Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The "Is" and the "Ought"

As I wind up my research on Leadership Ethics I have become more convinced of the centrality of the distinction between facts (is) and values (ought), and how they are related. As social psychologists continue to uncover the mental mechanisms that comprise our "moral psychology," it becomes increasingly evident that we still do not really know what to make of these scientific truths. Here are the basic questions: How does empirical knowledge about mental mechanisms elucidate everyday moral problems? If we knew all of the "facts" that underlie our moral feelings, thoughts, and behaviors, would we also know all of the "values" that ought to guide us? Before we get started, let's clear the air of two fallacies. The naturalistic fallacy says that "facts" determine "values" and that empirical knowledge alone elucidates knowledge of moral goodness. The moralistic fallacy says that knowledge of "values" (moral facts) trumps knowledge of "facts" and/or that "facts" are merely values in "disguise. Most moral psychologists deny that either the naturalist fallacy or the moralistic fallacy is a fallacy. So how does libertarianism approach the is/ought distinction?

First of all, thoughtful libertarians like Karl Popper, F.A. Hayek and myself (;D) deny that there are (in fact) either scientific facts or moral facts. The word "fact" carries with it an aura of finality: "We know the Truth, therefore, we must act on it. If it's True, it's True forever." Libertarians argue that knowledge of facts and values is highly fallible and therefore must be subjected to constant revision. Why? Well, because scientists, like everyone else, are prone to make mistakes and/or succumb to the influence of power structures. Science and ethics, therefore, are about establishing a self-correcting system that uncovers both factual errors and value-errors wrought by ideological corruption. The early libertarians were the first to attack the scientific positivists and the moral positivists by insisting on continued inquiry, even when scientists and moralists insist that they've got it right. That means that thoughtful libertarians are reluctant to bestow unquestioned authority on either scientists or moralists. We are not skeptics or cynics. Our allegiance is not to particular scientific or moral truths but to self-correcting epistemic processes that weed out error and ideological contamination of what's presented as unassailable scientific and moral facts. How does all of this work? I'll have to cover that later. I have a class in 10 minutes and a stack of essays to grade before I can do much else.

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