Value relativists and value absolutists

I’m increasingly coming to see a wide gulf between people who see values as relative to agents and those who see values as independent of agents. We might call the first sort of person a “value relativist” and the second sort a “value absolutist”, but we must be careful to avoid assuming that value relativists think there are no psychological facts about how much an agents values something. I love spinach, in other words I value it highly among foods, whereas you may hate spinach. The value of spinach is relative, as it differs between us, but it’s a truth that I value it highly, and as a truth this is “absolute”.

Maybe the distinction between value relativists and value absolutists is completely obvious to everyone already. – I confess it hasn’t been obvious to me till quite recently.

Practically everyone thinks “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” – it’s just whatever is appreciated as beautiful, so it’s relative to whoever appreciates it. Value relativists go further and say that the same applies to all values: something is only valuable because some agent or other regards it as valuable, in other words he regards it as worth pursuing in action. And an agent only regards something as worth pursuing if he or she in fact pursues it, however attenuated their pursuit may be. It’s valuable to him because he prefers it. His choices reveal his preference for it.

Value relativists – like me – tend to be opposed to paternalism. ‘Paternalism’ is the word for forcing people to do things “for their own good”. For example, paternalists don’t just oppose smoking because it harms passive smokers, but because it harms smokers themselves by damaging their health. Value relativists who oppose paternalism think damage to the smoker’s health only counts as harm inasmuch as the smoker pursues good health. And he can’t pursue good health with all that much ardour if he smokes! So if harm is involved here, it results from some sort of internal conflict of desire, or else from ignorance on the part of the smoker. In the first case he somehow both wants good health and at the same time doesn’t care much about good health, perhaps as a result of addiction. In the second case he wants good health but isn’t aware that smoking is bad for health.

So two approaches are open to the paternalist: he can openly defend one value over another – such as good health over the pleasure of smoking – by assuming that values are absolute, and therefore can be ranked independently of individual agents. Or he can invoke his supposedly greater knowledge than that of the agent. As a paternalist, he regards himself as entitled to persuade not just through the use of reasons, but through the use of force.

Paternalists tend to avoid overt value absolutism because it leaves them with the problem of saying where absolute values come from, and why those who do not share such values should adopt them. Instead, paternalists nearly always focus on the supposed ignorance of agents they would apply coercion to. That is, they tend to defend coercion by saying that an agent often doesn’t know what’s in his own best interests. In other words, they argue that the agent has false beliefs about what is good for him.

Well, it is certainly true that everyone has some false beliefs. Not so long ago cigarettes were advertised with doctors’ endorsements as being good for the health. False beliefs were involved there, because cigarettes are in fact bad for the health. Paternalists in effect claim to have knowledge that others don’t have, just as all of us nowadays have knowledge that doctors didn’t have a hundred years ago.

Is it legitimate to use force against ignorance in this way? I don’t think so, for several reasons. First, any attempt to force someone to act in a way his own internal motivation does not underwrite is morally questionable. The agent might even regard the forced behavior as morally forbidden, in which case the paternalist is like a missionary forcing his weaker charges to act “against their conscience”. This use of force undermines autonomy. Second, attempts to impart beliefs by means of force are psychologically questionable: the aim here is a sort of “brainwashing”, and in the real world any such aim is unlikely to succeed. “Brainwashing” is mostly a fantasy from spy movies. Third, attempts to impart knowledge by coercion are epistemologically questionable. Knowledge is generally understood as true belief sustained by rational reasons and/or reliable processes, and yielding to force can hardly be counted as either. Furthermore, as JS Mill eloquently argued in On Liberty, it is always possible for any of us to be mistaken, and to presume to decide matters for others is in effect to assume one’s own infallibility. Which is ridiculous, because no one is infallible, including the Pope.

This doesn’t only apply to paternalism, but to any attempt to force behaviour, beliefs or knowledge on the as-yet unconverted. So-called “skeptics” who would override parents’ judgements by forcing them to have their children vaccinated or operated upon would do well to reflect on the threefold evils just described.

As I said, despite dubious ethics, dubious psychology and dubious epistemology, paternalists are generally more comfortable treating the discussion as being about true or false belief rather than about desires and values, which are neither true nor false. Value relativists should decisively move the discussion back into the realm of values, where it belongs, because this isn’t really a factual issue. That is, it’s not an “is” question of whether I know what’s good for me, but an “ought” question of what I want. If I want to smoke, no one can gainsay that, because in effect I create my own values.

Let’s reject the hypocrisy of paternalists who claim to act with more knowledge or better beliefs than the people they coerce. They should be seen for what they are: old-fashioned absolutists who are trying to impose their supposedly absolute values on others.

