Anthropocentric “Facts” and the Illusion of Value

In my last post I noted Jonathan Haidt’s classification of facts as “anthropocentric” and “non-anthropocentric” in his refutation of Sam Harris’ scientific morality.  The terms were coined by philosopher David Wiggins, and Haidt defines them as follows:

Facts of chemistry, physics, and other hard sciences are non-anthropocentric. They do not depend on any aspect of human nature. If intelligent aliens had come to visit the earth long before humans appeared, they would have found that the earth is the third planet from the sun, and that copper is a better conductor of electricity than is aluminum.

Anthropocentric facts, in contrast, are only true given the kinds of creatures that we happen to be, due to the twists and turns of our evolutionary history. Examples include the facts that  sugar is sweeter than ascorbic acid, and that extended solitary confinement is painful. Those are not just my personal opinions; they are facts about sugar  and isolation.

As I pointed out earlier, the value of such terms is dubious.  When applied to morality, they are downright misleading, because they rationalize the elevation of moral judgments to the status of “facts.”

Consider the examples given of the sweetness of sugar and the pain of solitary confinement.  “Sweet” describes a sensation experienced through one of the senses, namely, taste.  Senses are diagnostic tools that evolved because they enabled the life forms that possessed them to perceive facts about the environment, the knowledge of which made it more likely that they would survive and reproduce.  If we taste something as sweet, or feel it as hard, or see it as green, those impressions tell us something about the real, physical nature of the objects we are sensing.  All these subjective impressions are referred to in the jargon of philosophy as “qualia.”  Philosophers argue endlessly over the nature of their existence, whether they can exist in the context of materialism, their implications for  the mind-body problem, etc., etc.  Sophisticated Christians even use them to bamboozle themselves and amaze their friends with fancy proofs of the existence of God.  That’s neither here nor there as far as this blog post is concerned.  What matters is that all of them exist because, at some point in the past, their existence enhanced the probability that our ancestors would survive and reproduce, and that all of them are subjective impressions in the minds of individuals.

To the extent that they are “facts,” then, these qualia exist only as such subjective impressions.  Physical objects can give rise to them (in the case of sense perceptions) or not (in the case of subjective impressions of good, evil, rights, values, etc.), and they can communicate information about the qualities of physical objects.  However, they are not physical aspects of the objects in themselves.  For that reason, it can be very misleading to label them as facts, even if one tosses in the qualifying adjective “anthropocentric.”  They are only “facts” if one bears constantly in mind exactly what kind of “facts” they are.

Haidt’s essay is a case in point.  Having introduced the term “anthropocentric,” he immediately begins using it as a rationalization for converting subjective to objective.  In the end, he drops the adjective altogether, and suddenly, we no longer find ourselves talking about subjective impressions, but simply about “facts.”  He begins his perambulation into the swamp by claiming that his own, subjective impressions must necessarily be the same as everyone elses:

Those are not just my personal opinions; they are facts about sugar  and isolation.

In fact, they are his personal opinions.  I firmly believe Mother Nature has been parsimonious in this affair, and hasn’t gone to the trouble of having everyone experience “sweet” and “pain” differently, but I have no way of proving it.  As the philosopher Daniel Dennett pointed out, qualia are private.  In other words, there is no way for me to describe to a blind person precisely what I mean when I say describe something as “red.”  Haidt continues with such remarkable assertions as,

Because of our shared evolutionary history, it will be an anthropocentric fact everywhere that sugar is sweeter than ascorbic acid. Yet many other anthropocentric facts are emergent –– they emerge only when people interact, in a particular cultural or historical era. Prices are a good example: It is a fact that gold is more valuable than silver. That is not just my opinion.

I’m sure Haidt could argue very convincingly that gold really is more valuable than silver.  The last time I checked, the price of gold was 60 times that of silver, give or take.  However, that price is the distillation of subjective value judgments by many individuals.  It has nothing to do with the objective nature of gold or silver, nor does it make sense to insist that gold “really” is more valuable than silver unless we are careful to add that we are speaking of subjective impressions as they exist at a given time and place.  It is also a “fact” that when people read a statement like, “It is a fact that gold is more valuable than silver,” they will take it to mean just what it says, without calling to mind any hair-splitting distinctions between “anthropocentric” and “non-anthropocentric.”

This willy-nilly conflating of objective and subjective continues when Haidt finally gets around to discussing the theme of his essay; morality.  Suddenly, all the adjectives somehow melt off the “emergent culture-specific anthropocentric truths” Haidt was talking about in earlier paragraphs, and we find them standing there naked as simple “truths.”  For example,

I believe that moral truths are of this sort. This still makes it possible to critique practices in other cultures. All cuisines are not equal – French cuisine was better than 1950s American, and Julia Child offered Americans a way to improve. Similarly, a culture that oppresses categories of people against their will is worse than one that does not. Massive human rights violations, in which large numbers of victims are crying out for foreign assistance, can justify a military response  from other nations. But the fact that humanity has reached that point is an emergent fact about modernity and our changing moral standards.

