Andrew Sayer


On his book Why Things Matter to People: Social Science, Values and Ethical Life

Cover Interview of March 20, 2012


I hope the book shows why we need a social science that illuminates our relation to the world of concern, without belittling this as non-rational or merely a matter of subjective values, or of minor importance compared to how we actually behave.

Why Things Matter to People challenges how most social scientists think about values and objectivity. Some argue for minimizing the “intrusion” of values so as to protect objectivity. Their radical opponents say “no-one can deny their values, so no-one can be objective.”

While these two views look utterly opposed, they’re completely agreed that objectivity and values don’t mix.

But that’s precisely where they’re wrong.

Sometimes, we have to be evaluative in order to describe people’s conditions and actions adequately: the child is suffering from neglect, x’s blood pressure is dangerously high, the repeated humiliation is bad for y’s self-respect.

You could try to describe such situations with different, apparently value-free words.  But then one of two things would happen: either the new words would take on the old evaluative meanings, or you would mis-describe the situation. Substitute “collateral damage” for “killing or injuring innocent non-combatants,” and either people are misled or they see through the euphemism and value it accordingly.

This means that social science often needs to provide a critical evaluation of the things it studies if it is to provide adequate descriptions and explanations.  If we are given no indication of whether people’s lives are going well or not, whether they are suffering or flourishing, we have simply been given an impoverished description.

It doesn’t mean that social scientists should assert their values dogmatically; on the contrary, they need to assess them critically, in relation to what they’re about.

Values are neither “merely subjective” attitudes projected onto the world, nor are they simply arbitrary norms that we internalize; they are about something—especially, our well-being.

Values are fallible—but so are claims about things like the origin of the species or the level of unemployment.  That is why we need to scrutinize them.  To survive, let alone flourish, we have continually to monitor and assess how we and the things we care about are doing.

Philosophers dealing with ethics love to rush past questions of what people are like and what they need to flourish, and pose us tricky, often bizarre questions.  For example: about what would be the right thing to do if we saw an out-of-control tram hurtling towards a crowd of people, and we could switch it onto another track where it would kill only one person.  I suggest that it’s more useful to focus on what people are like, what they need, and on the mundane morality that we see in ordinary actions.

We need a social science that can explain why things matter to people.