Monday, 14 November 2016

Pseudo Ethics

Posted by Thomas Scarbrough
Jean-François Lyotard proposed that efficiency, above all, provides us with legitimation for human action today. If we can only do something more efficiently – or more profitably – then we have found a reason to do it. In fact society in its entirety, Lyotard considered, has become a system which must aim for efficient functioning, to the exclusion of its less efficient elements.
This is the way in which, subtly, as if by stealth – we have come fill a great value vacuum in our world with pseudo values, borrowed from the realm of fact. Philosophically, this cannot be done – yet it is done – and it happens like this:

The human sphere is exceedingly complex – and inscrutable. It is one thing for us to trace relations in our world, as by nature we all do – quite another to know how others trace relations in this world.  While our physical world is more or less open to view, this is not the case with worlds which exist inside other people's minds – people who further hide behind semiotic codes: the raising of an eyebrow, for instance, or a laugh, or an utterance.

A million examples could not speak as loudly as the fact that we have a problem in principle. Like the chess novice who randomly inserts a move into the grand master's game, as soon as we introduce others into the picture, there is a quantum leap in complexity.  Small wonder that we find it easier to speak about our world in 'factual' terms than in human terms.

Further, in the human sphere we experience frequent reversals and uncertainties – war, famine, and disease, among many other things – while through the natural sciences we are presented with continual novelty and advance. In comparison with the 'factual' sphere, the human sphere is a quagmire. This leads to a spontaneous privileging of the natural sciences.

We come to see the natural sciences as indicating values, where strictly they do not – and cannot. That is, we consider that they give us direction as to how we should behave. And so, economic indicators determine our responses to the economy, clinical indicators determine our responses to a 'clinical situation' (that is, to a patient), environmental indicators determine our responses to the state of our environment, and so on.

Yet philosophers know that we are unable, through facts, to arrive at any values. We call it the fact-value distinction, and it leaves us with only two logical extremes: logical positivism on the one hand, or ethical intuitionism on the other. That is, either we cannot speak about values at all, or we must speak about them in the face of our severance from the facts. 

We automatically, impulsively, instinctively react to graphs, charts, statistics, imagining that they give us reason to act. Yet this is illusory. While the natural sciences might seem to point us somewhere, in terms of value, strictly they do not, and cannot. It is fact seeking to show us value.

Thus we calculate, tabulate, and assess things, writes sociologist James Aho, on the basis of 'accounting calculations', the value of which has no true basis. Such calculations have under the banner of efficiency come to colonise themselves in virtually every institutional realm of modern society – while it is and has to be a philosophical mistake.

Of course, efficiency has positive aspects. We receive efficient service, we design an efficient machine, or we have an efficient economy. This alone raises the status of efficiency in our thinking. However, in the context of this discussion, where efficiency represents legitimation for human action, it has no proper place.

The idea of such efficiency has introduced us to a life which many of us would not have imagined as children: we are both processed and we process others, on the basis of data sets – while organic fields of interest such as farming, building, nursing, even sports, have been reduced to something increasingly resembling paint-by-numbers. It is called 'increased objectification'.

With the advance of efficiency as a motive for action, we have come to experience, too, widespread alienation today: feelings of powerlessness, normlessness, meaninglessness, and social isolation, which did not exist in former times. Karl Marx considered that we have been overtaken by commodity fetishism, where the devaluation of the human sphere is proportional to the over-valuation of things.

Theologian Samuel Henry Goodwin summed it up: 'We are just a number.' Through pseudo values, borrowed from the realm of fact, we are dehumanised. In fact, this must be the case as long as we take numerate approaches to human affairs on the basis that they are 'indicated' by facts. Cold fact encroaches on the complex and subtle relations which are represented by the human sciences – in fact, by life as it is lived.


  1. There’s much of interest to digest here. A great read! I don’t wish to add to the discussion of the larger ‘Hume’s (is-ought) law’ per se, which, unless I’m mistaken, is the overarching theme of your post. But I would like to contribute, if in only a minor way, to one of your sub-threads: what you refer to in various places in the post with tags like ‘calculate’, ‘tabulate’, ‘graphs’, ‘numerate’, and such. I would agree with your point, my suggesting further that there has been a hyperbolic love affair in society—my referring here notably to the human sciences—with phenomena like ‘big data’ and ‘data analytics’. Both are social sciences’ new(er) comfort objects: the bigger the datasets, and the more complex (‘sophisticated’) the statistical/mathematical methodologies to analyse the data, the more certain that investigators feel about their understanding of human behaviour, affairs, and relations. (Perhaps you’d disagree with this point, but here I’m deliberately referring to the human sciences as opposed to such physical sciences as astronomy, physics, chemistry, geology, biology, and earth science, where practitioners are more concerned with ‘facts’, happy to leave ‘values’ to others.) In my opinion, part of the larger problem rests with the increasing ‘stovepiping’ of areas of human study, at the loss of recognising and proactively exploring the complementarity of such studies. Members of one ‘academic priesthood’ too often look askance (sometimes with disinterest, sometimes with misunderstanding) at the members of another in a miscalculated them-and-us distinction—on the assumption there are discontinuous, impermeable membranes between them. A cross-disciplinary complementarity would serve as a force-multiplier in building a truer understanding of the human condition, eschewing the fact-value pitfall and excessive objectification you address, scaling back quantification (where it might misdirect intellectual exploration of human affairs in particular), and arriving at ‘good’ efficiencies in social conduct while better able to underpin valid (vice pseudo) belief systems. Thank you, Thomas, for prompting reflection.

  2. Thank you Keith. I think you are suggesting a complementarity of the natural and human sciences, which is perhaps the best idea one could have. However this would work on the assumption that the human sciences have some kind of direction, but I don't think they have. Which means that complementarity would not be much of an advance. This is a bit vague, I know, but perhaps someone can help us sharpen it.

  3. I saw some UK academic was given 1.5 million euros for researching incresed use of big data techniques in the social sciences just. I see it all as part of the 1960s view that computers can work a kind of magic - the view Weizenbaum memorably parodied with his 'Eliza' interactive computer. (See my version on the philosopher site if you like!

    On the other hand, careful examination of numerical relationships à la Durkheim, does produce insights - not automatically but potentially.

    This is from the Philosopher's big data cruncher just:

    >>> is brexit brexit?

    1. I gave the 'cruncher' a spin.
      Me: "Am I me?"
      It: "A good debate is worth extending."
      Me: "How am I me?"
      It: "(T T T T)(p, q) Tautology ... Does that question interest you?"
      Me: "Why am I me?"
      It: "Maybe ... Have you asked anyone else?"
      Me: "When am I me?"
      It: "Have you asked anyone else?"
      At which point I decided I was being given the brush-off.

    2. This line is surely the most profound:

      Me: "Why am I me?"
      It: "Maybe ... Have you asked anyone else?"


  4. James Aho, professor emeritus, who is quoted in this post, dropped us a line: 'I enjoyed your [post]. Keep up the good work--now more than ever.'