Facts and Values

by Mark English

Though we all obviously share a physical environment – a bluish, dirty-watery, middling sort of planet orbiting a medium-sized, middle-aged star – we live in very different worlds in terms of culture and so in terms of group-based and individual values. But what exactly does the existence of these multiple, and often conflicting, perspectives and value systems entail for our general view of the world?

Are there parallel realities here, one related to the physical world and amenable to scientific inquiry, others not? Is there, as it were, a realm of facts and a separate realm (or realms) of human perspectives and values?

You could see things this way, I suppose, but such a view is notoriously difficult to flesh out in a convincing way. My aim here is more modest, and is certainly not to defend a theoretically-based, clear-cut fact/value distinction or dichotomy. Rather I will sketch out a looser, more commonsense and ordinary language-based distinction about different kinds of claims: on the one hand, factual or scientific claims; on the other, value-based claims. Such a loose but significant distinction is implicit, I believe, in normal language use and central to a modern (and non-dogmatic) scientifically-oriented view of the world.

A key element of the distinction I want to make is that on basic value-related questions one can’t really claim to be ‘right’ in an objective sense – as one can about pragmatic, factual or scientific matters.

Sure, natural law theorists or those with Kantian or religious views about morality or Platonistic views about aesthetics will be unlikely to agree; I concede that I am making certain non-religious and anti-Platonistic assumptions. I am also making certain assumptions about science, notably about the lack of any clear-cut distinction between general factual and more specifically scientific claims.

My contention is that (unlike value claims) both ordinary factual and scientific claims can at least potentially be assessed and determined to be provisionally correct or incorrect (or somewhere in between, say partially true or correct, or true in certain circumstances) according to objective criteria involving some kind of observation (empirical evidence) and/or mathematical or logical reasoning. Mathematical claims or purely logical claims can be settled entirely by reference to those disciplines. Most other claims depend largely on a mixture of empirical observation and reasoning.

Many ordinary, non-scientific claims involve what linguists call deixis, that is they involve words or phrases the meaning of which is dependent on contextual information, e.g. personal pronouns like ‘I’ or ‘you’, adverbs of time like ‘now’ or ‘soon’, adverbs of place like ‘here’ or ‘there’ or demonstratives like ‘this’ or ‘that’. But even statements without explicit deictic terms are often hopelessly vague and indeterminate if they are taken out of a specific context or looked at in a non-contextual way.

Take the statement, “The sky is blue.” It could be used in a specific context to mean, “The sky (at the moment) is clear,” i.e. some bad weather or smoke haze or the like has passed or has not yet appeared. But as a general statement of fact it does seem slightly odd, and requires many qualifications.

Certainly the sky does appear to be various shades of what English-speakers call ‘blue’ (which corresponds to a range of frequencies on the electromagnetic spectrum) to normal human eyes during daylight hours when there is no cloud-cover or other light-blocking phenomena. And, of course, we are talking not so much about a thing (what is ‘the sky’, exactly?) having a property as an experience a human with a normal visual system might have when they look upwards out of doors from the surface of their home planet.

Actually, of course, people don’t go around saying, “The sky is blue” to make a general claim any more than than they go around insisting (to use a Tarskian example) that snow is white. It is generally known that a clear, daytime sky appears blue and that snow is normally white, but general statements to this effect are not usually made. Why would they be? They are not scientific statements; and in ordinary life one would normally be inclined specifically to comment on the colour only if, say, it was not quite as expected, e.g. if there was an unusual tint in the sky or if the snow in one’s vicinity happened, say, to be especially pristine or especially dirty.

Actual scientific claims take us into a slightly more difficult area. For one thing they are theory-based. You could say that theory constitutes part of their context or background, not unlike the way a particular natural language and its associated culture provides a backdrop for ordinary factual claims.

The parallel is imperfect, however, because, like every human activity, the activity of science – even at its most abstract or theoretical – takes place within and depends upon a broader framework of natural language and ordinary human social life. That said, scientific claims are generally purged of the deictic elements which pervade ordinary linguistic communication. They are not perspective- or context-dependent (cf. Thomas Nagel’s ‘view from nowhere’).

