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Positional Objectivity Author(s): Amartya Sen Source: Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 22, No. 2 (Spring,

Positional Objectivity Author(s): Amartya Sen Source: Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 22, No. 2 (Spring, 1993), pp. 126-145 Published by: Wiley Stable URL: Accessed: 29-04-2015 11:10 UTC

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What we can observe depends on our position vis-a-vis the objects of observation.Whatwe decide to believeis influenced by what we observe. How we decide to act relates to ourbeliefs. Positionallydependentobser- vations, beliefs, and actions are central to our knowledge and practical reason. The nature of objectivityin epistemology,decision theory, and ethics has to take adequatenote of the parametricdependence of obser- vationand inference on the positionof the observer.This articleattempts to investigate some of the far-reachingconsequences of that parametric


One of the immediateimplicationsof emphasizing the positionalper- spective is to question the traditionof seeing objectivityin the form of invariance with respect to individual observers and their positions-a "viewfromnowhere,"as Thomas Nagel puts it in his illuminatingstudy. "Aview or formof thought is more objectivethan anotherif it relies less on the specifics of the individual'smakeup and positionin the world,or

This article draws on my Storrs Lectures on "Objectivity" at the Yale Law School, given

I am particularly grateful to

in September I990. For helpful comments and suggestions,

Jonathan Bennett, Joshua Cohen, and Thomas Scanlon, and also to Susan Brison, Guido Calabresi, Lincoln Chen, G. A. Cohen, Koichi Hamada, Susan Hurley, Mark Johnston, Arthur Kleinman, Anthony Laden, Isaac Levi, Tapas Majumdar, Frank Michaelman, Christopher Murray, Derek Parfit, Hilary Putnam, Thomas Nagel, Emma Rothschild, Ber- nard Williams, and the Editors of Philosophy & Public Affairs.

i. This article does not address the foundational issues in metaphysics that relate to po- sitional dependence, in particular the presumed "duality"between the external world and our conceptual powers. The language of the arguments presented in this article invokes this duality, and it is certainly simpler to see the practical and immediate implications of the claims made here in that classical Cartesian form. However, the full implications of this line of reasoning can be worked out only, I believe, by reexamining the issue of that duality itself.

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Positional Objectivity

on the characterof the particulartype of creaturehe is."2 This way of seeing objectivityhas some clearmerit, and Nagel's characterizationfo- cuses on an importantaspect of the classical conception of objectivity. This conception of objectivityis, however,in some tension with the in- escapablepositionalityof observations. That tension is most direct and immediatein dealing with the objec- tivityof elementaryobservationalclaims.The subjectmatterof an objec- tive assessment can well be the way an object appearsfrom a specified positionof observation.What is observedcan varyfrompositionto posi- tion, but differentpeople can conduct theirrespectiveobservationsfrom similarpositions and make much the same observations.The positional parametersneed not, of course, be only locational(or relatedto any spa- tial placing), and can include any conditionthat (i) may influence ob- servation,and (2) can applyparametricallyto differentpersons. Different types of examples of positionalparameters(in this broadsense) include:

being myopic or color-blindor having normaleyesight; knowing or not

knowing a specific language; having or not having knowledgeof partic- ular concepts; being able or not able to count. The objectivityof obser- vations must be a position-dependentcharacteristic:not a "view from nowhere,"but one "froma delineatedsomewhere."3 But if position-dependence applied only to directly observational

claims, then the

largely adequate except specifically for statements of that particular kind. I argue here that the tensionis, in fact, much more extensive than that. Positionalvariabilityis generallyrelevant for the objectivityof de- cisions aboutbeliefs and actions as well.

Position-dependentobjectivity ("positionalobjectivity,"for short) is importantin differentcontexts in differentways. First, it is the central concept in dealing with directlyobservationalclaims (Section II). Sec- ond, the objectivityof positionalobservationsplays a crucialpartin the process of acquiringscientific knowledge,and thus serves as a building block of science (Section III). Third, more generally, positional objectivityis important in under- standing the objectivityof beliefs, whether ornot these beliefs happen to

classical conception of objectivity could be seen as

2. Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere (Oxford: Clarendon Press, I986), p. 5. 3. The nature of positional objectivity of observations was the main focus of attention in my Lindley Lecture, Objectivity and Position (Lawrence, Kans.: University of Kansas,


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be correct. Truth is quite a different issue from the objectivityof the reasoning leading to a particularbelief, given the access to information that the personhas. (Julius Caesarwas not particularlylacking in objec- tivityin disbelievingthat Brutustoowas planningto killhim, but he was of course badlymistaken.) Positionalobjectivityis importantin under- standing the idea of "objectiveillusion"(Section IV).The concept of ob- jective illusion can be illustratedwith practicalexamples;here it is done with the problemof assessment of morbidityand the understandingof gender bias within the family(Section V). Fourth,the notionof positionalobjectivitycan be used to reassess crit- ically the concept of subjectivism(Section VI) and that of culturalrela- tivism (Section VII). Fifth, positionalobjectivityis centralto decision theory,since a person has to decide what to do on the basis of what he or she has reasons to believe. This is particularlycriticalin interpretingthe concept of "sub- jective probability,"which can be seen as positionallyobjectiveexpecta- tions (Section VIII). Finally, self-assessment of the ethical acceptabilityof a person's ac- tions must take note of the special position of the person vis-'a-visher own actions and of the states of affairsthatinclude those actions.This is a centralissue in judging the range and reach of consequentialistethics in dealing with deontologicalconcerns and agent-relativemoral values (Section IX).


