Against Culturally Biased Ethics

I am a big proponent of “universalist” ethics, i.e., finding ethical principles which can be shared by all people in the world. Thus, it is important to try to find some common core deep in us all about what might be called good or bad. The hedonist will, of course, claim that the intuition that pleasure is good and pain is bad is the most plausible candidate for that common core. There might be some people who simply do not have this intuition – they might not see anything “bad” in experiencing pain or seeing someone else experiencing it, or anything “good” in experiencing pleasure – but I think it is still the most widespread intuition among human beings.

However, people have other intuitions too, and many philosophers today believe that we must take account of many intuitions, and attempt to achieve some balance between them. (The good thing about hedonism, on the other hand, is that there is just one fundamental intuition, so there is no other no need to find a “balance”.) One risk with this methodology is that it is no longer universalist, or at least not as universalist as it could be. This is because intuitions about what is good and bad are often strongly affected by our own culture (something which the hedonist principle presumably is not, or at least to a lesser degree than other candidates).

A recent reading of Herbert Spencer’s Principles of Ethics made me contemplate examples of culturally determined moral intuitions. Spencer, for instance, observes that many cultures have been extremely aggressive, and some have seen murder as perfectly honorable. Common have also been practices like slavery (including kidnapping women to “marry”), cannibalism, and different forms of stealing and robbery. It seems that thieves – at least successful and cunning ones – have been admired in many cultures. Two among the many examples of the latter are an African tribe called Waganda, in which “[T]he distinctions between meum and tuum are very ill-defined; and indeed all sin is only relative, the crime consisting in being detected”, and the Fijians, among which “[s]uccess, without discovery, is deemed quite enough to making thieving virtuous, and a participation in the ill-gotten gains honourable”. We see, then, that moral intuitions about property rights are very different across cultures.

Even more conspicuous are, perhaps, the differences in sexual mores and family relations. We know that polygamy (and sometimes even polyandry) has been very often approved of. Among some peoples adultery has been accepted, and it is reported that “among the Esquimaux it is considered a great mark of friendship for two men to exchange wives for a day or two” (and they were not the only people doing this).

One could go on indefinitely recounting examples of customs that are very different from the ones we take for granted in our own societies. The point I wanted to make is that people in other cultures throughout history probably felt as strongly as we do that their way of doing things is intuitively correct, and if they were to develop ethical systems built on the methodology that all intuitions should be respected they would simply end up by justifying the existing customs of their own culture. And something seems to be wrong with this approach to ethics. Surely, it cannot be the task of ethics to simply affirm the prejudices and inherited conceptions of our own culture.

In short, when developing an ethical system, one should not assume anything, except the assumptions that are necessary to establish any ethical system at all. And it should be clear that the assumptions of the latter kind are assumptions, and not “truths”. In other words, we cannot simply accept our culturally biased values, unless we can justify why they are acceptable on a more fundamental (“universal”) level. If you disagree with the tribes and peoples who think that killing, stealing, prostitution, or polygamy is honorable, don’t simply assume that they are wrong and that you are right. Demonstrate how they are wrong (and how you are right) with appeal to culturally unbiased arguments. (The same should, of course, hold for those who disagree with you.)


On Laziness

To find out what (if anything) is immoral about laziness, we must first try to define it. On Wikipedia laziness is defined as “disinclination to activity or exertion despite having the ability to act or exert oneself”. This definition may not be totally adequate, since people would probably not call someone lazy who works all day with things they really like (i.e., it would not be “exertion” for them). If we, on the other hand, were to say that they are nevertheless “exerting” themselves in some way, despite the fact that they are thoroughly enjoying they work, we would have to concede that very few people are actually lazy, since we would not be able to distinguish this kind of exertion from paradigm cases of laziness, such as lying on the couch watching tv all day. The only significant difference between a film critic (who loves her job) and an unemployed movie buff (let’s say that the latter person also writes about movies on his blog)  might be the fact that the film critic gets paid. In this case the laziness of the movie buff, thus, cannot be constituted by the difference in “exertion”. Still, if we were to insist in calling the movie buff lazy anyway, we would have to concede that all people who have enjoyable jobs are lazy too. But that seems wrong.

