Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Time Horizons: Facts Versus Values

Alright, so over at A&J I posted this in the comments of this post by Alpheus:
I hate, well not really but I'll say I hate it anyway, to bring up the time horizons thing. But you are talking about the long-term. "at some point in the sweeping-away process, society will cease to function."

Liberals look at the immediate effects and short-term. The world won't end the day or even year or probably even decade after same sex marriage is allowed. In fact, I believe it won't, on net, be negative for society.

But this also exemplifies what conservatives are up against. Conservatives are concerned about long-term consequences. Consequences which aren't easily verified empirically or even very easily explained given that many are unintended and often unforeseen.

In very important ways empirical fact tips the scale toward the immediate. So, when Judge Walker talks about facts he's presuming, I believe, that he's actually separating fact from values, but in truth one cannot. Whether it's facts about global warming or same sex marriage or anything else the meaning of facts, their importance, cannot be separated from one's values.

If you value the short-term and present, then a heating Earth over the last century looks catastrophic. Apparently, if you look at the geological record over thousands of years, then the fluctuation might not be as big a deal. Likewise, two same sex people getting married tomorrow won't en society the day after.

This comment is getting a bit confused, but the idea that facts inevitably lead to some irrefutable conclusion, super especially as these facts apply to human life as opposed to something amoral like the motion of the planets, is a pretension of progressivism and liberalism.

Alpheus responded:
FLG: I basically agree, though I guess I would stress that I believe facts *are* separable from values, even if you do need both to make a decision.

I think our public debate would be a lot more productive if people (like Judge Walker) would stop trying to pretend that their values are facts.

Andrew then followed up:
I thought what FLG was saying is that one's values determine the weight one puts on facts. At least that's what I take him to mean when he says that the meaning/importance of facts cannot be separated from values.

I'm not sure I agree with this, since I agree with Alpheus that the common confusion is simply taking one's own values as read. E.g. the health police simply assume that a long and healthy life is so important that every conceivable sacrifice should be made in its pursuit. If cigarettes are bad for people, they assume that it automatically follows that nobody should smoke them. And so forth with red meat or whatever the health threat of the day is.

I just wanted to follow up here, rather than in the comments.

My point is that while you can technically separate facts from values it doesn't really matter. Empirical facts are only useful in so far as they are evidence toward some conclusion or argument. Whenever you make some claim you are invariably bringing in values.

For example, the claim that the Earth revolves around the Sun is taken as fact. And nowadays it isn't very controversial at all. But it still involves values. We value empirical evidence over theological or philosophical reasoning to the contrary. Moreover, we assume the laws of nature don't change and believe that even though we didn't check that the Earth is still revolving around the Sun today that it still is.

The issue relative to short versus long time horizons is this: As I mentioned above, unless we constantly reverify that the Earth is still revolving around the Sun, then we are acting on some level of faith that it still is continuing, which means values. Since the natural world's rules are apparently static, it doesn't really matter whether you have a short or long time horizon. If you measured the circumference of the Earth 10,000 years ago correctly, then the same measurement will still apply. That it was a instantaneous measurement doesn't matter.

When it comes to human affairs, however, things are different. You cannot separate facts from values in any meaningful way. The thing that I was trying to illustrate is that the Left drapes themselves in the cape of the empirical and scientific when it comes to human affairs. So, the facts apparently determine the conclusion devoid of value. Things either are or are not. But, again, these are short-term biased. You can only verify an empirical fact at any specific instant. I don't think they generally realize this. Consequently, I don't believe they understand that they are applying their own values.

I've been typing this piecemeal, so I'm not so sure how coherent this post is. However, the issue is this: fact and values cannot be separated. To continue Alpheus' analogy, a fact is kinda like a car. Sure, it's still technically a car without gas, but you ain't gettin' anywhere. Facts are similar. Once you say they mean something or imply some action, then you've applied values.

If I say the sky is blue or water is wet, that's great, but who cares? Once I say you ought to bring a towel if you are going in the water, then I'm applying the value that being dry is superior to being wet.


Alpheus said...

I still don't disagree that facts and values are both required to reach a decision or take action. I also don't disagree that the determination or construction of facts involves epistemological assumptions.

I guess my main thought about the distinction between facts and values is that it's very useful -- maybe necessary -- if you're trying to figure out why you disagree with someone. Which I think we also agree on?

You have a point about a fixation on facts encouraging short-term thinking while attention to values encourages long-term thinking. One big thing that bothers me about the Left is that they seem less interested in moving toward anything in particular than in moving away from what they perceive as present evils. So they talk about how many Americans don't have health care, and they don't focus too hard on what any particular plan to give those Americans health care will mean for the future.

FLG said...


I'm not sure how asserting that facts and values can be separated helps your/our case in arguments.

I'll assert that smoking causes cancer is an empirical fact. The health police look at this fact and say we should ban smoking. However, this clearly is an application of values. A quantitatively longer life is better than a shorter one, which neglects quality of life and qualitative enjoyment.

When you assert that facts and values can be separated, which we both seem to agree cannot when making an argument, you play into the hands of those who hold the pretension of simply looking at facts, which in turn is biased toward the short-term.

The health police are applying values. Agreeing that facts and values can be separated isn't helpful in the face of people arguing that they are only looking at the facts and reaching a conclusion when they are obviously applying values.

I guess my point here is that "if you're trying to figure out why you disagree with someone" then it always because of values, not because of the facts. And I see the appeal of taking that statement, separating facts and values, and then only examining values as means of overcoming disagreement is appealing. Indeed, that's how I've arrived at my time horizons theory, even if it's currently muddy.

But allowing for the separation of facts and values plays to pretensions of the other side. They believe that the facts self-evidently lead to a conclusion without the introduction of values.

Andrew Stevens said...

I agree with Alpheus because I find that a lot of times people don't even realize that they've smuggled a value premise into their argument. Once this is pointed out to them, they often become much less sure about the conclusion they were previously advocating.

So, for example, a health policeman might tell me that continuing to eat red meat will take three years off my life. When I say that I will happily sacrifice three years of my life in order to continue to eat red meat, that usually ends the argument. It has often never occurred to them that I might have different values and trade-offs than they have since they weren't even aware they were making a value judgment. They just assume I must be ignorant of the facts or that I am aware of them and just can't summon up the willpower. The idea that I may be fully aware of the consequences of my decision and make it anyway has often never even crossed their minds.

I also completely disagree that arguments where we are trying to determine why we disagree are always based on values, rather than facts. If I am advocating against abortion, for example, I might make the following argument.

1) We should not kill an innocent human being or allow an innocent human being to be killed.
2) A fetus is an innocent human being.
3) Therefore, we should not kill fetuses or allow them to be killed.

Most of the time, my interlocutor will straightforwardly deny premise 2, which is the factual premise, not the value premise (which is premise 1). In fact, I think a great many disagreements are over facts rather than values, though often over metaphysical facts rather than easily verified empirical ones.

FLG said...


But if I change it to this, which is really where I would argue you are going:

1) We should not kill an innocent person or allow an innocent person to be killed.
2) A fetus is an innocent person.
3) Therefore, we should not kill fetuses or allow them to be killed.

Then, 2 isn't a factual statement, but rather a value laden one.

Andrew Stevens said...

I would argue that 2 is still a factual statement and it is the definition of person that may or may not contain value judgments, but I absolutely see where you're going with that.

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