Considerthe claim:


(A) The sun and the moon look similarin size.

This observationis, obviously, not position independent, and the two bodies would lookverydissimilarin size from,say, the moon. But that is no reason fordescribingthe cited claim as nonobjective.Anotherperson observingthe sun and the moonfromroughlythe same place (to wit, the Earth), and having the same concept of size, should be able to confirm that claim. There is no immediatereason to see claim (A) as "havingits sourcein the mind,"oras "pertainingorpeculiarto an individualsubject

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Positional Objectivity

orhis mental operations"(to quote two standardcriteriaof subjectivity).4 Even though the positionalreferenceis not explicitlystatedhere, we can nevertheless take (A) to be a positionalclaim, which can be spelled out as:

(B) Fromhere,the sun and the moon look similarin size.

Someone can, of course, also make a claim abouthow things would ap- pearfroma positiondifferentfromthe one she currentlyoccupies.

(C) From there,the sun and the moon look similarin size.

Objectivitymay require interpersonalinvariance when the observa- tionalpositionis fixed, but thatrequirementis quite compatiblewith po- sition-relativityof observations.Differentpersons can occupy the same positionand confirmthe same observation;and the same person can oc- cupy differentpositionsand make dissimilarobservations.Objectivity,in this sense, is not so much a "viewfromnowhere,"but a "viewof no one in particular."Observationalclaims can be both position-dependentand person-invariant.





Questions could, however,be raised about the epistemologicalstatus of observationalclaims. It might be argued that observationalstatements like (A), (B), or (C) are claims "merely"aboutappearance,as opposedto "reality."It might be tempting to take the view that the subject matter of such statements is not knowledge of the worldas it is, only as it ap- pears, so that the objectivityin question is not about the world as it is. But observationaloccurrencesare alsopartof the worldin which we live. The immediateissue here is not whether observationalfeatures (includ- ing so-called "secondaryqualities") are characteristics of the objects themselves,but that the observerand the observedboth belong to the worldin which we live, and so do the observationsthemselves. The de- mand of invariance as a requirement of objectivity of observational claims relates to the fact that it is possible to check whether such an observationcould be reproducedby othersif placedin a similarposition.

4. These come from the Oxford English Dictionary, but similar characterizations can be found in many other places.

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There is also the more foundationalquestion as to whether it at all makes sense to think of the world as it "is,"independent of reflective observers.5 I shall not go into that deeper metaphysicalissue in this ar- ticle. Positionalobjectivityhas to be an importantpartof science even in terms of conventionalunderstandingsof the realworld.But its relevance would be more constitutiveif the conceptionof what an object is could not be detached fromobservationaland reflectiveacts. Observationsare unavoidablyposition-based,but scientific reasoning need not, of course, be based on observationalinformationfromone spe- cific position only. There is need for what may be called "trans-posi- tional"assessment-drawing on but going beyond different positional observations.The constructed"viewfromnowhere"wouldthen be based on synthesizing differentviews fromdistinctpositions.The positionalob- jectivity of the respective observationswould still remain importantbut not in itself adequate. A trans-positionalscrutiny would also demand some kind of coherence between differentpositionalviews.6 The "trans-positional"assessment that we might undertakecan lead to a broaderunderstandingthat makes sense of the respective(and pos- sibly divergent) positionalobservations.For example, in the simple ex- ampleof the relativeappearancesof the sun and the moon, we may have no great difficultyin distinguishingbetween (i) how large the sun and

the moon appearto us, and (2)

fined in some way that we can comprehend,e.g., in terms of our under- standing of how long it would take us to go aroundit if we were to move at a specified speed). We can make some coherent sense of the different

observationsbecause we know something about optics and projections,

about our distances to the sun and the moon, and about possible corre-

spondences between different ways of

and the moon. We also know that the relativesizes of the sun and the moon, as seen by us, would correspondto their respective projectionsin our observa- tional fields. Indeed, the fact that the sun and the moon look to be of much the same size to us is not unrelatedto the phenomenon that in a

how large we think they "reallyare"(de-

estimating the sizes of the sun

5. On this and related matters, see Hilary Putnam's illuminating analysis, including his

argument that (metaphorically put) "the mind and the world jointly make up the mind and

the world" (The Many Faces of Realism [LaSalle, Ill.: Open Court, I987], p. I).

6. See Susan Hurley, Natural Reasons (Oxford: Clarendon Press, I989) for a helpful


of the general importance of coherence for the objectivity of beliefs.