A way of getting out of this dilemma would be to specify the nature of “exertion” in some way. We might define laziness as “disinclination to unpleasant activity or exertion despite having the ability to act or exert oneself”. In this way we couldn’t really tell (without further information) whether the film critic or the movie buff were lazy or not. In order to know whether someone is lazy or not they must be put to the test by being asked to do things they do not enjoy. Unfortunately, this leads to other problems, since, presumably, virtually everyone has a disinclination to do things they do not enjoy (i.e. find positively disagreeable). This would mean that almost all people are lazy.

Still, many people do things everyday that they find disagreeable, like going up too early in the morning, commuting to work, doing the work itself (which is usually a mix of agreeable and disagreeable tasks), cleaning the bathroom, shopping for groceries etc. (of course, some people genuine enjoy things like cleaning or shopping, but you catch my drift). One paradigm case of laziness seems to apply to those who are not willing to do those everyday unenjoyable things that most other people do. We might, for instance, think of unemployed people in countries with generous welfare provisions – at least those few who are unemployed because of their laziness.

So the difference between laziness and non-laziness does not seem to consist in differences in “inclinations”, since most people are disinclined to do unpleasant things. The difference seems to lie in the actual doing of unpleasant things. Most people are “lazy” in the sense that they would refrain from doing unpleasant things if they could, but the genuinely lazy people are those are actually not doing unpleasant things, while the industrious (let’s say that that is the opposite of lazy) are actually doing them.

If this account is reasonable we would have to say that, for instance, a rich heir who is never doing anything unpleasant is a lazy person. Maybe some people would be inclined to call such a person lazy; but when laziness is used in a pejorative sense (which it usually is) the idle rich are usually exempt from that sort of criticism. Poor people, on the other hand, who are avoiding unpleasant activities as well, are often called lazy, even in spite of the fact that rich people are able to avoid unpleasant activities to a higher degree than poor people. So it all seems to boil down to on who’s expense you are leading your displeasure-avoiding lifestyle. If you are living pleasurably on other people’s taxes you are condemned as lazy. If you are living on your own money (which we assume have been earned in an “honest” way) you are not condemned as lazy (although we might not call you industrious either).

But I don’t think this is the whole truth about laziness. If common language does not seem to condemn the rich heir as lazy on account that he is not being idle on someone else’s expense, he might nevertheless be called lazy for other reasons. For example, he might justly (again, according to common language) be called lazy if he refuses to fulfill certain social duties that may be unpleasant for him. If he prefers to stay at home relaxing with a drink by his swimming pool instead of helping out with certain arduous arrangements for his uncle’s funeral, then his family would probably be warranted in calling him lazy (among other things).

And now we may have struck at the core what what laziness and industriousness is all about. It seems to be mostly about fulfilling certain (unpleasant) duties – duties which might be of various kinds, but often social or economic. The reason, then, that some of the unemployed might be called lazy seems to be that they fail to fulfill a presumed duty to share the burdens of economic life and to contribute to the economic stock of riches that they themselves are drawing from (again, we are assuming the context of the welfare state). The reason why the rich heir discussed above is called lazy is that he fails to fulfill his duty as a member of the extended family. Another example might be a priest who declines to preform important (but arduous) rituals because he would rather do something more pleasant.

