Sunday, March 21, 2010

The "Waste, Fraud, and Abuse" Trope: In Search of Facts

In today's Los Angeles Times we're treated to another insightful column from Michael Hiltzik: "Here We Go Again: Candidates Pledge to Search for Waste, Fraud and Abuse.'"

I doubt any of my state's gubernatorial candidates will mention this during their campaigns: "California's food stamp participation rate is nation's second lowest."

This reminds me of the fact that, in Iris Mudoch's words, "the concept of 'fact' is complex:"

"The moral point is that 'facts' are set up as such by human (that is moral) agents. Much of our life is taken up by truth-seeking, imagining, questioning. We relate to facts through truth and truthfulness, and come to recognise and discover that there are different modes and levels of insight and understanding. In many familiar ways various values pervade and colour what we take to be the reality of our world, wherein we constantly evaluate our own values and those of others, and judge and determine forms of consciousness and modes of being. To say all this is not in any way to deny either science, empiricism or commonsense. The proposition that 'the cat is on the mat' is true, indicates a fact, if the cat is on the mat. A proper separation of fact and value, as a defence of morality, lies in the contention that moral value cannot be [after Hume] derived from fact. That is, our activity of moral discrimination cannot be explained as merely one natural instinct among others, or our 'good' identified with pleasure, or a will to live...."

Robert Nozick puts Murdoch's point this way:

"Values enter into the very definition of what a fact is; the realm of facts cannot be defined or specified without utilizing certain values. Values enter into the process of knowing a fact; without utilizing or presupposing certain values, we cannot determine which is the realm of facts, we cannot know the real from the unreal."

Which is why I'm glad Murdoch mentioned the "cat on the mat," a seemingly innocuous proposition bereft of value. But even this statement is shot through with values of a kind, as Hilary Putnam explains in his inimitable manner:

"[F]act, (or truth) and rationality are interdependent notions. A fact is something that it is rational to believe, or, more precisely, the notion of a fact (or a true statement) is an idealization of the notion of a statement that it is rational to believe. [….] [B]eing rational involves having criteria of relevance as well as criteria of rational acceptability, and…all of our values are involved in our criteria of relevance. The decision that a picture of the world is true (or true by our present lights, or 'as true as anything is') and answers the relevant questions (as well as we are able to answer them) rests on and reveals our total system of value commitments. A being with no values would have no facts either. The way in which criteria of relevance involves values, at least indirectly, may be seen by examining the simplest statement. Take the sentence 'The cat is on the mat.' If someone actually makes this judgment in a particular context, then he employs conceptual resources—the notions 'cat,' 'on,' and 'mat'—which are provided by a particular culture, and whose presence and ubiquity reveal something about the interests and values of that culture, and of almost every culture. We have the category 'cat' because we regard the division of the world into animals and non-animals as significant, and we are further interested in what species as given animal belongs to. It is relevant that there is a cat on the mat and not just a thing. We have the category 'mat' because we regard the division of inanimate things into artifacts and non-artifacts as significant, and we are further interested in the purpose and nature a particular artifact has. It is relevant that it is a mat that the cat is on and just something. We have the category 'on' because we are interested in spatial relations. Notice what we have: we took the most banal statement imaginable, 'the cat is on the mat,' and we found that the presuppositions which make this statement a relevant one in certain contexts include the significance of the categories animate/inanimate, purpose, and space. To a mind with no disposition to regard these as relevant categories, 'the cat is on the mat' would be as irrational as 'the number of hexagonal objects in this room is 76' would be, uttered in the middle of a tête-à-tête between young lovers. Not only do very general facts about our value system show themselves in our categories (artifacts, species name, term for a spatial relation) but, our more specific values (for example, sensitivity and compassion), also show up in the use we make of specific classificatory words ('considerate,' 'selfish'). To repeat, our criteria of relevance rest on and reveal our whole system of values."

In political discussions and debates we often resort to assertions about what we take to be the relevant facts, one problem being that we frequently cannot even agree on the criteria of relevancy, given the roles of consciousnesss, modes of being, and values in the determination and discrimination of the (salient) facts.

We could further complicate matters here with a discussion of the significance of objectivity, perceptual and epistemic relativism, conceptual schemes, and realism about truth.

Cross-posted at


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