More on Values and Science


For almost 300 years now, one of the most widely shared understandings in philosophy has been the distinction between facts and values.

That is, you can’t logically make the leap from a description of the world as it is…

Look, cows in a green field!

to a prescription for a certain relationship between us and that world…

Cows in a green field are good!


Citing David Hume, philosophers will often speak of the is-ought distinction (aka “Hume’s guillotine”).

But like most widely shared understandings of our species… this one is breaking down over time.

Aided by neuroscience and other advances, every day we are learning more about the brain and its relationship to our lived experience. And as we do, we can actually see that some courses of action, some facts in the world, lead to outcomes that most human beings would prefer (if given the choice). Whereas others lead to outcomes that most human beings would reject — for example, behavior which causes a surge in cortisol, which in turn leads to persistent feelings of anxiety and agitation.

In other words, at the level of biology we are finding descriptive statements blurring with prescriptive statements, and vice versa. For example:

 1. You talk to your child rather than spank him.

2 Your child’s limbic system handles conflict without triggering aggression.

3. A lack of unnecessary aggression makes your child (and you!) happier.

Where, in these three statements, did we move from mere facts to values? But we did, didn’t we?

An article I read recently discusses this question — in regards to spanking specifically. Check it out.

I may be wrong, but I have the impression that the author may not realize just how deeply subversive his piece is. For really, how far does it go? You can start with spanking, but you might end up with… what? …a Universal Bill of Rights for Children, saying that some cultures around the world have it right and others wrong? The science isn’t there yet — but in theory it could be, no?

Will science someday be able to tell us whether, in fact, cows in a green field are good? (After all, the question is, ultimately, “How do cows in a green field affect our brains, to our advantage or disadvantage?” And this is, in theory, measurable!)

Two books address this breakdown of Hume’s is-ought distinction more generally:

The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris, and

The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice and Freedom by Michael Shermer (very recently published — I haven’t read this one yet).

Next month, when we look at the Enlightenment and its dream of “progress,” we will explore some of the strongest critiques of this way of thinking. For of course there is a downside to seeing values as facts. In the last 100 years we learned that all too well from watching the overreach of fanatics like the Nazis and ISIS.

Is there a way around this danger? Are values that are confirmed as facts by science safer than other values? Or is it useful to keep the is-ought distinction, just to keep us doubting ourselves, even if the invention of the functional MRI has made it a relic?

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