Richard T. Allen


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There are no neutral facts, nor mere descriptions of them, in the realms of machinery and devices, organisms and organs, and conscious beings and intelligent and intentional activities. The facts here are complexities of success and failure, correctness and incorrectness, and can be understood only as such. What, then, about the specifically moral realm of responsible conduct, where we know what we are doing and reflect upon it? Polanyi, in `The Message of the Hungarian Revolution', argues that here also there is no dichotomy of fact and value, no description without evaluation. He places alongside a typical Objectivist dismissal of any normative political science the smashing of the spectacles of the Party's lies and the recovery of the sense of truth by such as Miklos Gimes, Dimitar Metodiev, Paloczi-Horvath and Arthur Koestler. What can a neutral, non-evaluative science make of such radical changes of mind? Following Rickert and Max Weber, it can recognise as facts the moral judgments which men make, but it cannot evaluate those judgments: it cannot endorse, modify nor reject them, as true, partly true or erroneous. But this proves to be inconsistent:

1. All men in fact make moral judgments.
2. In so doing we refer to moral standards which we hold to be valid, to be right, and not just matters of individual preference.
3. That entails a distinction between moral truth and moral illusion.
4. In turn that entails a distinction between motivation by recognition of a moral truth, which can be reasonaby supported, and motivation by moral illusion which is compulsive, like illusions of the senses.
5. Once we admit (1) to (4), as we do in recognising that there are some valid moral judgments, true human values and motivation by them (even if only in our case), then `we have implicitly denied the claim that all human actions can be explained without any reference to the exercise of moral judgment'.[18] A neutral science can recognise that the Hungarians revolted against faked trials because they believed them to be wrong. The question is, Why did they believe this? If there really are moral values and so real truths referring to them, then the Hungarians may have been rebelling against a real evil and because they knew it to be evil, and not because they were compulsively motivated by propoganda or economic necessity.
6. `This value judgment proves indispensable to the political scientist's explanation of their behaviour'.[19]

If political science can explain all human actions without morally evaluating them, then the political scientist must either exempt himself from this or admit that moral judgments are utterly meaningless.

Polanyi draws the important political consequence that a neutral, `behaviourial science' is not neutral. For it discredits the moral claim that truth and justice should prevail in political activity, and thus freedom also, while agreeing with Marxist totalitarianism that such ideals have no power in human affairs. And we may add, with its claims to formulate the mechanisms which govern human conduct, it puts itself at the service of those who wish to control others. Note the ambiguity of Helvetius and Bentham, in respect of liberty versus control by a central power using the levers of pleasure and pain, and the very title of one of B.F. Skinner's manuals of control of others by operant conditioning, Beyond Freedom and Dignity.[20]

We may generalise Polanyi's argument. In every sphere of human endeavour, either there are real values and standards which men can recognise and to which they can freely subject themselves, or they are totally mistaken in thinking that there are such things and that they are freely serving them. If there are no such values and standards in a given sphere, then all practitioners of the activity in question are utterly mistaken about their own efforts --- their successes and failures --- for there can be no such things as success and failure in that activity. Indeed, it is no longer an activity --- a practice aiming at the fulfilment of its defining standards --- but only a natural process. It therefore follows that, if there are no real literary values and standards, then not only was Shakespeare's poetry neither better nor worse than William McGonegall's, but that he was as totally deluded about his own work as McGonegall was about his. Neither had any poetic insight or sensitivity. It further follows that all `behaviourial scientists' are themselves deluded about the existence of values and standards in such sciences, and are never guided by them, for there are no such things. Their activity must itself be as compulsive as that of a schizophrenic. This is yet another example of Polanyi's argument that Objectivism eliminates the scientist and his science from the world which he studies.

