How attending to a simple philosophical distinction can help improve political discussion
The problem right now is that there are two competing views of reality in America that correspond to two mutually exclusive value systems. Liberalism accepts that that there are many ways to live a good life and promotes tolerance of diverse religious practices and lifestyles. Illiberalism in its various forms rejects this toleration and aims for a single ethical moral system based on a strict version of Christianity or Islam. Illiberalism is a total rejection of the European Enlightenment, which was inspired by the idea that religious intolerance inevitably leads to systematic oppression and never-ending warfare. Illiberal Political Entrepreneurs in the West seem to have been inspired by the Iranian Revolution to use the incitement of religious passion as a means for the systematic seizing of absolute power. Indeed, this has been a successful tactic which has led to a showdown between the values of liberal tolerance and the rejection of tolerance and embrace of religious extremism. A moral divide in America between left and right has led to a virtual media split between the two factions. They each see two exclusive versions of reality, while rejecting what the other sees. This is a dangerous situation which has been mostly driven by the right's embrace of religious extremism through single issue campaigning (i.e. opposition to legal abortion). The right's anti-abortion campaign has succeeded in getting their political base to constantly view the other side as morally repugnant and this has opened the way to embrace Trumpian populism, the widespread and industrial dissemination of lies and disinformation as weapons against the other side. In the United States the right's successful manichaean framing has created extreme political dysfunction and instability with the imminent prospect of the destruction of democratic institutions and the rise of fascism and authoritarianism. This is our five-alarm current situation in 2023.
NY Magazine published a companion piece to your article:
Utilitarianism. I learned a new word today, thanks Max.
I was actually thinking of the trolley problem and thought experiments the whole time I read your article.
As a socialist I believe in the principle of utilitarianism for SOME things, but definitely not all.
As a whole I believe in the greater good humanity of course. But the verbiage of “benefit society as a whole” is one I’m extremely wary of because it has almost always been used dishonestly in the past and present to harm marginalized groups of people (currently with anti trans legislation, especially in sports as well as ableist discrimination for the trolly problem .)
Try that argument with any Objectivist who seems to believe that Ayn Rand “solved” the fact-value distinction already. They seem not to be bothered with her strange interpretation of Aristotle’s meaning of A=A nor do they think it’s problematic to say that proving “X is a *right*” is equivalent to proving “X is right to do”
Great analysis of the difference between values and facts in political discourse.
A few years ago, I wrote a long paper about laws and rights that, I think, operationalizes this distinction in terms of how laws are structured. This might interest you; I posted it on Researchgate:
One thing that I noted, which you don't quite distinguish in your discussion, is that our values weight our attitudes towards categories whose construal should be on naturalistic, and therefore value-neutral, grounds. This sense of "categories" is different than "facts" in that the former are conceptual, while the latter are conditional. In my view, values operate in a middle ground between how we conceptualize the world, and the specific outcomes that follow from specific contingent sets of events under a repeatable rule (i.e., "facts").