On Objectivity: Amy Coney Barrett and Corey Booker

Corey Booker is so good here.  If we had to have centrist presidential and vice-presidential candidates (not my preference), I wish he had been one of them.  He has always had animating substantive moral commitments–to racial justice, to the environment–even though from my standpoint he caves too much to corporations.  Here, he gets Amy Coney Barrett, who has two black children, to admit she has not read a single book on racial disparities in criminal justice.

I am not concerned about Barrett’s religion (everyone’s religion looks peculiar except one’s own) but I am concerned about her idea that she can simply be objective.  Her response to retroactive sentencing in drug cases, as Booker brings out, was immediately to question the wisdom of a practice that requires such bureaucratic detail.  Someone familiar with the huge disproportion in arrest and sentencing of black, brown and indigenous people for drug crimes would have had a different immediate reaction.  They would have seen retroactive sentencing as rectifying those extensive wrongs.  Booker really brings that out in his questioning.

And he is the only questioner I have seen get Barrett to admit she doesn’t know something important.  She was clearly surprised at the high number of black Americans who have been disenfranchised.  Because she has not studied the massive racial inequities in criminal justice, she sees things a certain way.  Like all of us, what she sees–or doesn’t see–depends on what she has seen before.

We all have bias.  We have frameworks and commitments from which we see things. It is not relativism to recognize that.  It’s humility–epistemological humility.  We try to be as objective as we can–to look at both sides, to consider different perspectives–but to believe you can simply apply the law with no framework, no preconceptions, no leading ideas that hide other possibilities….  That is not humility at all.

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