Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Groups and Independence of Judgment

I am separating my responses to a previous post by John Gfoeller, in order to keep the length of the posts manageable. (My previous responses to his first post are here and here; I have also responded once to his second post, here; my original post which started the dialogue is here.)

In his post, John makes a third point in response to my earlier post on spiritual traditions:
You are concerned about preserving your objectivity and your autonomy as an individual within a community.

My friend, mankind is a social species. We live our lives in terms of each other, and we are defined in large part by our relationships. Objectivity (like personal autonomy) is largely an illusion.

Again I speak as an outsider; I am not a Buddhist. But, I imagine that if you join the Buddhist religion, it will in fact shape your views. And that is not bad; that is a product of your choice to practice a religion; indeed, that is the purpose of adopting a religion. You will still be highly intelligent; you will still be a thinker and a philosopher and a scholar and a PhD., and an instructor at a university. You would lose your perspective as a secular outsider looking at religion from afar. Instead, you would be religious. Hence, what you would lose from one perspective, you would gain in experience from the other perspective.
You will not become a robot or an automaton, but you will be what you choose to affiliate yourself with and practice.
It's true that mankind is a social species, and that it is pretty difficult, if not impossible, for a person to flourish in isolation from other people. It does not follow, though, that a person should join a spiritual tradition, if this requires sacrificing independence of judgment.

It should be noted that not all groups require members to sacrifice their independence of judgment, even if the group must make collective decisions which conflict with the judgments of some of its members (as long as the individual is permitted to remain with the group with his dissenting opinion). The benefits of interaction with others, and with membership in groups to which one is committed (and, perhaps, for which one is willing to sacrifice one's own individual well-being), are indeed important, but this does not entail that one should join groups which require one to sacrifice one's freedom of thought or independence of judgment. Note that it may well be in the interest of the group for its members to retain independence of judgment, and also note that it may be unpleasant, indeed a major burden, for an individual to accept independence of judgment, for this requires great responsibility on his part.

The issue of objectivity is separate from the issue of group membership. I don't think that objectivity is an illusion, at least not in an unqualified way. Indeed, if there is no such thing as objectivity in any sense, then it is difficult to have meaningful discussions with others. Rational discourse seems to presuppose an objective basis for resolving disagreements and harmonizing judgments.

Note that independence of judgment does not imply that a person is not shaped by the views of others. Far from it. Independence of judgment simply implies that a person believes in accordance with the best evidence and arguments available to him (and this can include deferring to expert opinion when the person has good reason to believe that someone else is a qualified expert in a particular field). Much of the information an individual uses to form his judgment will indeed come from other people. And the principle of independence of judgment does not presuppose that individuals are better at forming beliefs than groups. Not at all. The principle merely presupposes that groups of people whose members work together to form beliefs but who retain independence of judgment will generate more reliable beliefs on average than groups of people whose members work together to form beliefs without independence of judgment. Groups whose members retain independence of judgment benefit from the multiple sources of information and analysis, and in fact are able to make use of more information than groups with more rigid belief-formation structures.

An individual forms the most accurate beliefs not by not being influenced by others, but by being influenced by others through the mediation of his own critical judgment. Of course, individuals using their own judgment will make mistakes all the time, but the polycentric approach to belief formation is still better than the imposition of beliefs in a top-down manner by appeals to tradition, authority, or solidarity.

It's easy for us to get hung up on dichotomies like individual vs. group or autonomy vs. solidarity, when a more nuanced analysis often reveals that these pairs are not true contradictories. I think that the intellectual autonomy of an individual is compatible with many forms of solidarity, for example, and that solidarity actually works best in the contect of intellectual autonomy. Similarly, I think that individuals flourish when they are part of flourishing groups, and that groups flourish when they give sufficient liberty to their individual members. John is right to attack the view that individuals need to steer clear of groups of any kind, but that's not the view that I am defending. Individuals need groups as sources of information and to challege and expand their thinking, but groups need to give their members sufficient indepencence of judgment for individuals to benefit maximally from membership in the group, and for the group as such to benefit maximally from its members.
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