Thursday, January 12, 2012

On Fact-Value Entanglement

(This essay was originally published in The Abolitionist.)
In our modern society, what we call “facts” are usually held in much higher epistemic esteem than what we call “values.” And the most esteemed of all facts are what we call “scientific facts.” And of what we call “values,” the least esteemed as knowledge are what we call “moral values.”  Indeed, many people go so far as to deny that there can be any such thing as a “moral fact;” claiming instead that all moral claims can only be an expression of a human culture’s or individual’s values, which in turn are little more than expressions of emotion or (weak) subjective opinion.
But should any such dichotomy between facts and values exist?  As I will argue below, while a distinction between facts and values can be useful, the widely-accepted modern dichotomy between facts and values is plainly false.  Rather, facts and values are interdependent; and it is a great source of confusion, especially moral confusion, to pretend that facts and values are two entirely different and unrelated categories of thought and perception.
Scientific Values
It may come as some surprise to many readers that the theory of knowledge supporting scientific claims of fact relies heavily on epistemic value judgments; therefore, as the American philosopher and mathematician Hilary Putnam has rightly claimed, facts and values are entangled.
Let me explain.  The vast majority of scientific claims, with the usual exception of boring, unaided observational data, are theory-laden.  For example, when we see the sun “rise” in the morning (an observation), whether we believe the sun is moving (possible fact) or we’re moving (possible fact) depends on our theory of planetary motion.  When there is an earthquake (an observation), whether we believe the quake was caused by a break in a fault line along a plate (possible fact) or caused by Zeus (possible fact) depends on our theory of what causes earthquakes.  Being theory-laden does not mean the claims of fact are unreliable or false, but it does mean they are entangled in values.
What does it mean for a scientific theory or claim of fact to be entangled in values?  The scientific values of parsimony, elegance, falsifiability, verifiability, logical consistency, mathematical consistency, observational consistency, explanatory power, and predictive power are all values of both scientific theories and claims of fact, none of which make the theories or claims true (especially by themselves), but taken together, significantly increase the probability of any given theory’s or claim’s truth. These values are the reasons, for example, why biologists choose evolution over “intelligent design” or young earth creationism to explain the existence of species and other biological phenomena.
Thus, science and scientific claims of fact are chock-full of values. This does not mean truth is subjective or relative in science, any more than entanglement with values means that truth is subjective or relative in morality. It means there are useful value criteria (values) for determining which theories, claims of fact, and interpretations of observations are more likely true.  And our certainty regarding scientific truth is heavily dependent on values.
Moral Values
Nihilists aside, people will readily admit that there are values in morality.  Moral values would include justice, fairness, empathy, integrity (consistency of attitudes, beliefs and behavior both between each other and over time), and flourishing of all sentient beings.  Like scientific values, accordance with moral values (especially by themselves) do not make a moral claim of fact true (e.g., a moral claim of fact such as “It is wrong to torture a child.”), but taken together, increase the probability of any given moral claim’s truth over a competing moral claim. 
As is the case with science and scientific claims of fact, morality and moral claims of fact are chock-full of values. This does not mean truth is subjective or relative in morality, any more than entanglement with values means that truth is subjective or relative in science. It means there are useful value criteria (values) for determining which claims of moral fact are more likely true.  And, as our certainty regarding scientific truth is heavily dependent on values, so is our certainty regarding moral truth.
Conflating Human Psychology and Morality
Added to the confusion of the false dichotomy between facts and values is the conflation of human psychology and morality.  When we attempt to derive moral facts and values from human psychology, much as did David Hume and the British sentimentalists, we end up with personal or cultural moral infallibility and the countless contradictions that result from the wide variety of so-called “moral sentiment” among different cultures, people, and historical times.  “Moral sentiment” arises in the form of racism, sexism, and speciesism to result in genocide, slavery, and oppression in some cultures.  “Moral sentiment” is often nothing more than cultural prejudice combined with blind tradition.
What if we conflated human psychology with science in the same way?  We should then say that evolution and intelligent design, while contradictory, are equally valid ways of viewing the world from the perspective of those who hold the respective epistemic values supporting each theory.  We should maintain that we are infallible regarding scientific knowledge, and the resulting contradictions of scientific “fact” are acceptable.  In other words, if we accept cultural and individual prejudices in morality, then cultural and individual superstitions ought to be accepted in science.  After all, isn’t it merely a difference of values, moral or scientific?
Justification of Values
Why should we accept the scientific and moral values listed in the two respective sections above?  How do we know that those values themselves are not a matter of superstition or prejudice?  In both scientific and moral values, ultimately we can rely only on the values themselves (and reliance on our experience of the world is one of those values) to confirm the certainty of truth in each case – morality and science. 
But isn’t relying on values to confirm the values a circular justification?  Yes, it is; but we have no choice in science or morality.  It is our intuition, rationality, and experience on which such values are based.  Since we cannot transcend our intuition, rationality, or experience to confirm our intuition, rationality, and experience, we ultimately end up with a Quinean web of entangled values and facts, not a “foundation” on which we build values and facts.  Our core scientific and moral values can be thought of as the strongest and most indispensable part of the web, since they provide most of the support for factual beliefs in the web.  If we are to avoid internal contradiction, we must consider the implications of any adjustments to the web.  As such, adjustments to core values will be the least likely kind of adjustments we should be comfortable making.
Moral Values Applied to Veganism
Accordance with the moral values of justice, fairness, empathy, integrity, and flourishing of all sentient beings is the reason abolitionist vegans reject animal exploitation.  In addition to vegan food being delicious, there are no known nutrients in animal products that are not available from non-animal sources (including vitamin B12).  There are viable and more effective alternatives to almost all (if not all) animal testing.  It follows that at least 99.99% of animal exploitation is both unnecessary and harmful toward the innocent.  Exploiting other animals flagrantly violates core moral values.  From a moral standpoint, exploiting other animals is the scientific equivalent of preferring the theory that has been falsified, posits excessive explanation, and fails to explain or predict anything, while rejecting the theory that satisfies scientific values.  Attempting to justify the exploitation of other animals is morally absurd.