3 Sep

Detached consumers of interesting facts

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 09/03/21

Richard Stivers on how statistical norms replaced moral norms

“The normal has supplanted the moral (in the traditional sense) in itself becoming the moral. We are speaking here of statistical normality, a statistical average. The two major forms this statistical morality assumes are public opinion and peer group norms. In the former instance, the norms are abstract and impersonal; in the latter, they are concrete and personal. Yet public opinion increasingly informs the attitudes and behavior of the peer group. What the majority of people do and say tends to become normative.

“There are three principal reasons, all related, for the triumph of normality. First, the growing prestige of science from the eighteenth to the nineteenth centuries elevated the status of the fact. The mission of mechanistic science was to break objects down to their ever smaller constituent parts. This atomistic approach produced a plethora of facts. From those positivistic scientists and layman there was a one-to-one relationship between the fact and its referent in the real world: perception was possible without the contaminating influence of preconception. With the gradual dissolution of the belief in the objectivity of religious and moral values, objectivity took up temporary residence in science. Objectivity lay in the laws of science that were a mirror of the laws of an autonomous nature. That part of natural law that spoke to the normative dimension of human existence eventually was seen as subjective. Facts were now objective, values subjective.

“Scientific theory has come to be seen to have a merely formal relationship to reality, arbitrary in its conceptual substance, but realistic in terms of the mathematical relationship between concepts and of conceptual parsimony. This further elevates the status of the fact, this time at the expense of theory. Atomistic science has produced in effect a universe of random facts. These facts both in and out of science can be disseminated to the public as fascinating information. Witness the incredible interest in books and games of facts, such as the Guinness Book of Records and Trivial Pursuit. We are fascinated with the most intimate details of a person’s life (the television talk shows) and in the exotic details of nature. The reason is clear: facts and reality are one, and our approach to reality is purely aesthetical. We are detached consumers of interesting facts. Reality is the sum of all facts but is known one fact at a time. Therefore reality is experienced as both fragmentary and interesting.

“The view that nature is ordered according to lawful relations amenable to scientific explanation is eventually applied to society as well. A growing immanentism (a belief that the world is a self-contained material reality), which cannot be attributed to science as such, rather to the use of science as a worldview, encouraged the elimination of the dualism of nature and society. There had been a long-standing idea in western civilization that the laws of both nature and society were normative, but that those of society could be violated by humans. Freedom implied the possibility of transgressing God’s laws. By the nineteenth century, however, immanentism was well in place, as understood by Nietzsche in his ‘Death of God’ proclamation. If science could be used to discern the laws of nature, there was no reason why they could not be used with respect to society. The rise of the social sciences in the nineteenth century attests to this belief. As Comte understood it, the laws of sociology, statistical norms, would replace outmoded moral norms. The normal supplants the moral.

“Traditional morality, moreover, is reduced to the status of ideology. The distinction between what ought to be and what is gives way to that between ideology and reality. Morality becomes a screen behind which the self-interests of the group and the individual are played out. Marx’s theory of ideology is, in this sense, only a reflection of the decline of a belief in the objectivity of moral norms in Western civilization. Marx’s materialism is but one form that radical immanentism has assumed.”

— from Richard Stivers, The Culture of Cynicism: American Morality in Decline (Blackwell, 1994)