Some have suggested to me that the fact-value distinction is self-refuting. After all, if there are no objective values, how can one conception of the truth be worthier than another? How can you urge individuals to be rational rather than irrational? How do you urge individuals to go after what they want? The main error in this line of thinking seems to be that it regards the fact-value distinction’s validity to be dependent upon what people think about it when it is not—or at least, not in a way that is problematic.
The fact-value distinction is itself a fact. It is objectively the case. It is objectively true that facts are objective (subject independent, nonrelational) and values are subjective (subject dependent, relational). Even if no one in the world knows, cares, or wants to believe it—it is the case, objectively. If someone says that they do not care about the objective reality of the situation and wants to define truth as meaning something else, they are totally free to do that. Doing so, however, does not, in the least, change the fact that the fact-value distinction is objectively the case. You can say you do not care about the reality of the situation, but this still is the reality of the situation. Definitions, by their nature, cannot be true or false, just more or less useful. But reality does not change based on how we define our words. While one conception of truth cannot be intrinsically worthier than another, one can refer to objective reality whereas the other does not. Whether one finds that worthier or not has to do with what one is trying to do. I call something a fact if I think that it is objectively the case. I call something a value if it is something posited by an organism in accordance with its functioning. You are free to define words however you want—but the objective reality of what I am designating by the words facts and values is not changed by how you define your words. If I am talking about sheep and llamas and you mean something else by sheep and llamas than I do (if, for instance, by sheep you mean frogs and by llamas you mean salamanders) your words cannot be used to accurately address my assessments (you cannot accurately say that I am wrong that sheep and llamas have hair just because you mean something else by these words than I do).
How do you persuade someone not to be irrational if rationality is not an objective value? The same way you ever would. If someone is irrational, they, by definition, cannot be urged to be rational through rational discourse. This is the case no matter what paradigm you are adopting. No one has ever been moved to become rational through rational argumentation—only ever through force: the rational individual is successful at obtaining the objects of its desire whereas the irrational individual is not. Individuals are moved to adopt rationality in order to succeed, because the environment demands it. But if certain individuals were totally irrational to begin with, I am not sure how, or why, you would go about convincing them to be rational in the first place.
How do you urge people to go after what they want? To say that someone wants something is to say that the person already is urged to go after it. The only reasons one does not go after something that one wants is because: 1) one is not clear about what one wants, 2) one wants something else more, or 3) one does not know how to go about obtaining the thing one desires. It is not that you morally have to go after what you want, it is that you (for lack of a better word) physically have to go after what you want—and thus necessity itself circumscribes our discussion. Whenever someone says something like, “I did not want to go to the store, but I did it out of love,” for example, the second reason (they want something else more) is in play. One wouldn’t want to have done a certain thing, one did not want to do it for its own sake, but one did it anyway because there was something that mattered to one more than freedom from the given activity. The belief in objective morality does not allow one to transcend this process—it merely throws sand in it. It tricks people into thinking that they have to do a given thing through various linguistic forms of coercion, and so the individual does something other than “what it wants” because it wants to be good, perform its duty, do the right thing, etc. The only freedom/dignity this provides is that of the moth to the flame—the very circuitry that evolved because of the benefit it provided the organism is here exploited by circumstances to actually lead to its destruction.
Will understanding that morality is inter-subjective rather than objective lead to a state of chaos? No. That is what groups in power want you to believe in order to maintain control over you, but it is not the case. Do you want a situation in which theft, murder, and rape are rampant? No? Good—neither do I. Let’s not do that. Who wants that to be the case? No one that can take the rest of us on. It’s not a problem. The people you are really worried about, that are really a threat to you, are the same ones that either 1) don’t care about your objective morality anyway (they don’t deny it, they just don’t care), in which case it doesn’t serve as a blockade for them, or 2) use the idea of objective morality themselves to get people to do what they want, in which case the belief in objective morality is counterproductive. Let’s consider some instances in which the latter has caused problems for us:
Osama bin Laden is able to motivate masses of Islamic terrorists out of their sense of duty to Islam and God. He calls them to do what is objectively right, as he conceives it. They do not do what they do solely because they want to do it, all on their own. They do what they do, in part, because they believe that God demands it of them and will reward them for their actions. And why does this situation exist? Because the Islamic people, as a group, feel that they are threatened by Western exploitation and influence in their region. Threatening situations have a tendency to lead to dogmatic thinking.
George Bush believed that God was on his side and that he was doing what was objectively right. Because of this, he did not listen to anyone else or concern himself with what others wanted. What others wanted was not important—because they were objectively wrong. He authorized torture and led us into a blood bath with no easy exit. The people that continued to support him right up to the end of his presidency did so out of a sense of American and Christian superiority and loyalty to the commander and chief. And why did he maintain his position of power as long as he did? Because the American people felt threatened after 9/11. Threatening situations have a tendency to lead to dogmatic thinking.
The Nazis were able to motivate masses of people out of a sense of duty and what they believed was objectively right—not by discussing with the people what they wanted. While there were some people that enjoyed torturing and experimenting on Jews and other individuals that the state had shown to be “objectively inferior” people, most did not. Most of the people that worked at the concentration camps felt sick about what they were doing.1 They did not want to do what they were doing, all on their own, but they did it because they believed it was their duty and was objectively right, independently of what they wanted. But why was Hitler in power in the first place? Because after the first World War, the countries that had won saddled those that lost with ridiculously high penalties, making them accept sole fault for the war. “Who cares what happens to Germany?” they told themselves, “They were objectively wrong, and they are getting what they deserve.” The poverty and desperation of Germany’s situation opened the door for anyone that promised them victory to come to power. Threatening situations have a tendency to lead to dogmatic thinking.
