That ‘values talk’ will get you respect

Economists love to distinguish between facts and values, positive and normative. We think of ourselves as scientists examining society and pronouncing truths that policy-makers can use to make a decision. Regular readers of this blog will know that we employ this rhetoric at every opportunity. I’ve read three people comment on it recently but I don’t know how I feel so I’ll put them here without judgement:

  • Robin Hanson posted, saying that “Decisions depend on both values and facts… [but] honestly, facts usually matter far more… Even when learning values is important, talking values with others usually helps less.” A statement that most economists would be happy to endorse, I imagine. He goes on to say, “most discussions of grand topics are full of value affirmations (and name dropping), and empty of info to improve decisions.”
  • Simon Sinek says that great leaders inspire people by explaining why they want to do things, not just how to do them. I interpret that to mean that people follow those who share their values. If we want to lead others we have to tell them about our values and why we want to do things. As a description it’s consistent with Hanson.
  • Deirdre McCloskey thinks we should do away with all the positive/normative silliness and focus on simply persuading people using whatever means are most effective. She believes that the distinction is an untruthful facade that both shelters and constrains our thought. By that measure, would appealing to shared values be a legitimate way to persuade others of one’s rightness? I think she might say that is what we do already in all spheres of life so it’s a bit of a silly question. As if ‘scientific facts’ did not depend on shared values regarding the standard of proof and other essential matters.
  • “We think of ourselves as scientists examining society and pronouncing truths that policy-makers can use to make a decision”

    I wouldn’t quite use the term truths – more accepted premises 😉

    “Regular readers of this blog will know that we employ this rhetoric at every opportunity”

    Think that is a little strong …

    I enjoy using the positive-normative framework as a descriptive device, but I think your inference that we are just placing accepted premises in one and questionable premises in the other is right on. Making the premises/assumptions transparent and describing there effects is very useful – but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that we can reach conclusions without value judgments (premises up for debate).

    • ‘Truth’ vs ‘accepted premises’??? Sounds like a distinction without a difference to me!

      It may be slight hyperbole but not much: Google tells me that we have written ‘normative’ in more than 11% of our posts!

      • Objective ‘truth’ exists past our perception, we are trying to find empirical and logical relations that have some functional relation to truth! Accepted premises are the underlying assumptions we accept as a community, either because we think they’ve achieved this functional relationship or are achieving something else. Do me the distinction is pretty useful 🙂

        Ahh, sorry you are completely right – I need a coffee and to learn to read! I read “employ” as “empty” and thought you were saying the rhetoric was empty!!!! Agree we employ it almost constantly 🙂

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