Descriptive Vs. Prescriptive Statements

A discussion I have been avoiding since starting this project is that of descriptive versus prescriptive statements. I have been avoiding doing so because awareness of such delineations is so basic and fundamental to any activity resembling intelligence that I felt readers would be offended that I would feel they could use a reminder of that reality. After so many conversations on the internet and in-person, I think more people need a reminder that would be justifiably offended.

In today’s postmodern culture, inability to compartmentalize or categorize thoughts, feelings, activities, and identities is so widespread so as to be its defining characteristic. As such, people tend to confuse their ideas with their identities, their feelings with their actions, and their descriptions with their prescriptions. This has resulted in what amounts to a culture-wide crisis of logical illiteracy. There are few greater examples of what I mean than the electoral politics currently ongoing.

Descriptions are typically pretty straightforward. With little exception, a descriptive statement is one which establishes a definition or identity. For example, a descriptive statement could be, “Dogs, by nature, are quadrupeds.” That statement describes the nature of dogs. However, it doesn’t fully describe dogs; there are many other creatures that, by nature, are quadrupeds and are also distinct from dogs. It also does not sufficiently describe dogs so as to allow for dogs that have more or fewer legs than four. Despite such shortcomings, it is not metaphysically impossible to establish a set of descriptive statements which encompass the entirety of “dog-ness”, it would just require a lot more time, effort, and linguistic exercise than anyone has yet attempted; instead, biologists and preschool teachers seem to have done enough of that work so as to cover the practically required bases of describing dogs. I don’t know what more I could say to make the idea of a descriptive statement more clear.

Prescriptive statements are only slightly less straightforward. Where descriptive statements indicate how things are, prescriptive statements indicate how things should be. For example, a descriptive statement could be, “The U.S. federal government is $250,000,000,000,000 in debt,” and a prescriptive statement is, “The U.S. Federal government should not be able to incur such debt,” or “The U.S. Federal government should declare bankruptcy.” Some prescriptive statements are more tied to descriptive statements than others; for instance, “Hilary Clinton should be president because it’s the current year!” has a little less to do with reality than the above examples. In most circumstances, a prescriptive statement could be phrased as an ethical claim, too.

As with all statements, both descriptive and prescriptive statements may or may not be factual. “Women make less money than men for the same work,” may or may not reflect reality (spoiler alert: it doesn’t at all) as may, “The voting age should be lowered to 16,” (Spoilers: it shouldn’t). In the case of descriptive statements, facticity can be more-or-less established by way of the standard epistemic process: verify logical validity, compare to empirical and experiential data, compare to alternative descriptions… This process can be more-or-less involved, depending on the complexity and immediacy of the statement in question. Prescriptive statements are usually either subjective or aesthetic in nature: “This soup needs more salt,” or an ethical statement, “If one wants an environment conducive to human flourishing, one ought to avoid hyper-inclusive mass democracy.” Aesthetic statements, while not meaningless, are largely non-actionable to anyone other than the individual expressing said preference. However, ethical statements are verifiable by means of experimentation, reason, and evidence. I’ve already addressed ethical statements before, but it bears repeating in this context.

Of course, two difficulties emerge in the hairiness of common discourse. The first, most common, issue I have seen is making descriptive statements as if they were prescriptive. Easy examples emerge in political discourse. “I’m offended,” “That’s racist/sexist/ableist/insert false pejorative,” “That’s not how the world works,” etc. all describe a circumstance (and may more may not be accurate) without any prescription attached; usually, though, they are stated as if one expects someone else to modify his behavior in some way. Regardless of the facticity of such statements, they contain nothing which warrants action, despite what demagogues and their followers may expect.

The second issue, which seems to be the second most common, is confusing the grammar of the two classes of statements. What I mean is that some very skilled rhetoricians and some clumsy conversationalists manage to hide a prescription in a descriptive statement. This is different from declaring a description as if it has prescriptive power. Unfortunately for both my readers and myself, I am not skilled enough to compose an example and my memory has not yet recovered sufficiently to recall one I have encountered in the wild. As long as one maintains an awareness of descriptive and prescriptive paradigms, though, one can pretty easily identify such an attempt.

