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Disagreement about value or about the facts?

Both within and outside ethics, people often worry about disagreements that are purely about value. Suppose that you and I completely agree about all the empirical facts about some case, yet you think that it’s absolutely forbidden to do something and I think there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. It can seem hard to see how we could ever resolve our disagreement. If after I have carefully considered the case, and still see nothing wrong, what could you possibly say that would make me see things in a different light?


Things are often a bit more complicated than this. For example, even if we agree on all the empirical facts, our moral disagreement might be due to disagreement about some metaphysical matter—say, about whether a foetus is a person. Metaphysical disagreements are also extremely hard to resolve. Then there is the old point that the way we frame factual matters, or the way we interpret some empirical evidence, might itself be shaped by our values.


Anyway, this is a common worry. But when it comes to many heated disagreements about scientific or technological advances, this worry seems to me to get the situation exactly backwards.


My impression is that in many such disputes, at least one of the sides is motivated to frame the issues in terms of some pure dispute about value precisely because it’s so hard to get a grip on the relevant factual issues. When we try to assess the moral significance of, say, cloning or neural enhancement, much of what is at stake depends on numerous empirical considerations about risk, possible side effects, short and long term social implications, how the wide use of such technology would affect our culture or impact on justice—and the list goes on. These are questions that are very hard, to some extent impossible, to answer. The best answer is often, ‘We just don’t know’.


But it can be very hard for those who have a strong gut feeling that some innovation is very dangerous – or for that matter terribly exciting – to leave things at that. How much easier it is to instead just assert that cloning is intrinsically wrong! It is thus the irresolvability of what is essentially empirical disagreement that pushes some towards taking a pure value stand. I’m not suggesting that this is a conscious decision. In some cases people may misinterpret the source of their moral unease. The sense that some innovation will lead to negative consequences might operate at a purely unconscious level. But in other cases, it’s possible that people just realize that they cannot successfully defend their strong moral views on empirical grounds and therefore present them as grounded in principle.


My suggestion is itself an empirical hypothesis. I think it is partly supported by the way fierce opposition to various forms of technological change often dissolves once the empirical facts are in and the nightmare predictions turn out to be false (although habituation is another explanation).


I said that there are contexts where the old worry about pure value disagreement gets things backwards. It’s the empirical disagreement that is hard to resolve, and this is what pushes some people to oppose or support some policy on purely evaluative grounds. But of course now the old worry kicks in. Once the dispute is framed in such a way, then, at least in the short term, no amount of empirical evidence can resolve the debate. Whatever your original motivations, once someone has taken the high ground of absolute valuation, they not likely to stoop to revising their views in the light of mere factual considerations…

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2 Comment on this post

  1. Surely one is empirically (or at least meta-ethically) justified in rejecting “absolute valuation” or ” intrinsically wrong”? Did not Mackie’s Argument from Queerness (far stronger than the Argument from Relativism IMHO) defeat this? Noting the (empirical) invalidity or (as a provisionalist) most likely false claims reliant upon “absolute” or “intrinsic” principles is itself not an ethical point, but a meta-ethical point – and on the level of meta-ethics one cannot employ moral norms.

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