So, let’s proceed from the latest definition of laziness, i.e., that it consists in the non-performance of unpleasant duties, to the question of whether laziness is really immoral or not. Evidently, it depends on whether one thinks that we have any moral duties or not. If you, for instance, believe that we only have negative duties, i.e., duties to refrain from doing certain things to others (for instance, harming them physically or taking their property), then it seems hard to call laziness immoral. No doubt, a person might violate negative duties out of laziness. A person might, for instance, turn to robbing because she finds that less unpleasant and time-consuming than working. But the person who subscribes to this libertarian philosophy would probably not call this a problem of laziness, because laziness seems to imply non-activity and non-performance. When a duty is unfulfilled through activity and performance people would probably avoid the label laziness (laziness, in other words, is about not doing things). I suspect that a firm believer in negative liberty would mostly use that label to describe the reasons that some are poor and others rich etc., because according this worldview people only get what they deserve. If you are lazy you will simply become poor, and if you do not fulfill your social duties you will simply become lonely. And if these are your choices, that is up to you.

Thus, laziness only seems to appear as a moral problem if we actually think that people have positive duties. Let’s take the example of the unemployed. If you, like me, are a hedonistic utilitarian you will think that people have a duty to contribute to maximizing pleasure, or, perhaps more practically relevant, to minimizing pain. One way of doing this could be to taking an ordinary job. Obvious examples of professions who contribute to reducing pain are doctors, nurses, or firemen; but most professions contribute to it in more indirect ways by making our everyday lives run smoothly.

It seems, then, that a conscious choice to live on unemployment benefits, in spite of the fact that one would be able to find a job, may be immoral. In other words, it may be a case of immoral laziness. I say that it “may” be so, because it is still possible for the unemployed to engage in other sorts of activities instead of paid work which could contribute to the well-being of other people. In other words, since unemployment (even voluntary unemployment) does not by itself constitute laziness, the moral status of the unemployed depends on how they actually spend their time. It is still possible for them to fulfill the duty which consists in doing what one can to maximize happiness in the world. (Needless to say, most cases of unemployment are not voluntary, unless we are taking “voluntary” in a highly formalistic and morally useless sense.)

When it comes to other kinds of social duties, whose neglect is commonly condemned as laziness, we would have to examine the purpose of those duties in order to resolve the moral question. In some social settings the neglect of social duties might be a valuable protest against unreasonable demands. In other words, as a hedonist one cannot accept a “duty” that does not, in fact, contribute to enhanced well-being. Nevertheless, refusing to fulfill a “false” duty does not get one off the hook when it comes to participating in fulfilling the real duty of maximizing happiness. You might be warranted in skipping some religious social requirement if you think that this requirement is only making the world worse; but then you should find something more productive to do instead than sitting by the pool all day.

The main thing for the hedonist is that you should find some time to make yourself useful for other people (in the sense that you should contribute to making their lives happier). If you are not fulfilling that duty then you may rightly be condemned as lazy. Of course, this does not mean that you should devote all your time to the service of others. After all, your happiness is also a part of the total sum of happiness. And we all need some recreation in order to fulfill the rest of our tasks in an efficient manner. Furthermore, there are many ways of contributing to happiness in society. The obvious ways are doing volunteer work to directly help the less fortunate, but one one can also spend time educating oneself in order to contribute to the betterment of society in more structural ways, or composing music or writing poetry for others to enjoy etc. etc.

Now let’s return to the case of lying on the couch watching TV all day. Would the hedonist say that this constitutes laziness and worthy of moral condemnation? In many cases, yes. No doubt, there are many valuable things one can learn by watching TV which might be of profit in one’s work as a pleasure-maximizer, but it would be hard to claim that a lifestyle dominated by the television is the most efficient type of lifestyle. And it would be hard to claim that watching television all day is such a blissful activity for you that the pleasure of it outstrips all other things you could have done for the benefit of other people. If we replace television with computer games it is even harder to see how more than a very modest amount of time per day could be reasonable.

Of course, I do not want to scare  anyone away from hedonism by claiming that you should devote a lot of effort to the improvement of society. If you already work full-time and have children to take care of it might be hard to squeeze in a lot of such activities on top of the necessary time for recreation for yourself, and that is understandable (besides, working hard to earn money to give to charity or the taxman is not a bad way to contribute). But the least one can do is to try to be noticeably less lazy than the average person in your circumstances. If your perception is that most people who work as much as you do, do five hours of charity work per year, then try to do seven or eight yourself. If the average person reads half a book on politics per year, try to read two or three yourself. There is always something you can do instead of being lazy.