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Positional Objectivity

full eclipse of the sun (as seen from Earth), the moon covers the sun almostexactly.7Those positionalrelativitiescan be discussed in terms of rules of optics and projections,if we arefamiliarwith them. But the scientist's abilityto reason trans-positionallydepends on what else she knows and on the typeof reasoningshe is able to use, and these, in a broad sense, are also positional features. Even the "conceptual schemes" that mediate our understandingof the worldcan be fruitfully seen as general positionalcharacteristicsrelated to acts of observation and reflection.But the proposed(orimplicitlyused) conceptualschemes and lines of reasoning can, of course, be challenged,invokingrivalcon- cepts and competing lines of construction.The demands of trans-posi- tional coherence and criticalscrutinycan have extensive cutting power. The historyof science gives ample examples of the emergence of agreed scientific beliefs overturningpreviouslyagreedconclusions, or overcom- ing a pluralityof rivalconclusions.8


While positionalityof observationand constructionplays an important part in the process of deriving scientific knowledge, it is importantin belief formationin general, even when the beliefs are far removedfrom the discipline and scrutinyused in science. Indeed, the role of position- ality may be particularlycrucialin interpretingsystematicillusions and persistent misunderstandings,which can be central to social analysis and public affairs. Returningto the simple example involvingthe relativesize of the sun vis-'a-visthe moon, considera person who belongs to a community that is not familiarwith distance-dependentprojections,nor with any other source of informationaboutthe sun and the moon. Lackingthe relevant

7. Indeed, in the late Satyajit Ray's last film (Agantuk-in the English version, "The Visitor"), the anthropologist visitor lectures his grandnephew on the remarkable fact that the sun and the moon are of similar size as seen from Earth (as the full solar eclipse shows) and on the further fact that the shadow of the Earth on the moon is also of much the same size (as indicated by the full lunar eclipse). The visitor even wonders whether these re- markable positional equalities indicate anything significant about our place in the wider world.

must always take place. On

the issue of convergence and also context dependence,

Knowledge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980).

see Isaac Levi, The Enterprise of

8. It is not, of course, guaranteed that such a convergence

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conceptualframeworksand ancillaryknowledge,this personmay decide that the sun and the moon areindeed of the same size, even in the sense that it would take much the same time to go aroundthem respectively (moving at the same speed in the two cases).9 This would be a most unreasonablejudgment if he did know aboutdistances, projections,and such, but not if he knew none of those things. His belief that the sun and the moon are really the same size (in the sense that it would take the same time to go aroundeach if one traveledat the same speed) is, of course, a mistake (an illusion), but this belief cannot, given the totality of his position, be seen as purely subjective. Indeed, anyone in exactly his position-sharing the same ignoranceof relatedinformationand con- cepts-can understandablytakemuch the same view formuch the same reasons.IoThe truth of his beliefs has to be distinguishedfromthe objec- tivity of what he decides to believe (given what he observes, what else he knows, etc.). The notion of "objectiveillusion,"used in Marxianphilosophy,can be helpfully interpretedin terms of positionalobjectivity.",An objective il- lusion, thus interpreted,is a positionallyobjectivebelief that is, in fact, mistaken. The concept of an objectiveillusion invokes both (i) the idea of positionallyobjectivebelief, and (2) the diagnosis that this beliefis, in fact, mistaken. In the exampleinvolvingthe relativesizes of the sun and the moon, the similarityof their appearances(positionallyobjectiveas it is from here) can lead-in the absence of otherinformationand the op- portunityfor criticalscrutiny-to a positionallyobjectivebelief aboutthe similarityof their "actualsizes" (in terms of the time taken to go around

9. In this case the person shares this view with others in the community. But this shar- ing is, in itself, neither necessary nor sufficient for positional objectivity. The dependence is on the person's own positional features, and it is the congruence of these positional fea- tures that may make the respective positionally objective judgments coincide. io. Members of the Nyaya philosophical school in India, which achieved prominence in the first few centuries A.D., had argued that not only knowledge but also illusions turn on preexisting concepts. When, in a much-discussed example, a person mistakes a rope for a snake, this illusion occurs precisely because of the prior understanding-genuine under- standing-of the "snake-concept"; a person who confuses the "snake-concept" with, say, the "pig-concept" would not be inclined to mistake a rope for a snake. On the implications of this and related connections between illusion and reality, as explored in the Nyaya and rival schools in that period, see Bimal Matilal, Perceptions: An Essay on Classical Indian Theories of Knowledge (Oxford: Clarendon Press, I986), chap. 6. i i. The concept of objective illusion figures in Marx's economic writings (not just in the more philosophical ones), including Capital, vol. i, and Theories of Surplus Value.

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Positional Objectivity

them). The falsity of that belief would, then, be an illustrationof an ob- jective illusion. G. A. Cohen presents the following analysis of objective illusion, de- veloping Marx'sidea of "theouterformof things, which enjoys an objec- tive status":

For Marxthe senses mislead us with respect to the constitutionof the airand the movements of heavenlybodies.Yeta personwho managed through breathing to detect different components in the air would have a nose that did not function as healthy human noses do. And a person who sincerely claimedto perceivea stationarysun and a rotat- ing earth would be suffering from some disorderof vision, or motor control.Perceivingthe airas elementaryand the sun as in motion are experiences more akin to seeing mirages than to having hallucina- tions. Forif a man does not see a mirageunder the appropriatecondi- tions, there is somethingwrongwith his vision. His eyes have failed to register the play of light in the distance.I2

Here the observations,which are taken to be objective,relate to the po- sitionalfeatures of breathingthe air with a normalnose, seeing the sun with normaleyes, observingthe playof light in the distance with normal vision, and so on. These positionalobservationsare not simply subjective; indeed they have some claim to being objectivewithin theirown terms. Here illusion

relates to beliefs that are formedon the basis of a limited class of posi-

tionalobservations.And these beliefs-false

ertheless have been derivedobjectivelyin the absence of access to other positionalscrutiny(such as being able to analyze the air chemicallyin a laboratory,observe the apparentmovements of other planets and stars vis-a-vis the sun and the earth, and so on), and in the absence of famil- iarity with related concepts and ideas (such as the aromaticindistin- guishabilityof odorless gases, the nature of relativemovements of bod-

ies, and so on). Thus, the notionof positionallyobjectivebeliefs helps to place the idea of "objectiveillusion"within a more inclusive framework.That frame- workis indeed much broader,since a positionallyobjectivebelief may or may not be illusory.

as they may be-could


12. G. A. Cohen, Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence (Oxford: Clarendon Press,


pp. 328-29.

