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  • Holmes on Natural Law
  • Robert P. George (bio)

My dear Laski,

Your remark about the "oughts" and system of values in political science leaves me rather cold. If, as I think, the values are simply generalizations emotionally expressed, the generalizations are matters for the same science as other observations of fact. If, as I sometimes suspect, you believe in some transcendental sanction, I don't. Of course, different people, and especially different races, differ in their values—but those differences are matters of fact and I have no respect for them except my general respect for what exists. Man is an idealizing animal—and expresses his ideals (values) in the conventions of his time. I have very little respect for the conventions in themselves, but respect and generally try to observe those of my own environment as the transitory expression of an eternal fact.

So the eighty-eight year old Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote to Harold Laski on September 15, 1929, just weeks before the stock market crashed plunging the world into depression.

What are we to make of Holmes's statements? "Values," he says, are merely "generalizations emotionally expressed." As such, they are "matters for the same science as other observations of fact." They have no "transcendental sanction." Of course, different people, and, especially, different peoples (what Holmes calls "races"), "differ in their values." These differences are mere "matters of fact," and deserve no particular respect beyond the respect owed to "what exists." That is, the acknowledgment that it exists—the acknowledgment that things are as they are. "Man is an idealizing animal," Holmes says. Man expresses his ideals in "conventions." The "conventions" themselves aren't worthy of any particular regard, but it makes sense for people generally to observe the conventions of their environment as "an expression," albeit a "transitory" one, of"an eternal fact."

What is Holmes affirming and what is he denying?

In asserting that "values" are "generalizations emotionally expressed," I take Holmes to be denying that there are objective truths about what it is ultimately reasonable to want and to consider worthy of acting to realize, attain, preserve, promote, and participate in. "Values" are, rather, subjective, according to Holmes, inasmuch as they are given by emotion, which varies from person to person and from culture to culture, and are not susceptible of rational evaluation. People act in light of their values; but values provide merely emotional, and not rational, motivation.

Thus it is that values are, according to Holmes, matters for "the same science as other observations of fact," that is to say, positive science—the science of "what is." Holmes disbelieves in the possibility of normative science or rationality—the use of intellectual faculties to ascertain objective truths about what one ought to want, what is worth wanting and what isn't. Hitler's hatred of Jews, or ancient Rome's quest for glory in the conquest and domination of other peoples, are, or were, expressions of subjective values. Under Holmes's view, they are intrinsically neither more nor less rational than the opposing values of others—say Mother Teresa and the Quakers. Of course, reason—positive science—can inquire whether Hitler really hated Jews, and, if he did, what caused his hatred; it can inquire whether the Romans really sought glory in conquest and domination, and, if so, why. But reason is, according to the account Holmes provides, powerless to judge the rightness of wrongness of Hitler's values or Rome's, whatever they were; nor can it identify the values of Mother Teresa as rationally superior to Hitler's, or the values of the Quakers as more reasonable than those of the Romans.

From the point of view of rational inquiry, according to Holmes, people's values are just facts—ethically neutral facts—about the world—like the fact that sharks kill and eat seals, or that a hurricane struck southern Florida, or that AIDS is ravaging sub-Saharan Africa. We may, according to our own "value system," deplore Hitler's values; indeed, we may, in light of our own subjective values, be willing to fight and die to frustrate Hitler's ends. But, according to Holmes, our ultimate values are, from...


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pp. 32-37
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