Discounting Preferential Pains

One problem in hedonistic utilitarianism is how to treat mental pain – or distress, as I would prefer to call it. The fact that some actions might cause distress to people sometimes leads people to make dubious interpretations of what hedonistic policies might look like. For example, if it is the case that the mere thought that homosexual intercourse is taking place causes some mental distress for a substantial amount of people, then wouldn’t the hedonist have to say that homosexual intercourse must be forbidden? (This may not be the most interesting example to bring forward, since most people who argue against homosexuality do not do it on utilitarian grounds, but anyway…)

To answer this we must firstly put the distress of those who are being denied the opportunity to engage in sexual activities in the balance. Even so, it may still be the case that the distress of a lot of straight people counterweighs the distress that comes from a relatively small minority of people being sexually frustrated. Would the hedonist have to concede that in this case, the ban on homosexual intercourse is still a good policy?

I would say no, since it is still the case that many (probably most) of those who feel such grave distress at the mere thought of homosexual intercourse taking place feel this distress merely because they have previously formed (or have been taught) the preference that homosexuality is wrong. On the other hand, most people who see absolutely nothing immoral with homosexuality do not feel very much mental distress when imagining homosexual activities, or at least not so much distress that they feel warranted in complaining about it.

In other words, if grave cases of mental distress are caused by certain preferences (or ideas), and if the distress would go away if the preference were to go away, then it seems unreasonable to count this distress in the summation of pleasures and pains. I might have a preference not to be tortured, but the pain of the torture does not go away if I somehow managed to talk myself out of this preference. I might have a preference for eating ice cream, but the pleasure of eating ice cream would (in most cases) not go away if I got rid of this preference (otherwise, imagine how easy it would be to lose weight, stop smoking, etc.).

But the pain of thinking about about homosexuality will (at least in most cases) be considerably mitigated if the preference against it disappears. We might say the same thing about the pains and pleasures pertaining to revenge. If we get the (rather primitive) idea out of our heads that all wrongs must be revenged by inflictions of pain to the offender that supersedes the pain inflicted to the victim, then we would probably not feel so much pain when someone who has done us wrong is not getting the punishment he or she “deserves”.

It should also be added that we are often fooled by our preferential pleasures when it comes to planning our own lives. We often think that we will be happier if we only take this or that journey, buy new clothes or furniture, pursue a certain career, win another medal, have another child etc. etc. Often we turn out to be mistaken. Or preferences do not always increase our pleasure (or reduce our pain). Of course, it may be the case that we get a certain amount of joy (mental pleasure) from the mere act of planning these future events, and it would seem strange to discount this joy just because it is built out of as yet imaginary things. If it all stopped at planning then no harm would be done; but if we are fooled by these preferential joys we will eventually try to make the things themselves happen, and often find out that we are no happier than before. We would, in other words, find out ex post facto that we could have used our energy on other things that would, perhaps, have a greater change of increasing our pleasure.

Why We May Be Richer than We Deserve to Be

Sometimes the value of democracy is discussed in terms of economic gains and losses. With (representative) democracy – the story goes – we get certain freedoms that, for instance, facilitate innovation, which, in turn, helps economic development. I have heard some claim that the lack of democracy in China places some limits on how much their economy can grow, since their system makes it easy for them to copy ideas and produce stuff on the basis of those ideas, but hard to come up with new ideas, due to the habit of deferring to authority (intellectual as well as political authority).

On the other hand, some claim that democracy must not be taken too far, because that, too, can hamper the economy. This was a common complaint in the 1970s and 1980s from right wing groups who complained of an “excess” of democracy, whereby too many “special interests” fight in the democratic arena to get a piece of the pie, without thinking about long-term financial stability (or about the plight of traditional elites). On the international level, this has often meant the support by Western countries of authoritarian regimes in the rest of the world, since democratic developments might mean land reforms in favor of the poor, and the like.