The value-relativist-versus-absolutist divide doesn’t just emerge in paternalism. It also lies behind Isaiah Berlin’s famous two concepts of freedom. On the one hand, there is “negative” freedom, the ability to do what you actually want to do by virtue of an absence of external obstacles. On the other hand, there is “positive freedom” – if it can be called “freedom” at all – which is essentially being “empowered” by wanting the right things. But the only way there can be “right things” independent of agents actually pursuing them is if values are absolute. These absolute values are skeletons in the closets of those who assume a positive concept of freedom as well as paternalists.

Holism and “scientific method”

Arguably the most important philosophical idea of the twentieth century is “holism”. It has nothing to do with “holistic medicine” or “new age” anti-scientific thinking. Properly speaking, holism is the idea that scientific hypotheses meet the observational evidence together, “as a whole”.

The observational evidence for a hypothesis consists of its passing tests. For example, suppose we want to test the hypothesis that the universe is expanding. If it is expanding, then by and large the further away galaxies are, the faster they should be receding from us. But we cannot measure such objects’ distances or speeds directly. Instead, we have to use peripheral indicators. For an object’s distance, such indicators include how dim its light appears to us, or how “archaic” it looks according to our current understanding of the evolution of the universe. The main indicator of an object’s speed is how red-shifted is the light it emits. So when we do indeed observe a correlation between distant objects’ apparent distances and apparent speeds, the single hypothesis that the universe is expanding isn’t corroborated on its own. Instead, a whole body of understanding – a set of interrelated hypotheses – is seen to “hang together” well. But some alternative body of understanding might do quite well too, or possibly better. For example, according to the “tired light” hypothesis, light loses energy as it travels through space. This is the sort of thing that can’t be tested in a laboratory, where photons only exist for a fraction of a second instead of millions of years. If the red shift is caused by distance or time rather than motion, we might have to re-conceive our whole cosmological world-view.

Observations don’t lend support to this or that hypothesis taken in isolation. Much larger “ways of understanding” are at stake. Now we already know from the logic of the test of a hypothesis that observations do not imply hypotheses – if anything it’s the other way around. Holism adds still further logical “distance” between observation and theory. So people who talk about theory being “based on observation” simply don’t know what they’re talking about.

The consequences of holism are profound. One of these consequences is that the history of science is vitally important for judging present-day science. Why? – Because of holism, the test of a hypothesis is rather like a sheepdog trial. We may be interested in one particular animal (= the dog, analogous to the hypothesis being tested), but that animal has to be put through its paces alongside several other animals (= the sheep, analogous to the auxiliary hypotheses and assumptions required to predict something observable). How well it performs its tasks has much to do with how pliable or recalcitrant are its companions when it’s tested alongside them. And their character is only revealed by past trials. In other words, a well-conducted sheepdog trial involves some study of the history of the sheep involved.

The history of science is enthralling. There are many moments of cunning, and of sheer luck – but above all there are extended periods of error. For most of the history of science, most of our best theories have been wrong. We might say that in science, the normal or “default” position is to get things wrong. This raises the very real possibility – or even probability – that our current central guiding theories are radically mistaken.

Those who assume theory is “based on” observation don’t know what they’re talking about twice, once through ignorance of the logic of corroboration, and again through ignorance of holism. The messy reality is “under-determination of theory by data” – several alternative theories are always consistent with any given set of observations. Overlooking under-determination usually gives the mistaken impression that scientific theories are “thrust upon” the conscientious observer. The idea here is that careful scientists do not need to exercise choice or engage their subjective judgement as to what to believe, because observation narrows things down for them. And this is very close to the idea that science is unusually secure or certain – an idea that gets further impetus from science’s superficial appearance of rigour. To the gullible, science can seem so secure that it exists above the realm of “mere opinion”.

Such is the view expressed by Brian Cox and Robin Ince in the current edition of the New Statesman. In his own defence, Brian Cox compounded the injury by Tweeting that “scientific method is simple”.

But they’re wrong. There is no such thing as “scientific method” if what is meant is a step-by-step procedure. There is no formula for coming up with explanatory hypotheses, or for devising experiments to test them. Science inescapably involves creativity, the use of the imagination, and the exercise of subjective judgement, including “intuition”.

I would argue that the closest thing we have to scientific “method” is the logic of corroboration. This is often called the “hypothetico-deductive method”, but really all this so-called “method” does is describe what logically implies what in testing. That is important for epistemology. But the flashes of inspiration required at every step remain unconstrained.