One of the most commonly held beliefs today is that reality can be objectively studied only through science, and that where science cannot empirically test what is true and false—as, for example, with morality—we cannot know truth. In other words, science is objective because it is based on facts, whereas morality is subjective because it is based on values.
This thinking is flawed. It stems from an erroneous assumption that “facts” are independent of “values”—that is, “ought” statements (which are statements of value) cannot be derived from “is” statements (which are statements of fact). But the truth is, facts and values are indivisible.
Consider, for instance, the concept of a chair. The essence of a chair is to have properties of “chairness”: to have stable legs, to stand upright, to have a seat, etc. These are facts about the nature of chairs, even though no particular chair perfectly exhibits them. For example, imagine a chair with all four of its legs, and imagine another chair with one broken leg. While the first chair may appear to be in perfect condition, upon careful inspection we would notice subtle flaws.
Say, if measured precisely we would see that the legs of the chair differ in length, if only by a fraction of a millimeter. Still, we regard it as a better chair than the broken one because it more closely resembles the essence of “chairness.”
This common-sense value judgment is as objective as the facts about the nature of chairs. To suggest otherwise is to deny that chairs have a purpose (to support you while you sit) for which there is an objective standard (“chairness”). Such denial not only defies common sense, but it renders reality unintelligible.
For example, identifying this chair as a “chair” is possible only if there is a universal standard of what it entails to be a “chair.” That standard—or “chairness”—thus pre-exists in our minds before we can identify “this” as a chair. Without it, there is simply no reference point and thus no basis for calling “this” a chair.
Likewise, communication presupposes universals as reference points between communicators. Without them—if the word “chair,” for example, does not convey a meaning universal to both communicators—language itself breaks down. That is why, as Harry Jaffa put it, “Sensation, or a judgment of the mind utilizing only the data of the sense, is insufficient to make a possible judgment of fact. Empirical knowledge, properly so called, is a synthesis of sense data with definitions, universals, in terms of which the sense data are ordered” (emphasis added). In other words, value judgments are built into the framework of facts.
If we speak, for example, of a “good chair,” the word good merely implies that the chair in question fulfills the obligations of “chairness”—namely, that it supports you while you sit. Thus, the judgment “good” is inherent in the concept of a chair, so “good chair” conveys nothing more than the term “chair” itself conveys.
Now, if the chair in question does not fulfill the obligations of “chairness”—that is, if it fails to support you while you sit—we rightly regard it as a bad chair, as it does not live up to our concept of what a chair entails. Put simply, our understanding of reality presupposes that ends are built into the nature of things (i.e., that a chair is naturally ordered toward the purpose of supporting you while you sit). Because of that, value judgments are interwoven with facts (i.e., the fact that a particular chair does not support you while you sit renders it a bad chair). Indeed, facts cannot be completely severed from values without neutering our understanding of knowledge.
Yet we attempt to separate the two with regard to human beings and morality. For example, “Live your truth” has become the relativistic refrain of our time. Truth, we insist, is personal. But this insistence is futile. Indeed, just as the nature of a chair points toward an end (supporting you while you sit), so the nature of man also points toward an end. But what is that end?
Values Aren’t As Good a Concept as The Good
Before attempting to answer that, it must be pointed out that, contrary to our modern reference to “values,” classical philosophers spoke instead of “the good.” The difference is essential to understand. The term “values” implies a subjective or “personal preference” basis of morality, but classical philosophers used the term “the good” not to mean one’s personal beliefs or tastes, but a thing fulfilling its purpose (known in philosophy as “teleology”), or acting in accordance with its nature.
For instance, “the good” of a chair is to support you while you sit; “the good” of a watch is to tell time; “the good” of an acorn is to grow into a tree; “the good” of a squirrel is to exhibit “squirrelness”—to collect acorns, to grow a tail, to climb trees, reproduce, etc. Accordingly, “the good” of a human being is to act in accordance with human nature.
What, then, is the essence of human nature? Like a chair, the essence of a human being is to have properties of “humanity.” The first and most basic properties we might think of are things like consuming nutrients, growing, and reproducing. But while these are indeed features of human nature, they cannot be the essence of it, or we would be indistinguishable from plants and animals, who also exhibit these properties.
Our next thought may be more complex properties like sensory perception and locomotion. But while these properties distinguish us from plants, animals also possess the ability to sense and to move, so these cannot be the defining aspects of human nature either, otherwise there would be no “human nature” to distinguish from “animal nature.” So what, if anything, defines the essence of “humanity”?
Rationality Inclines Towards Apprehending Truth
Unlike animals, human beings possess a rational mind, the end of which is to grasp the nature of things and to understand reality. As philosopher Edward Feser explains, “Rationality—the ability to grasp forms or essences and to reason on the basis of them—has as its natural end or final cause the attainment of truth, of understanding the world around us.”
Put differently, rationality has as its purpose the pursuit of truth. Furthermore, human beings choose to act in a way animals do not. Animals are slaves to their bodily instincts, but a soldier can defy the instinct for self-preservation and sacrifice himself for the greater good, just as an athlete can defy his appetite and adhere to a diet in order to achieve physical excellence. In a word, free will enables us to choose whether to overcome our natural instincts and do what is best for us.
This point is worth reflection. Not all our innate desires are inherently good. Thus, to live according to our nature does not mean fulfilling every instinct we have, no matter how base, but rather fulfilling the ends of our instincts.
The difference is vital to understand. For example, we have a natural desire for nourishment. When we are hungry, therefore, we should eat. However, the end of our instinct for nourishment is self-preservation. Because overindulgence and undernourishment jeopardize that end, they undermine our nature. It is between these extremes—food in moderate amounts—that represents “the good.”
Likewise, we are by nature social beings. We naturally seek community, the end of which is friendship and love. Nevertheless, we are also self-interested. Too much self-focus, however, becomes narcissism, which alienates us from our social nature. To achieve “the good” we therefore must control our selfish impulses.
It’s Hard to Be Good, But That Doesn’t Negate It
Of course, classical philosophers recognized that overcoming our urges is often difficult, which is why they stressed the importance of good habits, or “virtues,” to help us do so. If we are to fulfill our humanity, we must exhibit virtues like courage, wisdom, temperance, and justice. Without them, we have little hope of living in accordance with human nature.
Naturally, however, the idea of living virtuously has today been rendered all but meaningless. That is because, as Leo Strauss once explained, “the crisis of modernity reveals itself in the fact, or consists in the fact, that modern western man no longer knows what he wants—that he no longer believes that he can know what is good and bad, what is right and wrong.”
That is result of having abandoned the teleological nature of reality, including the notion that there are ends built into human nature we ought to pursue in order to live well. Until we reaffirm that idea, we are bound to a reality void of both common sense and truth.