There is no need to decide the question about correlations between democracy and economic growth here. But it is probably safe to say that if a democratic system had been in place in the major European countries (including England) in, say, the 18th century, then the industrial revolution would probably have been retarded. People, and especially people in those days, are often rather conservative when it comes to changing their way of life – something which was probably necessary to get the industrial revolution going, and which was achieved by, for instance, privatizing the commons and creating a class of landless paupers. And if we add the fact that the gains of the industrial revolution took a long time to trickle down to ordinary people, I think it is safe to say that under a democratic system the voters would not have taken such chances lightly.

The conclusion seems to be that if democracy had prevailed earlier, and if the democratic culture had been more pervasive and participatory than what would in fact be the case later on, we would probably – or at least possibly – be poorer (i.e., having a lower GDP than today) in the industrialized world than we are today (add to this the gains of colonialism, slave trade, etc. – phenomena that would have taken place to a lesser degree under participatory democratic rule). However, this conclusion should not make us shy away from the idea of democracy, and of a more participatory democratic culture. If it is the case that “too much democracy” slows down economic growth or the material standard of living, then we should simply bite the bullet and accept lower economic growth and standard of living. (If it is not the case, then so much the better, obviously.)

Now, the discussion so far has been riddled with caveats relating to the difficulty of establishing correlations between economic parameters and democratic rule. There is, however, one thing that we can be relatively sure of: with a fuller democracy than what prevails today, it would probably be harder for the economic and political elites to be as rich and powerful as they are today, and that is something we should welcome, even if it would mean a somewhat lower GDP (a somewhat lower GDP would not make us less happy, provided that economic policies are designed in a reasonable manner).

Mozi and the Dangers of Narrow Utilitarianism

In the minds of some (perhaps most) people, “utilitarianism” has a special meaning. It often refers to an extremely “materialistic” view, which aims at maximization of wealth. This is not surprising, since utilitarianism has been (but less so nowadays) associated with economics. In the early 19th century, those who wrote on economics (or “political economy”, as it was usually called) were not seldom adherents to hedonistic utilitarianism of the Benthamite kind. Later in the same century, however, the goal of maximizing pleasure was by many economists regarded as too imprecise to be used in scientific discussions. So pleasure was generally replaced by “utility”, and the by the maximization of utility, it was usually meant the highest possible satisfaction of subjective preferences. Moreover, the easiest way to “measure” such satisfaction of preferences is by measuring income, wealth, and the like. It is hard to be scientific if one wants to measure levels of mental “satisfaction”.

It is, of course, a shame that many associate utilitarianism with this “economistic” way of thinking, since it is rather barren if it is regarded as a moral view (and if it is not intended as a moral view, then why should one make policy recommendations on the basis of it?). Nevertheless, it is, in fact, a very old view, and if we look back in the history of ideas, we find one extreme adherent to it in the Chinese philosopher Mozi (or Mo Tzu), who lived around 400 B.C. Mozi put forward a principle of “universal love” (not really emotional love, but rather “concern”) which is not all that different from the utilitarian/hedonist idea of impartiality when it comes to maximization of happiness, and he criticized the Confucian view that parents and relatives should always be one’s first concern.

However, It seems that Mozi’s prime concern was economic production, and he criticized Chinese rulers who squandered resources by, for instance, waging war. He also criticized traditions that seemed very unproductive, like expensive funerals and long periods of mourning, during which one was expected to do no work.

Now, it is, of course, rather uncontroversial to criticize war and the destructive forces and costs that it brings along. Somewhat less uncontroversial is perhaps the critique of superstitious practices that drain resources, but even people who subscribe to such beliefs would probably agree that such things cannot swallow too much of one’s material resources.

