Monthly Archives: January 2012

On Fact-Value Entanglement

(This essay was originally published in The Abolitionist.)

In our modern society, what we call “facts” are usually held in much higher epistemic esteem than what we call “values.” And the most esteemed of all facts are what we call “scientific facts.” And of what we call “values,” the least esteemed as knowledge are what we call “moral values.”  Indeed, many people go so far as to deny that there can be any such thing as a “moral fact;” claiming instead that all moral claims can only be an expression of a human culture’s or individual’s values, which in turn are little more than expressions of emotion or (weak) subjective opinion.

But should any such dichotomy between facts and values exist?  As I will argue below, while a distinction between facts and values can be useful, the widely-accepted modern dichotomy between facts and values is plainly false.  Rather, facts and values are interdependent; and it is a great source of confusion, especially moral confusion, to pretend that facts and values are two entirely different and unrelated categories of thought and perception.

Scientific Values

It may come as some surprise to many readers that the theory of knowledge supporting scientific claims of fact relies heavily on epistemic value judgments; therefore, as the American philosopher and mathematician Hilary Putnam has rightly claimed, facts and values are entangled.
Let me explain.  The vast majority of scientific claims, with the usual exception of boring, unaided observational data, are theory-laden.  For example, when we see the sun “rise” in the morning (an observation), whether we believe the sun is moving (possible fact) or we’re moving (possible fact) depends on our theory of planetary motion.  When there is an earthquake (an observation), whether we believe the quake was caused by a break in a fault line along a plate (possible fact) or caused by Zeus (possible fact) depends on our theory of what causes earthquakes.  Being theory-laden does not mean the claims of fact are unreliable or false, but it does mean they are entangled in values.

What does it mean for a scientific theory or claim of fact to be entangled in values?  The scientific values of parsimony, elegance, falsifiability, verifiability, logical consistency, mathematical consistency, observational consistency, explanatory power, and predictive power are all values of both scientific theories and claims of fact, none of which make the theories or claims true (especially by themselves), but taken together, significantly increase the probability of any given theory’s or claim’s truth. These values are the reasons, for example, why biologists choose evolution over “intelligent design” or young earth creationism to explain the existence of species and other biological phenomena.

Thus, science and scientific claims of fact are chock-full of values. This does not mean truth is subjective or relative in science, any more than entanglement with values means that truth is subjective or relative in morality. It means there are useful value criteria (values) for determining which theories, claims of fact, and interpretations of observations are more likely true.  And our certainty regarding scientific truth is heavily dependent on values.

Moral Values

Nihilists aside, people will readily admit that there are values in morality.  Moral values would include justice, fairness, empathy, integrity (consistency of attitudes, beliefs and behavior both between each other and over time), and flourishing of all sentient beings.  Like scientific values, accordance with moral values (especially by themselves) do not make a moral claim of fact true (e.g., a moral claim of fact such as “It is wrong to torture a child.”), but taken together, increase the probability of any given moral claim’s truth over a competing moral claim.

As is the case with science and scientific claims of fact, morality and moral claims of fact are chock-full of values. This does not mean truth is subjective or relative in morality, any more than entanglement with values means that truth is subjective or relative in science. It means there are useful value criteria (values) for determining which claims of moral fact are more likely true.  And, as our certainty regarding scientific truth is heavily dependent on values, so is our certainty regarding moral truth.

Conflating Human Psychology and Morality

Added to the confusion of the false dichotomy between facts and values is the conflation of human psychology and morality.  When we attempt to derive moral facts and values from human psychology, much as did David Hume and the British sentimentalists, we end up with personal or cultural moral infallibility and the countless contradictions that result from the wide variety of so-called “moral sentiment” among different cultures, people, and historical times.  “Moral sentiment” arises in the form of racism, sexism, and speciesism to result in genocide, slavery, and oppression in some cultures.  “Moral sentiment” is often nothing more than cultural prejudice combined with blind tradition.

What if we conflated human psychology with science in the same way?  We should then say that evolution and intelligent design, while contradictory, are equally valid ways of viewing the world from the perspective of those who hold the respective epistemic values supporting each theory.  We should maintain that we are infallible regarding scientific knowledge, and the resulting contradictions of scientific “fact” are acceptable.  In other words, if we accept cultural and individual prejudices in morality, then cultural and individual superstitions ought to be accepted in science.  After all, isn’t it merely a difference of values, moral or scientific?

Justification of Values

Why should we accept the scientific and moral values listed in the two respective sections above?  How do we know that those values themselves are not a matter of superstition or prejudice?  In both scientific and moral values, ultimately we can rely only on the values themselves (and reliance on our experience of the world is one of those values) to confirm the certainty of truth in each case – morality and science.

But isn’t relying on values to confirm the values a circular justification?  Yes, it is; but we have no choice in science or morality.  It is our intuition, rationality, and experience on which such values are based.  Since we cannot transcend our intuition, rationality, or experience to confirm our intuition, rationality, and experience, we ultimately end up with a Quinean web of entangled values and facts, not a “foundation” on which we build values and facts.  Our core scientific and moral values can be thought of as the strongest and most indispensable part of the web, since they provide most of the support for factual beliefs in the web.  If we are to avoid internal contradiction, we must consider the implications of any adjustments to the web.  As such, adjustments to core values will be the least likely kind of adjustments we should be comfortable making.

