Smith examines the problem of whether the human sciences can be value‐​free, and if so in what sense.

George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith’s fourth and most recent book, The System of Liberty, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.

In an earlier essay, What are the Human Sciences? I defined “science” in the broad sense as “any specialized cognitive discipline.” I continued:

In this context, “cognitive” means “knowledge‐​yielding,” while “discipline” refers to a kind of inquiry that is sustained and systematic. Thus a science is a sustained and systematic effort to acquire knowledge— but it is more. It is also specialized. A science has a delimited field of inquiry—a particular subject matter and/​or point of view that sets it apart from other sciences.

No problem has received more attention in the human sciences than the question: Are the sciences that study human action value‐​free? Is this even possible? Or do the conclusions reached by economists, sociologists, historians, and the like necessarily reflect the value preferences of the investigator?

The value‐​free problem derives its significance from the standard philosophical distinction between facts and values, between the positive Is of descriptive propositions and the normative Ought of value judgments. Science, we are told, should be objective, and this (supposedly) means that scientists should approach their subject matter in a value‐​free manner.

The demand that science should be value‐​neutral (which I call the neutrality maxim) has caused more problems for the human sciences than for the physical (or “natural”) sciences. If a value‐​laden approach to the human sciences seems difficult to avoid, this is largely because their subject matter, human action, is inherently value‐​laden.

Human action (including purposeful mental activity) is driven by value preferences. Our preferences, in turn, flow from value judgments (many of which are habitual), and those judgments are based on value norms. Norms are standards of value, implicit or explicit, that guide our choices and actions in particular situations. We cannot live successfully by treating each present decision as if it were unique and incommensurate with past decisions; we cannot learn from experience without using general principles to evaluate our past actions and to project the probable outcomes of future actions. We require norms, or standards of value, to guide our decisions and actions.

Man is a normative animal, and all of his purposeful actions are value‐​laden. We can never hope to understand or explain human action unless we take this highly significant fact into account.

The neutrality maxim, if taken to mean that all value judgments and norms should be excluded from science, is absurd on its face. No cognitive discipline, including the physical sciences, can ever be completely value‐​free. Every science is permeated with value norms, such as “objectivity,” that prescribe what a scientist ought to do if he wishes to succeed in his discipline. If the neutrality maxim is to serve any purpose at all, it must refer not to all values but only to those values that are inappropriate to a given discipline.

Every science, in seeking to attain knowledge, operates from the assumption that truth is a cognitive value, something to be preferred over error and falsehood–so every science must establish internal norms that will enable its practitioners to differentiate knowledge claims that should be accepted from those that should not be accepted. Value judgments–which assess something as better or worse, as more or less desirable than other alternatives–are inherent in the quest for knowledge. Epistemological norms, which establish standards for the evaluation of arguments and knowledge claims, are prescriptive in character, at least implicitly. If a philosopher defends a proposition as both justified and true, he is saying that others ought to believe what that proposition says; they should accept it as authenticated knowledge.

Cognitive norms specify the procedures that should be followed if one wishes to arrive at knowledge. Reasoning, like all human action, is purposeful. If we were perfectly content with our present state of knowledge and had no desire to learn anything more, we would never reason except for purely instrumental purposes, as when we need to figure out a way to achieve a concrete, practical goal.

Anyone who honestly tries to justify her knowledge claims, and who refuses to accept something as true without sufficient evidence and/​or arguments, is manifesting her value preference for justified over unjustified beliefs. When this value preference is systematically applied to those cognitive disciplines known as the sciences–which by definition have knowledge as their goal–it generates norms within the disciplines themselves. These internal norms regulate the pursuit of specialized knowledge within a given discipline, establishing criteria (e.g., standards of reliable evidence) that must be satisfied before a knowledge claim should be embraced by the practitioners of that discipline.

Given that every science, including the physical sciences, must employ epistemological norms that regulate the pursuit of cognitive values, how can any science be portrayed as value‐​free? To answer this question, we need to distinguish between internal and external norms. By “internal norms” I mean standards of value that are inherent in a particular discipline–those norms that must be followed in order to satisfy the cognitive purpose of a science, which is to justify the kind of knowledge claim with which that science deals.

The imperative that scientists should be objective, conducting their investigations in a value‐​free manner, obviously does not pertain to the internal norms and values of their discipline, since internal norms and values are indispensable to the very enterprise of science. By establishing the conditions of objectivity, they determine the modes of investigation and verification that are appropriate to a science, without which it could not function as a knowledge‐​yielding enterprise. To say, therefore, that a scientist should abstain from value judgments is simply to say that a scientist should remain faithful to the internal values of his discipline and avoid external values that are inappropriate (and perhaps detrimental) to his work.

