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?


  1. Great essay. I'll have to read the original piece, though you give an excellent overview. You pose two interesting questions at the end. I'll make a stab at the first and leave the second to the clever folk (ya I mean you, you critical theorists ; ) It seems if you remain ethically neutral, from a librarian perspective, you are sort of derelict in duty. After all as Mr. Ron Day says, what is a professional if not to, and I paraphrase, be able to anticipate changes in social and cultural context and make adjustment accordingly. To some extent our very profession is based upon the notion that the "end is not near" (Dana). Now what happens if we remain ethically neutral, well in fact this semester, I'm going to try and move away from an ideal approach and am going to try an enumeration approach to teaching. I'm ploughing my way through Weinbergs, "An introduction to systems theory", and am fascinated with the elegance of a 3 system state: High, Low, Absence (or field state). Sooooo 802 Information Seeking Behavior and Patron Service is definitely a value-judgement approach and 805 Management and Information,Organizations, factual-assertions. Damn management forcing me to bow to its capitalist paradigm... why shall the twain never meet?

  2. Thanks for taking time to respond :) I'd say your 805 course may need value-judgment approach as well. When we "neutrally" manage people and information, there might be negative consequences. But it's a whole separate post.

  3. Kalley, is now at KU and seems to be a natural in Ethics. I asked her what she took from the class and she said she learned more about her Prof than she really needed to know. ??? Well I guess her Prof was using, from what I can tell a Socratic teaching method (mind you he's a brand new faculty) and he never revealed his opinion on any of the topics... until you stuck around after the final he would talk about his opinion on the various class topics. Weeeellll it turns out he's a social contract type of guy. Yah like that ain't leakin' out all over the class. Do you think that's what Weber is talking about when he refers to neutral?

  4. Weber has many interesting points in his piece re: teaching and value-judgments. Something that is relevant to your point is the question of bias, right? Here is what Weber said: "If asserting value-judgments in the classroom is to be justified, then representatives of all points of view should be granted the opportunity of demonstrating their validity on the academic platform." Which, again, I'm not sure is achievable and even necessary, because there is always a danger of confusing facts and value-judgments (cf. evolution and creationism).