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What is Good Science: The Value-Oriented Bias of Social Inquiry

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"The Value-Oriented Bias of Social Inquiry" (1994) is an Article by Ernest Nagel that was published in Readings in the philosophy of social science (ISBN 0415278430).



  • Is social inquiry always value-oriented?
  • In how far does value-free social inquiry exist
  • Exploration of the bias of social inquiry in this respect


  • It is “absurd to expect the social sciences to exhibit the unanimity common among natural scientists concerning what are the established facts and satisfactory explanations for them” (Nagel, 1994, p.571)

Argument 1

things a scientist selects for his study are determined by his conception of what are socially important values => method for the selection of problems

  • The orientation towards values is always inherent when choosing material for investigation
  • Example: Culture = value concept when its meaningfulness to become an object of investigation is determined
  • The social scientist mainly pays attention to matters he finds important because of their relevance to his cultural values in the process of investigation
  • The interest of a scientist determines what he selects for his inquiry
  • However, the inquiry itself is still objectively controlled

Argument 2

the social scientist is always affected by considerations of right or wrong, his own notion of what is a good social order and his personal standard for judging society (Nagel, 1994, p.571/572) => he determines the contents of the conclusion

  • Relative standards (ends sought, standards employed) ó absolute standards (evaluation of the end result only)
  • Social science has a strong inclination towards moral and reform as “disguised recommendations of social reform” (Nagel, 1994, p.573)
  • Importance of own values when doing social research is undeniable => prevention if emotional attachment not easy => automatic influence of personal values into social inquiry
  • The means for achieving the anticipated result of the inquiry are always value influenced
  • Possibility of the elimination of the bias through invention, exchange, criticism, competition
  • Only those conclusions that survive critical examination and receive common acceptance survive
  • reliable knowledge of human affairs is not attainable because it is always value-oriented

Argument 3

distinction between facts and values is not completely possible when analyzing human behavior => question of how to identify the relevant objective facts from those influenced by values

  • Ethical neutral science is impossible because of a fusion of facts and values in the course of social inquiry
  • Need for a complete understanding of the examined field but always attachment of values to end and means
  • Two understandings of value judgment
  • Approval/disapproval => appraising judgments
  • Estimation => characterizing judgments, evaluation of the evidence
  • Social sciences and natural sciences both are composed of a description and a value-judgment

Argument 4

value-free social science is not possible because values always enter the assessment of the evidence (Nagel, 1994, p. 578)

  • Determination of what is satisfactory evidence differs between scientists depending on their personal standards
  • Example: Hypothesis-testing and its mistakes => What risk is the scientist willing to take with his decision to reject or accept a hypothesis? What is more important to him personally?
  • Value commitments always enter the rules for assessing the evidence of a statistical hypothesis (Nagel, 1994, p.580)
  • Hegel: dialectic nature of human history => logical connection perspective and standards
  • The perspective of the scientist and widely accepted standards for assessing human behavior both enter the social inquiry
  • “though ‘absolute objective’ knowledge of human affairs is unattainable, a ‘relational’ form of objectivity called ‘relationism’ can nevertheless be achieved” (Nagel, 1994, p.582) => But how does relational objectivity differ from the normal one?


  • complete objectivity cannot be established in social sciences => conclusions in social sciences never objectively establish what they simulate to (Nagel, 1994, p.582)
  • Importance to pay attention to practical difficulties encountered in these disciplines

Critique / Questions / Reflection / Comments

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