Human activity, because we have self-awareness, is responsible conduct. In the realm of machinery and organisms there is, necessarily, success or failure. In the animal realm, there is in addition competence and incompetence in the employment of appropriate or inappropriate methods, systems and frameworks, and also compulsive behaviour when no such methods are employed and behaviour becomes meaningless. In distinctly human activity there is a third level, that of responsible conduct. We do not simply apply appropriate or inappropriate standards, methods and systems, or none at all, but act (a) responsibly in applying appropriate ones, or ones which, in our circumstances, we have good reason to think (but mistakenly) to be appropriate, (b) irresponsibly in not bothering to apply any, or (c) perversely in deliberately applying inappropriate or counter-productive ones. As Plato pointed out, in human affairs competence is not enough. Every skill, art or ability, can be used and misused. By learning how to cure, a doctor learns how to kill. The competent administrator is the man best able to make a real mess of things. In saying that someone is a good practitioner of an activity, we do not mean that he is merely competent, but imply that he is also responsible and thus reliable. An employer would rightly feel cheated if he were told by a referee that Smith is a good mechanic, and then were to find out that, although Smith can do the work, he is frequently late, careless and generally unreliable. This is the pre-moral sphere, of responsible submission to the standards and values of the activity in which one is engaged. We have the power of choice, of choosing what we do and how we do it. We are responsible in acting irresponsibly or perversely. Any neutral and value-free study of human activity must necessarily deny this third level of personal responsibility by removing the values and standards which make it possible.

As the activity in question is a wider and not a technical and narrow one, so our responsibility for the way we conduct ourselves with respect to it widens to include distinctively moral responsibility. What in itself is morally insignificant, such as the ability to repair machinery and thus the choice of doing it carefully, misdoing it carelessly or perversely making the machinery even worse, becomes morally significant in a wider context --- when human life and safety are at stake. In some activities, the wider dimension is always there. People do divide their lives into compartments, and behave properly in one, and that not merely in a technical sense, and improperly in another. The administrator who is honest and reliable at work, and so is an unqualifiedly good administrator, may neglect his family and cheat at cards in the evening. But it is impossible to be a good parent without being a good person in a much wider and inclusive way, since parents set examples for children to follow. Any evaluation of a person's performance, and thus any description of what he is doing, always verges on a distinctly moral evaluation, and may definitely imply it when the activity in question is a wider one or set in a wider context. What Jones really did may be more than tightening a nut so far: firstly it may be carelessly failing to tighten it properly for the purpose in question (technical irresponsibility), and, secondly, therefore to be morally irresponsible in not making sure that the vehicle was safe to go on the road. A description that keeps itself free of moral evaluation can only state the first and lowest level of his action. Likewise although historians do not, nor cannot, act like the recording angel and sum up men's virtues and vices, good deeds and bad, in a final moral balance sheet, yet any account of human action necessarily implies pre-moral and definitely moral evaluations of the extent to which the actors in any event behaved responsibly, irresponsibly or perversely. A general mistakes his enemy's intentions and dispositions. The question necessarily arises as to why he did this: was it incompetence, irresponsiblity, compulsion or reasonable error? Did he act wisely on the information that he had? Did he situate the appreciation instead of appreciating the situation? Was he misled by his enemy or his subordinates? Was he so confident of his own abilities and so contemptuous of the enemy that he made no effort to find out what he was up to? An historian may not explicitly pose and answer questions such as these, but as he goes into the detail of what really happened he implicitly gives answers to some of them.

And when distinctly moral aspects of human life come into view, so likewise he implicitly indicates something of the moral responsibility, irresponsibility or perversity of those concerned. Let us consider, as an example, an historian who comes across a report that prisoners at a given camp were killed. Already this is no bare and neutral description. For `prisoners' entails that they were held against their will, and `killed' entails a violent death. The historian seeks what really happened. The first question is, How were they killed? By a pure accident, by an accident attributable to someone's neglect, by a contrived accident, or by a deliberate and open act of killing? Human responsibility necessarily enters the account, even if to be set aside if the deaths turn out to be due wholly to natural causes such as an unforeseeable flood. If they were intentionally killed, and that is what really happened, then we still have not the whole story. What sort of killing was it? In other words, why were they killed? As a punishment? That in turn raises obvious questions about what they had done, how their responsibility was established, if they were responsible in the first place, who ordered the punishment, who carried it out, if it really was a punishment for an offence and not a cloak for something else such as private revenge or to eliminate the expense of keeping the prisoners alive, and so if the punishment was proportionate to the offence. Although he may not expressly say so, the historian, if he genuinely seeks what really happened and does not stop short at some arbitrary point, will indicate answers to these questions insofar as the evidence allows him to give any. Any description of what really happened will inevitably indicate something of the moral responsibility of those involved and whether or not their actions were justified. For example, if the historian concludes that they were clubbed to death when asleep one night by their guards in revenge for a guard who had been killed when other prisoners intervened to stop him beating a prisoner who was too ill to work, and that the commandant stayed in his room and his general ordered no investigation. The historian does not need to go on explicitly to praise and blame, for this statement of what really happened makes clear the moral qualities of the actions and inaction of those involved.