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The concept of objectiveillusion can be used in many differenttypes of cases. Marx'sown use of the idea was primarilyin the contexts of class analysis and "commodityfetishism,"and it led him to his investigation of what he called "falseconsciousness."A verydifferenttype of problem concerns the self-perceptionof morbidity,and this can be particularly importantin analyzingthe health situationin developingeconomies. For example, among the Indian states, Keralahas by a large margin the longest life expectancy at birth(67.5 years for men and 73 years for women, comparedwith around 56 years for both men and women in India as a whole), and professionalmedical assessment gives much evi- dence of Kerala'ssuccessful health transition.And yet Keralaalso re- ports by far the highest rates of self-perceivedmorbidity(both on the average and in terms of age-specific rates). At the other end are states like Biharand UttarPradeshwith verylow life expectancy, no evidence of any health transition,and yet astonishinglylow rates of self-assessed morbidity.If the medical evidence and the testimony of mortalityrates are accepted (and there are no particularlygood reasons to rule them out), then the picture of relativemorbidityrates as given by self-assess- ment must be taken to be erroneous. But it would be odd to dismiss these self-assessed morbidityrates as simply accidental errors, or as results of individual subjectivism. The concept of objectiveillusionis helpfulhere. The populationof Keralahas a remarkablyhigher rate of literacy(including female literacy)than the rest of India, and also has much more extensive public health services. Thus in Keralathere is a much greaterawareness of possible illnesses and of the need to seek medical remedies and to undertakepreventive measures. These very ideas and actions that help to reduce actual mor- bidity and mortalityin Keralaalso heighten the awareness of ailments. At the other end, the relativelyilliteratepopulationof Uttar Pradesh-

severely undersupplied with public health facilities-has

standingof possibleillnesses andless activityin tryingto preventor cure them. This makes the health conditionsand life expectancymuch worse in UttarPradesh,but it also makes the awarenessof morbiditygenerally much more restricted than in Kerala.The illusion of low morbidityin

less under-

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Positional Objectivity

Uttar Pradesh does indeed have a positionally objective basis, and the same applies to Keralain the oppositedirection.I3

The positional objectivity of these views-with


tional specifications-command attention, and social scientists can hardlydismiss them as simplysubjectiveand capricious.But neither can these self-perceptionsbe taken to be accuratereflectionsof relativemor- biditiesin any trans-positionalunderstanding.Indeed, they are not even positionally objectivefromthe generalpositionof "livingin" a particular region, say, UttarPradesh,since that geographicalcharacterizationcan go with variousdifferentparameterizedpositionalspecifications.(There are obviously many excellent doctors and medically sophisticated pa- tients in UttarPradeshas well.) The positionalobjectivityof the illusion of goodhealth turnson the natureof the positionalparametersthatinflu- ence the observationsof the individualsubjects (locationis not in itself central), and the frequency of this phenomenon in regions like Uttar Pradeshrelates to the congruence of these positionalparametersamong

a large proportionof the populationof that region. The possibilityand

frequency of objective illusion have some far-reachingimplications on the way comparativemedical and health statistics are currently pre- sented by nationalandinternationalorganizations.The comparativedata on self-reportingof illness and the seeking of medical attention call for criticalscrutinytakingnote of positionalperspectives. Anotherpracticalillustration,alsofromIndia,relatesto the dissonance between the rankingof perceivedmorbidityand that of observedmortal- ity of men and women. Womenhave, on the whole, tended to have sur-

vivaldisadvantagesvis-a-vismen in India(as in many other countriesin Asia and North Africa,such as China, Pakistan,Iran, or Egypt).I4Mor-

talityrates have been typicallyhigher forwomen forall age groups(after

a short neonatal periodof some months) up to the ages of thirty-fiveto

forty.And yet the self-perceivedmorbidityrates of women are often no

higher-sometimes much lower-than that of men. This seems to relate

13. This explanation is reinforced by comparisons of self-assessed morbidity rates in the U.S. with those in India (including Kerala). In disease-by-disease comparison, while Kerala has much higher self-assessed rates for most illnesses than the rest of India, the United States has even higher rates for the same illnesses. On this see Christopher Murray and Lincoln Chen, "Understanding Morbidity Change," Population and Development Review





Kerala is an exception in this respect too, with female mortality rates systematically

lower than male.

