Distinction between factual and ethical meaning

Factual propositions are statements about the observable world and the way in which it operates.1 In principle, factual propositions may be tested to determine whether they are true or false—whether what they say about the world actually occurs, or whether it does not.

Decisions are something more than factual propositions. To be sure, they are descriptive of a future state of affairs, and this description can be true or false in a strictly empirical sense; but they possess, in addition, an imperative quality—they select one future state of affairs in preference to another and direct behavior toward the chosen alternative. In short, they have an ethical as well as a factual content.

The question of whether decisions can be correct and incorrect resolves itself, then, into the question of whether ethical terms like “ought,” “good,” and “preferable” have a purely empirical meaning. It is a fundamental premise of this study that ethical terms are not completely reducible to factual terms. No attempt will be made here to demonstrate conclusively the correctness of this view toward ethical propositions; the justification has been set forth at length by logical positivists and others.12

The argument, briefly, runs as follows. To determine whether a proposition is correct, it must be compared directly with experience— with the facts—or it must lead by logical reasoning to other propositions that can be compared with experience. But factual propositions cannot be derived from ethical ones by any process of reasoning, nor can ethical propositions be compared directly with the facts—since they assert “oughts” rather than facts. Hence, there is no way in which the correctness of ethical propositions can be empirically or rationally tested.

From this viewpoint, if a sentence declares that some particular state of affairs “ought to be,” or that it is “preferable” or “desirable,” then the sentence performs an imperative function, and is neither true nor false, correct nor incorrect. Since decisions involve valuation of this kind, they too cannot be objectively described as correct or incorrect.

The search for the philosopher’s stone and the squaring of the circle have not been more popular pursuits among philosophers than the attempt to derive ethical sentences, as consequences of purely factual ones. To mention a relatively modem example—Bentham defined the term “good” as equivalent with “conducive to happiness,” defining “happiness” in psychological terms.13

He then considered whether or not particular states of affairs were conducive to happiness, and hence good. Of course, no logical objection can be raised against this procedure: it is here rejected because the word “good” thus defined by Bentham cannot perform the function required of the word “good” in ethics—that of expressing moral preference for one alternative over another. It may be possible by such a process to derive the conclusion that people will be happier under one set of circumstances than under another, but this does not prove that they ought to be happier. The Aristotelian definition—that something is good for man which makes him correspond more closely with his essential nature as a rational animal14— suffers from the same limitation.

Thus, by appropriate definitions of the word “good” it may be possible to construct sentences of the form: “Such a state of affairs is good” But from “good” defined in this way it is impossible to deduce “Such a state of affairs ought to be.” The task of ethics is to select imperatives— ought-sentences; and this task cannot be accomplished if the term “good” is defined in such a way that it merely designates existents. In this study, therefore, words like “good” and “ought” will be reserved for their ethical functions, and will not be predicated of any state of affairs in a purely factual sense. It follows that decisions may be “good,” but they cannot, in an unqualified sense, be “correct,” or “true.”

1. The Evaluation of Decisions

We see that, in a strict sense, the administrator’s decisions cannot be evaluated by scientific means. Is there no scientific content, then, to administrative problems? Are they purely questions of ethics? Quite the contrary: to assert that there is an ethical element involved in every decision is not to assert that decisions involve only ethical elements.

Consider the following passage from the Infantry Field Manual of the United States Army:

Surprise is an essential element of a successful attack. Its effects should be striven for in small as well as in large operations. Infantry effects surprise by concealment of the time and place of the attack, screening of its dispositions, rapidity of maneuver, deception, and the avoidance of stereotyped procedures.5

It is difficult to say to what extent these three sentences are meant as factual propositions, and to what extent they are intended as imperatives, that is, as decisions. The first may be read purely as a statement about the conditions for a successful attack; the third may be interpreted as a listing of the conditions under which a state of surprise is achieved.

But binding together these factual sentences—providing them with con- nective tissue, so to speak—is a set of expressed and implied imperatives, which may be paraphrased thus: “Attack successfully!” “Employ sur- prise!” and “Conceal the time and place of attack, screen dispositions, move rapidly, deceive the enemy, and avoid stereotyped procedures!”

In fact, the paragraph can be rephrased in another way, separating it into three sentences, the first ethical, the others purely factual:

  1. Attack successfully!
  2. An attack is successful only when carried out under conditions of surprise.
  3. The conditions of surprise are concealment of the time and place of attack, etc.

It follows that the decisions that a military commander makes to screen the dispositions of his troops contain both factual and ethical ele- ments, for he screens the dispositions in order to effect “surprise,” and this in order to attack successfully. Hence, there is one sense in which the con rectness of his decisions can be judged: it is a purely factual question whether the measures he takes in order to accomplish his aim are appro- priate measures. It is not a factual question whether the aim itself is correct or not, except in so far as this aim is connected, by an “in order,” to further aims.

