Values, Facts and Methodologies. A Case Study in Philosophy of Economics

Thomas Uebel


One question that has long haunted philosophy of science is whether facts and values are so inextricably mixed up in social science that objectivity in any sense robust enough to distinguish its findings from mere opinion becomes unattainable. A not uncommon view nowadays is that such entanglement only shows the unten- ability of conceptions of objectivity that forbid it and that a new and value-sensitive conception of objectivity needs to be developed. While the discussion in recent years has centred on the issue of how estimations of inductive risk incur judgments of value1—and so generalize the issue across all of the sciences—it is worthwhile to remember that in the decades around the previous turn of the century when the social sciences became established as such, it was the more or less direct interference of politics in the process of social scientific fact finding that was the focus of concern and prompted the demand for value-neutrality. This older worry has not, I submit, lost its urgency and it may be salutary to consider whether, especially in sciences issuing in policy advice, value entanglement is inevitable there as well. I will present a case study from what may at first appear most hostile territory, namely one of the most value-laden of all areas in the social sciences, the socialist calculation debate in political economy.[1] [2]

At issue throughout the socialist calculation debate was a viability claim, namely whether it was possible to put into practice the principles of a socialist economy.

What was in contention in the episode of that debate that is in focus here was the methodology used to achieve a putative impossibility result. Its proponent claimed that his impossibility result was dismissed on account of a purely politically motivated methodological decision against it. The threat accordingly would be this: methodologies that either allow or disallow politically sensitive impossibility results are themselves subject to the suspicion of having been chosen with political ends in mind or, less conspiratorial, of inherent bias. As will be shown, however, a far more persuasive successor to the impossibility argument in question does not depend on the contentious methodology—though it reduced the modality in question back to empirical implausibility. This suggests that the allegation that opposition to the method of argument originally used was wholly political was mistaken and that the fact-method-value entanglement did not extend as far as was feared.

  • [1] See, e.g., Douglas (2000) and (2009) elaborating an argument from Rudner (1953).
  • [2] While I am not unsympathetic to the argument that it is not social science but social philosophy,I shall here treat political economy as a representative of normatively exposed social science andthe episode in question as offering a particularly sharp challenge to the general demand for value-neutrality in social science. T. Uebel (*) Department of Philosophy, University of Manchester, Manchester, M13 9PL, UKe-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it © Springer International Publishing AG 2017 93 F. Stadler (ed.), Integrated History and Philosophy of Science, Vienna CircleInstitute Yearbook 20, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-53258-5_8
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