But there are other things in Mozi’s doctrine which appear more controversial. To quote a scholar: “To attain the end of a rich, numerous, orderly, peaceful, and literally ‘blessed’ population, Mo Tzu was willing to sacrifice very nearly everything else. Clothing should keep out the cold in winter and the heat in summer but should not be attractive. Food should be nourishing but not well-seasoned. Houses should keep out the cold and heat, the rain and thieves, but should have no useless decoration.” Mozi went so far as to condemn music, “which used men’s time and wealth in the making and playing of instruments, yet created nothing tangible”.

Mozi’s utilitarianism is, thus, extreme in its maximization of “utility”, in the form of production of material, “useful” things, and the production of new people, and in its rejection of what is of interest to the hedonistic utilitarian, namely, pleasure. Now, it is probably the case that no utilitarian economist adhere to such an anti-hedonistic view. Nevertheless, their political recommendations have not always been all that different. Politics is often regarded as a wealth-making machine, whereas pleasure is something that should be left to individuals, and not concern politicians. Just enable people to make money, and the rest will take care of itself.

The problem with this is that the way we make money affects the possibilities of leading a more pleasurable life. And it is not easy for an individual to plan these things by her- or himself, when the system itself is geared towards a specific way of making money. It is, for instance, hard to find a career that will give you a reasonable balance between leisure and money. The logic of the system demands that you either work hard for a lot of money, or work very little for little money (although many also work hard for little money, of course, just as a few lucky people work little for a lot of money). It is hard to find a career which requires a medium amount of work for a medium amount of money, even though that would probably produce more pleasure than the present way of making a living.

In conclusion, utilitarian politics must from the beginning regard people as interested in pleasure and promote it through politics, rather than decide that one thing (for instance, income) should serve as a proxy for happiness.

Reflections…, part 3

So what is “science,” then? Personally I want to view it as an extension of the activities in which we all take part in everyday life. What we all want is success in what we do, and I cannot see why science should have any other goal. Thus, science should be practically fruitful to merit its license.

This is what, in the context of philosophy of science, is usually called instrumentalism – a view which is often subject to very little discussion (if discussed at all) in the literature, probably because it has never been very popular. The most famous proponent of instrumentalism is probably the economist Milton Friedman, who claimed that unrealistic assumptions in economics (and, one would assume, also in other disciplines) is not a problem as long as we can, with the help of those assumptions, develop hypotheses that can be tested by correct predictions.

Now, it may happen that Friedman’s own theories was not that strong when it came to providing correct predictions; but I still think there is something in instrumentalism as a philosophy of science. What separates instrumentalism from “regular” science, i.e., science directed at finding causal links? A significant affinity seem to exist, but it is probably true to say that instrumentalism is more “tolerant” than, for instance, logical positivism. It does not deem “metaphysical” or other unclear statements to be illegitimate as long as they are fruitful when it comes to producing empirically verifiable hypotheses. And according to instrumentalism it is not as important to lay bare causal mechanisms as clearly in order to talk about a “legitimate” scientific hypothesis. If we can find strong correlations between variables, then that might very well help us to handle reality better, even if we fail to see the “underlying” mechanism absolutely clearly.

One could also claim that instrumentalism is more tolerant than Popper’s principle of falsification. Making predictions in the social sciences (and sometimes also in the natural sciences) is not about finding “laws” which are always valid. The hypotheses we work with pertain to probabilities, which means that one can always find cases that do not behave as the hypothesis predicts. One might, perhaps, ask whether such probabilistic predictions are of any use. Some philosophers of science claim that instrumentalist science cannot really contribute much, since it cannot improve a lot upon the “folk psychology” and intuitive understanding of the world which we all possess. Personally, However, I think that it is possible (and it happens all the time) to conceive of (and verify) probabilistic hypotheses that go counter to what we intuitively think is true and that improve our folk psychology. Nevertheless, there is some affinity between instrumentalism and falsificationism, if one by the latter mean that repeated falsifications must take place in order to reject a hypothesis (if one, in other words, can show that the probabilistic predictions made do not seem at all to be in line with the observed frequency).

