Nagel’s obviously objective values

Harris has identified a real problem, rooted in the idea that facts are objective and values are subjective.

Harris rejects this facile opposition in the only way it can be rejected—by pointing to evaluative truths so obvious that they need no defense. For example, a world in which everyone was maximally miserable would be worse than a world in which everyone was happy, and it would be wrong to try to move us toward the first world and away from the second. This is not true by definition, but it is obvious, just as it is obvious that elephants are larger than mice. If someone denied the truth of either of those propositions, we would have no reason to take him seriously.

These cases show that the idea of truth applies to values as much as it does to facts—but as with facts, the idea is not limited to obvious cases. There are many questions of value whose answer is not obvious, and about which people disagree, but that does not mean that they do not have a correct answer. As Harris points out, exactly the same can be said of historical and scientific questions: one should not confuse truth with what is known, or agreed on by everyone.

The paradox of freedom

Now this argument which tries to show that ‘liberty’ is the same as ‘a liberty’ and therefore the same as ‘law’, from which it follows that the more laws, the more liberty, is clearly nothing but a clumsy statement (clumsy because it relies on a kind of pun) of the paradox of freedom, first discovered by Plato …; a paradox that can be expressed by saying that unlimited freedom leads to its opposite, since without its protection and restriction by law, freedom must lead to a tyranny of the strong over the weak. This paradox, vaguely restated by Rousseau, was solved by Kant, who demanded that the freedom of each man should be restricted, but not beyond what is necessary to safeguard an equal degree of freedom for all. [ch. 12, 296]

Decisions cannot be derived from facts

It is important for the understanding of this attitude to realize that these decisions can never be derived from facts (or from statements of facts), although they pertain to facts. The decision, for instance, to oppose slavery does not depend upon the fact that all men are born free and equal, and that no man is born in chains. For even if all were born free, some men might perhaps try to put others in chains, and they may even believe that they ought to put them in chains. And conversely, even if men were born in chains, many of us might demand the removal of these chains. Or to put this matter more precisely, if we consider a fact as alterable—such as the fact that many people are suffering from dis­eases—then we can always adopt a number of different attitudes towards this fact: more especially, we can decide to make an attempt to alter it; or we can decide to resist any such attempt; or we can decide not to take action at all.

All moral decisions pertain in this way to some fact or other, especially to some fact of social life, and all (alterable) facts of social life can give rise to many different decisions. Which shows that the decisions can never be derivable from these facts, or from a description of these facts. [ch. 5, 67]

The relativity of proof

Every proof must proceed from premises; the proof as such, that is to say, the derivation from the premises, can there­fore never finally settle the truth of any conclusion, but only show that the conclusion must be true provided the prem­ises are true. [ch. 11, 260]

To remain human

Once we begin to rely upon our reason, and to use our powers of criticism, once we feel the call of personal responsi­bilities, and with it, the responsibility of helping to advance knowledge, we cannot return to a state of implicit submission to tribal magic. For those who have eaten of the tree of knowledge, paradise is lost. The more we try to return to the heroic age of tribalism, the more surely do we arrive at the Inquisition, at the Secret Police, and at a romanticized gangsterism. Beginning with the suppression of reason and truth, we must end with the most brutal and violent destruction of all that is human. There is no return to a harmonious state of nature. If we turn back, then we must go the whole way—we must return to the beasts.

It is an issue which we must face squarely, hard though it may be for us to do so. If we dream of a return to our child­hood, if we are tempted to rely on others and so be happy, if we shrink from the task of carrying our cross, the cross of humaneness, of reason, of responsibility, if we lose courage and flinch from the strain, then we must try to fortify our­selves with a clear understanding of the simple decision before us. We can return to the beasts. But if we wish to remain human, then there is only one way, the way into the open society. We must go on into the unknown, the uncertain and insecure, using what reason we may have to plan as well as we can for both security and freedom. [ch. 10, 218]

The evolutionary character of social engineering

The political artist clamours, like Archimedes, for a place outside the social world on which he can take his stand, in order to lever it off its hinges. But such a place does not exist; and the social world must continue to function during any reconstruction. This is the simple reason why we must reform its institutions little by little, until we have more experience in social engineering.

This leads us to the more important second point, to the irrationalism which is inherent in radicalism. In all matters, we can only learn by trial and error, by making mistakes and improvements; we can never rely on inspiration, although inspirations may be most valuable as long as they can be checked by experience. [ch. 9, 181]

Piecemeal social experiments

Such arguments in favour of Utopian engineering exhibit a prejudice which is as widely held as it is untenable, namely, the prejudice that social experiments must be on a ‘large scale’, that they must involve the whole of society if they are to be carried out under realistic conditions. But piecemeal social experiments can be carried out under realistic con­ditions, in the midst of society, in spite of being on a ‘small scale’, that is to say, without revolutionizing the whole of society. In fact, we are making such experiments all the time. The introduction of a new kind of life-insurance, of a new kind of taxation, of a new penal reform, are all social experiments which have their repercussions through the whole of society without remodelling society as a whole. Even a man who opens a new shop, or who reserves a ticket for the theatre, is carrying out a kind of social experiment on a small scale; and all our knowledge of social conditions is based on experience gained by making experiments of this kind. … But the kind of experiment from which we can learn most is the alteration of one social institution at a time. For only in this way can we learn how to fit institutions into the framework of other institutions, and how to adjust them so that they work according to our intentions. And only in this way can we make mistakes, and learn from our mistakes, without risking repercussions of a gravity that must endanger the will to future reforms. … But the piecemeal method permits repeated experiments and continuous readjustments. In fact, it might lead to the happy situation where politicians begin to look out for their own mistakes instead of trying to explain them away and to prove that they have always been right. This—and not Utopian planning or historical prophecy—would mean the introduction of scientific method into politics, since the whole secret of scientific method is a readiness to learn from mistakes. [ch. 9, 176-7]