Moral Values Applied to Veganism

Accordance with the moral values of justice, fairness, empathy, integrity, and flourishing of all sentient beings is the reason abolitionist vegans reject animal exploitation.  In addition to vegan food being delicious, there are no known nutrients in animal products that are not available from non-animal sources (including vitamin B12).  There are viable and more effective alternatives to almost all (if not all) animal testing.  It follows that at least 99.99% of animal exploitation is both unnecessary and harmful toward the innocent.  Exploiting other animals flagrantly violates core moral values.  From a moral standpoint, exploiting other animals is the scientific equivalent of preferring the theory that has been falsified, posits excessive explanation, and fails to explain or predict anything, while rejecting the theory that satisfies scientific values.  Attempting to justify the exploitation of other animals is morally absurd.

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Speciesism and Veganism: Transcending Politics and Religion

I wrote this article with Angel Flinn, who is Director of Outreach for Gentle World — a vegan intentional community and non-profit organization whose core purpose is to help build a more peaceful society, by educating the public about the reasons for being vegan, the benefits of vegan living, and how to go about making such a transition.

This article was originally published November 10, 2011 on Care2.

Although this may come as a surprise to some, there are ethical vegans across the political spectrum and in every major religion. Veganism transcends politics and religion because it is based on the simple matter of rejecting a particular form of prejudice: speciesism.

Speciesism, racism, sexism, and other prejudices rely on a morally irrelevant criterion (in this case, species) as the basis on which to deny the interests of an individual belonging to a different ‘group’, even if those interests are more significant than one’s own. As such, speciesism is simply a different form of the same underlying wrong at the foundation of all prejudices. It really doesn’t matter which morally irrelevant criteria we base our prejudice on – sex, race, skin color, age, sexual orientation, species – it is ethically wrong to use such arbitrary criteria to deny the rights of others.

Despite the cultural evolution that has brought humanity a long way from the ‘kill or be killed’ mentality of prehistoric times, the world today remains profoundly speciesist. The extreme prejudice of our cultural speciesism reaches far beyond disregarding an individual’s right to avoid persecution. It extends as far as absolute indifference to the right to be free from unjust imprisonment, mental and emotional torment, extreme physical violence in the form of mutilations and the infliction of injury and death. Owned as chattel property, with no laws to protect their most fundamental rights, those who are not human are condemned to a life with no protection against the brutal and unremitting oppression from those who control their world: Us.

Animal exploitation is perfectly legal and socially acceptable everywhere in the world, despite the emergence of satisfactory alternatives to virtually all uses (not to mention those yet to be developed, once our society rejects our current speciesist practices). Although there is a growing movement drawing attention to the many brutal rights violations routinely carried out against nonhumans being used for human gain, we continue to confine, injure and kill animals of all kinds, maintaining unnecessary, antiquated exploitative practices for food production, research, fashion, and even entertainment.

The ubiquitous nature of this extreme cultural prejudice explains why speciesism (and the proper moral response to it: veganism) is unrelated to political leaning. Although social justice movements generally arise from the left, there are some political conservatives who are principled vegans, while some on the political left, sadly, continue to scoff at issues of animal rights. In fact, it is remarkable that the vast majority of those on the political left choose to remain uninformed and to deliberately ignore these glaring justice issues, including their own participation in practices that would be rightly abhorred by anyone in touch with their conscience.

As it is with politics, so it is with religion. Christians were strongly divided over human chattel slavery in antebellum America, with slavery proponents using Bible quotes to defend their “God given” right to own slaves. Opponents of slavery used different Bible quotes to point out that slavery was condemned by God. And so it is with regard to animal rights today. Those on both sides of the issue use quotes from religious texts either to justify unnecessary killing, or to validate the vegan ethic of nonviolence.

Eastern religions are no exception. Many of today’s Buddhists attempt to justify animal use, unnecessary killing, and speciesism by pointing to loopholes in the various contradictory writings about the Buddha’s teaching of universal compassion for all sentient beings. Other Buddhists choose instead to practice and promote veganism as the rational response to the essential Buddhist teaching of nonviolence. Presumably, having been liberated from their own speciesism, vegan Buddhists are able to see through such prejudiced rationalizations, and recognize the higher authority in the truth the Buddha was apparently trying to impart to his students.

(In other words, if the Buddha wasn’t a vegan, as some people claim, then he wasn’t living up to his own teachings, which state very clearly that reverence for sentient life is a fundamental principle of a spiritual existence.)

In any case, it is clear that politics and religion are irrelevant to rejecting our common prejudice against fellow sentient beings. Regardless of whether we are conservative, liberal, leftist, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, atheist, or fall under any other category, we have the choice to acknowledge and reject the underlying cultural speciesism that we have all been conditioned to accept.

In fact, one might say that a deep-seated awareness of the essential rights and needs held by all sentient beings is the common ground that we every one of us shares.

Despite our many differences and divergences, underneath religion, politics, worldviews, interests, personalities, shape, size, sex, color, and even species, underneath it all, every single one of us is made from flesh and blood. Or, as the Buddha himself is said to have taught:

“All beings tremble before violence. All fear death. All love life. See yourself in others. Then whom can you hurt? What harm can you do?”

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