The belief of a liberal—the belief in the possibility of a rule of law, of equal justice, of fundamental rights, and a free society—can easily survive the recognition that judges are not omniscient and may make mistakes about facts and that, in practice, absolute justice is hardly ever realized in any particular legal case. But this belief in the possibility of a rule of law, of justice, and of freedom, can hardly survive the acceptance of an epistemology which teaches that there are no objective facts; not merely in this particular case, but in any other case; and that the judge cannot have made a factual mistake because he [sic] can no more be wrong about the facts than he can be right.
This “moral argument for factual realism”—as Nicholas Maxwell has illuminatingly called it—may not be the most direct or compelling argument in favour of realism in ontology and epistemology, any more than the existence of modern technology is the cleanest or strongest argument in favour of the approximate truth of the underlying basic scientific theories. But it is a powerful argument nonetheless, at least to those of us who accept the moral framework of philosophical liberalism (very broadly defined).
But what of those who don’t? For instance, many self-described partisans of Social Justice are nowadays decidedly lukewarm in their support of—or even overtly hostile to — traditional liberal values like free and open debate on matters of public concern, whenever that debate appears to collide with values that they consider more pressing, like the protection of racial and sexual minorities from real or alleged psychic “harm.” At the same time, many of these same Social Justice activists, philosophically influenced by postmodernism and its progenies, are profoundly sceptical—if not actively disdainful—of the concept of objective reality. Can we reformulate the moral argument for factual realism in a way that would be convincing to them? (Or rather, in a way that should be convincing to them, logically, whether or not it would be convincing to them, psychologically.) I think we can.
Feminist philosopher Kelly Oliver has argued that
in order to be revolutionary, feminist theory cannot claim to describe what exists, or, “natural facts.” Rather, feminist theories should be political tools, strategies for overcoming oppression in specific concrete situations. The goal, then, of feminist theory, should be to develop strategic theories—not true theories, not false theories, but strategic theories.
But, as Jean Bricmont and I observed many years ago, this attempt to liberate inquiry about the natural and social world from the goal of objectivity cannot work. For how can one know whether or not a theory is “strategic,” except by asking whether it is truly, objectively efficacious in promoting one’s declared political goals? The problems of truth and objectivity cannot, in fact, be evaded so easily; at most they can be displaced.
I would like to argue here that the moral argument for factual realism has force not only for adherents to a liberal (broadly defined) political philosophy, but for all people who believe that some social arrangements are better than others—in short, that is, for just about everyone, and in particular for the self-described advocates of Social Justice.
Any argument claiming that one social arrangement is more ethical, or more just, than another necessarily has two parts: a normative aspect, that is, a general conception (even if not fully articulated) of ethics and justice, which would allow us to say which outcomes are more ethically desirable and which are less so; and an empirical aspect, arguing that particular social choices—be they large-scale options like capitalism or socialism, or specific decisions like policies on taxation or employment or health care or climate—are likely to result in particular outcomes.
Of course, one serious sticking point in public debate is likely to be the normative part: leftists, conservatives and libertarians have very different ideas about what constitutes justice (at least on economic matters). But even when people are agreed on normative questions—as they sometimes are—the empirical analysis cannot be avoided. Which energy policies will minimize the rise in global temperatures over the next decades? Which public-health policies will minimize the number of deaths from Covid-19? These questions cannot even be sensibly posed, much less satisfactorily answered, without a belief in the objective reality of the natural and social worlds, and of their properties. Such a belief is quite simply a prerequisite for rational decision-making. And in a democracy, rational decision-making requires that there be a wide consensus, not only on the existence of an objective reality, but also on its details. As the old-fashioned (but still true) saying goes, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts.
However, all this applies only under the assumption that the proximate goal of politics is to persuade one’s fellow citizens by rational arguments. (The next step after persuasion could be—depending on the circumstances—electoral politics, mass demonstrations, civil disobedience, workers’ strikes, or many other tactics, including the formation of coalitions. But first one has to persuade people.) And this reliance on persuasion is grounded, ethically, on the idea that each of our fellow citizens is equally deserving of the same fundamental democratic right: namely, to use his or her own brain to evaluate the competing policy options on the basis of the best available evidence, weighed in the light of his or her own ethical values, and to have those evaluations be counted in social decision-making.
But this notion of democratic rational persuasion may, alas, be merely a quaint hangover from the liberal philosophy that an increasing number of people, on both left and right, today reject. What can we say to people who have given up on the liberal concept of persuasion and, convinced of the supreme rightness of their cause, simply aim to enact their preferred policies by some combination of clever deception, social coercion, bureaucratic fiat and/or violent force?
Here is one possible answer: even if you reject the democratic idea that your fellow citizens deserve the same rights as you, you will still demand those rights for yourself. You would not be happy if significant aspects of your life were to be imposed on you by deception, coercion, fiat or force. You would want to use your own brain to rationally evaluate the competing policy options on the basis of the best available evidence, weighed in the light of your own ethical values. (Unless, that is, you are content to parrot what people around you are saying, without really thinking it through for yourself.) And that means that you still need factual realism as a basis for your own deliberations, even if you don’t recognize the right of others to do the same, or if you seek to prevent their evaluations from being counted in social decision-making (perhaps because you consider those people to be ethically or intellectually inferior to yourself).
This is not a pretty argument; it is much less high-minded than Popper’s. But that is, alas, the unfortunate necessity. It pains me that many political and social activists today—on both “left” and “right”—consider people who disagree with them to be ethically or intellectually inferior. I am incensed that an American presidential candidate—the one that I even voted for, as the lesser by far of two evils—casually labelled half of her opponent’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables … racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic.” I am appalled that the audience at the LGBT fundraising event where this slur was uttered responded to it with laughter and applause. And don’t even get me started on the hatred and lies emanating from the other side.
But even for people who reject philosophical liberalism in theory or in deed, the moral argument for factual realism still has force.