This paper has been rewritten from a response that was originally presented at a symposium sponsored by the Department of Educational Foundations of Temple University, August 1978

NEUTRALITY: Must Institutions Be Biased?

Edward G. Rozycki, Ed. D.

edited 4/14/06

Arguments thus far 1 have been presented in an attempt to establish three major points:

1) Neutrality is not that if its consequences are indistinguishable from those of partisanship;

2) There is a partisanship peculiar to institutions by virtue of their being constituted by rules; and

3) Functionaries in institutions willy-nilly commit themselves to certain values, thereby making it impossible for them to be neutral on certain issues.

I will argue that all three of these points are false. I will invoke a commonly used concept of neutrality in order to bring out certain features of neutrality which have remained generally submerged in Oliker's paper. I will later argue that even on the basis of Agassi's distinctions, Dewey does not have an institutional, holistic notion of neutrality. Finally, I will show that to tacitly accept a value judgment is not necessarily to commit oneself, much less to value something.

I. Neutrality        

To call someone or something neutral is to say, normally, that it occupies a middle position, as it were, on some spectrum the ends of which may be considered conflicting, or somehow incompatible. Thus we can talk of a neutral gray or a neutral sound as these are thought to be intermediate between contrastive hues or sounds.

The context of our concerns however is not color or sound but value, in particular, dispute about things desired. To say that A is neutral is an ellipsis for saying that A is neutral vis-a-vis or toward something over which, potentially, at least, there is dispute.

To shorten the exposition, I will lay this out without further ado:        

a."A is neutral"implies there is a Y such that Y is an issue under dispute;

b. "A is neutral" implies there are partisan attitudes, M and N, say, pro- and con-Y.

c. A disputant is one who assumes an advocacy stance vis-a-vis M or N, that is, who issues enjoinders to M or N, or who issues disclaimers intending to counter a disputant.

d. A is neutral if and only if A assumes neither M nor N and/or A refrains from assuming an advocacy stance.

Thus, we have the (logically) weak neutrality of the nondisputant partisan or the strong neutrality of the disinterested party. This analysis, I think, accurately reflects our common educated usage.

One may, of course, "augment" this usage as McClellan and Oliker seem inclined to do by focussing on the consequences of someone's decision and judging it to be less neutral the more those consequences approximate those of partisan judgment. This is a dangerously arbitrary "reformation".

With such augmentation, "neutral" becomes an honorific to be accorded or denied as one focuses or not upon a consequence, arbitrarily, that serves one's immediate purpose as admirer or deprecator of the person or institution judged. Furthermore, we do not need this reformation in order to argue against someone's adopting a neutral stance: we can well continue to point out that one's neutrality may well serve a partisan end, despite one's intentions to the contrary.

II. Institutions

        To be nonneutral is not necessarily to be partisan. The Eiffel Tower is not neutral; nor is it partisan. The concepts of neutrality and partisanship are just not applicable here: let us call cases such as this trivial nonneutrality.

        Oliker argues that since institutions are constituted by rules which may be stated as value judgments, e.g. "one should count X as Y", institutions cannot be neutral, at least with respect to those value judgments that are constitutive of them. But there is a sense of the word "judgment", used primarily in philosophy, where it means "statement" or "formulation" or "proposition", as in "synthetic judgment" Kant's Urteil. Presuming the hoary distinction between descriptive and prescriptive statements, "one should count X as Y" is a "value judgment" as Oliker calls it, a prescriptive formula.

It is not a judgment in the sense of a statement of decision on a disputed issue, such as a verdict or an arbitrator's award. Nor can we infer from the fact that someone for some purpose "accepts" "one should count X as Y", that that person values or has committed herself to any particular course of action or goal.

        A basketball referee need not value the game of basketball. Nor are the constitutive rules of basketball a matter of dispute. The referee is non-neutral, but trivially so; for the potential for dispute is a necessary condition for the nontrivial application of the concept of neutrality. The term neutral degenerates again into mere honorific if we withhold it from an institution solely on the considerations that:

a. prescriptive formulae are constitutive of the institution,

b. the institution inadvertantly promotes certain states of affairs.

In a quote given by Oliker, Dewey speaks of school policy as a special phase of the fundamental problem as to what forces the school should align itself with. Contrary to Oliker's claim, I do not think Dewey's concept of neutrality is either holistic or institutional in the Agassian sense. Agassi's individualism ascribes the power to act to all and only to individuals; not to collectives nor to computers.

Dewey speaks of the schools participating "with the maximum possible of courageous intelligence and responsibility". This indicates, I would think, that he considers "the schools" to be a composition, not supraorganic, of individuals that make decisions. Policy is, seen from one perspective, a sort of compendium of enjoinders to individual action.

(Dewey does muddy the waters by talking of a "policy" of drift.) Dewey's talk of "forces" with which the school might align itself is no indication that he believed in "distinct social yet not psychological entities."

III. Functionaries        

If we run together Rawls and Searle, we get that an institution is a public system of rules constituted by rules and sometimes regulated by them, also. This becomes clearer when we understand that rules enjoin certain behavior or refrainments therefrom which per se constitute the actuality of the institution.

The functionary within the institution is enjoined to certain behavior which defines his role therein. Thus he, in Oliker's phrase, "tacitly accepts the value judgment that X should be counted as Y" where rules of this nature are constitutive of the institution he is part of. Oliker does not wish to claim that an individual who accepts an office in an institution in 1978 is agreeing to act on the basis of the same constitutive rules that were the basis in the founding of the institution in 1878. There is clearly an equivocation here on the notion of institution.

If sets of constitutive rules are sufficient to define institutions, then a difference in two sets of constitutive rules is sufficient to define two different institutions. One cannot "go against the rules of an institution" but rather only "actualize a different institution." It is only because there are other criteria by which we mark off institutions that it is possible to "break the rules." If a person in 1978 is not bound by the constitutive rules of 1876, then in certain aspects and only in certain aspects has the institution changed.

        An institution is importantly defined by traditions: a history by which identity is maintained despite and through changes in its constitutive rules. The functionaries of an institution are not merely the actualizers of rules, they are the carriers -- and interpreters -- of its traditions. This means that real institutions are not so simple as the entities conceived of by Rawls: each functionary may conceive of the institution in a somewhat different manner. This is why policy debate arises, reorganization is possible without dissolution and, most important here, individuals need not commit themselves to anything in particular even when they become parts of well-formalized institutions.

        Functionaries need not be mere actors, playing out prewritten scripts somehow conceived to be immanent in an abstract skeleton of constitutive rules. More often they are creators who not only maintain, but daily revivify the traditions that are the flesh and blood of institutions.

Temple University August 4, 1978



1. Presentations by Michael A. Oliker and James E. McClellan preceded this paper.