In the 21st century modern social science is suffering from what appears to be a fatal flaw, the is-ought problem. First described by the 18th century philosopher David Hume, the is-ought problem is also known as the Hume’s law or the fact-value gap. In short, the is-ought problem can be described as the gap that exists between what is in the real world, and how philosopher’s think the world ought to be. To David Hume, it is unreasonable to take facts about the way that the world is and conclude from those facts statements about the way the world should be. This idea severed the relationship between facts and values, giving rise to yet another name for Hume’s law; Hume’s guillotine. Modern social scientists and philosophers are to this day struggling to close this gap and reestablish the relationship between facts and values, with little to no progress. Yet, this problem did not always exist, and that is what I will be diving into here.
In the ancient world, many philosophers and early scientists saw facts and values as one and the same. Today however, social sciences have been stripped of their humanity. They have become as cold, rigorous and value-free as hard sciences like chemistry. But how can this be? How can sciences that are intended to study and monitor human life, not take those observations and studies and prescribe us better and more fruitful ways to live? At the heart of this dilemma is the difference between pre-modern and modern scientific thought, and that is what I want to dive into here. After this, the next topic I will analyze is the difference between contemporaries and ancients in their perspective of the human soul. Finally, to make this reading more tangible and grounded in our modern lives, I would like to analyze this difference between pre-modern and modern thought through the lens of contemporary analysis of political polarization.
To begin outlining the character and thought of the pre-modern thinker, there is no substitute for the one and only Aristotle. For Aristotle, facts and values were mostly one and the same. He believed as a matter of fact that human beings had a divine intellectual and rational capacity, and that because of this we ought to pursue lives driven by our rational faculty. Living our lives in this way, in Aristotle’s mind, meant developing our virtues and elevating them to the highest place in our lives. Naturally, this also meant producing a society that elevated virtue and rationality to the highest places, so that society would produce more rational and ‘philosophizing’ individuals. On this, Aristotle has the following to say in the first book of his Ethics,
“But to those who fashion their longings in accord with reason and act accordingly, knowing about these things would be of great profit.”
On top of succinctly describing Aristotle’s feelings on virtue, this quote also perfectly demonstrates the lack of separation between facts and values for the premodern thinker. Take note here where Aristotle says “…in accord with reason and act accordingly…” The reason referenced in this statement, are the facts, and with those facts you should put yourself in alignment to them and “act accordingly”. Here, the is-ought problem falls away, and simply does not exist.
On the other side of this issue is the modern philosopher and social scientist. In his modern classic On Tyranny, the political philosopher Leo Strauss writes the following in the opening pages,
“Our political science is haunted by the belief that ‘value judgements’ are inadmissible in scientific considerations, and to call a regime tyrannical clearly amounts to pronouncing a ‘value judgement.’ The political scientist who accepts this view of science will speak of the mass-state, of dictatorship, of totalitarianism, of authoritarianism, and so on, and as a citizen he may wholeheartedly condemn these things; but as a political scientist he is forced to reject the notion of tyranny as ‘mythical.’”
Here, Strauss has perfectly outlined the trouble that the is-ought problem has wrought upon modern political science. Despite all of the so-called rationalism of modernity, all of the advancements in scientific method, modern political science was unable to recognize and condemn the tyrannies that developed throughout Europe in the 20th century. What good then is our grand science if it cannot even condemn the brutal behavior of dictator’s that exterminated millions of lives?
The next topic I would like to touch on is the difference between pre-modern and modern perspectives regarding the human soul (or lack thereof). Again, returning to Aristotle, he felt that human beings did indeed possess a soul (referred to as the psyche in his writings), but that the soul was in the form of any living thing and not a separate distinct thing simply contained within the body. This is in stark contrast to modern religious and spiritual views of the soul which contend that the soul is some ethereal substance inhabiting the body, which then goes to the afterlife upon death. To Aristotle, the soul cannot be separated from or outside of the body. On this, Aristotle writes the following in his book De Anima,
“the soul neither exists without a body nor is a body of some sort. For it is not a body, but it belongs to a body, and for this reason is present in a body, and in a body of such-and-such a sort.”
