Max Weber and his conservative critics: Social science and the problem of value relativism

Hammersley, Martyn (2022). Max Weber and his conservative critics: Social science and the problem of value relativism. Journal of Classical Sociology (Early access).



In this paper some fundamental criticisms of Max Weber’s conception of the vocation of science are addressed. These well-known criticisms focus on his admission that science cannot demonstrate its own value, and his broader claim that there can be no rational basis for committing oneself to one set of ultimate values as against another. Instead, he insisted that the adoption of such values is necessarily a matter of individual decision. Influential critics have argued that this amounts to relativism, or even nihilism: that, if it were true, neither science nor anything else could have genuine value, all value-judgements would be arbitrary or entirely instrumental (e.g. a matter of self-interest). I will outline Weber’s position, and then examine the arguments of some of his critics: focussing particularly on Midgley and Strauss. This provides the basis for a careful reassessment of Weber’s position, and for some suggestions about how he could respond to these critics. It is argued that fundamental values operate in a dialectical relationship with specific evaluations, and that they arise naturally out of more or less universal features of human beings’ life experience. While this does not provide a compelling rational basis for commitment to those values, even less for prioritising one over another, it tells us why we often feel a need to uphold them. Furthermore, despite the fact that it does not guarantee agreement, rational clarification of these values and their implications, as well as appraisal of their relative significance in particular cases, is possible.

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