Questions of Value and Questions of Fact in Political Discourse
How attending to a simple philosophical distinction can help improve political discussion
Our political discourse could be improved by attending to the simple but frequently forgotten distinction between questions of value and questions of fact.
The basic dichotomy between empirical and normative claims is well known to anyone who has taken Philosophy 101, or who has argued with a teenager on an anti-morality kick. As David Hume put it, you can’t derive an ought from an is. That is, moral claims concerning what one ought to do can never be based purely upon factual claims about the world. But while professional and casual philosophers may recognize the unbridgeable gap between these types of arguments, failure to appreciate this distinction leads to political confusions.
Take the debate on government-provided healthcare. There are many reasons it goes nowhere—the inevitable accusations of “socialism,” the inability to satisfactorily define socialism, the policy complexities, etc.—but a more fundamental reason that the debate often can’t get off the ground is that it’s frequently unclear what the claim even is. The proposition that the government should provide everyone healthcare can be understood in two ways. On the one hand it might be a claim about fundamental rights, in which case it is a moral assertion that will not admit of any purely factual disagreement. At the same time, the proponent of government healthcare might be trying to say that universal healthcare is, factually speaking, the best means of effecting other values. That is, on the relatively uncontroversial assumption that we want longer life expectancies, more equal access to medical procedures and so on, government-provided healthcare is, empirically, the right way to get there.
We can find a slightly subtler example of this ambiguity in the free-speech debate. Some defenders of free speech want to argue that there is an absolute right to be able to speak as one wants (a value claim). However, many want to say that free speech leads to, on some metric, the best results (an empirical claim). These could in principle both be true, and one can believe them both without contradiction. But they are distinct views that depend on totally different types of arguments. To defend the value proposition, one must use philosophy and specifically utilize, as I think most would agree, certain fundamental moral assumptions. To defend the empirical proposition, one must argue on the basis of available empirical evidence including historical example, ongoing events, and any available testing. Note that such empirical arguments also always ultimately rest on some other normative claim. Free speech, the empirically minded defender wants to argue, is a way to promote some underlying value—a better democracy, for example. The difference between the normative and empirically based defense is not that the latter totally lacks evaluation, but rather that such arguments additionally make factual claims about the world.
It might strike some as absurd that there is, simply, a right to free speech. Similarly, it might strike many conservatives as absurd that one has, in some absolute sense, a right to government-provided healthcare. It is unnecessary and beyond the scope of this argument to get into the nature of rights or the basis of moral intuitions; to evaluate the possible validity of purely moral claims. The point is just that value-based and empirical claims exist, and that we can distinguish between political arguments on this framework.
Keeping this contrast in mind can help us understand what other people are saying, and help set success conditions for arguments. It’s quite vague to say one believes in free speech. It’s more precise to say either that speech is good irrespective of the consequences, or that in the long run speech will promote the best consequences. This clarity helps us fix the actual argument at hand. To the value-minded defender we might ask whether we should really value free speech even if it risks promoting racism or terrible political ideologies; to the empirically minded defender we can ask under what conditions free speech tends to promote good outcomes. In bounding the argument, we can better understand what must be the case for the free-speech defender to be correct. For example, if the evidence does not show that free speech actually produces given results, then the empirical claim is simply wrong. While exact criteria are harder to set for moral arguments, at least we know that factual arguments are simply non-responsive.
In better understanding the proposition at issue, we can be less tribal. If we don’t effectively separate the empirical from the normative, every argument risks turning into a debate about fundamental moral convictions. We may misconstrue each other’s arguments as value based rather than empirical. A disagreement about whether we should have government-provided healthcare immediately turns into a feud between people who perceive each other as holding different value structures. This is not surprising: put simply, we tend to like people who share our values, and intensely dislike people who don’t. However, we don’t usually like or dislike people—or at least not as strongly—based on whether they appraise facts as we do. (Let’s ignore the obvious counterexample of the person who in bad faith disagrees with our understanding of the facts. The reason we don’t like this bad-faith actor is generally because they are motivated to a different appraisal of the facts based on different values).
Speaking to the healthcare-conversation hypothetical, if one considers that the other person might just be making a factual claim, the pressure will likely go down. One can just clarify whether what is up for debate is a fundamental moral conviction or an empirically based argument, and in a non-trivial number of cases it is certain to be the latter. A conversation that was previously a highly charged debate about values will then turn into a factual discussion in which morality can be bracketed. Without being too hokey: one can imagine a Republican and a Democrat in agreement that equality is a good, but debating whether government-provided healthcare is the most feasible or effective way of getting there.
In clarifying the nature of our views, the moral versus empirical distinction can help us evaluate the extent to which we want to be making value claims at all. Some value claims are of course necessary in our political discourse. As discussed above, whether we view free speech as itself a right or a means to other ends, we’re still incorporating some values into our argument. But once we recognize the value versus fact distinction, we can ask ourselves: Is [insert free speech, government-provided healthcare, etc. ] what we really value?
To use the free-speech example: one who really believes free speech is an end-in-itself sets a high bar. The argument is something like, despite any possible consequence, speaking freely is just a good. It's not that this is necessarily wrong, but only that one might want to be cautious before endorsing such an extreme view. Such concern is especially warranted given how hard, and perhaps impossible, it is to debate fundamental moral claims. While it is possible to wrestle with our moral views using abstract tools like thought experiments (for example, one can interrogate one’s commitment to utilitarianism using some version of the trolley problem), virtually everyone agrees that moral disagreements are, if not irresolvable, more intractable than disagreements that depend on facts. For this reason, the claim that free speech promotes certain other values is much humbler than the moral version of the claim as this proposition allows for fact-based argument.
One might object: But couldn’t we say the same about any value claim? And if we should be so worried about making value-based arguments, how can we conduct political discourse at all? My point is not that we should not make purely normative claims. As I’ve noted, to the extent we’re going to engage in the political debate, at least some are impossible to avoid (e.g., the person who thinks universal healthcare is just a means still must defend their favored policy on the basis of some normative view about the value of, for example, equality). Instead, I am saying that there are reasons—the possibility one is wrong about one’s positions, the importance of debating with others—to be cautious about value claims, and to instead seek to base one’s arguments largely on factual claims.
These reasons are stronger when invoking controversial claims—that, for example, we have a fundamental right to free speech no matter the consequences—and less strong when the value at issue is something very well agreed upon. That is, we have less reason to doubt the value of democracy as this seems all but impossible to reject, and so many agree this is valuable (this of course rests on the assumption that moral intuitions are more likely correct when they seem most certain, and when more people agree on them). Free speech, though, is much more controversial if viewed as an end-in-itself. It is therefore better if it enters the argument as an empirical way to promote a less controversial value. And if we are to endorse a more disputed and disputable value claim—free speech as such is a good—we should do so recognizing that we are effectively cutting off debate with others (as it is at least extremely difficult, and perhaps impossible, to debate fundamental moral positions) and having truly considered whether we really hold such a moral view.
Keeping the difference between value claims and empirical claims in mind when approaching political dialogue can help us clarify the views up for discussion, talk with people who we might initially think don’t share our moral views, and assess the value claims we actually want to assert. We can thereby better understand and improve our political commitments.
Max Diamond holds a J.D. from Harvard Law School, was previously a journalist at The Raleigh, News & Observer, and RealClearPolitics, and is the creator and host of The Harvard Law & Philosophy Society Podcast.