My distinction between internal and external norms is crucial to our inquiry into the relationship between values and the human sciences. As we have seen, no cognitive discipline can be (or should be) value‐​free in the strict sense. Thus to call a science “value‐​free” refers to the exclusion not of all values but only those values that are external and irrelevant to the successful functioning of that discipline.

This analysis may seem a bit peculiar, even perverse, for it appears to preclude the possibility of establishing criteria by which we can identify a science as value‐​free. If I am right, then could we not regard any discipline as value‐​free or as value‐​laden, depending on how we look at it? If every cognitive discipline must employ internal norms, then every discipline, when viewed from this perspective, is value‐​laden. The very existence of these internal norms, however, implies that a discipline can identify external values, condemn them as irrelevant, and thereby qualify as value‐​free.

This objection, though it raises some interesting questions, is not fatal to the distinction I am making between internal and external norms and the values they express. To understand the reason for this, we must make yet another distinction, one between disciplinary norms (or values) and personal norms (or values).

A cognitive discipline, whether it be a theoretical or an applied science, may be viewed as having a purpose of its own, quite apart from the personal goals and motives of those who work within the discipline. We may say, for instance, that the ultimate purpose of medicine, qua discipline, is to heal the sick and otherwise promote human health. Yet if we ask a physician why he chose the career of medicine, he may reply that his ultimate purpose was to make a lot of money. There needn’t be any conflict between these two purposes, the disciplinary and the personal, so long as a doctor does not permit his desire to make a lot of money, which is external to the discipline of medicine per se, to interfere with or take precedence over the primary internal value of healing the sick.

The physician who has the best interests of his patient at heart, regardless of how much money he expects to be paid for his services, is pursuing medicine as a value‐​free enterprise, in my sense of the term. The value he places on the well‐​being of his patient merely reflects his role as a physician. His initial commitment to this career obviously reflected a subjective value preference, but how he conducts himself thereafter may be described as “objective” so long as he does not permit his personal preferences to override his professional judgments. External, or personal, values are incompatible with a science only when they are allowed to conflict with the internal, or disciplinary, values of that science.

If a physician allows his personal desire for money to override his professional judgment (say, by charging a patient for an unnecessary operation), then he has imported an inappropriate value into his work, an external value that conflicts with the primary internal value of his discipline. This physician, though he may be competent in a technical sense, is said to lack professional integrity. He has violated the value‐​free demand of his profession by allowing the external value of money to override the internal value of healing the sick.

The preceding illustrates an important point: In order to identify some values as external (and hence as irrelevant) to a discipline, it must be possible to define the internal values and norms of that discipline with some degree of precision. We cannot know what should be excluded from a science unless we first know what should be included. If a discipline has few if any internal norms that are agreed upon by most of its practitioners, or if its norms are excessively vague or ambiguous, then the distinction between internal and external values (as these are expressed in normative criteria for the verification of knowledge claims) virtually disappears altogether. And should this occur it will become extremely difficult to distinguish disciplinary values from personal values in the realm of cognitive norms.

In contrast to the “hard” sciences, such as physics, “soft” disciplines like sociology are typically what philosophers have in mind when they raise the problem of value‐​free science. A “hard” science is characterized by a disciplinary paradigm–a key‐​cluster of problems, assumptions, and procedural values that are generally accepted as essential to the successful practice of that science. Thus, as has often been observed (and as I discussed in a previous essay), the “hard” physical sciences are not plagued with the degree of methodological disputes that run rampant in the “soft” human sciences.

A human science, if it lacks a coherent paradigm accepted by most of its practitioners, will find it difficult to exclude external values. This is so because, without a clearly articulated system of internal norms, a discipline cannot even distinguish the external from the internal. It can draw no effective line of demarcation between personal and disciplinary values. The value‐​free status of a discipline cannot be affirmed if the personal values of its practitioners typically remain undetected and unacknowledged. And this will generate conflicting claims and interpretations that cannot be resolved by appealing to internal norms. In such cases a solution can be determined only through a philosophical investigation of the methodology of the science in question.

The preceding remarks are highly abstract, so their relevance may not be apparent to readers unfamiliar with the standard debates among practitioners of the human sciences. Therefore, beginning with the next essay, I shall turn to history–a discipline that has occasioned many interesting and intelligent controversies about methodology. History, in my judgment, is the most complex human science, especially since the historian cannot function without drawing from the other human sciences (and philosophy). An exploration of the methodology of history will enable us to focus our attention on a number of practical problems relating to value judgments and objectivity. In addition, this investigation will help us appreciate why many classical liberals viewed history as essential to our understanding of individual freedom.