Other questions arise. Are scientific claims, as a positivist might see them, just predictions about future observations or do they provide explanatory descriptions of a ‘real world’? You could also quibble with my use (above) of the words ‘true’ and ‘correct’. But I really don’t think I need to take a stand on the fundamental nature of science or delineate a ‘theory of truth’ in order to justify the sort of distinction I am making. As I said previously, I think this distinction can be seen to be implicit in the way we use language.

Take value-judgments now, and specifically aesthetic judgments. In contrast to making factual and scientific claims, expressing such judgments typically entails making claims that cannot be objectively assessed. Claims about what certain individuals or groups find beautiful can be checked against empirical reality, but actual claims to the effect that this or that action or thing just is aesthetically appealing can always be denied, whatever the arguments and however many people claim otherwise.

The counterclaim will simply be that the characteristics or features valued by others happen not to be characteristics or features which are valued by this particular individual (in general or in respect of a particular case). A slightly upturned nose (thought to be attractive in a woman) doesn’t appeal to everybody. Likewise skin colour preferences. Similar points can be made about natural objects and landscapes, etc..

Perceptions of physical beauty need to be understood in the the light of our evolutionary history as well as our individual developmental histories. With respect to perceptions of the human body, clearly sexual urges and instincts are involved, but the interplay between biology and environment can produce quite divergent outcomes.

Lorenz Hart summed it up in his lyrics for the song My Funny Valentine (“… Your looks are laughable, unphotographable…”). On the one hand, there is a clear awareness of common standards of beauty (“Is your figure less than Greek? Is your mouth a little weak?”); on the other, a statement of idiosyncratic personal preference (“Don’t change a hair for me, not if you care for me…”).

The fact that this sort of thing is real (and pervasive) is reflected in the common use of expressions like “There’s no accounting for taste”, or talk about people being “wired differently” etc.. (There isn’t and they are.)

People also have strong and highly divergent preferences in entertainment and the arts. But judgments about individual works need to be seen in a broader context of judgments about which general categories (movies, games, fiction, music, etc.) may or may not be of interest and, within these categories, which particular genres or styles or eras might be favored by a given individual.

Sure, there can be a fair degree of agreement in scholarly circles: literary or musical scholars can rank certain works above others on the basis of technique and relative levels of complexity and sophistication (as well as other factors) but in the end subjective preferences do count, both in terms of judging works of  comparable sophistication and in terms of the pleasure the works in question give. No argument, no matter how good, can make someone like a writer or composer they really hate, or hate one they like, though persuasion could raise doubts and questions, and, of course, increased exposure to the work of a given artist will often precipitate a reassessment.

Many divergences of taste clearly relate to individual developmental histories. Musical taste depends in large part on the kinds of music and other basic sound patterns that individuals have been exposed to in the past. For example, I am not musically trained and just like what I like. Avant-garde music doesn’t appeal at all. And yet I see others seeming to enjoy it, presumably hearing harmonies which I (with my more undeveloped set of expectations, etc.) am unable to perceive.

Scientific approaches to aesthetic questions – including attempts to interpret perceptions of beauty or ugliness in the light of our evolutionary history, individual developmental histories, or in more general terms of symmetries and expectations – will inevitably leave a lot out, but certain basic aesthetic perceptions and judgments are at least partially explainable in biological and psychological terms. Our perceptions are subjective but not arbitrary: certain constraints apply. And, while this is most clearly the case in respect of perceptions of the human body and physical objects, it is arguably applicable to all kinds of aesthetic judgment.
Morality is a more difficult topic, partly because it is an intrinsically vague concept. Moral judgments can overlap with aesthetic judgments (courtesy and politeness, for example, have both a moral and an aesthetic dimension) and also, I would claim, with prudential judgments. (My views here are more in line with Classical than Christian thought.)