So while accounts of merely technical aspects of human activity need not involve any more than evaluation of them in terms of the standards of the activity involved, especially when we are studying mass and anonymous actions and their effects, such as the workings of a market, yet, when we come to the full reality of human endeavour at the level of the individuals involved, then evaluations of moral responsibility inevitably enter into our descriptions, as in the above example. Our own moral involvement in human life comes into play and we exercise our own moral commitments. The historian who claims to be value-free either deceives himself or walks by on the other side and thereby neither makes any moral commitments nor makes any attempt to discover what really happened. The full facts of human activity are necessarily moral ones and cannot be described without moral evaluations, implicit at least.

Another aspect of the coincidence of description and evaluation above the level of the inanimate and merely physical considered in and by itself, is that supposedly neutral description is not neutral at all. We have already seen this in the way that a value-free study of politics in fact discredits moral motivations in human life and thus serves the purposes of unscrupulous totalitarianism. This is the double-think of those who claim to step outside commitment. Polanyi deals with this in respect of the coherence theory of truth, which he takes more as a test than a definition of truth. The claim that one should test one's beliefs by comparing them with the actual facts cannot be fulfilled. For in calling them `the actual facts' I am accrediting them as facts and exercising my beliefs in them. Yet I am supposed simultaneously to stand outside of my beliefs and to regard them non-committally.

Objectivists, by discrediting our commitments as `subjective', cannot acknowledge their own commitment to Objectivism. Only Polanyi's `fiduciary programme' is self-consistent.

When the Objectivist mind turns to others' beliefs, it refuses to accredit any as true. According to itself, it remains neutral. But there is no neutrality. It reduces others' beliefs to mere facts, to be observed, classified and explained from the outside. It speaks entirely in the third person. The result is, whether intended or not, that the beliefs in question become discredited by this wholly external treatment. As we saw in the case of value-free political science, their motivation in terms of appreciation of truth or responsible efforts to find the truth which, unfortunately, often go astray, is necessarily discounted by the refusal to exercise one's own judgment upon them. This is what has happened to many of the readers of Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions[22], who have inferred from his accounts that science is nothing but a set of intellectual games. Whether or not Kuhn failed to enter imaginatively into what scientists were doing and so gave a merely external account, the readers in question have done so. Not to place ourselves imaginatively within the mind and situation of the agent (or animal, or in a way even the plant) and not to apply his standards in assessing his situation, and our own in assessing them and his application of them, is to remain outside his commitment and ours, and to discredit his by refusing to consider them, by refusing to take them seriously and by refusing to acknowledge his guidance by them. Anachronism (and anthropomorphism) stems from applying only our own, and Subjectivism or Relativism from applying only his or those of his group.

Marxisant historians and sociologists deliberately engage in debunking people's motivations by regarding them only externally. They thereby induce or reinforce a Subjectivist or Relativist frame of mind, and so undermine people's confidence in their moral beliefs, traditions and institutions. They next present their own view of human life and motivation as the `objective' one, the real structure beneath the ideological and illusory superstructure.

While there are living, conscious and responsible beings in the world, the Objectivist picture of a neutral world of mere fact, which can be accounted for in value-free descriptions, is necessarily false. And if Objectivism were true there would be no Objectivists to state it, nor truth for them to state. While we live, think and act, the world is necessarily a field of organic, technical, cognitive, aesthetic and moral values. This is what we should responsibly acknowledge in an explicit avowal of commitments which we make in living, thinking and acting, whether we realise it or not.


18. KB, p. 33.

19. KB, p. 34.

20. Beyond Freedom and Dignity (New York: Bantam Books, 1972).

21. PK, p. 304.

22. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (2nd. ed. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1970).

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Polanyiana Volume 5, Number 2, 1996, pp. 5-20