Yet another contrasting view on this topic, is that of the modern value-free, rational, data driven science. This modern scientific perspective does not acknowledge the soul at all. The modern scientific method is driven by empiricism, which claims that knowledge comes only through sensory experience (taste, touch, smell, sight, hearing). So, anything that cannot be directly experienced through one or more of these senses, simply cannot be said to exist. To the modern empirical scientist, they need not concern themselves with souls or questions regarding them.
The third and final difference between the modern and pre-modern perspectives I would like to analyze are their different views on political polarization and how they relate to the idea of a middle class. Starting with the modern perspective first, modernity seems to simply view the so-called middle class as a socio-economic category. We recognize that the middle class seems to be dwindling, but because of the fact-value gap, political scientists and economists are unable to declare this disappearance as ‘bad’. This dilemma is apparent when one reviews the political and economic literature regarding this matter and realizes that this issue has been occurring for some decades now. If the disappearance of the American middle class were to be declared as a negative among our social sciences, maybe something would have been done about it. But as it stands, it seems to be that our government is content to let this continue. In addition, while our social science has been able to identify some of the consequences of this phenomenon, it has been unable to make value judgments about these consequences as well. Pre-modern thought regarding this topic is almost the opposite of the modern perspective. For a third and final time, I will reference The Philosopher, Aristotle. Aristotle has a standard by which he judges virtue, called the golden mean. To him, the golden mean is where virtue can be found, and it sits directly in the middle of any two extremes. He also applies this standard to classes. On the one hand, you have the many poor masses and on the other, you have the elite few. Between these two extremes is where the middle class sits. Aristotle beautifully illustrates this dynamic in a passage from his book Politics,
“Thus it is manifest that the best political community is formed by citizens of the middle class, and that those states are likely to be well-administered in which the middle class is large, and stronger if possible than both the other classes, or at any rate than either singly; for the addition of the middle class turns the scale, and prevents either of the extremes from being dominant. Great then is the good fortune of a state in which the citizens have a moderate and sufficient property; for where some possess much, and the others nothing, there may arise an extreme democracy, or a pure oligarchy; or a tyranny…”
Here again, the lack of a fact-value gap is evident. There is a middle class. They are neither wealthy nor poor. The presence of a large middle class binds together the two extremes and prevents either extreme from seizing power and installing an oppressive form of government. Aristotle emphatically declares that this is a good thing, “Great then is the good fortune of a state in which the citizens have a moderate and sufficient property [the middle class] …” He says that “this is the best political community…” Aristotle does not coldly and efficiently lay out data regarding the middle class, he identifies the utility that the middle class provides for a society and openly declares that the best kind of society or “political community” is comprised of an abundant middle class. In 2018, American society is suffering from unprecedented levels of political polarization. Perhaps the remedy to this situation is bolstering and growing the middle class, perhaps the cause of this situation is the destruction of the middle class. However, our current political science seems ill-equipped to identify this and suggest a solution. It continues to sit back, collect data, and do nothing.
The importance of these questions and their answers appear to me as self-evident, but they are truly worth fleshing out and analyzing. If modern science and philosophical thought continues its current course, what conclusions can we arrive at? The first I believe, is that social sciences will continue to remain ineffective and impotent. Their greatest failure, I believe, was their inability to recognize and condemn the various tyrannies that sprouted up in the 20th century, that would end up committing the worst atrocities that humanity has yet seen. Given this track record, what can we expect from potential dangers in the future? Will our scientific tradition fail to protect us from the next tyrant, and if so, what use are they to us? We already have a 21st century example of the failure of political science — the election of Donald Trump. Nearly all political scientists gave Trump little to no chance of winning his party’s primary, let alone the general election. They dismissed him, wrote him off as a joke, and this in turn helped elect him. Trump’s election made a mockery of modern political science.
If we are to re-fortify the walls of modern social science, we must find a way to close the fact-value gap and restore meaning and purpose to the tradition. Already, social sciences are seen as less important and less legitimate than the hard sciences. While the STEM field has brought incredible technological transformation to human civilization, the social sciences remain impotent and unable to create anything of tangible value for the common person. I believe Leo Strauss had the right idea in wanting a return to the past in political and scientific thought, so that we may move past Hume’s Law and once again make political and philosophical thought useful to civilization. If nothing else, political science ought to be able to warn us of the rise of the next Hitler, so that we may avoid him before it is too late.