Delegitimating Interests: confusing fact with valuation
©1999 Edward G. Rozycki
, Ed.D.

edited 4/14/12

It is often useful to distinguish a dispute over fact from a dispute over value. The distinction between fact and value explains how it is, for example, that a lumberman and a conservationist may both agree that a certain forest covers one-hundred acres and consists fifty-percent of cuttable wood, yet disagree whether that forest should be cut or left standing. Here the dispute of value rests on a conflict of interest in exploiting or conserving the available timber.

However, we should not suppose that the distinction between fact and value is some deeply absolute one. In the very process of "describing" something, we may more or less obviously evaluate it. For example, if we describe someone as lazy, we negatively evaluate his or her industriousness. Similarly, if we technically evaluate a side of beef to be "prime," rather than "choice" we communicate to those skilled at such evaluation a certain fattiness and marbling. What might be for the layman a value dispute, "Is this the best beef?" can be for those who share certain expectations, i.e. what counts as better qualities of beef, a question of fact. This may be so even if any given beef inspector is himself a vegetarian.

What we will examine here is how we can describe the "facts" in such a way as to delegitimate or obscure interests we disagree with. Consider a situation where someone, let us call him Peter, has not done anything after we have offered to pay him ten dollars per hour to cut grass. We might say of him,

1) Peter is lazy.

We could just as accurately say

2) Peter is insufficiently motivated.

What is the difference? 2) explains whereas 1) explains and evaluates. We may well recognize that Peter is insufficiently motivated yet believe, nonetheless, that he should be motivated given the ten dollars per hour we have offered him.

What we are doing is delegitimating those competing interests that Peter may have that enter into his decision not to work. This is not to say that we are wrong. Peter may have promised us to cut the grass for ten dollars per hour. It may well be the case that other things interest him more so that at this point he is insufficiently motivated to cut the grass. We express our unhappiness with him by calling him lazy, rejecting in advance whatever explanation he might offer in excuse. After all, he promised.

In effect, to call people lazy, is to describe them as not willing to work when they should be. But whether they should be is something we may not feel should be brought up for discussion. So we foreclose on such discussion by using the delegitimating term, lazy. Consider the following chart:

Delegitimating Interest

(overly) X, when he shouldn't (be)

Recognizing Interest


insistent, committed
insufficiently motivated
having reasons different from mine

If we use X for any term in the right column for Peter, we can understand each term in the left column as meaning (overly) X, when he shouldn't (be).

So we describe Peter as obsequious, when we find him overly considerate of someone, when he shouldn't be, that is, when we believe he shouldn't be. Again, we may be right, that is to say, our reasons for why he shouldn't be may be better than Peter's for acting so considerately. What is clear here, in any case, is that we foreclose on any discussion on the matter by using the delegitimating term.