Here, Haidt has ended by bamboozling himself.  In the end, the difference between him and Harris isn’t one of substance, but of a mere sterile quibble over which “facts” can be described as “scientific” and which not.  Other than Haidt’s qualification that the “facts” only apply at a given place and time, after “emerging,” the result is exactly the same.  The subjective strings drop away, and impressions in the minds of individuals suddenly and magically acquire normative powers over other individuals.  Some cultures really are “worse” than others.  Some military responses really are “just.”  In the last sentence of Haidt’s quote, we find that the impressions that some cultures are “bad” and some military interventions are “just” can be transmogrified into “facts” merely by virtue of a shift in popular opinion.  Thanks to this magic elixir, the impressions “good” and “evil” spring out of their cocoons, and emerge as full-fledged Things-in-Themselves.  From good and evil, they are transformed into “Good” and “Evil,” complete with the autonomous power to bludgeon anyone who doesn’t happen to be quite on the same page with Haidt’s or Harris’ version of modernity.

Haidt is really too smart for this.  It’s hard for me to imagine how he could come up with stuff like this after writing a book like The Righteous Mind, unless he’s finally succumbed to the moralistic bullying that Harris invariably resorts to when anyone points out the obvious absurdity of his “scientific morality.”  Perhaps it finally became unbearable to Haidt to have to put up with accusations that he is “evil” because he doesn’t believe that female genital mutilation, for example, is objectively “bad.”  In the end, he cooked up this stew of philosophical leftovers so he, too, could declare, in the odor of sanctity, and without qualification, that, “Female genital mutilation is bad.”

As it happens, the subjective impression that FGM is bad exists in my consciousness, too.  I hope many others will agree with me, and that together we can end FGM once and for all.  I am no “moral relativist.”  Unlike Haidt and Harris, I have gone beyond the writing of essays and have taken up a weapon to fight for these subjective impressions of mine in the past.  I found these impressions, these whims, if you will, entirely adequate to justify my actions to myself.  It is simply worth it to me to put my life on the line to end certain things that I don’t want to live with.  However, it was never necessary for me to stoop to the lazy conceit that I was fighting for the Good-in-Itself.  Indeed, I am firmly convinced there is no such thing.  And while Haidt may be disappointed to hear it, there is also no such thing as an emergent, culture-specific, anthropocentric Good-in-Itself.





Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

5 thoughts on “Anthropocentric “Facts” and the Illusion of Value”

  1. Great post!

    Though I agree with your conclusions about the fast one Haidt is trying to pull, I will grant one point.

    “Anthropocentric facts” are akin to social realities. Indeed, the latter ⊂ the former. But social realities (such as that Barack Obama is the President of the United States) are facts, it’s just that you need to recognize their context of applicability.

    Taste and color come closest to being “anthropocentric ‘facts'”, even though there appears to be come individual variation.

  2. Thanks for the comment, not to mention the plug on Twitter. I agree that taste and color can be described as anthropocentric facts, as long as you’re very careful about the definition of “anthropocentric,” and don’t drop the adjective when you’re referring to “facts.” It’s not unreasonable to say that sugar is sweet. You just have to remember that “sweetness” refers to a subjective experience, or “quale,” and not to whatever physical characteristic of the object described happens to cause the sensation.

  3. I approve of this post’s disappointment with Haidt’s piece.

    As Helian correctly points out, the original distinction that Haidt set out to sharply distinguish is gone by the end of the essay. In it’s place, we get a four-fold distinction:

    a) anthropocentric truths
    b) non-anthropocentric truths
    c) opinions
    d) “emergent culture-specific anthropocentric truths”

    Even in Haidt’s own classificatory scheme, it’s unclear whether this is all coherent. Is the fact that the sun can blind me a fact about the sun or a fact about human interaction with the sun? Was Galileo’s astronomy merely an opinion that later turned out to be a truth? Could it one day again be considered a mere opinion? And in what sense is gold “valuable?” Is it valuable at $1300 per ounce, prior to falling 50% on the world market to $750 per ounce? Is it valuable for its usefulness in semiconductor manufacturing?

    It’s surprising that there are people who remain unaware that these questions might have been addressed in great depth by professors in other departments. Presumably it’s why art teachers don’t speculate on the nature of neutrinos.

  4. Unfortunately, human beings suffer from the illusion that they are more intelligent than they really are. When they try to answer such questions in great depth, they tend to get bogged down in intellectual swamps, even if they happen to be in the proper department.

  5. I hope this kind of cognitive relativism dies a thousand deaths. But despite its absurdity it has endured thus far, and would seem to be un-killable.

Leave a Reply