Facts and judgments
William Thomas and Florian Znaniecki’s sociological classic, The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, is a study of the conditions of Polish immigrants in America. This exhaustive work illustrates how important it is to develop an accurate “definition of the situation” if we are to properly understand social reality.
The same principle applies to responsible decision-making. Persons examining a situation with a view to passing an ethical judgment need to ensure that they have a reasonable grasp of the facts of the case. This assertion holds true even though it has to be acknowledged that finite beings can acquire only partial knowledge of any situation.
The obligation to have a clear grasp of the relevant facts of a case is incumbent on Christians who believe that responsible decision-making is part of their stewardship responsibility. On account of this, we need to make a conscientious effort to secure the facts on which to base our conclusions if we desire to make defensible judgments. Similarly, we should refrain from dismissing carefully reasoned judgments that are predicated on facts that are not contested.
As is well known, two persons considering the same facts can arrive at different conclusions. This may result from the different ways in which people comprehend the facts of a case. It may also be the result of the values that we apply in the consideration of the case. As many ethicists have made clear, observers bring their own values and loyalties to the decision-making process and these can cause them to draw different conclusions from the same set of facts.
It is for this reason that Scottish philosopher, David Hume, once asserted that one cannot derive an “ought” from an “is.” The line from the facts of a case to a judgment concerning obligations that are inferred from the facts goes through the broad passage-way of loyalties and commitments.
When we experience major disagreement with others who agree with us on the definition of the situation under consideration, we have a major task to undertake. This is to consider what loyalties are being brought to bear on the process of making a judgment.
If we are so invested in the maintenance of certain friendships that preclude certain judgments, we should not be surprised if others disagree with us. We can be so committed to certain outcomes that we regard as desirable that our judgment becomes impaired. The values we bring to bear on the facts of a case must be such as we find consistent with the teachings of our Lord. It is not sufficient to claim that we operate in a world whose ethos is marked by a post-fact mentality.
In every case, it is reassuring to remember that the omnipresent and omniscient God sees and knows everything that we do. In addition, God holds us accountable for the judgments we make.