Facts and values

One of the most widespread assumptions in modern Western thought is that of a distinction between facts and values. ‘Facts’ are thought of as ‘out there’ and subject to verification by science, whilst ‘values’ are thought of as either subjective or as transcendent. Of course, we do make a distinction in everyday language, but the underlying problem with this distinction is when it leads us to believe that facts and values are justified in entirely different and incompatible ways.

There are many signs that this way of thinking is deluded. One sign is that scientific beliefs are far from absolutely objective or known to be true (though scientific judgements can be incrementally objective) – see Objectivity page. Another is our experience of moral and aesthetic progress, and the ways in which we do gain incremental (gradual) objectivity in values, for example when growing up from early childhood to adulthood: it is only the imposition of metaphysical dogmas on this experience that makes us think that morality must be absolutely ‘subjective’ in spite of this. Another is the failure of absolute beliefs about ethics to make much impression on people’s moral behaviour, suggesting a huge disconnection between people’s experience of ethics and common ideas about it.

Most basically, every fact also implies a value, and vice-versa. The driest scientific paper or mathematical equation, in its practical context, is used by a person actuated by values. The most heartfelt values likewise assume a background of factual assumptions. If we try to separate them completely we are likely to be deluding ourselves.

Then there is the development of accounts of embodied meaning by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, which reveal that the very meaning of our theories about anything cannot be a representation of how things are ‘out there’. The basis of our supposed distinction between facts and values thus disappears. It’s not that scientific facts are ‘out there’ and moral or aesthetic values are ‘in here’. Rather we make judgements involving both of them. The meaning of those judgements is based on our entire bodily experience, and the judgements are objective to the extent that we take into account both what is ‘out there’ and what is ‘in here’.

Thus one important aspect of Middle Way Philosophy is the unification of objectivity. We may talk, for convenience, about scientific objectivity, moral objectivity, and aesthetic objectivity, but these are merely aspects of a general phenomenon called ‘objectivity’. Objectivity is unified in the sense of having the same central features in every case. Objectivity is incremental, it is tested and revealed by judgements made by people, and it is justified both by the coherence of the beliefs on which it is based (including its openness to evidence) and by the recognition of fallibility that accompanies those judgements.

So, in the case of scientific objectivity, science progresses when scientists make judgements about the ways that evidence supports theory, provided their judgements remain provisional. To take a very simple example, if a scientist observes that all swans are white, this will be justified if it fits all the evidence so far, provided the observation of a black swan triggers re-examination of this belief. Science will have progressed slightly through this provisional theory, even if it is later abandoned. Even an abandoned theory helps us to understand conditions slightly better, as we will have recognised a blind alley. Science as a whole is very much a social enterprise, but we could make similar points about individual theories and individual judgements about specific conditions.

In the case of moral objectivity, similarly, both social groups and individuals make progress by making justified judgements. For example, I may adopt a principle to avoid lying (in the sense of telling others things that are inconsistent with my representation of the world, where they are likely to be taken seriously and adopted as beliefs by others). This may be based on my experience of the effects of lying in childhood, or perhaps just on tradition or received wisdom. This judgement may be relatively objective if it is based on my experience so far, but also allows for error. If I am open to correction, I may then learn from further experience how lying may be necessary or even important in some situations, such as to save someone’s life, or avoid needless distress from someone who could not possibly understand the ‘truth’. My moral principle thus becomes slightly more Minimalist room Karen Greensophisticated and addresses conditions a bit better – moral objectivity has advanced. This advance includes an advance on my understanding of the effects of lying, which could be seen as factual, but it is also an advance in the objectivity of the values I apply to these perceived situations.

In the case of aesthetic objectivity, similar points apply. For example, I may operate by a minimalist aesthetic principle, having lots of space on the walls of my house and reducing clutter. This may seem to serve me well for a while. However, I then begin to recognise ways that clinging too dogmatically to this principle stops me addressing other conditions. I may have an urgent need to use all that empty space for other purposes, and I may realise that empty space is expensive! I may continue to make use of that aesthetic principle, but in a way that is more open to learning from other experiences that challenge it.

If we bring these different kinds of objectivity together, this also allows them to challenge one another and resolve conflicts that might otherwise be kept in watertight compartments. My example of compromising minimalism above sets a moral principle to challenge an aesthetic one. Similarly our factual theories may challenge our moral principles, and vice-versa. If we see moral and scientific claims as being justified in similar ways, there is no longer an irreconcilable difference between them.


Picture: Karen Green – my room (picture reproducible under Creative Commons licence) Wikimedia Commons

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