elysium and the fact/value distinction

I saw the new Matt Damon movie, Elysium, this summer. I loved the prior movie by the same director (Neill Bloemkamp), District 9, which is a dystopian alien-visitation movie wrapped up in an extended allegory for apartheid.  Like District 9Elysium has an explicit political message along with plenty of violence, action, and gore (all of which I confess to liking!).

To me, though, Elysium was disappointing in its political/theoretical content for one of the reasons I am troubled by Phil Gorski’s approach to transcending the fact/value distinction:

Social science is not (entirely) value free or ethically natural. Instead, it is axiologically committed to the realization of human flourishing and freedom. This is not to say that social sciences provide ready answers to policy questions like “is proportional representation better than first past the post?” Those are of a different order. Nor is it to deny that justice must be part of a social ethics, either.

WARNING: the remainder of the post contains a SPOILER, so if you haven’t seen Elysium but plan to you may want to stop reading here.

The premise of Elysium is, extrapolating from the contemporary world, ecological destruction has persisted, making Earth a very unpleasant place to live (in this sense, the movie is a bit like a grown-up’s Wall-E). The very wealthy have built an elaborate gated community on a satellite orbiting Earth, leaving the poor and the working class behind to work and subsist.  The satellite is called Elysium.

In a thinly not-at-all disguised reference to the present, one of the features of Elysium is a nifty machine that pretty much instantly diagnoses and cures injuries and illnesses. The machine is apparently widespread on Elysium, but not available back on Earth, where people have to use somewhat less tidy versions of the hospitals you and I are used to. (There are other allusions to current politics too, including many to undocumented immigrants, exploitation of workers, and Halliburton.)

So, as you probably guessed, Damon’s character ends up trying to gain access to the cure-everything machines, not just for himself but for his love interest’s daughter and for everybody on Earth. Why, after all, should quality health care be only for the wealthiest? Well–and here’s the spoiler–he succeeds in his mission…and then the movie ends.

But wait a second. We are already given to believe that Earth is overpopulated and ecologically damaged. So we are presented with two values, each of them credibly related to human flourishing. One of these values is ecological responsibility, the other widespread access to the best health care available. Each of the values is convincing internally to the text. But they will certainly collide, and quickly, once Damon’s character has successfully brought enormous longevity and reproductive success to the already-too-vast population of Earth! I don’t know how to construct the life table, but I don’t think it’s going to be pretty.

I’m not trying to argue that expanding health care access is a bad idea or even actually in conflict with ecological protection in the real world. But in Elysium they are certainly in conflict. And I suspect such conflicts are more the rule than the exception.

A position “axiologically committed to the realization of human flourishing and freedom” (that’s OK, I had to look up axiological too) offers no path toward distinguishing among the many conflicting things that provide (some) human(s) flourishing and freedom. Not resolving these conflicts makes this commitment trivial and meaningless; resolving them requires deriving values from other values, i.e., establishing that one or another value is justified (or not) because it does (or doesn’t) enact a prior value. There is no empirical basis for resolving the conflicts–the fact/value distinction, therefore, is reinforced, not undermined.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

2 thoughts on “elysium and the fact/value distinction”

  1. I think nobody is biting because nobody wants to go down the CR path again on this blog, and I know I don’t want to take THAT bait. So this is NOT about Gorski or CR. It is just about the example you pose and the question you pose in the context of this example.

    I do not see how this example demonstrates anything about deriving values from values. It seems more to be about chains of facts. Assume human flourishing is a value. One chain of facts is about people flourishing when the planet is not destroyed. Another chain of facts is about people flourishing when they have longer life expectancies. I do agree that I am distinguish facts from values when I say this.

    Or are you asking the question about trading off the better flourishing for a smaller number of people versus there being more people to have any given level of flourishing? That is, is the existence of more people itself a positive good versus the quality of life for each person who exists? That is a value conflict (and one that of course immediately raises the question of whose lives ought to exist at all), but that isn’t how you posed the question, nor do I see how deriving values from other values necessarily solves the problem. Nor do I see how asking this question has anything at all to do with the fact-value distinction.


  2. Sorry, I guess I wasn’t clear. And I am certainly not trying to restart the CR discussion, though it’s true that I thought several very interesting points worth further discussion emerged from that thread, and this was one of those.

    Here’s what I’m trying to say. Gorski thinks the fact/value distinction is false, and furthermore that socia science can derive values empirically, in a sense, because of the “axiological commitment” I cited above. That commitment is to “human flourishing and freedom.” I think Gorski is wrong. And I think so for several reasons, including the fact that there are many cases in which “human flourishing and freedom” is an inadequate decision rule between dramatically different pathways.


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