If you are a regular reader of the blog, you may notice that most of the posts follow a “description, elaboration, prescription, opinion” format. This is technically accidental in that I did not actively choose to write in such a format. However, it is a habit I have which has been established for quite some time. Without an awareness of ontological and metaphysical reality, no one can make reasonable prescriptions. I’ve already addressed this before, in different terms. Because this is the case, I have practiced the approach of establishing an ontological context before issuing prescriptions and issuing prescriptions in the format of “if-then” statements.

More important to one’s grammar and rhetoric than identifying descriptions and prescriptions in others’ speech, more important even than being careful to make a clear delineation in one’s grammar, I have discovered, is explicitly addressing statements as such. Of course, one can’t go around and preface every statement with “This is a descriptive/prescriptive statement:” Sometimes, such pedantics are appropriate, though. I am still experimenting with this variable to see what gets the best results in the art of rhetoric.

This whole discussion of description versus prescription was brought on by repeated discussions of my favorite Hans Herman Hoppe quote:

“In a covenant…among proprietor and community tenants for the purpose of protecting their private property, no such thing as a right to free (unlimited) speech exists, not even to unlimited speech on one’s own tenant-property. One may say innumerable things and promote almost any idea under the sun, but naturally no one is permitted to advocate ideas contrary to the very covenant of preserving and protecting private property, such as democracy and communism. There can be no tolerance toward democrats and communists in a libertarian [RE: propertarian] social order. They will have to be physically separated and removed from society.”

Taken in its context, this statement is actually a descriptive one, not a prescriptive one. This is a paradigm case of the hairiness of this distinction in common discourse. On an initial reading, outside of its context, this quote will likely sound like an advocacy of “physically removing” the enemies of freedom, so to speak. However, what Hoppe was expressing is a description of the features of propertarian societies which emerge from the underlying social foundations.

A propertarian society, one which holds property rights as paramount to all human activity, is a social order which arises spontaneously out of the chaos of nature (or capitalism, same thing). Each individual property owner is, necessarily, the arbiter of one’s own property, whether it be land, buildings, physical objects, or one’s own body; it is one of the definitive qualities of property. One may use one’s property towards whatever end one sees fit. There are a few activities for which one can use one’s property which result in performative contradiction, though. For example, one can use one’s property to undermine another’s control over his own property (violating the non-aggression principle); in doing so, though, one is acting in such a way so as to disregard the primacy of property in human action. Using property to undermine the concept of property is a performative contradiction.

The entire preceding paragraph consists entirely of descriptive statements. Any prescriptions that one reads into said paragraph are the creation of the reader himself, stemming from his own value judgments. It’s important to note that, here, as the next paragraph is also purely descriptive and if one hasn’t noticed the absence of prescriptions thus far, the significance of the next paragraph will be lost on him.

In allowing the use or trade of one’s property, one subsidizes or incentivizes particular activities. If my friend is a drug addict and he can either afford a meal or drugs, but not both and I buy him a meal I am subsidizing his purchase of drugs by externalizing the opportunity cost he faces. Similarly, if I own a patch of land or a building and allow customers/clients/acquaintances to use that property as a platform to advocate or perform activities which undermine property, such as the political activity of democracy or communism, I would be engaging in a performative contradiction. I would have to physically remove him from my property or otherwise silence him, lest I be using my property to abdicate my property. In a propertarian society, each individual actor holds property rights paramount and would have to avoid such performative contradictions, which would ultimately result in democrats and communists being physically removed from society.

Now, after a thorough exploration of the description of propertarianism with regards to communism and democracy, we get to explore a couple prescriptions. I find Hoppe’s propertarianism infinitely preferable to today’s anti-propertarian environments such as found within Empire, and I want everyone to at least consider Hoppe’s Democracy: the God that Failed. If one wishes to defend one’s bodily autonomy or private property from unscrupulous hordes of rapists and murderers, they ought to familiarize themselves with both the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive statements as well as the nature of human action and property. Tom Woods’ Liberty Classroom does a great job of both.

TL;DR: Many people confuse descriptions and prescriptions. In common conversation, it isn’t usually too important a distinction. “If you consume this substance you will die,” is often taken as a prescription to avoid consuming said substance. It is technically only a description, though. If one were to wish to die, one may wish to consume the substance. This difference between description and prescription becomes fundamental when engaging in politics and culture. Without proper awareness of descriptive versus prescriptive statements and the “if-then” structure of prescriptions, one is going to be met with failure and, when the violence of the state is involved, cause incalculable damage. Oh, and you should read Hoppe and sign up for Liberty Classroom.

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