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to women's deprivationin education and also to the social tendency to emphasize the "normality"of genderinequalityas a partof the prevailing mode of living. On an earlieroccasion, I have discussed the remarkable fact that in a study of postfamineBengal in I944, widows had reported hardlyany incidence of being in "indifferenthealth"whereas widowers complainedmassivelyaboutjust that.I5 The idea of positionalobjectivityis particularlycrucialin understand- ing gender inequality.The workingof families involves conflict as well as congruence of interests in the divisionof benefits and chores, but the demands of harmoniousfamilylivingrequirethat the conflictingaspects be resolvedimplicitly,ratherthan throughexplicit bargaining.Dwelling on such conflicts would generallybe seen as abnormalbehavior.As a result, customary patterns of conduct are simply taken as legitimate (usually by implication),and thereis a sharedtendencynot to notice the systematicdeprivationof females vis-a-vismales. Given these conditions, it is very hard to challenge received gender inequalities,and indeed even to identifythem clearlyas inequalitiesthat demand attention.i6 While this applies to the inequalitiesin health care in many Third World countries, the phenomenon itself is, of course, more general, and can be seen in other forms (for example, in terms of the distributionof family chores and the sharing of ambitiousopportu- nities) even in Europe and North America. Since gender inequalities within the family tend to survive by making allies out of the deprived, the opaqueness of the positionalperspectivesplays a majorpart in the prevalenceand persistence of these inequalities.


If a determinist view is taken of causation in general, it can be argued

that anyone'sactualobservationsand actualbeliefs can be explaineden- tirelyby an adequatespecificationof the positionalparametersthatinflu- ence his orher observationand understanding.If those parameterswere

I5. Commodities and Capabilities (Amsterdam: North-Holland, I985), appendix B. It is interesting to note in this context that as the subject of women's deprivation has become politicized, the biases in the perception of the unequal deprivation of women have become less common. i6. I have discussed these issues in my "Gender and Cooperative Conflict," in Persistent Inequalities, ed. Irene Tinker (New York: Oxford University Press, I990).

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Positional Objectivity

all to be specified as partof the positionalidentification,then those ob- servationsand beliefs would be positionallyobjectivein that constrained situation.It might, thus, appearthateveryview oropinioncouldbe made positionallyobjectiveby some appropriatelythoroughspecificationof po- sitionalparameters. This does not, of course, contradictthe role thatmay be playedby sub- jective featuresin influencing observationand belief. Rather,in the spe- cial case considered,the subjectivecharacteristicsinfluencing views and opinionswouldsimplybe includedin the specifiedpositionalparameters. The formalpossibilityof this overlapis a directresult of the parametric formof positionalobjectivity,which makes the assessment relativeto the

chosen positionalparameters. However,the existence of this formalpossibilityof overlapdoes not, in itself, make it any less relevantto addressthe issue of subjectivismas an importantsocial idea. In the context of scrutinizing the subjective arbi- trarinessof some views, it remains necessary to examine whether those views could be made to fit positionalobjectivityonly throughparametric specifications that invoke special mental tendencies, particulartypes of inexperience, or constrainedfeaturesof reasoning.If so, the diagnosis of subjective arbitrarinesswould remain relevant, no matter whether we also describe those views as positionallyobjectivefrom that very special position. Indeed, there couldbe a goodpracticalcase forexcluding specialmen- tal tendencies, particulartypes of inexperience, and so forth, from the permissibleparameterizationin determiningpositionalobjectivity.If we chose this type of exclusion, then subjectivitywould overlapmuch less with positionalobjectivity,and this might, in fact, appearto some to be "neater,"at least in terminology(since subjectivityand objectivityare usually taken to be contradictory).On the other hand, this move would go against the generalapproachof seeing objectivityin positionalterms.

In fact, in the

by many people who are similarlyplacedin a community),it might well be useful to see a phenomenon that has clearly subjective features as being also positionallyobjective from an elaboratelyspecified position, since this would then help us to focus on causal links that have impor-

tant explanatoryroles. Whether or not this exclusionaryroute is taken, subjectivity and positionalobjectivitydo, in general, remain different; the possibilityof overlapdoes not underminethis basic distinction.

context of analyzing systematicsocial prejudices (shared

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Given the parameterizedform of positionalobjectivity,the question can also be raised as to whether it does not automaticallymake culturally relativisticviews perfectly "objective."I shall be particularlyconcerned with culturallyinfluenced readings of social phenomena. For example, belief in women's inferiorityin particularskills may be statisticallyasso- ciated with living in a society that partlyor whollyreserves those skilled occupations for men, giving little opportunityfor women to establish their abilityto performthese jobs. Let us call such a society an S* soci- ety. Is this beliefin the lowerabilityof women positionallyobjectivefrom the position of members of that S* society, however senseless it might seem fromelsewhere? By specifying in great detail a person's backgroundand other posi- tional features in that S* society, that unfounded belief can indeed be made "positionallyobjective"from that thoroughly specified position. This is clear enough, but in terms of the justificatoryforce of cultural relativism,this is not in itself a big deal, since the positionalparameters needed to get that result wouldhave to be quite special, typicallyinvolv- ing some general ignorance (e.g., of experiences and observationsin other societies). The normativeclaims by culturalrelativiststend to op- erate with broaderunits, to wit, an entire society seen as a whole. Social criticism of the prevailingbeliefs and practices in society S* can then only come from other, alien cultures (an example, as it were, of the ar- rogance of culturalimperialists).The normativedemandsof culturalrel- ativism include deference to each society and its internal culture-an immunity, as it were, to criticismcoming from"outside." But the positionalobjectivityunder discussion does not cover all the parametricpositionsthat are consistent with living in and belonging to a particularsociety.I7The beliefin questionmaywell be positionallyobjec- tive for particularspecifications of the positional parameters,but this does not make that belief objectivefrom the generalpositionof being a member of society S*. The central difficultyin that suppositionlies in assuming that a special set of positionalparametersare the only ones

I 7. As discussed in the context of analyzing perceptions of morbidity, residents of a low- education, low-medical care region (such as Uttar Pradesh) may frequently tend to assume that their morbidity rates are low (given their positional parameters), but there is no neces- sity to have that belief merely because of living in such a region, or as a result of being a member of a society where most people take that view (see Section V).

