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P7_Hands_Positive_Normative_Dichotomy - The...

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The Positive-Normative Dichotomy and Economics* D. Wade Hands Department of Economics University of Puget Sound Tacoma, WA 98416 [email protected] January 2009 Words 9,728 Version 3.5 *Paper prepared for Philosophy of Economics , Uskali Mäki (ed.), Vol. 13 of D. Gabbay, P. Thagard and J. Woods (eds.), Handbook of the Philosophy of Science . Amsterdam: Elsevier. I would like to thank John Davis and Uskali Mäki for helpful comments on earlier drafts of this chapter. Errors and omissions of course remain solely the author ‟s responsibility.
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2 Science is science and ethics is ethics; it takes both to make a whole man; but only confusion, misunderstanding and discord can come from not keeping them separate and distinct, from trying to impose the absolutes of ethics on the relatives of science. (Friedman, 1955, p. 409) Morality, it could be argued, represents the way that people would like the world to work whereas economics represents how it actually does work.. (Levitt and Dubner, Freakonomics , 2005, p. 13) 1. Introduction to the Positive-Normative Dichotomy There seems to be a clear distinction between the statement "I give to charity" (i.e. it is the case that I give) and the statement "I ought to give to charity" (i.e. it would be a good thing if I were to give). What is the case is one thing, a factual matter; and what ought to be the case is something else entirely, a matter of valuation, or of right and wrong. Perhaps one actually does what one ought to do, but then again, perhaps not. In either case, there does not appear to be any necessary relationship between the two types of statements; that something is the case does not imply that it should be that way, and that it should be that way does not impl y that it is. The difference between “is” and “ought” seems substantive enough to be called a dichotomy : a distinction between two fundamentally different things. It is a dichotomy that we employ effortlessly in everyday life and thus, may not appear to require philosophical analysis but it is a dichotomy nonetheless. This is not to say of course that it is easy to determine what “is” in any particular case (What is the temperature at the center of the sun? or What is the most effective way to red uce unemployment?) nor is it always easy to know what one “ought” to do (What are the appropriate limits of tolerance? or Is lying ever the morally right thing to do?), but understanding the general conceptual difference seems to be straightforward. Even the family dog behaves as if she knows the difference between the shoe she (in fact) just chewed and the toy she ought to have chewed instead. While the dichotomy between positive and normative descriptive and prescriptive, facts and values, etc. may appear straightforward, it has long been the subject of philosophical debate. Although the is-ought distinction has ancient roots in Western philosophy, much of the contemporary discussion can be traced to David Hume. For this reason it has also been called "Hume's dichotomy," "Hume's fork," and "Hume's guillotine." Hume's primary concern was to block efforts to ground ethics in the facts of nature. In his own words:
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