It’s Values All the Way Down

One often hears the claim that science must be value-neutral, especially in social sciences like economics, psychology, and sociology. This claim is one instance of fact-value dualism: the doctrine that facts are facts, values are values, and never the twain shall meet. Another instance of this dualism is the assertion (traceable to British empiricist David Hume) that you can’t derive an “ought” from an “is”.

Given my well-known aversion to dualisms of all kinds, it should come as no surprise that I’m not impressed by these claims and assertions. For those who are inclined to theoretical philosophy, a fine rebuttal can be found in Hilary Putnam’s book The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy. Here’s how I would illustrate the matter in a more homely fashion…

Empiricist: Science must be value-neutral!

Me: So you’re saying that scientists ought to practice value-neutrality?

Empiricist: Yes, of course!

Me: Or, in other words, that value-neutrality is a core value of all scientific endeavor?

Empiricist: Indeed it is!

Me: Well then, it sounds like science isn’t value-neutral with regard to the value of value-neutrality, is it?

Empiricist: Hmm…

This might sound like a purely abstract issue, but it has very practical consequences. For instance, in economics the doctrine of fact-value dualism leads theorists to say that all we can study is utility-maximization; because utility is essentially equivalent to pleasure (cf. Jeremy Bentham) or in scientifically dressed up language “desire satisfaction”, this doctrine effectively smuggles hedonism in through the back door. So much for value-neutrality!

The solution to this kind of smuggling is to trade openly in values, as it were: to be honest about the values we bring to the topic before us, to engage in dialogue with those who see things differently, to critique and revise our commitments where necessary, and so on. Naturally, this is difficult and messy, but it’s much more realistic and reasonable than trying to rule values out of court with a wave of one’s hand.

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