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Positional Objectivity

open to members of society S*. But surely the positionalspecificationin the generalform of living in a particularcountry(or even of being a na- tive of that country)does not translateinto that special set of positional parametersin any obviousway. There is no necessity to choose the spe- cial vantage point of the majority(even of an overwhelmingmajority)in that society merely because a person happens to live in such a society. The need to considerdifferentpositionalparametersconsistent with be- ing in society S* is not eliminatedby the existence of an establishment view or a majorityopinion. In denying the objectivityof the belief in women'sinferiority,one can of course invoke the need for a trans-positionalassessment involvingin- ternationalperspectives,drawingon observationsand beliefs from van- tage points prevailingin other societies where women have more oppor- tunity to show their ability. But the more immediate issue is the nonnecessity of taking an establishment view of feminine inferiority even for those living in society S*. Contraryviews can be taken consis- tently with living in such a society, and the critiqueof that view can be "internal"(ratherthan arisingfromoutside that society).i8 This generalpointis not criticallydependenton any actualexperience of dissent or of nonuniformityof viewpoints, and it is adequate to note that the underspecifiedpositionof living in society S* leaves open vari- ous alternativepositionalfeatures. However,as a matterof fact, virtually every society tends to have dissenters,and even the most repressivefun- damentalist regimes can-and typicallydo-have skeptics. Indeed, the presence and use of the apparatusof prosecutionin societies with alleg- edly homogeneous beliefs would seem to indicate that the possibilityof a differentview is not just a theoreticalone. The viewpointof, say, the dominantclergy in Iranhas no more privilegedstatus in assessing "the Iranianposition"than that of one of the many dissenters. The need for such a trans-positionalexercise is part of an internal scrutiny in the country in question and must not be confused with an alien critique. Even if the perspectiveof the dissentersis influenced by theirreadingof

I8. On related matters, see Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen, "Internal Criticism and Indian Rationalist Traditions," in Relativism: Interpretation and Confrontation, ed.

M. Krausz (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, I988).

See also Michael Walzer,

The Company of Critics (New York: Basic Books, I988), and Clifford Geertz, "Outsider Knowledge and Insider Criticism," mimeographed, Institute for Advanced Study, Prince-

ton, I989.

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foreign authors(such as Kant,Hume, Marx,or Mill),the viewpointsand criticalperspectivesof these members are still "internal"to society S*. Argumentsinvokingculturalrelativismtypicallyoperateon units that are much too gross. Positionalparametersneed finer specificationsfor examining the positional objectivity of particularbeliefs. This leaves

open the possibilityof internalcriticisms.Given the possibilityof taking

different positionalviews in any given society, the necessity of trans-

positionalassessment ariseswithin each societyitself. The need forcom- paring and assessing differentpoints of view, diverse observations,and distinct conclusionsin any given societycannot be eliminatedby the du- bious assumptionof dissentless uniformity,orby the politicalpressureof going by the establishmentview or the majorityopinionin the country in question. The terms of the debate on cultural relativismhave to be thoroughlyreexaminedin the light of the issues raisedby the positional conceptionof objectivity.




There is a tension in the use of the concept of the so-called "subjective probability"that can be fruitfullyaddressedusing the notionof positional objectivity. The term subjective probabilitysuggests a denial of any claim to objectivity,and it is certainlytrue that the concept is frequently defined entirelyin terms of personalbeliefs and credence that guide the bets an individualis, in fact, willing to take. On the other hand, a vast decision-theoreticliteratureis concerned specificallywith the discipline of how to form these beliefs and modifythem systematicallyas new in- formationbecomes available-the so-called Bayes' Law is a classic ex- ample of this.1sThis makes extensive use of demands of reason, reject- ing reliance on merelyidiosyncraticpersuasionsand subjectivebeliefs.20 In some respects, therefore,subjectiveprobabilitiesare thus requiredto be objectiveafterall. The questionis: in what respects?

19. Thomas Bayes, "An Essay towards Solving a Problem in the Doctrine of Chances,"

Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 53 (1763); reprinted in Biomet-

rica 45 (1958).

20. See, for example, R. Duncan Luce and Howard Raiffa, Games and Decisions (New

York: Wiley, 1957), and John C. Harsanyi, Rational Behaviour and Bargaining Equilib-

rium in Games and Social Situations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977).