Decisions can always be evaluated in this relative sense—it can be determined whether they are correct, given the objective at which they are aimed—but a change in objectives implies a change in evaluation. Strictly speaking, it is not the decision itself which is evaluated, but the purely factual relationship that is asserted between the decision and its aims.6 The commander’s decision to take particular measures in order to attain surprise is not evaluated; what is evaluated is his factual judgment that the measures he takes will, in fact, attain surprise.

This argument may be presented in a slightly different way. Consider the two sentences: “Achieve surprise!” and “The conditions of surprise are concealment of the time and place of attack, etc.” While the first sentence contains an imperative, or ethical, element, and hence is neither true nor false, the second sentence is purely factual. If the notion of logical inference be extended so as to apply to the ethical as well as the factual element in sentences, then from these two sentences a third may be deduced: “Conceal the time and place of attack, etc.!” Thus, with the mediation of a factual premise (the second sentence), one imperative can be deduced from another.

2. The Mixed Character of Ethical Statements

It should be clear from the illustrations already put forth that most ethi- cal propositions have admixed with them factual elements. Since most imperatives are not ends-in-themselves but intermediate ends, the ques- tion of their appropriateness to the more final ends at which they are aimed remains a factual question. Whether it is ever possible to trace the chain of implementation far enough to isolate a “pure” value—an end that is desired purely for itself—is a question that need not be settled here. The important point for the present discussion is that any state- ment that contains an ethical element, intermediate or final, cannot be described as correct or incorrect, and that the decision-making process must start with some ethical premise that is taken as “given.” This ethical premise describes the objective of the organization in question.

In administration, the mixed character of the ethical “givens” is usually fairly obvious. A municipal department may take as its objective the providing of recreation to the city’s inhabitants. This aim may then be further analyzed as a means toward “building healthier bodies,” “using leisure time constructively,” “preventing juvenile delinquency,” and a host of others, until the chain of means and ends is traced into a vague realm labeled “the good life.” At this point the means-ends connections become so conjectural (e.g. the relation between recreation and character), and the content of the values so ill defined (e.g. “happiness”), that the analysis becomes valueless for administrative purposes.16

The last point may be stated in a more positive way. In order for an ethical proposition to be useful for rational decision-making, (a) the values taken as organizational objectives must be definite, so that their degree of realization in any situation can be assessed, and (b) it must be possible to form judgments as to the probability that particular actions will implement these objectives.

3. The Role of Judgment in Decision

The division of the premises of decision into those that are ethical and those that are factual might appear to leave no room for judgment in decision- making. This difficulty is avoided by the very broad meaning that has been given to the word “factual”: a statement about the observable world is factual if, in principle, its truth or falsity may be tested. That is, if certain events occur, we say the statement was true; if other events occur, we say that it was false.

This does not by any means imply that we are able to determine in advance whether it is tme or false. It is here that judgment enters. In making administrative decisions it is continually necessary to choose factual premises whose truth or falsehood is not definitely known and cannot be determined with certainty with the information and time available for reaching the decision.

It is a purely factual question whether a particular infantry attack will take its objective or fail. It is, nevertheless, a question involving judgment, since the success or failure will depend upon the disposition of the enemy, the accuracy and strength of artillery support, the topography, the morale of the attacking and defending troops, and a host of other factors that cannot be completely known or assessed by the commander who has to order the attack.

In ordinary speech there is often confusion between the element of judgment in decision and the ethical element. This confusion is enhanced by the fact that the further the means-end chain is followed, i.e. the greater the ethical element, the more doubtful are the steps in the chain, and the greater is the element of judgment involved in determining what means will contribute to what ends.17

The process by which judgments are formed has been very imperfectly studied. In practical administration it may be feared that confidence in the correctness of judgments sometimes takes the place of any serious attempt to evaluate them systematically on the basis of subsequent results. But further consideration of the psychology of decisionmaking will have to be postponed to a later chapter.18

4. Value Judgments in Private Management

The illustrations used thus far in this chapter have been drawn largely from the field of public administration. One reason for this is that the problem of value judgments has been more fully explored—particularly in relation to administrative discretion and administrative regulation— in the public than in the private field. There is, in fact, no essential difference on this topic between the two. Decisions in private management, like decisions in public management, must take as their ethical premises the objectives that have been set for the organization.

There are important differences between public and private management, of course, in the types of organizational objectives that are set up and in the procedures and mechanisms for establishing them. In public administration final responsibility for determining objectives rests with a legislative body; in private management, with the board of directors, and ultimately with the stockholders.11 In both fields serious problems have arisen as to the means to be used in implementing the responsibility of these control bodies.19 It is to this problem that we turn next—again directing our attention particularly to the field of public administration. A little translation of terms should suffice to make most of the discussion applicable to the stockholder-management relationship.

Source: Simon Herbert A. (1997), Administrative Behavior, Free Press; Subsequent edition.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *