Dec 5, 2012

Max Weber on ethical neutrality in the social sciences

Finally finished a piece by Max Weber "The meaning of 'ethical neutrality' in sociology and economics" (Methodology of social sciences, 2011, google books link).

In this piece Weber asks whether the social sciences can be ethically neutral and what it means in terms of their research questions and methods. He addresses this issue by distinguishing between value-judgments and factual assertions. Value-judgments are evaluations of phenomena that can be satisfactory or unsatisfactory (positive or negative). They are derived from ethical principles or cultural ideals, which are subjective and therefore cannot be discussed scientifically. Factual statements are logically deducible and empirically observable. While the distinction between empirical statements and value-judgments is difficult to make, it is important according to Weber to keep making this distinction to maintain rigor in the social sciences. Avoiding taking a moral stand as part of one's research is what makes the social sciences science.

Weber's position is that education (and lectures as its ultimate manifestation in his times) should not be based on value-judgments. Students attend education institutions to cultivate their capacities for observation and reasoning, and a certain body of factual information. Evaluations, which cannot be contested in a lecture hall, should take place somewhere else. However, Weber writes that university decision-makers can decide which path to choose: to include value-judgments in education or not. It depends on whether they believe that education is about molding human beings and developing their political, ethical, and cultural attitudes, or whether it should focus on specialized training.

The methodological question in empirical sciences is not how to avoid value-judgments, but how to distinguish between them and empirical propositions and use both accordingly. Science can ask questions about things which convention makes self-evident. Evaluations (value-judgments) often seem self-evident. They can be examined by empirical sciences with respect to the conditions of their emergence and existence. This leads to an “understanding", i.e., a greater awareness of the issues and reasons for persistence of norms and opinions as well as conflicts. Empirical sciences can help to understand the means, the repercussions, and the conditioned competition of various evaluations, but choices between means, consequences and ultimately evaluations are matters of choice and compromise.

There is no (rational or empirical) scientific procedure of any kind whatsoever which can provide us with a decision here. The social sciences, which are strictly empirical sciences, are the least fitted to presume to save the individual the difficulty of making a choice, and they should therefore not create the impression that they can do so. - p. 19

One of the tasks of an empirically neutral social science is to analyze standpoints and reduce them to rational, internally consistent forms and investigate the pre-conditions of their existence and their implications. It can be done by using theoretical constructs, ideal types, which are pure fiction and should be used as such. Ideal types, or rationally correct and consistent Utopian constructions of patterns or behaviors are useful in comparing them with empirical reality in order to establish its divergences or similarities and to understand or explain them causally. Ideal types should not be used for establishing moral imperatives.

In theory, Weber's approach makes sense. Especially, when he talks about the danger of presenting value-judgments as factual statements and making them imperatives. It's obvious that mixing evaluations with facts makes a bad science. But what happens when we make a conscious choice to remain ethically neutral when studying sensitive issues or vulnerable populations? Also, if we become aware of means and repercussions of evaluations, why doesn't it help us to make better choices?