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Positional Objectivity

Considera game in which you have pickedup one cardfroma pack of the usual fifty-twocards(you can see what it is, but I cannot), and I am asked to guess what card that might be and then to place bets on my guess being right. Suppose I venture that it is the jack of spades, and then offer an even bet on this. Unless I happen to know something else about the game and aboutyour actions, I might be thought to be rather idiosyncratic.Let us assume that I do not know anythingmoreaboutthe situation,but feel inclined to take an even bet anyway.If someone were to explain to me that this is unwise (since there are as many as fifty-two differentcards), I am being asked to be "moreobjective." But this demandfor objectivityrelates to the positionin which I actu- ally am. Fromyour positionyou do, in fact, know what the cardis; all I know is that you have picked one cardfromfifty-two.In any trans-posi- tional assessment to determinewhat cardit reallyis, your positionalob- servationwould get justifiablepriority(for you can see it and I cannot). But that priorityis of no use to me since I do not know what you are observingand I have to assess the situationfrommy actualposition.Po- sitionalobjectivityfrommy actualpositionis exactly the relevantnotion of objectivityhere. Myexpectationscan be systematicallyrevisedas new informationunfolds, but each time I try to be objective in the light of what I have reason to believe at that time. Of course, I may not regardevery card as equallylikely even without knowing exactly which one you have picked. I may have some evidence that you tend to like spades and go forpicturesratherthan numbers.21 I certainlyneed not be guided simply by the frequency statistics. But no matter what else I am influenced by, reasoned subjective probabilities have to be sensitive to the relevantinformationand evidence I happen to have in the positionI am actuallyin.

Bayes's communicationto the

RoyalSociety saw the probabilityof an

event as: "theratiobetween the value at which an expectationdepend- ing upon the happening of the event ought to be computed, and the value of the thing expected uponits happening."The idea of this "ought" is to make the best use of the informationavailableto the person. In

21. I may even have some belief without very solid evidence. Subjective probabilities can

certainly be influenced by ideas that go beyond whatever totality of evidence might be available. Given the limitations of available evidence, the room for personal variations can be quite considerable. Nothing stated here goes against that feature of subjective probabil- ities.

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discussing the Bayesianapproach,Ian Hacking notes a certain "super- ficial difficulty"in Bayes'scharacterizationof probability:

Sometimes he writes as if the fairbetting rateis entirelya function of the availableinformation,and may alter as any new informationis made available.At other places he is at odds with this idea; he writes of unknown probabilityof an event as if there were an objectiveprop- erty of it quite independentof whateverinformationis available.22

Hacking analyzes the resolutionof this difficultyin termsof the Baye- sian distinctionbetween (i) an "evidence-dependent"sense of probabil- ity, "afair betting rate,"and (2) "chance,or long run frequency."Even though Hackingcalls the latter,but not the former,"objective,"it is clear fromhis analysisthat the former("afairbettingrate")toois meant to be based on eschewing idiosyncraticor subjective propensitiesin favor of making sensible use of the availableinformation.There is also the need

to revise these bettingratesas new informationbecomes available.Thus,

the notion of subjective probability,though typicallydescribed as non- objective,is required,in Bayesiananalysis,to reflectwhat objectivityde- mands from the position of the person taking the bets, with exactly the informationthat she has. The idea of positionalobjectivityis precisely what is needed to understandthat Bayesianconcept. The decision theoryof subjectiveprobabilitiesis concernedwith ratio- nal use of positionalinformation.It is not concerned with objectivityas

a "viewfrom nowhere"-neither in the form of frequencies, nor in that

of trans-positionalscrutiny. The distinction between rationaluse of ob- jective and subjective probabilitiesdoes not lie in one being based on objective considerationsand the other being divorcedfrom them. They relate, rather,to the differenttypes of objective considerationsthat can be invokedin differentcontexts.


Positionalobjectivitycan be importantforethics as well.23The nature of personalmoraldecisions makes some positionalcharacteristicsinescap-



Ian Hacking, Logic of Statistical p. 193.

Inference (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,

23. On this, see the last substantive section of my "Rights and Agency," Philosophy &

Public Affairs ii,

no. i (Winter I982):


reprinted in Consequentialism

and Its Crit-

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Positional Objectivity

ablyrelevantforevaluationand choice. Forexample,a person'sown role in bringing about some disastrousconsequences may be peculiarlysig- nificant in that person'sevaluationof the state of affairsof which those consequences are constitutiveparts.The positionalperspectivesmay, in this sense, have even more intrinsic relevancein ethics than they do in epistemology. My focus here is not specifically on the question of whether ethics can reallybe substantiallyobjective,but on the positional natureof ethical reasoningandrationality,which would also applyto the objectiveelements in ethicaljudgments. Several modern philosophers (including BernardWilliams, Thomas Nagel, Derek Parfit,and others) have arguedfor assessing actions in an "agentrelative"way.24The need for agent relativityhas been seen as an argument against consequentialist ethics for its alleged failure to deal with importantagent-relativevalues. Forexample, in a much-discussed example, a substantialdistinctionis made between (i) murderingsome- one oneself, and (2) failing to prevent a murder committed by a third person. The formerhas been seen, not implausibly,in even more nega- tive terms than the latter.The relevance of this distinctionhas been in- terpretedas evidence of the inadequacyof consequentialismas an ethi- cal approach.Even though the consequences are "the same"in the two cases (including a personbeing murdered),the ethical case againstcom- mitting a murder oneself can be said to be much stronger than that against failing to preventa murdercommittedby anotherperson.25 But are the consequences reallythe same in the two cases, when seen from the position of the person in question? Why must it be permissi- ble-indeed obligatory-for a person who commits a murderhimself to

ics, ed. S. Scheffler (Oxford University Press, I988). See also Donald Regan's disputation of these claims, "Against Evaluator Relativity: A Response to Sen," Philosophy & Public Affairs 12, no. 2 (Spring I983): 93-112, and my reply in ibid., 113-32; see also my "Well- being, Agency and Freedom: The Dewey Lectures I984," Journal of Philosophy 82 (I985):


