Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Facts and Values

I was educated in a hotbed of Western Straussians led by the hero of that school, Harry Jaffa.  No idea so roused our temper as the infamous “fact-value dichotomy.”  This is the idea that statements of fact (e.g., electricity can kill people) are fundamentally different from statements of value (e.g., it was wrong to electrocute Julius and Ethel Rosenberg).  The former are either true or false and one can attempt to tell which is which by means of argument and evidence.  The latter can be judged as true or false only in so far as they are logically consistent with other value judgments (e.g., it is wrong to kill as a punishment for a crime).  All such logical analysis, however, can only link one value judgment to another and must ultimately come to rest in some basic value (human life is sacred, etc.).  Such basic values can be held but they cannot be argued for nor is there any evidence that would tell for or against them.  The fact-value dichotomy seems to reduce moral judgements to irrational beliefs.  To believe in genuine justice is like believing in fairies. 
For Strauss, and especially for the Western Straussians, this amounted to offense against all moral and political philosophy.  Why think carefully about what justice is or what a just political order would be, as Plato and Aristotle did, if justice is just some idea that can never amount to anything more than an idea one is fond of without reason?  On the contrary, we argued, Socrates in Plato’s Republic and Gorgias offers profound arguments in favor of a coherent account of justice and his account is solidly based in evidence and logic.  Moreover, Socrates derives his logical proofs precisely from the testimony of those who argue against the existence or at least the worth of justice. 
The fact-value dichotomy is usually traced back to David Hume’s discussion of the naturalistic fallacy.  One cannot derive an ought-statement, which describes what one should or should not do, from an is-statement, which describes some set of facts.  For example, one cannot derive the claim “Athens shouldn’t have made Socrates drink hemlock” from the claim that “hemlock is poisonous.”  One can only derive the former from some other ought-statement such as: “you shouldn’t execute good men who will later be both famous and popular”. 
For a long time I thought that Hume’s distinction was silly.  I thought one could easily derive the claim that “one ought not to stick one’s tongue in a light socket” from the claim that “the socket is turned on”.  I now regard that thought as na├»ve and apologize to Mr. Hume. 
This occurred to me as I have been teaching logic and yesterday began a section on moral logic.  I have also been (belatedly) revising my chapter for The Handbook of Biology and Politics.  Both of these activities directed my attention to this question.  Modern logic generally accepts the naturalistic fallacy as a fallacy and hence presents coherent moral arguments as resting on two sorts of claim.  At least one premise of the argument must state some set of facts and another premise must state some value judgement.  For example:
  1. Current carbon emissions are causing global warming and global warming will have dangerous consequences for human beings and other creatures. 
  2. One ought not to do things that are dangerous to human beings and other creatures. 
  3. Therefore: we ought to reduce our carbon emissions. 

I think that the distinction between these two types of statements is logically correct, but I would point out two things that are frequently overlooked in discussion of facts and values.  
The first is that the category of values includes not only moral judgments but all judgments involving such concepts as right and wrong, better or worse, etc.  Thus “I shouldn’t eat what is unhealthy” is as much a value judgment as “I shouldn’t steal candy from a baby.”  What I and my Straussian friends and teachers objected to was the claim that moral judgments were in effect irrational.  Including value judgments about self-interest tells against that claim.  There is nothing irrational about ought-statements when they apply to matters of health.  For the same reason, there is nothing necessarily irrational about such statements when they apply to matters of right and wrong. 
My second point is more important.  The real distinction here is not between facts and values but facts about the living and the dead.  Recently I watched a NOVA feature on North America.  In the second segment we were presented with a line drawn along a hill side in the North Dakota Badlands, which I know well.  The line represented evidence of an asteroid strike.  Below the line (earlier in time) one finds dinosaur bones.  Above the line one finds fossils, but no dinosaurs.  Conclusion: the asteroid strike killed off the dinosaurs.  This kind of analysis is all facts and no values.  The reason for that is that, whatever killed the off, the dinosaurs are just plain dead.  Fossils are not more involved in values that volcanic rock. 
By contrast, living animals, including human beings, always have something at stake.  They are subject to flourishing and withering, surviving and perishing.  That includes all of them, from the giant popular tree I walked around in Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, down to the littlest bacterium.  Some organisms are also subject to pain and pleasure.  That includes all (or perhaps almost all) of the animals.  One species is capable of happiness, defined as a self-conscious appreciation of a satisfying life.  Value judgments, far from being products of human culture, or “social construction”, or irrational emotive artifacts, are simple features of organic life.  Every time a slime mold amoeba decides to congregate with its fellows or a snow leopard turns down a trail to follow a scent, a value judgment is made.  Since such efforts can succeed for fail, value judgments can be objectively true or false. 
Aristotle that to understand simple things one must recognize a number of irreducible dimensions.  To understand how a table can be both wide and narrow, taller than a chair but shorter than the kitchen wall, one must recognize that width cannot be reduced to length nor to height.  The world exists in a three dimensional space.  To understand organic life, one must recognize the dimension of value.  Unlike rocks, house plants, horses, and human beings can succeed or fail.  The latter two have good days and bad. 
Moral arguments require value judgments as premises for the same reason that arguments about individual and collective interests do.  If you can’t reduce an is to an ought, that is because human beings are not rocks.  It is nonetheless true that slavery requires telling lies about the slaves and the masters and that tyranny is bad for human beings in general.  Moral and political philosophy is viable because it recognizes facts about human nature. 


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