The ethics of solving society’s problems

I wish to outline another approach to social engineering, namely, that of piecemeal engineering. It is an approach which I think to be methodologically sound. The politician who adopts this method may or may not have a blueprint of society before his mind, he may or may not hope that mankind will one day realize an ideal state, and achieve happiness and perfection on earth. But he will be aware that perfection, if at all attainable, is far distant, and that every generation of men, and therefore also the living, have a claim; perhaps not so much a claim to be made happy, for there are no institutional means of making a man happy, but a claim not to be made unhappy, where it can be avoided. They have a claim to be given all possible help, if they suffer. The piecemeal engineer will, accordingly, adopt the method of search­ing for, and fighting against, the greatest and most urgent evils of society, rather than searching for, and fighting for, its greatest ultimate good. …

In favour of his method, the piecemeal engineer can claim that a systematic fight against suffering and injustice and war is more likely to be supported by the approval and agreement of a great number of people than the fight for the establishment of some ideal. The existence of social evils, that is to say, of social conditions under which many men are suffering, can be comparatively well established. Those who suffer can judge for themselves, and the others can hardly deny that they would not like to change places. It is infinitely more difficult to reason about an ideal society. Social life is so complicated that few men, or none at all, could judge a blueprint for social engineering on the grand scale; whether it be practicable; whether it would result in a real improvement; what kind of suffering it may involve; and what may be the means for its realization. As opposed to this, blueprints for piecemeal engineering are comparatively simple. They are blueprints for single institutions, for health and unemployed insurance, for instance, or arbitration courts, or anti-depression budgeting, or educational reform. If they go wrong, the damage isnot very great, and a re-adjustment not very difficult. They are less risky, and for this very reason less controversial. But if it is easier to reach a reasonable agreement about existing evils and the means of combating them than it is about an ideal good and the means of its realization, then there is also more hope that by using the piecemeal method we may get over the very greatest prac­tical difficulty of all reasonable political reform, namely, the use of reason, instead of passion and violence, in executing the programme. There will be a possibility of reaching a reasonable compromise and therefore of achieving the im­provement by democratic methods. [ch. 9, 171-3]

A state’s liberal responsibilities

I certainly believe that it is the responsibility of the state to see that its citizens are given an education enabling them to participate in the life of the community, and to make use of any opportunity to develop their special interests and gifts; and the state should certainly also see (as Grossman rightly stresses) that the lack of ‘the individual’s capacity to pay’ should not debar him from higher studies. This, I believe, belongs to the state’s protective functions. To say, however, that ‘the future of the state depends on the younger generation, and that it is therefore madness to allow the minds of children to be moulded by individual taste’, appears to me to open wide the door to totalitarianism. State interest must not be lightly invoked to defend measures which may endanger the most precious of all forms of freedom, namely, intellectual freedom. And although I do not advocate ‘laissez faire with regard to teachers and schoolmasters’, I believe that this policy is infinitely superior to an authoritative policy that gives officers of the state full powers to mould minds, and to control the teaching of science, thereby backing the dubious authority of the expert by that of the state, ruining science by the customary practice of teaching it as an authoritative doctrine, and destroying the scientific spirit of inquiry—the spirit of the search for truth, as opposed to the belief in its possession. [ch. 7, 143]

Waking people from their dogmatic slumber

But this moral intellectualism of Socrates is a two-edged sword. It has its equalitarian and democratic aspect, which was later developed by Antisthenes. But it has also an aspect which may give rise to strongly anti-democratic tendencies. Its stress upon the need for enlightenment, for education, might easily be misinterpreted as a demand for authoritarianism. This is connected with a question which seems to have puzzled Socrates a great deal: that those who are not sufficiently educated, and thus not wise enough to know their deficiencies, are just those who are in the greatest need of education. Readiness to learn in itself proves the possession of wisdom, in fact all the wisdom claimed by Socrates for himself; for he who is ready to learn knows how little he knows. The uneducated seems thus to be in need of an authority to wake him up, since he cannot be expected to be self-critical. But this one element of authoritarianism was wonderfully balanced in Socrates’ teaching by the emphasis that the authority must not claim more than that. The true teacher can prove himself only by exhibiting that self-criticism which the uneducated lacks. ‘Whatever authority I may have rests solely upon my knowing how little I know’: this is the way in which Socrates might have justified his mission to stir up the people from their dogmatic slumber. This educational mission he believed to be also a political mission. He felt that the way to improve the political life of the city was to educate the citizens to self-criticism. In this sense he claimed to be ‘the only politician of his day’, in opposition to those others who flatter the people instead of furthering their true interests. [ch. 7, 141-2]

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