Prudential claims could be seen to have a greater claim to being objectively true (or false) than purely value-based claims as they relate to observable effects. Consider proverbs, for example, which tend to have a pragmatic and prudential (rather than a strictly moral) focus. “Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive.” “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” Pretty vague and sweeping, but you could conceivably finesse these sorts of claims into testable hypotheses. The same goes for other proverbs many of which (helpfully? – well, perhaps not…) even incorporate numerical values. “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” “A stitch in time saves nine.” “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”

By contrast to factual or prudential claims, we have, almost by definition, no way of testing value-based claims. Which human qualities are most to be valued (and encouraged), for instance? Individuals will differ in their views. Do we favor an ethic based on martial values of courage, strength and self-sufficiency; on justice and righteousness; or one based more on compassion and equality (i.e. a commitment to ‘social justice’)?

Or do we want to refuse to play that game altogether and adopt a ‘non-ethical’ (or amoral) ethic or perspective? (Machiavelli, Max Stirner…).

Politics and religion obviously come into the picture also, but it must be borne in mind that many religious and political claims are not mere value claims. Most traditional religious doctrines, for example, involve (sometimes testable) claims about how the world is. Likewise political ideologies (e.g. the social and economic predictions of various versions of Marxism or classical liberalism). So basic value elements often need to be isolated or disentangled from other elements.

But even if in many instances isolating the value-based elements is a difficult task, my central point stands, I think. We cannot demonstrate that someone making basic value claims which diverge from normally accepted standards is wrong or mistaken. The best we can do is to show them (if they are not already aware of the fact) that they are in a very small minority on the issue.

Of course, in the event of these anomalous views being associated with antisocial actions or behaviors, it is important that social mechanisms be activated to prevent (further) social harm. Nothing I’ve said here should be seen to deny or undermine this. Robust informal regulatory mechanisms exist in every functioning society. And, with respect to more formal mechanisms, it’s quite clear that efficient and equitable systems of law and law enforcement need not be in any way dependent on a commitment to notions of moral realism, natural law or natural rights.

Categories: Essay, Uncategorized

14 Comments »

  1. Mark English wrote:

    “My contention is that (unlike value claims) both ordinary factual and scientific claims can at least potentially be assessed and determined to be provisionally correct or incorrect (or somewhere in between, say partially true or correct, or true in certain circumstances) according to objective criteria involving some kind of observation (empirical evidence) and/or mathematical or logical reasoning.”

    .”That said, scientific claims are generally purged of the deictic elements which pervade ordinary linguistic communication. They are not perspective- or context-dependent”

    ——————————————————————–

    I think I disagree with this, but it depends on what you mean by “correct” and “incorrect” as well as by “perspective — or context — dependent.”

    What I am thinking of is Quine’s inscrutability of reference and ontological relativity. Whether or not (a) the native is *referring* to rabbits or time-slice-of-rabbit is a matter of a frame of reference/system of counting and (b) whether, ontologically, rabbits or time-slices-of-rabbits exist is a matter of the frame of reference/system of counting, within which we are doing our quanitification.

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  2. Pretty solid, coherent, brief discussions of some basic issues that oft get confused.

    On a tangent, I would raise the question, whether ‘meta-aesthetic’ or ‘meta-ethical’ approaches to these issues don’t mis-lead some casual readers of these approaches into thinking that – ‘since it’s all just what we agree on, it doesn’t apply to me!’ Of course, that’s not true of the actual theorists themselves (who tends to be somewhat socially conservative, quite comfortable with the conventions of their day), but there’s always the student or out-rider looking for some philosophical excuse for dismissing social expectations, or for assuming an extreme relativism not requiring any action beyond occasional ironic commentary.

    “We cannot demonstrate that someone making basic value claims which diverge from normally accepted standards is wrong or mistaken. The best we can do is to show them (if they are not already aware of the fact) that they are in a very small minority on the issue.”

