Fighting for apathy

Why we need to reclaim disinterestedness

Healthy societies depend on a level of disinterestedness in individuals, professional groups, and institutions. Societies that are seen to valorize disinterestedness to some degree often have healthier institutions than those that don't. In an age where we need to have an opinion on everything, we need to reclaim the power of disinterestedness, writes Howard Gardner.


Whether or not we happen to know the meaning of ‘disinterestedness', most of us have an intuition for the word, or — better — for the stance that it designates.

When we observe a game between two teams or two players, we expect the referee to be impartial in making judgments. When we consult a financial adviser about how to invest a recent inheritance, we expect the adviser not to make a recommendation to the adviser’s personal advantage. When we face a difficult medical decision, we seek the most informed doctor, one who will recommend treatments even if they are ones that he or she does not perform; and we may ask two specialists who do not know one another to confer with one another and let us know their joint recommendation.

Yet, while the concept may resonate, many of us have given up on the possibility of disinterestedness. In some cases, we see it as an ideal too difficult to attain. In other cases, we may object to the very concept of disinterestedness — and see it as a fool’s errand.

In recent years, this skeptical stance has become increasingly popular within journalism. Sixty years ago, at least in the United States, most journalists would have claimed that they strive to be disinterested. Take, for example, well-known American journalist Daniel Schorr: this Jewish reporter was assigned to make a documentary about Nazi death camps: 

“I did that very journalistically. I didn’t faint… there were members of my family who were lost in the Holocaust… I was there doing a job and I did the job."

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From the same generation, Washington Post editor Leonard Downey was admired because he chose not to vote in any election. This kind of stance is no longer taken in our society. Many journalists of equal prominence do not embrace the stance of disinterestedness. They claim that we are all interested because we all have opinions and positions, and we should not pretend that we can be neutral, objective, or impartial. And while we should not overtly pursue our own goals, these journalists would argue that it is certainly proper to cover what we personally believe is important and to do so in a way that ensures our own values are not violated — or even that our values are evident and supported. 

Critics of disinterestedness argue that journalists should never have striven to cover Donald Trump’s campaign (or Boris Johnson’s tenure) in a ‘hands off’ fashion; they can signal their own value judgments. Most journalists today would balk at Leonard Downey’s stance — and some might not even believe it.

Well, that’s journalism — not really a profession, at most an aspiring one. But what about the “classic” professions? Certainly in medicine, we value the Hippocratic oath; we look askance at physicians who profit from recommending medicines and treatments in which they have a vested interest. Yet such misbehaviors are frequent, whether or not the practitioners are fully cognizant. And when it comes to other relatively established professions — law, auditing, engineering — we are more cognizant of a practitioner placing a hand on the scale — deliberately, knowingly, or not.


Where there is genuine disagreement, disinterested leaders attend to various voices, articulate the disagreements, and make and are prepared to defend decisions and execution


What about politics — the realm of governing — and the decisions and actions — large and small — that arise. Classically, there’s no more important sector — see Greece, Rome, and indeed the Bible.  Yet in an era where famous entertainers or athletes instantly venture into politics; where vast sums of money are available to candidates who tow a party line when social media and cable news are ubiquitous and rife with distortions if not downright fabrications — the idea of disinterestedness in politics may seem quaint, even anachronistic … though not to me!

Consider three essential political roles in a democratic society: citizen; individual designated to head a crucial public institution; elected official.

In contemporary democracies, we are all citizens of polities — neighborhood, community, or nation. Disinterested citizens should keep informed by consulting diverse sources of information (media as well as fellow citizens); weigh their own priorities and values against those of other (perhaps needier) stakeholders; vote and perhaps participate more actively; accept decisions fairly arrived at even if they are disappointing; and keep the cycle going. You are not disinterested if you favor inexpensive housing but not in your backyard!

Much of contemporary life depends on the decisions and actions made by individuals — or small groups — who head major institutions — colleges and universities, museums, libraries, foundations. (I deliberately exclude corporations and other for-profit entities, where disinterestedness may seem like a category error.) Though such leaders characteristically speak in disinterested terms, they are routinely pressured to favor certain causes, add sympathetic figures to their boards, choose successors who will carry out all their predecessors’ policies.


Initially you owe loyalty to the entities to which you belong; if these are being ignored or undermined, voice your concerns; and if self-interest prevails, be prepared to exit


Leaders who would be disinterested must return to first principles -- understand why the organization was created; honor its fundamental goals, and if these have changed, explain the rationale; implement policies not because they are easy, but because they fulfill the fundamental mission.  

Where there is genuine disagreement, disinterested leaders attend to various voices, articulate the disagreements, and make and are prepared to defend decisions and execution. They do so in light of the fundamental goals and principles of organization — past, present, and future. A disinterested president of a college supportive of free speech permits speakers on campus even if they express views that are abhorrent — so long as they do not espouse violence.

Elected officials face the greatest challenges — unless they occupy a seat that is considered totally safe — in which case their status resembles that of leaders of non-profit institutions. Unless they have announced their retirement, they must constantly monitor the desires of the electorate and avoid deviating too often or too far — lest they lose the next election (a fate well-known recently to elected officials in the UK and the US).

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Yet no elected official openly states that every vote, and every decision will simply reflect the desire of constituents. Elected officials who embrace disinterestedness should put forth their core values and defend them. A case in point would be Profiles of Courage, John F. Kennedy’s portrait of eight US Senators who were prepared to lose, rather than to scuttle their fundamental values. Fealty to the broader interests of the nation allowed them to take a disinterested stance. Only if disinterestedness is considered a virtue can such stances be possible. And yet, contra the libertarian position in business or politics, no entity can thrive so long as only the core interests of its leaders are pursued … to hell with anyone and everyone else.

Takeaways: Be interested; keep in mind the interests of others, as well as your own; though not always possible, act as disinterestedly as you can and support others who believe in the possibility of disinterestedness. It’s challenging, often frustrating, but a worthy stance. 

Follow the advice of Albert O Hirschman: initially you owe loyalty to the entities to which you belong; if these are being ignored or undermined, voice your concerns; and if self-interest prevails, be prepared to exit. Or, to paraphrase Groucho Marx, I would not want to belong to any entity that denies the possibility of disinterestedness.

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