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Harry Binswanger discusses factual basis of values

Discussing the Factual Basis of Values with Harry Binswanger

Prominent secular thinkers are starting to realize that to create a more rational culture, it is not enough merely to criticize religion. Religious faith has many problems, but the more honest religious believers embrace their creed because they see it as the only possible source of moral guidance. To move on from religion, they also need to see the possibility of a secular source of moral guidance.

Still, any thinker who tries to outline a secular, scientific code of morality will stumble on a puzzle that has vexed philosophers for hundreds of years. Science explores the world of facts and formulates a set of truths that describe the way things are. But ethics deals with the realm of values and formulates principles that prescribe way things ought to be. How does the world of facts relate to the realm of values? Are they related at all, or is there a yawning chasm between facts and values, a gap between “is” and “ought”?

To get a better handle on a rational approach for solving (or dissolving) this problem, I sat down to chat with Dr. Harry Binswanger. Dr. Binswanger is a philosopher who has written extensively on the subject of epistemology (the theory of knowledge) and on the scientific basis of our value concepts. He was a long-time associate of Ayn Rand’s and is on the board of directors of the Ayn Rand Institute. He’ll be lecturing at this summer’s Objectivist conference in Austin on the subject of Ayn Rand’s own view of how moral value judgments derive from factual knowledge.

Is there a yawning chasm between “is” and “ought”?

Dr. Binswanger responds to my first question about whether there is a factual basis for moral values in the way a philosopher would: he asks a question about the question. Should we assume that there is need to think about moral values in the first place? His answer quickly reveals that he is not being flippant: he thinks we desperately need morality to answer questions about what we should do with our lives.

Dr. Binswanger proposes and defends a view of the factual basis of morality that is informed by his initial understanding of why we need morality in the first place. To identify the basis in facts about human life, he appeals to an array of simple everyday examples, but chooses them with a philosopher’s eye for illustrating what is absolutely essential to understanding this highly abstract question.

I follow up with some puzzles about the connection between facts and values posed by thinkers like seventeenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume and contemporary Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson. Dr. Binswanger draws on an impressive array of resources to propose solutions to these puzzles, displaying a sensitivity to the assumptions in their wider philosophic frameworks that generate confusion. He answers these questions with his characteristically cheerful confidence.

For many years, Dr. Binswanger was my teacher in the Objectivist Graduate Center (the predecessor to the Objectivist Academic Center), where I now teach. I’ve learned a great deal from him, and it’s my pleasure to share some of this experience with you.

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Ben Bayer

Ben Bayer, PhD in philosophy, is a fellow and director of content at the Ayn Rand Institute and the author of Why the Right to Abortion Is Sacrosanct (2022). Ben is a managing editor of New Ideal and a member of the Ayn Rand University faculty.

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