    There’s the tussle; but of course we can also suggest they engage in politics to broaden the appeal of their behavior. (Yet the problem still remains, because some are really doing what they do for egotistical purposes, and have no sense of having much in common with others….) (This sense of ‘having in common with others,’ of belonging with others, seems important here.)

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  3. Current scientific approaches to moral and aesthetic values include computational morality, aesthetics, emotion, creativity, etc. of cognitive/computer science (e.g. “A Construction Manual for Robots’ Ethical Systems”, Robert Trappl).

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  4. “Or do we want to refuse to play that game altogether and adopt a ‘non-ethical’ (or amoral) ethic or perspective? (Machiavelli, Max Stirner…).”

    Both Machiavelli and Stirner have an ethical perspective, although not a conventional one. For Stirner, individuality and authenticity are the highest values, while for Machiavelli a well-governed state and Italy ruling itself (without foreign domination) are the highest values.

    They are in a “small minority”, to quote your text, but they have their own idiosyncratic value system and it may be that Machiavelli’s values are not all so idiosyncratic, but are the real values which even the best of our political leaders guide their conduct by, in contrast with their stated values.

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  5. Daniel Kaufman

    “… think I disagree … but it depends on what you mean by “correct” and “incorrect” as well as by “perspective — or context — dependent.”

    Taking the last phrase first, here is the immediate context:

    “… scientific claims are generally purged of the deictic elements which pervade ordinary linguistic communication. They are not perspective- or context-dependent (cf. Thomas Nagel’s ‘view from nowhere’).”

    I could have made this clearer but I am talking about the lack of deictic elements and the general, objective (i.e. not personal) perspective to which science aspires in contrast to ordinary linguistic communication. I see this as a sort of continuum. At one end you have ordinary language utterances which, because of deictic elements, etc., can only be understood if the social context of the specific utterances is taken into account. Scientific language moves away from this and tries to be as explicit and impersonal and objective as possible. In the process, deictic elements are, as I put it, ‘purged’. (This is more about explicitness than anything else.)

    Somewhat confusingly, I also used the word ‘context’ in the bit leading up to this to refer to theoretical frameworks upon which scientific claims depend:

    “Actual scientific claims take us into a slightly more difficult area. For one thing they are theory-based. You could say that theory constitutes part of their context or background, not unlike the way a particular natural language and its associated culture provides a backdrop for ordinary factual claims.

    The parallel is imperfect, however, because, like every human activity, the activity of science – even at its most abstract or theoretical – takes place within and depends upon a broader framework of natural language and ordinary human social life.”

    But at least I make it clear that I see ordinary factual claims as being dependent on a broad framework of natural language and social life (irrespective of the presence or absence of deictic elements) and scientific claims as being dependent on this also as well as on a theoretical framework.

    With respect to the correct/incorrect issue, I did allude to potential problems but didn’t think my modest claims required me to elaborate or defend a theory of meaning or reference or truth. My specific claim was that “both ordinary factual and scientific claims can at least potentially be assessed and determined to be provisionally correct or incorrect (or somewhere in between, say partially true or correct, or true in certain circumstances) according to objective criteria involving some kind of observation (empirical evidence) and/or mathematical or logical reasoning.” Are there problems with this (read in conjunction with clarifications set out above)?

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  6. ejwinner

    Thanks.

    The possible bad consequences of metaethical talk… Yes, I suspect it does lead some people to disengage, or provide ‘cover’ for cynicism.

    Nonetheless, the basic problems don’t arise from the talk, the talk arises from the problems I would say. Anomie, that kind of thing.

    On balance, I think it’s better to talk.

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  7. Philip Thrift

    My favorite example of that sort of thing was a project conducted by Ronald C. Arkin of Georgia Tech and funded by the military to design a conscience for warrior robots.

    Arkin’s recommended design would incorporate and implement, using deontic logic, sets of specific rules based on the just war tradition and various generally accepted legal and moral conventions and codes of behavior pertaining to warfare.

    He points out that machines programmed on such a basis would be likely to be more reliably moral than human agents partly because they would be unemotional, lacking, for example, the strong sense of self-preservation which can sometimes trigger the use of disproportionate force in human agents.

