long live the fact/value distinction

Phil Gorski’s argument that the fact/value distinction is bankrupt is out in Society, along with a marquee of big-name responses. Phil and I had an interesting and productive exchange on the article this fall. The exchange follows here, with Phil’s permission. I still think I’m right!

Dear Phil,
I gave it a more serious read than I did before, and I wanted to offer some comments. I found much to say about elements of your argument, even though overall, I must say I did not find the argument particularly convincing, even as I respect the attempt. Please feel free to ignore any or all of these comments, of course!

With all best wishes,

Essentially, as I see it, you trace a genealogy of the fact/value distinction; pick and choose some scholars who emphasized it; offer some examples of ways you see facts and values as “leaky”; and argue for an Aristotelian vision of the good with some examples of psychological, economic, and political theory scholars.

The first elision, I think, is in the abstraction from Weber and Carnap to the fact/value distinction in general. The fact that Weber and Carnap both espouse a relatively atomistic view of society and that they both promote the fact/value distinction does not imply that these two must entail one another. There’s no inherent reason why we can’t imagine a fully-, even over-, socialized conception of the person that lies fully on the terrain of “fact” claims. Indeed, a kind of naive sociologism that many of our undergraduate majors adopt is just that: “people don’t really choose anything, they’re just the product of their environments.” This is a fact claim, fully socialized, and value free. (The fact that people prefer to feel they have choices is a value, but the fact claim doesn’t depend on that value.)

Similarly, I think your claim that Weberian Wertrationalität predisposes us to consider Protestantism more rational than Catholicism is only true once we’ve adopted the Weberian sense of rationality — a sense that is, EVEN FOR WEBER, hardly fully positive! Frankly I think the overwhelming value placed on “rationality” in the strict sense is a product of the victory of neoliberal economics, a point you mention and which I’ll deal with soon. But I don’t think it’s fair to saddle Weber with the post-Progressive value on rationality.

The second elision has to do with your assertion that various “thick ethical” concepts are about people’s “character.” I don’t think this is necessarily true. Rather, they describe factual and evaluative claims about actions or behaviors, but ones that require a separate (if assumed) evaluative statement to stand on their own. “Cruel,” for example, entails a factual description of behavior, tied with a presumed shared belief that cruelty is bad.

The paragraph beginning “But perhaps we can do better than Weber…” is particularly revealing of the elision I believe you make, because it conflates two questions: the question of whether actors employ ethical reasons for their behaviors (a matter of fact), and the question of whether ethical principles can be derived empirically, which I don’t think is addressed by any of these examples.

The examples of late-night hedonism and neoliberal economics also reproduce the fact-value distinction. In the hedonism example, the decision to change values implies that the values (or preferences) we were originally seeking weren’t brought about by the means selected. Similarly, in the case of neoliberal economics, the strongest critique is that that field has elided fact and value – demonstrating greater efficiency and claiming that efficiency is the most important value. But you are right in showing that neoliberal economics has failed to show that efficiency is better than, say, justice or equity, precisely because the fact/value distinction stands!

I think the same error propagates later in the paper. For example, in your discussion of what “good parents” do: the fact that people hold moral positions (a matter of fact) is not evidence that these moral positions themselves can be derived empirically. Similarly, the fact that the veil of ignorance would lead to preferring Denmark to Sierra Leone is fully explicable by personal preference, not an ethical position: self-interest is sufficient to explain preference for richer and safer over poorer and riskier.

The crux of your argument, I believe, is in the paragraph beginning “That said, a neo-Aristotelian approach…”. The conclusion there papers over too much (which individuals? How distributed?). That said, at this point all you’ve done is to advocate for a particular conception of the good. If that conception can be operationalized, certainly that operation can be assessed by a social scientific method appropriately. The question is whether this view of the good can be derived from social science; I don’t see how it can.

