Tag Archive: values

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.

Niceness is the enemy of fairness

The problem, of course, is that niceness is overrated as a virtue. Many cultures are nice. The Southern antebellum aris­tocracy was marvellously well-mannered; its members left tasteful calling cards, entertained gracefully, and conducted their personal affairs with the utmost discretion. But they had few other virtues; in fact, it was the practice of niceness that helped to keep other values, such as fairness, at bay. Fairness sometimes requires that surfaces be disturbed, that patterns of cordiality be broken, and that people, rudely and abruptly, be removed from their place. Niceness is the enemy of fairness.

Tolerating your enemies

Der verfassungsgeschichtliche Standort des Grundgesetzes ergibt sich daraus, daß es unmittelbar nach der – zudem nur durch Einwirkung äußerer Gewalten ermöglichten – Vernichtung eines totalitären Staatssystems eine freiheitliche Ordnung erst wieder einzurichten hatte. Die Haltung des Grundgesetzes zu den politischen Parteien – wie überhaupt die von ihm verwirklichte spezifische Ausformung der freiheitlichen Demokratie – ist nur verständlich auf dem Hinter­grund der Erfahrungen des Kampfes mit diesem totalitären System. Der Einbau wirksamer rechtlicher Sicherungen dagegen, daß solche politischen Richtungen jemals wieder Einfluß auf den Staat gewinnen könnten, beherrschte das Denken des Verfassungsgebers. Wenn das Grundgesetz so einerseits noch der traditionellen freiheitlich-demokra­tischen Linie folgt, die den politischen Parteien gegenüber grundsätzliche Toleranz fordert, so geht es doch nicht mehr so weit, aus bloßer Unparteilichkeit auf die Aufstellung und den Schutz eines eigenen Wertsystems überhaupt zu ver­zichten. Es nimmt aus dem Pluralismus von Zielen und Wertungen, die in den politischen Parteien Gestalt gewonnen haben, gewisse Grundprinzipien der Staatsgestaltung heraus, die, wenn sie einmal auf demokratische Weise gebilligt sind, als absolute Werte anerkannt und deshalb entschlossen gegen alle Angriffe verteidigt werden sollen; soweit zum Zwecke dieser Verteidigung Einschränkungen der politischen Betätigungsfreiheit der Gegner erforderlich sind, werden sie in Kauf genommen. Das Grundgesetz hat also bewußt den Versuch einer Synthese zwischen dem Prinzip der Toleranz gegenüber allen politischen Auffassungen und dem Bekenntnis zu gewissen unantastbaren Grundwerten der Staatsordnung unternommen. Art. 21 Abs. 2 GG steht somit nicht mit einem Grundprinzip der Verfassung in Wider­spruch; er ist Ausdruck des bewußten verfassungspolitischen Willens zur Lösung eines Grenzproblems der freiheit­lichen demokratischen Staatsordnung, Niederschlag der Erfahrungen eines Verfassungsgebers, der in einer bestimm­ten historischen Situation das Prinzip der Neutralität des Staates gegenüber den politischen Parteien nicht mehr rein verwirklichen zu dürfen glaubte, Bekenntnis zu einer – in diesem Sinne – „streitbaren Demokratie“.

The learning machine

My aim is to show how over ten years of fruitful work he remained engaged with the social aspects of the quest for knowledge, working out, supplementing, and generalising ideas about society that were embryonic in his philosophy of science. A fully fleshed-out vision of politics and society emerged which today would be termed the knowledge-using, knowledge-gathering, knowledge­-embodying society. It is, in many ways, a magnificent vision and an intellectual tour de force. Popper presents society as a learning machine, and the learning machine as a Socratic seminar writ large.

Wholehearted though my admiration is for this vision, I take seriously Poppers injunction that we learn from criticism. In criticism I argue that there are serious deficiencies in holding up the Socratic seminar as a model for life in society in general, and for scientific work in particular. The republic of science Popper envisions is susceptible to the corruptions of power just as is the broader body politic, and its citizens need the kind of checks on power that Popper demanded on governments. Even more troubling: the central Socratic and scientific value of truth conflicts at times with other values important for social life. [6]

The spirit of science

Whether our work is art or science or the daily work of society, it is only the form in which we explore our experience which is different; the need to explore remains the same. This is why, at bottom, the society of scientists is more important than their discoveries. What science has to teach us here is not its techniques but its spirit: the irresistible need to explore. Perhaps the techniques of science may be practised for a time without its spirit, in secret establish­ments, as the Egyptians practised their priestcraft. But the inspiration of science for four hundred years has been opposite to this. It has created the values of our intellectual life and, with the arts, has taught them to our civilization. Science has nothing to be ashamed of even in the ruins of Nagasaki. The shame is theirs who appeal to other values than the human and imaginative values which science has evolved. The shame is ours if we do not make science part of our world, intellectually as much as physically, so that we may at last hold these halves of the world together by the same values. For it is the lesson of science that the concept is more profound than its laws, and the act of judging more critical than the judgment. [82-3]

The stable society of science

As a set of discoveries and devices, science has mastered nature; but it has been able to do so only because its values, which derive from its method, have formed those who practice it into a living, stable and incorruptible society. Here is a community where everyone has been free to enter, to speak his mind, to be heard and contradicted; and it has out­lasted the empires of Louis XIV and the Kaiser. Napoleon was angry when the Institute he had founded awarded his first scientific prize to Humphry Davy, for this was in 1807, when France was at war with England. Science survived then and since because it is less brittle than the rage of tyrants.

This is a stability which no dogmatic society can have. There is today almost no scientific theory which was held when, say, the Industrial Revolution began about 1760. Most often today’s theories flatly contradict those of 1760; many contradict those of 1900. In cosmology, in quantum mechanics, in genetics, in the social sciences, who now holds the beliefs that seemed firm sixty years ago? Yet the society of scientists has survived these changes without a revolution, and honors the men whose beliefs it no longer shares. No one has recanted abjectly at a trial before his colleagues. The whole structure of science has been changed, and no one has been either disgraced or deposed. Through all the changes of science, the society of scientists is flexible and single-minded together, and evolves and rights itself. [77]

The values of science

Dissent is the mark of freedom. And as originality and independence are private needs for the existence of a science, so dissent and freedom are its public needs. No one can be a scientist, even in private, if he does not have inde­pendence of observation and of thought. But if in addition science is to become effective as a public practice, it must go further; it must protect independence. The safeguards which it must offer are patent: free inquiry, free thought, free speech, tolerance. These values are so familiar to us, yawning our way through political perorations, that they seem self-evident. But they are self-evident, that is, they are logical needs, only where men are committed to explore the truth: in a scientific society. [70-1]

The social axiom at the heart of scientific societies

We OUGHT to act in such a way that what IS true can be verified to be so.[66]