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  8. s. wallerstein

    As you say, “it may be that Machiavelli’s values are not all so idiosyncratic, but are the real values which even the best of our political leaders guide their conduct by, in contrast with their stated values.”

    With respect to your point about Stirner having an ethical perspective though not a conventional one, I agree.

    I am attracted to some of Stirner’s ideas but what I know about his life and behavior makes me very wary of his ethical perspective. Arguably, it didn’t work for him (sounds like he had a miserable life) and it certainly didn’t work for his wives and creditors!

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  9. Mark: “The best we can do is to show them (if they are not already aware of the fact) that they are in a very small minority on the issue.”

    Not a very helpful notion. This was, e.g. done to the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison when he was paraded through the streets with a noose around his neck for having such “small minority” views.

    The bottom line for me: perhaps there is one true set of morals, or something like that, but the world will act exactly as if each of the wildly divergent sets of morals held by various people were actually valid. The only thing that will matter is coming to enough of a consensus that we can live peacefully together. We aren’t going to convert the world to secular humanism in time to avert a disaster, so we should make plain that we consider certain religious passions to be a threat to our being, or to the stability of our civil society, and calmly but firmly act consistent with that. In the west, these passions did get reined in and religion became more domesticated after quite a bit of blood was spilled.

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  10. Mark,

    I think we need to distinguish between ideals and absolutes, as the problem often seems to be when a person or culture tries to claim their set of ideals are absolute/universal.

    The basic difference being that an ideal is an apex of form, while an absolute would be an essence of being. Such that we might fall from our ideals, but we rise from an absolute.

    Form, ideal or otherwise, is emergent and subjective. For instance, a ideal/perfect circle from one point of view, might be an oval from a different point of view. While an absolute, such as a temperature of absolute zero, would be the negation of any such definition, distinction, etc.

    So those who claim their particular sets of values, ideals, etc are absolute, will feel obligated to extinguish any alternative points of view and are necessarily extremist in such views.

    Which isn’t to overlook the fact that we all have and need ideals as frames of how to live our lives, as they are the goals we seek, even though they are sometimes unobtainable, or not quite what we expected, if attained. Which then requires setting new goals, hopefully learning from the lessons given by prior efforts.

    After awhile we begin to understand it is also about the journey, rather than just the various destinations. The process, as much as the structure.

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  11. Hal Morris

    [Quoting me] “The best we can do is to show them (if they are not already aware of the fact) that they are in a very small minority on the issue.”

    Not a very helpful notion. This was, e.g. done to the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison when he was paraded through the streets with a noose around his neck for having such “small minority” views.

    I am not suggesting punishing people for holding minority views.

    The bottom line for me: perhaps there is one true set of morals, or something like that, but the world will act exactly as if each of the wildly divergent sets of morals held by various people were actually valid. The only thing that will matter is coming to enough of a consensus that we can live peacefully together.

    Sure, a peaceful consensus is paramount. But there is still a question about “whether there is one true set of morals, or something like that.” And I think it’s worth discussing this question.

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  12. brodix

    “So those who claim their particular sets of values, ideals, etc are absolute, will feel obligated to extinguish any alternative points of view and are necessarily extremist in such views.”

    You are overstating your case here, but the general contrast between ideals and absolutes certainly makes sense to me.

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  13. Mark,

    Thank you.

    Though I don’t think I’ve overstated it by much, given the actions and rhetoric of various political, religious and ideological movements. Whether they might believe it themselves, there is a certain political value in asserting unwavering certainty in one’s beliefs, often to the point that the sense of certainty is of greater value than the particulars of the model in question. More about the absoluteness, than the idealization. Give a man a gun and while they might not be any more wise, they will certainly be more confident in their views.

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  14. Mark: I am not suggesting punishing people for holding minority views.

    No, of course I realize that, but making a point of telling people they have a small minority POV seemed a little odd and disturbing to me. They’re probably painfully aware of it anyway.

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