Stalin was able to get away with slaughtering masses because he was on the side of what was believed to be objectively right. It was for the Communist Revolution. People sacrificed and put up with it, gave up their individual self-interests, because they believed it was their duty and it was objectively right to do this. They believed that to stand up for themselves and what they wanted would be selfish and evil—to live for the good of the state was objectively right. And why were the Communists in power to begin with? The people were sick of a monarchy that was non-responsive to their interests (which the members of the monarchy did not think they needed to be—after all, they had divine right to rule). Lenin promised them “Peace! Land! Bread!” and they jumped on it. Threatening situations have a tendency to lead to dogmatic thinking.
The Inquisition and the Crusades (Christianity came to power as Rome fell into decline), the majority of wars, all sorts of situations of exploitation of every kind, etc. The belief in objective morality has always been the means by which those in power have been able to manipulate the masses. If people understood that morality is subjective, that it only makes sense in relation to goals posited and that they can posit whatever goals suit them, we would not have the sorts of problems that we do. Nothing gives people the feeling that they are justified in loosing their most vicious impulses without reservation than the belief that they are on the side of what is objectively right and their enemies are on the side of what is objectively wrong. Nothing. Individuals that understand that the only justification that they can ultimately give for their actions is that they wanted to act in such a way (and that everyone else can provide the exact same justification for acting in any way that they choose) are far more likely to act carefully and seek to unite the wills of others with their own wherever possible rather than simply trample anyone that gets in their way. If you want people to be able to get along in peace and harmony, what is necessary is not the belief in objective morality but rather the promotion of a sort of social consciousness—in which people come to understand that they are interconnected with one another, the larger world, and the environment in common benefit and common detriment.
A number of individuals have asked me a number of questions, sometimes in forms very poetic or austere, but all of which are at bottom simply this: If there are no objective values and nothing that we have to do, how will we be able to get people to do things that we want them to do but which they themselves do not really want to do? Well, I don’t know. I’m sure you’ll think of something—your kind always does. But are you really saying that I shouldn’t tell the truth because your society cannot survive without lies? Build a more structurally sound society, I suppose, is my answer.
The police force exists to maintain law and order. Beyond that, what we need is not dogmatic assertions of objective values. Dogmatic thinking leads one to think things like, “That person acted badly because that person is bad and so that person’s interests don’t count.” But that type of thinking doesn’t really get us anywhere. It doesn’t break new ground. It doesn’t advance the plot. The same problems are reproduced endlessly. It is a sub-knowledge mode of operating. Rather we should, on the one hand, seek to understand what conditions encourage the given behavior and what conditions discourage it. We should do this scientifically—through systematic empirical study, not anecdotal abstract speculation. You may think that the threat of the death penalty discourages violent crime, but there is no indication that this is actually the case. It seems that violent behavior is paired, however, with poverty. Something to look into. If you want to discourage violent crime, you may want to consider promoting social welfare programs.2 On the other hand, we should make people we wish to protect as powerful as possible. Individuals trained in martial arts and general self-defense, for example, would be less likely to be raped or killed.
But can the belief in objective morality be a useful delusion? It can. It can. Under certain circumstances. If a group is facing some sort of threat and communication of the reality of the situation would be too slow or difficult, if it is unfeasible to do this, then a “because I said so,” absolutist morality may be useful—not just to those in power, as is obvious, but to the individuals subject to it themselves, as well. Why? Because, theoretically, the imperatives issued could be based on an approximation of what the people would want had they knowledge of the reality of the situation. A General may not be able to communicate his understanding of the big picture to those following him, and so they must trust his judgment for the unit to be able to operate successfully. Likewise, parents might not always be able to explain to their young children why doing something is not in their long term interests, because the children are not old enough to understand what is going on and the long term results of their actions. Notice that this is the same sort of situation that gives rise to OCD (a break between knowledge of reality and necessity to act)—it is the basis for the pattern of non-commitment in general. That is why the belief in objective morality exists at all. It is a sub-knowledge method of adapting to the world when a state of knowledge cannot be achieved.
But this situation is problematic for at least two reasons: 1) This type of thinking is notorious for extending itself far beyond situations in which it is actually useful and responsive to the circumstances. 2) As soon as you start thinking that morality is an objective matter that exists independently of what people want, you really open yourself up to being at the whim of whatever standard is created. Even if those at the helm of its creation were sound of mind and concerned solely with your well being (by no means something which is guaranteed) it is unlikely that whatever standard they set forth (or which you yourself set forth at any single point in time) will coincide with your interests (or even the group’s interests) in every particular situation. And even if the control of the system remains firmly in your hands as an individual, or the group operates in a democratic fashion, to the extent that dogmatism necessarily falsifies the object of its inquiry—it is not concerned with the thing in itself, it is only concerned with what the thing is to it, a status which it raises to the level of being absolute—it does not allow for a sensitive appreciation of the matter. The (inaccurate) belief in objective morality leads to rigid behavior which, while it can be useful in coordinating large masses or protecting an individual in a threatening situation, does not allow for the long term maximum flexibility and high degree of adaptation that an accurate appreciation of reality does. People need rules and structure so that they have something stable to build upon, but they also need to be aware on some level that they themselves are responsible for the given rules and structure so that they can change them if there is a problem.