Facts and values, revisited
Michael De Dora
Posted on April 10, 2018
In his 1738 book “A Treatise on Human Nature,” Scottish philosopher David Hume noted that in his exploration of different systems of morality, he had found author after author shifted from discussions of facts (what is) to discussions of values (what ought to be) without admitting and explaining the logical connection between the two:
In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.
Note that Hume did not argue for a complete separation between facts and values, but an important distinction that required an explanation when transitioning.
In his 2010 book “The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values,” Sam Harris sought to tear down this supposed “wall between scientific facts and human value” by arguing that values are derived from facts.
… the divide between facts and values is illusory in at least three senses: (1) whatever can be known about maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures—which is, I will argue, the only thing we can reasonably value—must at some point translate into facts about brains and their interaction with the world at large; (2) the very idea of “objective” knowledge (i.e., knowledge acquired through honest observation and reasoning) has values built into it, as every effort we make to discuss facts depends upon principles that we must first value (e.g., logical consistency, reliance on evidence, parsimony, etc.); (3) beliefs about facts and beliefs about values seem to arise from similar processes at the level of the brain: it appears that we have a common system for judging truth and falsity in both domains. I will discuss each of these points in greater detail below. Both in terms of what there is to know about the world and the brain mechanisms that allow us to know it, we will see that a clear boundary between facts and values simply does not exist.
As Harris writes later in the book:
I am arguing that science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want — and, therefore, what other people should do and should want in order to live the best lives possible.
It is a controversial argument that, at the time of the book’s release, received much scrutiny. But, over time, the topic of facts and values fell off the radar. Until (at least for me) this week.
Yesterday, Ezra Klein, founder and editor-at-large of Vox, published the transcript of an exchange he had with Harris on race and intelligence—and I couldn’t help but stop for a moment after reading this comment by Harris:
The fact that you’re conflating the social policies he endorses — like the fact that he’s against affirmative action and he’s for universal basic income, I know you don’t happen agree with those policies, you think that would be disastrous — there’s a good-faith argument to be had on both sides of that conversation. That conversation is quite distinct from the science and even that conversation about social policy can be had without any allegation that a person is racist, or that a person lacks empathy for people who are at the bottom of society. That’s one distinction I want to make.
Leave aside the specific topic of discussion for a moment. Harris spent the majority of “The Moral Landscape,” as well as an ensuing speaking tour, follow-up essays, and Twitter threads, arguing against a clear distinction between facts and values. But here he appears to state that values (in this case, in the form of social policies to address inequality) are “quite distinct” from facts (in this case, regarding race and intelligence), and that they should not be confused with one another.
Has Harris’ views changed? Am I misreading or misunderstanding his comment? Or is my own confusion proper?