Who Would Call Themselves “Evaluativists”?

There is a big difference between racists and self-declared racists. Most racists (which includes most people) do not realize they are racists, nor would they voluntarily accept the label. Likewise, as realistic examples of typical evaluativists, we have cited Cecil of Lee Daniels’ The Butler, the 80% of scholarship judges in Shanto Iyengar’s experiment found to discriminate on the basis of values instead of merit, and the subjects for whom Jennifer Mueller was able to manipulate business decision-making by manipulating their values. The experimenters confirmed that the evaluativism in these cases was not intentional; they didn’t realize they were behaving as evaluativists. Since the consequences included broken families, missallocated scholarship funds, and low-quality business decision-making, we might expect the experimental subjects would want to understand and correct their evaluativism.

Image attributed to Tobias But do people really want to correct their own biases? One cannot be blamed for what is beyond his/her control, and no one intends to be biased. At worst, failure to correct one’s biases reflects negligence, but one can hardly be convicted of negligence when it is not clear what it would take to eliminate those biases. Some people who claim to oppose evaluativism and racism may make that claim simply to escape blame. Like dealing with climate change, they may wait for someone else to tell them what to do about it, then complain that the proposal is impractical.

In my experience, people who would take responsibility for evaluativism are rare, and people who declare themselves “evaluativists” are of that caliber. Why else would they bother to take the stand that evaluativism either can’t or shouldn’t be eliminated? I’d bet they took responsibility for the problem, but turned to the dark-side because they found no other way out. If you are trying to solve the evaluativism problem, it might help to know what obstacles blocked your predecessors, so it is wise to examine the philosophy of self-proclaimed evaluativists.

This article examines three sets of authors who advocated for evaluativism:

These people seemed to have reached their positions independently, so it is interesting to note commonalities in their thinking:

All three sets of professors frame evaluativism as a solution to the ancient problem of epistemology: the problem of establishing genuine knowledge as distinguished from our other (unjustified) beliefs. The problem probably arose because the ancients found that they could collaboratively catch many of their errors by checking each other’s thinking. When this practice occasionally produced disagreements they could not resolve, the ancients wondered who was in error, and, if they were in error, which of their other beliefs were in error as well.

The ancients believed they were akin to gods in the sense of having viable independent minds, rather than realize they were mere parts of a larger knower such that some disagreements would be predictable based on the different functions of different parts (e.g. the liberal/ conservative divide). Had they been humble, they might have attempted to reverse-engineer the mechanics of the larger knower, so they could distinguish predictable disagreements from those that signal actual errors. Instead, the ancients came to one of the following three classical positions (a) we should doubt everything we think we know (“skepticism“), (b) we should count multiple sides of a disagreement as correct (“subjectivism“), or (c) we should keep fighting over who is correct until we all agree (“objectivism“).

All three positions are terrible. At some point, the relentlessness of the objectivist’s struggle becomes a waste, if not a counterproductive source of social strife. On the other hand, skeptics and subjectivists will not seek agreement, so they are less able to catch their errors. However, instead of acknowledging option (d), that we are parts of a larger knower which reduces error at the higher level by placing its parts in opposition (like attorneys taking opposing sides in a court), Field, Kuhn, Zachar, and Kendler framed evaluativism as the only alternative to the classical options.

The Philosopher

Field proposed evaluativism as the answer to the question of how one should justify such premises as “If Socrates is an old man, then Socrates must be a man.” Such premises are so pervasive that hardly any useful knowledge can be had without justifying them. A subjectivist might simply declare such beliefs justified, but Field rejected that approach (which he called “egocentric”) as chauvinistic. He also provided a list of reasons to reject several objectivist approaches, including making the point that we are surely justified in holding false beliefs if we have no access to better alternatives. He recommended that we declare our beliefs justified if and only if we evaluate them to be justified (i.e. “evaluativism”).

Evaluativism may be less-often chauvinistic than the egocentric approach because the evaluativist makes an actual and supposedly earnest effort to consider contrary perspectives. However, Field admitted that evaluativists with different values make different evaluations, so disagreement would persist and segregate. For example, he wrote: “In dealing with a follower of the Reverend Moon, we may find that too little is shared for a neutral evaluation of anything to be possible, and we may have no interest in the evaluations the Moonie gives.” In this example, supposing the Moonie is in error, the Moonie’s potential to catch the error as an evaluativist is so low that they would be in the same boat as subjectivists.

The Teacher

Rather than write about how people should think, Deanna Kuhn claimed to measure the following pattern in the way people actually do think:

  1. The least mature people claim that only one side in a disagreement can be correct (she labels them “absolutists” or “objectivists”)
  2. The next most mature people claim that all sides in a disagreement are equally correct (she labels them “multiplists” or “subjectivists”)
  3. The most mature people claim that multiple sides can be correct, but that one is more correct (she labels them “evaluativists”)

Kuhn’s later description of evaluativists as people who evaluate evidence according to their own personal values matched Field’s, but her measurement instrument did not match that definition: Evaluativists do not necessarily claim that multiple sides can be correct. Her instrument allowed only three categories, so one alternate explanation for her results would be that the most mature people resist siding with either objectivism or subjectivism, but do not necessarily side with evaluativism either. Kuhn never offered option (d), so her data cannot tell us whether the most mature people would pick (d) over evaluativism; nonetheless, it launched a new subfield of educational psychology which takes evaluativism as its gold-standard.

