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Having it Both Ways on "Values"


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Having it Both Ways on "Values"

William Voegeli

April 14, 2005

Some assessments of Pope John Paul II have, inevitably, viewed him through a prism that breaks every source of light into the red and blue of states on the American electoral map. Consider a shrill column by Harold Meyerson in the Washington Post. John Paul was, he says, the "founding father" of "Orthodox International," the reactionary force that unites Muslims and Jews, Protestants and Catholics against "a common enemy"—"modernization and the demand for equality."

Meyerson is particularly angry with the vast orthodox conspiracy for its "misogyny and homophobia, for which a future pope will one day apologize as surely as John Paul did for the church's anti-Semitism." He claims that before Karol Wojtyla was named pope in 1978 the Roman Catholic Church was enlivened by "vibrant intellectualism," as "priests, theologians, bishops and even cardinals" sought "common ground between church traditions and modern egalitarianism." Today, instead of such "engaged and vigorous leaders," there are only "party-line hacks."

The New Republic website features an article by Damon Linker that makes a similar argument, but relies less heavily on name-calling. It says that John Paul's most important legacy will be his "defense of moral absolutism." Although "John Paul's unconditional defense of human dignity cannot fail to impress," Linker is "suspicious of all absolutisms—even the noblest kinds," because they "distort our vision, obscuring the exceedingly complicated, even paradoxical, character of morality itself."

Meyerson concentrates on gay rights and abortion, questions where the hacks he disagrees with don't measure up to the vigorous leaders whose opinions he prefers. He makes "modernization" the standard by which the pope fell short, offering this unclarifying description of it: "Jeffersonian liberalism, with its belief in science and, correspondingly, human equality." The fault line, therefore, pits the Orthodox International "invoking ancient beliefs against the claims of a common humanity."

Linker has a different understanding of what makes the modern perspective better than John Paul's. He doesn't praise moderns for being humane, egalitarian, scientific or liberal. Linker focuses on stem-cell research and the death of Terri Schiavo, separating the good guys who recognize "the richness and complexity of moral experience" from the bad guys: "perfectionists" who want to bring "the nation into conformity with morality understood in the absolute, unambiguous terms defined by John Paul II." Linker does not reveal what else, besides their devotion to the cult of complexity, distinguishes the moderns from the absolutists.

The difficulty of the position taken by Meyerson and Linker is shown, inadvertently, in another New Republic article that doesn't mention the pope at all. Noam Scheiber uses his TRB column to applaud the emergence of Democrats who "believe the government has a role to play in Schiavo-like dilemmas." "If they prevail," he believes, "it could help the Democratic Party reclaim its popular majority."

How? By repositioning the Democrats as "a party that appeals to core values, not one that allows itself to be caricatured by their absence." To be sure, most Democrats responded to the Schiavo tragedy as social libertarians, reducing the issue to a procedural one about who should make the tough decisions. Scheiber laments this response—though whether he disapproves because it's wrong or because it's electorally counter-productive is unclear. On one basis or another he sides with the 50 House Democrats who voted for the law authorizing federal courts to review the Schiavo case: "It was dawning on the party that there was an affirmative statement of values to be made, not simply a libertarian attack on government intervention."

So, apparently, values are good things and core values are really good things. Or, at least, the absence of values is a bad thing. Or, at the very least, voters' core values are good things to appeal to, whether or not the politician making the appeal has them, and the failure to make such appeals leaves Democrats vulnerable to caricature. (Whether it is a caricature to say that Democrats lack core values if they do indeed lack them is a separate question.)

The core values that Scheiber discerns within the Democrats, or urges on them, are these: First, there is "a government obligation to the weak, the sick, and the disabled." Second, "every child should be born into a loving, caring family." Third, as Bill Clinton said during the 1992 campaign, abortion should be "safe, legal and rare." How many more core values the Democrats would need to have a moral code, or at least a party platform, is a question for another day. What's more interesting is whether Scheiber's praise of core values is or isn't reconcilable with Meyerson and Linker's attack on orthodoxy and absolutism.

The term "values" has become so widely used as a synonym for "moral beliefs" that it is hard to remember the term has a history. Though Max Weber did not invent the fact-value distinction, his profound influence on American social scientists caused them to promote the idea here after World War II. They insisted that their study of society was scientific because it was confined to statements of fact, which could be empirically verified or disproven, differentiating such statements from "value-judgments." "Values" were irrational, subjective personal preferences. Because value-judgments could not be tested, none could be described as true or false, much less as wise or foolish, or good or evil. A debate between people with opposed views about the meaning of justice would as pointless as a debate between people with different favorite flavors of ice cream.