24. Bernard Williams, "A Critique of Utilitarianism," in J.J.C. Smart and B. Williams,

Utilitarianism: For and Against (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), and Moral Luck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, I98I); Thomas Nagel, "The Limits of Objectivity," in Tanner Lectures on Human Values, vol. i, ed. S. McMurrin (Salt Lake

City: University of Utah Press, I980), and The View from and Persons (Oxford: Clarendon Press, I984).

25. The comparison can be extended by examining the ethical dilemma involved in the

choice between committing one murder oneself and failing to prevent several committed by others; see Williams, "A Critique of Utilitarianism," pp. 98-107.

Nowhere; Derek Parfit, Reasons

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see the consequent state of affairsin exactly the same way as another case in which he does not commit this murder?The murderersurely bears a special responsibilityin bringing about the states of affairsre- sulting from (and including) the murderhe commits, and it cannot be sensible to insist that he must not see this state of affairsin any more negative terms than anotherwhere he is not thus involved.Correspond- ingly, it seems odd to insist that the murdererhimself must view the

state of affairs of which this murderis a central aspect in exactly


same way as any other person. It is only because of this arbitraryinsis- tence (that judgments of consequences be position-neutral)that conse- quentialism appearsto fail to guide agent-relativechoice of actions and


By insisting on agent-relativityof action morality,BernardWilliams and others argue-I believe rightly-in favorof a relevantdifference,in terms of the actions respectivelyperformed,between the murdererand others. But a similarreasoning stronglysuggests that the consequences themselves (including the actions performed)may not be viewed in ex- actly the same way by the murdereras othersmight be free to do.27The positional view of consequences leads to a consequentialistdistinction between the murderer'smoralproblemsand those of the nonpreventers. The unargued requirement of trans-positionalinvariance of conse- quences amountsto begging the centralquestion;to wit, how should the consequences be viewed by each person respectively? For example, when Macbeth observes that "Duncanin his grave"and "Treasonhas done his worst,"there are indeed good reasons for him and Lady Mac- beth to view that state of affairsdifferentlyfromthe way others can. And they have reasonenough to wonderaboutthe actionsperformed,as Lady Macbethdid: "What,will these hands ne'erbe clean?"Similarly,Othello does not have the freedomto see the state of affairsin which Desdemona lies strangledin her bed-strangled by Othellohimself-in the way oth- ers can. It is quite arbitraryto exclude the possibilityof having a special inter-

26. The distinction and relationship between different kinds of "neutrality"("doer neutral- ity," "viewer neutrality," and "self-evaluation neutrality") were analyzed in my "Rights and Agency," pp. 19-28 (reprinted in Scheffler, Consequentialism and Its Critics, pp. 204-12). 27. The extension would, of course, be strained if it were required that the consequent states of affairs must exclude the actions involved. But there is no particular reason for that exclusion. Indeed, in clarifying the distinctions between the different approaches, Williams even considers-very effectively-the case of a "state of affairs which consists in his doing A" ("A Critique of Utilitarianism," p. 88).

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Positional Objectivity

est in-and taking responsibilityfor-one's own actions, in evaluating states of affairsof which those actions and their effects are among the constitutive elements.28Andif this possibilityis kept open-not arbitrar- ily closed-then consequentialreasoningcan certainlyaccommodatethe deontologicalconcerns mentioned earlier.There is no basic conflict be- tween consequentialethics and agent-relativityin judging states and ac- tions.



The positionalview of objectivitytakes note of the parametricdepen- dence of observations,beliefs, and decisions on positionalfeatures of the person in question. It leads to a view of objectivitythat contrasts with the more traditionalformulationof the invarianceneeded for objectivity. The proposedapproachinvolves personalinvariancewithout making a blanketdemandforpositionalinvarianceat the same time. Using this approach,it is possibleto reinterpretthe demandsof objec- tivityof beliefs, including the idea of objectiveillusions, which provesto be useful in investigating several social phenomena (illustrated here with the specific problems of assessment of morbidityand the under- standing of genderbias). It also leads to a somewhatdifferentcritiqueof culturalrelativism,one not congruent with critiques that have been re- proachedas culturallyimperialistic. This view of objectivityalso demands sensitivityto positionalfeatures in rationaldecisions, features central to decision theory.In particular,it providesa reinterpretationof the distinctionbetween subjective and ob- jective probabilities. The approachalso indicates a much wider reach of consequentialist reasoning in ethics. Indeed, the alleged limitationsof consequentialism to take note of deontologicalconsiderationsand of agent-relativevalues are the result of demanding a positionalinvariance that is thoroughly arbitrary.

28. A similar argument applies to agent-relative values involving the importance of au- tonomy and the integrity of a person (other grounds that have been cited to show the lim- itations of consequentialist ethics). On this and on the distinctions between different types of agent-relative values, see my "Rights and Agency."

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