You deploy positive psychology and happiness economics as examples. I am not familiar with Seligman’s work, but would find this section more convincing if you explain how “a large body of empirical research” convinced him that these values were, in themselves, good (as opposed to that people prefer them, and they are predicted by certain other characteristics). (You may be interested, too, in UNC’s positive psychologist’s recent misfortunes: http://www.dailytarheel.com/m/article/2013/09/psyc-research-0911) I am more familiar with the happiness literature, but once again, I think the case proves the rule. “Hedonic returns” are a matter of fact: a measurable question about people’s experience. This literature does NOT demonstrate that happiness is better than, say, efficiency, justice, or equity, just that happiness is distinct from them. The finding of inequality’s association with other outcomes is, again, a matter of fact, albeit one that can be combined with values (preference against violence, for example) to form social policy. This is important precisely because of the fact/value distinction: Easterlin can show the fact that a value isn’t realized in this way. He can’t show that the value is in some way wrong.

Essentially, what I think you’ve done is to adopt an Aristotelian moral philosophy, simply as a matter of your preference, and shown that values derived therefrom seem pretty good. Furthermore, you show that if one adopts such a value schema, one can use social science to investigate the conditions for its realization or lack thereof. But that’s because these conditions remain matters of fact! That explains what amounts to a retreat in your conclusion: the position that “Values… can be empirically investigated with the tools of the social sciences” but not “adjudicated, much less legislated.” Few social scientists would dispute that one can use social science to investigate values, e.g., who holds which of them (public opinion), how they predict outcomes (public health, political science, etc.), or how they predict decisions (decision science, economics). That position seems relatively straightforward within conventional social science, and neither entails nor requires the collapse or even leakiness of the fact/value distinction.

Hi Andy,

Well, I’ve thought about this a bit, but I’m still not going to be able to respond adequately to all the points you raise. A lot of your concerns turn around my reading of Weber. I’m attaching a brief essay — a comparison of Weber and Taylor on secularization — where I lay out and defend my interpretation of Weber as a moral decisionist with nihilistic tendencies.  Not an entirely novel view, of course. Wolfgang Mommsen and Leo Strauss say more or less the same thing. But I do give some supporting passages from Weber’s texts.

You are of course quite right that what I am trying to defend here is a kind of neo-Aristotelian position inspired by Arendt, MacIntyre, Nussbaum, Foote, Kraut and others. The root idea is this: the human good consists in the exercise and development of human powers, particularly those specifically human powers that set us apart from other animals.  Amongst these I would include, in no particular order, song, language, reflexivity, ritual, techne and the collective practices they enable such as music, politics, philosophy, solidarity, the construction of a human environment and so on. I don’t think these are goods that we choose any more than we choose to be the kind of animals that we are. (I should emphasize that I don’t think this gets you, say, a theory of justice.  What we probably need, as Robert Audi has recently argued, is a kind of hybrid moral system, that combines elements of Kantian, consequentialist and virtue ethics.) But just what kind of animals are we? And what sorts of social arrangement facilitate or precent particular kinds of flourishing? Well, those are empirical questions. And that’s exactly my point: we can be mistaken in our views about these things and the various sciences can help us to understand them better. (Again: not all by themselves or in top down fashion: I don’t want to live in Singapore either.)

Now, the funny thing is, I think that this is not as far from a classical pragmatist ethics as some contemporary pragmatists would have us believe. Dewey’s theory of value was thoroughly naturalistic for instance. Addams’ was thoroughly experiential.

Anyway, doubt I’ve convinced you, but maybe that clarifies my position a little. What I am most certainly rejecting here is the kind of decisionist/projectionist ethics in which we arbitrarily choose some values or preferences  for reasons that are “ultimately” completely irrational and then project these values onto a “disenchanted” world that is itself devoid/stripped of any value. Note that even Weber can’t quite live with this notion himself, and therefore suggests that we are “called” or “summoned” by our own personal daimon.

As for the positive psych people. Well, yeah, some of it is absurdly scientistic. The idea that there is some kind of ratio that is universally applicable and precisely calculable to four decimal places….Obviously nonsense. And not just cause they goth the math wrong.


Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

3 thoughts on “long live the fact/value distinction”

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