The Doctors

Zachar and Kendler did not pretend that evaluativism is an alternative to subjectivism—they contrasted it only with objectivism, and were concerned specifically with disagreements about what counts as mental illness. For example, consider the case of a patient who is depressed because he forgoes meaningful relationships in favor of working long hours to get promoted. The patient asks a doctor to prescribe anti-depressants and refuses any other lifestyle change or treatment. Before writing a prescription to resolve the depression, the doctor needs to determine whether the refusal to engage in other treatments reflects an illness that could be aggravated by being given the effective ability to self-prescribe.

The objectivist claims that there is a single correct choice, and we should eliminate disagreement; if some doctors would write the prescription in this case and others would not, then they should duke it out. In contrast, the evaluativist claims that each doctor gets to decide what counts as illness, so the only way for a doctor to make the wrong decision is to neglect to evaluate the situation (whatever that means to the doctor at the time). Where debates cannot be resolved, Zachar and Kendler conclude that doctors should be evaluativists—i.e. we should not designate controversial issues as deserving more intense examination. If patients can easily shift to a doctor willing to write a prescription, this would give patients the effective ability to self-prescribe in such cases.

It is tempting to suppose that self-declared evaluativists are simply unaware of the evidence that evaluativism produces exactly the sorts of harm they are trying to avoid (i.e. broken families, missallocated scholarship funds, low-quality decision-making, etc.). However, the self-declared evaluativists cited here are professors, highly intelligent people, and it is unlikely that they all made the same mistake purely coincidentally. Furthermore, they are not now warning other people from making the same mistake, engaging in tests to determine whether it was a mistake, examining the similarities of evaluativism to other forms of discrimination, nor testing the possibility that we are mere parts of a larger knower.

The God-Complex

It is more plausible that these self-declared evaluativists suffered from the same bias as the ancients: belief that we are akin to gods. The growing need to delegate decision-making to specialists, computers, or evidence-based protocols stands in tension with the still-believed myth that doctors should individually understand what they are doing. The need to accommodate belief in this myth could easily have prevented Zachar and Kendler from discussing the possibility that doctors are mere parts of a larger knower—that they ought to argue their sides in a court of medicine which establishes regulations under constant threat of appeal (this would quickly get so complicated that only computers would be able to prescribe medicine, leaving humans to be mere attorneys/ researchers).

The god-complex of Kuhn and her followers was made almost explicit in the name they gave their typology: “personal epistemology.” This name suggests that knowledge should be pursued at a personal level, in contrast with “social epistemology,” which investigates why persons should defer to larger knowers (e.g. markets, juries, electorates, doctrines, research fields). Only God can afford to discard social epistemology, but teachers (Kuhn’s audience) are still made responsible for educating particular individuals (i.e. paid per student), rather than for raising the general intellectual ability of society. Like doctors, teachers are expected to accomplish what no individual can accomplish.

Field’s audience, in contrast, would not condemn him for claiming that personal knowledge has limits; his audience celebrated Godel’s Incompleteness Proof and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Field could have concluded that he knows “If Socrates is an old man, then Socrates is a man,” in the same way a neuron knows that mass is conserved: it is part of a larger knower which reduces its error over time (i.e. to ask about the current knowledge of the neuron is to analyse the situation at the wrong level). Field instead insisted that he is an independent knower (like a god) apparently because his method consists in explicating what feels true, and we really do feel less interdependent than we actually are. The problem is that our feelings are misleading. For example, even though we think we oppose discrimination, Shanto Iyengar found that 73% of us have implicit racist biases and 80% have implicit evaluativist biases.

There are many situations in which our intuitions fail; for example, learning to drive a car backwards. At first, the student is distracted by an intuition which tells him/her to turn the wheel in the wrong direction. The student overcomes that distraction through science: running the experiment of turning the wheel in either direction and trusting the feedback (over intuition). Likewise, we overcome the intuition which tells us race is a good indicator of character by actually conducting the experiment of getting to know people of diverse races.

To overcome our intuitions that we have individually complete minds (like gods) and that it will be best to avoid people who tend to disagree with us, it may help to conduct the kinds of experiments Douglass Wilde conducted at Stanford. Wilde demonstrated that the teams which produce the best designs are those which have the greatest internal conflict due to diversity. But Wilde’s experiment does not provide a constant reminder that our intuition is misleading, like looking over your shoulder when driving backwards does. Like experiments that debunk our intuitions that the world is flat, or that time advances at the same pace for everyone, Wilde’s results are easily forgotten in practice.

To correct our bias, we may need constant monitoring of evaluativism and its impact on social success. Until that is achieved, even brilliant people may be inclined to move in exactly the wrong direction. It is dangerous for some people to drive a car without corrective lenses, and it is plausible that social leadership is similarly dangerous until we develop a way to correct our misleading intuitions. Leaders got by without such technology in the past, but new technologies give modern leaders opportunities to make errors that are less survivable.

The examples we have examined demonstrate that people who call themselves “evaluativists” are not necessarily unintelligent or uneducated. They deserve respect for bothering with the topic at all. Yet their conclusion is not supported by evidence—it stems purely from biases ingrained in our society and in our intuitions. Those who would oppose evaluativism should take heed: You are engaging in a war against the current mode of humanity, a war against our natural egocentric arrogance. Anyone unprepared to face that obstacle may end-up turning to the dark-side.