The clearest difference between instrumentalism and other philosophies of science can be found when it is compared to the sort of social (and humanistic) science which is not at all interested in formulating verifiable hypotheses. To “interpret” or “understand” the world cannot be viewed as science, according to the instrumentalist, unless we by, for instance, understanding mean the understanding of observable consequences with the help of predictive hypotheses, or the like. By the same token, studies which only aim to describe the world cannot be counted as fully scientific, even if descriptive studies are usually quite valuable (to say the least) preparations for the scientific activity of formulating hypotheses. It is, however, important that descriptive studies are made in a way that is fruitful for continued scientific use.

The hardest things to defend as “scientific” in the court of instrumentalism is probably very abstract theorizing, or different kinds of case studies, which experience has shown to be pragmatically unfruitful. This does not mean that such studies cannot be valuable for other reasons (they might, for example, be pleasurable to conduct or to read), but in theses cases, the label “science” may not be appropriate to apply.

Lastly, however, we should add the following point: if science is only supposed to serve our pragmatic goals, who chooses which goals are relevant? My thinking is that this is ultimately decided by those who pay for the research, and in this case we are hopefully talking about democratic institutions which have enough sense to understand that science thrives when there are many approaches and perspectives that work side by side. But “science” that decade after decade produces results without any pragmatic relevance at all should not be paid for by the public purse. (If there are private actors prepared to continue the research one can, of course, turn to them.)

Reflections…, part 2

For some people social science will appear as something fundamentally different from natural science. It is, after all, not possible to detect any underlying “laws” in society in the same way that natural laws can be detected. And the principles we might actually uncover do usually not need much scientific effort; “folk psychology” is often enough.

The most extreme view ought to be the rejection of all pretentions to explain any causal links. Instead, the focus is, so to speak, to make social phenomena understandable, to grasp and interpret them. In its most pure form the result might be a “thick” description of something, in the way that an anthropologist might strive to understand and describe a certain culture, without any pretentions to find any law-like generalities in human behavior. This view, focused on understanding, is most prevalent in case studies, and interviews are often used as primary sources.

History, too, is often distinguished by a lack of pretentions to uncover general hypotheses about human action. There is, however, a difference in that not all historians regard their discipline as a “science”, in its strict meaning; and sometimes history is classified as an art, rather than a science, although its “weight” or “value” is usually not diminished by this. One could say the same about the academic study of literature, a discipline which extremely rarely attempts to describe or explain any human generalities.

Still, it is interesting that in some places – I am mostly thinking about Sweden here – the latter discipline is called  “literature science” (litteraturvetenskap). This might easily lead one into some linguistic quagmires, where it is difficult to find out whether all things that are labeled “science” do really have much in common. It is possible that all that remains is an “institutional” definition: what people do at universities is science – even if the activity itself is marked by vast differences regarding methods and aims when it comes to different departments.

So how should one find one’s bearings in all this? Should one simply refrain from any attempts to define what science really is (or ought to be), or should one try to find some common criteria that must be met in order for something to be called a science – something like the positivist idea about general causal hypotheses? The question is, perhaps, most burning when a lot of science is financed through the public purse. We do, after all, want out tax money to go to “legitimate” science and our universities to retain a decent ranking compared to universities in other countries. Think, for instance, about the debate that raged some years ago when Lund University was about to appoint a professor (for an endowed chair) in parapsychology, or the constant debates surrounding a discipline like gender studies (or “gender science”, as it is called in Sweden).

For my part, I think that some basic criteria (developed further in part 3) should be fulfilled in order for something to qualify as a science; and one consequence of this might be that some research programs at Swedish universities should be discontinued. At the same time, I do not think that all separate studies that are produced at universities need to contain strictly scientific hypotheses; but it should still be clear in which way these “unscientific” studies are smaller pieces of a larger picture which, in turn, is a scientific endeavor.