Bradley Shavit Artson
Rabbi. Philosopher. Author. Teacher.

Facts and Values — Inseparable and Entwined

The task seems explicit: Moses instructs a select group of the leaders of Israel’s tribes to conduct a scouting expedition into the Promised Land. There, they are to observe carefully and return with the factual data that will allow Israel to plan the best approach to entering the land. Twelve individuals are selected – the spies – in later nomenclature. And Moses enumerates the facts they need to amass:
Go up there into the Negev and on into the hill country and see what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor? I sit wooded or not (Num 13:17 – 20)?

The assignment, not unlike the contemporary census, calls for compiling extensive lists of information. But something gets confused in the process. Instead of sticking to the facts, the Spies return with an assessment:
The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size; we saw the Nephilim there – the Anakites are part of the Nephilim – and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them (13:32,33).

Notice that God and Moses are simply asking for information – just the facts, Ma’am. In the words of the Rashbam (12th Century France), “All this kind of information was needed so that they would know to take with them the tools needed to lay siege to fortresses, for example.” But the spies cannot resist the urge to allow their opinions to intrude. That the land devours its settlers isn’t an objective measurement, it’s an opinion. That we look like grasshoppers to ourselves and must have to them too – subjectivity and sentiment designed to dissuade the Israelites from further advance.

Or so it has appeared to many generations of readers. Fact versus opinion, objective versus subjective, “is” versus “ought.” The Spies crossed the line by offering the latter (opinion, subjective, ought) when what is called for is the former (fact, objective, is).

In reading the Spies through this filter, we stand on the shoulders not only of great Torah commentators, but also two of the greatest of Western philosophers: David Hume and Immanuel Kant. One of the great tools developed by modern philosophy is a distinction, suggested first by Hume and then made a cornerstone by Kant, between facts and values. For Hume, the dichotomy of “fact” vs. “sentiment” and for Kant, the distinction between “synthetic” and “ethics” was elevated to a metaphysical principle – Hume’s famous insistence that you can’t derive an “ought” from an “is.” Hume used this principled dichotomy to delegitimize religion, theology, and any attempt to make ethics rigorous or normative. Kant utilized this same dichotomy to attempt to save ethics for respectable conversation – at the price of content-filled revelation or ritual.

More recently, some prominent philosophers have begun to dismantle this wall of separation. It’s not that there aren’t some statements that are factual and some statements that express feelings, its just that the two categories are rarely mutually-exclusive or as hermetically sealed from each other as we once imagined. The philosopher W. V. Quine, notes that the lore of our fathers is a fabric of sentences. In our hands it develops and changes, through more or less arbitrary and deliberate revisions and additions of our own, more or less directly occasioned by the continuing stimulation of our sense organs. It is a pale grey lore, black with fact and white with convention. But I have found no substantial reasons for concluding that there are any quite black threads in it, or any white ones.

Rather than admitting a principled dichotomy that separates fact from convention (values, ethics), Quine argues for their interplay and fusion. A philosopher of the next generation, Hilary Putnam, has insisted, “‘valuation’ and ‘description’ are interdependent.” Too many 20th Century thinkers attempt to portray the world in two distinct columns – “objective,” which they equated with real, factual, true, and “subjective” – which they see as beyond any norms, discussion, or evaluation. Putnam opposes this dichotomy: It is clear that developing a less scientistic account of rationality, an account that enables us to see how reasoning, far from being impossible in normative areas, is in fact indispensable to them, and conversely, understanding how normative judgments are presupposed in all reasoning, is important not only in economics but – as Aristotle saw – in all of life.

Let’s revisit Moses’ instructions through this new/old prism, one which insists that the very act of identifying and articulating facts rests on interpretation, imagination, emotion, and that the process of intuiting emotion or imagination rests on information, reason, and sense perception. The objective and subjective meet and mingle in the human dance of thinking/feeling/doing. Each is the participating, relating part of a dynamic whole. Each is reshaped in the process of contributing to the total shape.

The “facts” that Moses seeks are really expressions of comparison – relationships between things, not things in and of themselves (as if such an assessment were useful). People aren’t strong or weak objectively, but only in comparison to other people. Few or many is a comparative assessment, depending on who you measure them against. A country is good or bad only relative to other countries. And so it goes – each of Moses’s factual categories are inextricably mingled with values, relationships, and comparisons.

As Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Kotzk remarks, “What the scouts reported was factually correct but it was not the truth. The truth is not necessarily as things appear, but stems from the depths of the heart, from the sources of one’s faith. Truth and faith go hand in hand, and a person does not acquire truth easily and by a superficial glance.”

Recognizing that human life is not a distillate of objective fact, but a swirling dance of fact and value, objective and subjective, outer and inner – intermingled and interpenetrating – allows us to recognize the proper relationship, of brain to heart, of brain and heart to soul, of brain and heart and soul to body. All, together, form the unity that is a human being, and all together create the ways we come to know the world around us.

As we scout the world around us, as we explore the inner depths, the key is to bring unity to what seems disparate, to see in the many, One.

About the Author
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is the Roslyn & Abner Goldstine Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of American Jewish University, and is the Dean of the Zacharias Frankel College of University of Potsdam, training Conservative/Masorti Rabbis for Europe.
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