something exist as an “objective thing,” that is separate from humanity. So one can say that Reality itself exists as an “objective” thing, since it is what it is regardless of humanity’s awareness or knowledge of it. We most commonly understand it as deriving a conclusion based squarely on the facts. Perhaps the phrase, “let the facts speak for themselves,” comes to mind. Given this collection of definitions, we can see that “objectivity” is dependent on human intellect to exist, but in its substance, or its nature, is not dependent on humanity. That is to say, being objective requires a being capable of understanding what it means to exist and be identified (that is, it is an abstract, intangible, immaterial concept) but in its nature and make up does not depend on human thoughts, feelings, or perspective.

An Example

For example, we have a rock. That rock is what it is regardless of humanity’s awareness or knowledge of it. It has been a rock since the day it was formed (by whatever means) and will remain as such until something acts upon it. So this rock is objective in its nature, it does not require human thought or perception in order to exist. However, in order for it to be known as a “rock,” there must be humanity present. This does not change it from being some sort of “non-rock” to being a “rock.” It does mean that until humanity identifies it as a “rock,” it does not have that name. So, objectivity, in a sense, is based on the human ability to communicate. That is, without human communication, a rock is simply nothing more than what it is. But when a human comes to identify it as something different from all other things, it is now given the identity of, “rock.”

Now as we observe the rock, we being human, can “be objective,” and allow the rock to “speak for itself.” We observe the rock, evaluate it, and not allowing our emotions or feelings get in the way, we allow the rock to simply be a rock, and call it that (given we have already categorized objects like it into “rocks”). We do not subject the rock to our own preconceived notions of what a rock is. Perhaps our rock is grey. We were raised in a family that considers a rock to be a hard object that is black. So, instead of simply looking at the rock and saying, “Hey, this appears to be a rock.” We would instead say, “That can’t be a rock! It is grey. Only hard objects that are black can be rocks, therefore, this object is not a rock.” We, again, come back to its nature as an “objective” thing. Regardless of us imposing our preconceived notion of what is or is not a rock, the rock remains a rock none the less! This example is of a person being “subjective” in their evaluation of the rock. That is, we are attempting to identify it based on something some other human has told us. This means we are basing what we think this rock is based upon the thought of other humans, not on the rock itself. When we think things are what they are based squarely on what a human thinks of it, as opposed to what it actually is in reality, we are not being objective. We are being “subjective”.

To Be Objective

So, our rough example here can help us to illustrate the nature of some thing itself being an “objective” thing, and what it means for a person “to be objective.” So let us go more into what it means for a person “to be objective.” Can a person truly be objective? Well, it depends. What does a person need to do in order to be objective? Now our noun form of Objective comes to light. In order for a person to be objective when evaluating something, (or as it is most commonly used, in evaluating some subject) they must set aside their personal feelings, emotions, and preconceptions (personal beliefs), and evaluate the thing or subject on what it has to offer. We could say, “On its own merits,” or “based on the facts alone.” So, as the observer, we must set an objective to be accomplished. We must say to ourselves, “My objective in evaluating this thing or subject is to allow it to inform me about itself, and to not allow my own feelings to impose upon it.” So, to be objective, we must make this be our objective for our study. We will allow the object, the reality, to tell us what it is by observing it in light of its reality.

Objectivity and Open-Mindedness

What relation does the idea of “being objective” have with being “open-minded?” To be open-minded simply means to be willing to consider new ideas without prejudice. When we evaluate new ideas (as mentioned previously, some ‘subject’), it is considered good character to review or listen to the idea and carefully consider it before coming to any judgement about it. That is to say, reaching any particular conclusion about it. (Judging something is essentially the same as reaching a conclusion about something.) When we are being objective, we are not necessarily being open-minded. Instead, we are evaluating something, and allowing it to speak for itself, essentially. When we are open-minded, we then consider what we have learned from the object before drawing a conclusion about it. So, there is similarities between the two concepts. The difference being that when we are objective in evaluating something, we have some particular outcome in mind to achieve (some reality we are seeking to discover). When we are being open-minded about something, we are willingly considering what that thing (another person’s idea) has to offer to us, and then reaching a conclusion about it. This is, in a sense, picking at hairs here, and there is not much difference when you sit and think about it. Indeed, the two terms are synonymous in the dictionary.

But there is something important to note here. When we are open-minded, we do not have to alter our own beliefs and views to what we hear, as what we here is only an opinion, not a reality. We just simply must be willing to consider the point being made in light of its own veracity (or lack there of). To be objective means that we are willing to accept that which is demonstrated to be true, resulting in a change to our own understanding of something. When we are being objective, we are learning something new and adding it to our collection of knowledge about anything, and our framework of reality (if it has any impact on it). When we are being open-minded, we are talking about ideas and concepts about what could be, not what actually is. Being open-minded has more to do with ideas, another’s opinion, or someone else’s views on some subject. Whereas objectivity has more to do with the evaluation of facts about something, and accepting the facts as what they are, and not allowing any prejudice effect our view of reality. Where open-mindedness is about considering other people’s opinions on some uniquely human idea, objectivity has to deal with that which is real, not that which could be real in another’s view.

Conclusion

Understanding what it means to be objective in how we evaluate things, and for some thing to exist as objective, is extremely important when it comes to debates about morality. It is certainly a good thing to be objective when we evaluate facts, and allowing ourselves to be grounded in the reality of things as opposed to simply that which we were once told about them. Being objective in how we evaluate the world around us allows us to gain knowledge and to be more in tune with reality itself. Until we experience some reality, we are only offering opinions of what could be or what might be. It is also good to be open-minded in considering other people’s views of what could be or what might be (their ideas), but this does not mean we must accept those possibilities as reality. However, once we experience that thing which we could only speculate about before, we must be objective in evaluating it, not allowing our previous speculations to drive our view of the reality we have now come to discover. In light of the facts about some subject we had previously speculated about, we must be willing to admit that we are wrong if we are indeed wrong, and be willing to accept the newly discovered truth as such. For all reality is truly absolute in its nature, and its existence as something absolute allows us to better utilize it to the benefit of all.