The fact-value distinction has swept all before it. It's hard to find any American who doesn't speak the language of values and value-judgments, or who understands that this distinction is a recent innovation, one never employed before the last century and incomprehensible or ludicrous in any age but our own.

This triumph has occurred despite the weakness of the fact-value distinction as an idea. There is, for one thing, the inability of the fact-value distinction to account for itself. The assertion that every other assertion can be categorized as either a statement of fact or a value-judgment cannot, itself, be a statement of fact—there is no conceivable way to test it empirically. If it is a value-judgment, an expression of some arbitrary personal preference harbored by Max Weber or his followers, there is no reason to believe the fact-value distinction is true, or even a way to speak meaningfully of the possibility that it might be true. And if, finally, it is somehow true despite being empirically unverifiable, then we cannot rule out the possibility there are other assertions both true and empirically unverifiable—a possibility that, like a crack in a dam, would demolish the fact-value distinction.

The more practical problem with the fact-value distinction is that no one, including those who espouse it, actually believes it. No one is really "value-neutral" with respect to his own values, or regards them as values, arbitrary preferences that one just happens to be saddled with. The late Allan Bloom pointed out that the social scientists who embraced the fact-value distinction after 1945 believed that "the war against the Right had been won domestically at the polls and in foreign affairs on the battlefield," so one could safely assume that all decent and sensible people were liberal Democrats. And since all decent and sensible people wanted the same decent and sensible things, the job of social scientists was to discover the means for attaining these goals, not to waste time debating value-judgments about which goals to pursue.

There's an old saying: the problem with socialism is socialism, and the problem with capitalism is capitalists. Meyerson, Linker and Scheiber remind us that the problem with relativism is relativism—and the problem with relativism is relativists. The problem with relativism is its insistence that all moral impulses are created equal—that there are no reasons to choose the standards of the wise and good over those of the deranged and cruel. A world organized according to that principle would be anarchic—uninhabitable. As Leo Strauss wrote, the attempt to "regard nihilism as a minor inconvenience" is untenable.

The problem with relativists is that they always dismiss other people's beliefs, but spare their own moral preferences from their doctrine's scoffing. Meyerson disparages orthodoxy, but praises "economic justice...a global economic order that seeks to enhance, not destroy, workers' rights." Linker deplores absolutism, but is content to settle the question of stem-cell research by relying on "the intuition embedded in moral common sense" that tells him "we should support research that promises to relieve human suffering when doing so inflicts no suffering of its own."

Justice, rights, moral common sense—either these are things we can have intelligent discussions about or they aren't. If they are, then a pope's or a columnist's assertion that justice means this or that may be right or wrong, but we cannot say that simply making such an assertion is an act of intellectual aggression. (It is, in any case, fatuous to criticize a pope for orthodoxy or absolutism. The papal job description doesn't leave much room for resorting to the phrase, "But, then, who am I to say?") And if they aren't, then there is no basis for siding with Meyerson or Linker against John Paul on any of the issues where they disagree—our own idiosyncratic value-judgments line up either with one or the other, and there's nothing more to be said about it.

Scheiber worries about the lingering political impact of "McGovern-era suspicions of liberals as moral relativists who actually favored abortion and drugs and promiscuity." But suspicions that liberals occupy a place somewhere on the spectrum between hedonism and depravity aren't really the problem. The problem is modern liberalism's systematic disarming of society against moral decline. Sneering at a religious leader because he is anachronistic enough to insist that some things are right and other things are wrong is a perfect example of this disarming. If Scheiber wants the Democratic Party to find new ways to reassure voters about its core values, he could start by persuading Meyerson and Linker that there are worse things than orthodoxy and absolutism—such as their own arguments against them.


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That is the BIG problem as I see it. Some things are WRONG. You can't put WRONG into a grey area or let "society-states" determine if they wish to face the truth. Right is right WRONG is wrong. Who is the judge?

"Thus sayeth the Lord Thy God"......................(I know that will drive our liberal buddies over the edge, If so, I have done my good deed for the day!) :D

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I think everybody believes in absolute right and wrong.

They just don't agree on what those absolutes are, always.

No on murder and theft, yes on charity to the poor are pretty much universal. What else?

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