A fact is an actual state of the world. For example, it is a fact that Mount Everest is taller than Mount Kilimanjaro. A value is something good, or something one believes to be good. For example, freedom is one of the central values of modernity; and to the extent that people believe that freedom is good, they value freedom.
A great deal of twentieth century moral theory sustains a sharp divide between facts and values—the fact-value distinction. On this view, although the sentences “Roses are red” (descriptive) and “kindness is good” (evaluative) have a similar grammatical form, their linguistic functions are markedly different. Evaluative judgments are said to fulfill special non-descriptive roles, that is, do something other than state facts. More particularly, emotivists argue that evaluations serve to express the speaker’s feelings and attitudes: saying that “kindness is good” is a way of expressing one’s approval of kindness. Similarly, prescriptivists argue that evaluative language aims to get people to make certain choices. Saying that “kindness is good” is a way of telling people that they should be kind. The emotive and imperatival functions of evaluative language are, crucially, not attempts to state facts.
The fact-value distinction is much contested; and resistance comes from opposite directions. Firstly, moral realists argue that evaluative language is fact stating. A realist may argue that the sentence “freedom is good” aims to state a fact, and, moreover, succeeds in doing so. Secondly, some have argued that science is itself an evaluative enterprise. If scientific language is not purely descriptive, then any sharp contrast between factual and evaluative language will be misconceived.
Much of the effort to establish the distinction between fact and value was for the purpose of arriving at a value-free, objective description of facts—on the positivistic premise that only facts are relevant in the search for truth, not values. The facticity of phenomena, however, is always surrounded by the ultimate question of the meaning of being. Thus, any distinction between facts and value is secondary, for on the ontological level they are inseparable. Furthermore, from the perspective of religions that believe in a personal God, God's very purpose for creating the cosmos is rooted in values: love and goodness and creativity rooted in the emotional core of his heart. Thus the values of love, goodness and the desire to create preceded the facts of the created material universe.
A fact is traditionally understood as a state of affairs that makes a proposition true. A proposition is defined as a thought or content expressed by a sentence, when it is used to say something true or false. For example, the sentence “Mount Everest is taller than Mount Kilimanjaro” expresses a proposition; it may be evaluated as true or false. If it is true, which it is, then there is some state of affairs that makes it true, namely the fact that Mount Everest is taller than Mount Kilimanjaro.
A value is something good, or something one believes to be good. For example, freedom is one of the dominant values of modern society; and to the extent that people believe that freedom is good, they value freedom. More generally, evaluative language—also sometimes labeled ‘normative’ language—includes terms such as ‘good’, ‘right’, ‘wrong’, ‘virtuous’ and ‘vicious’. Each of these terms has a different sphere of application: ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are used to appraise actions or types of actions; ‘virtuous’ and ‘vicious’ appraise agents and states of their character; ‘good’ and ‘bad’ may be used to evaluate almost anything.
A great deal of twentieth century moral theory sustains a sharp divide between facts and values—the fact-value distinction. One way of dividing facts from values is in terms of a distinction between descriptive language, which aims to state facts, and evaluative language, which evaluates people, objects, actions, etc, as ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. For example, the sentence “roses are red” is descriptive; it represents the world as being a certain way and may be evaluated as true or false. By contrast, the sentence “kindness is good” is an evaluation. Proponents of the fact-value distinction argue that the former descriptive sentence (“roses are red”) may describe a true state of affairs—state a fact—whereas the latter (“kindness is good”) does not. Emotivists such as A.J. Ayer, and C.L. Stevenson, hold that evaluations express the speaker’s feelings and attitudes: saying that kindness is good is a way of expressing one’s approval of kindness. Similarly, R.M. Hare argues that evaluations are prescriptions (commands): saying that kindness is good is a way of telling people that they should be kind. Evaluative judgments are then understood as emotive or prescriptive, and are contrasted with descriptive judgments. Descriptive judgments are appraisable as true or false; evaluative judgments are not. In this way, a fact-value distinction is upheld.
One historically important argument for the fact-value distinction comes from logical positivism. The logical positivists embraced a theory of the linguistic meaning called the principle of verification. This principle says that a sentence is strictly meaningful only if it expresses something that can be confirmed or disconfirmed by empirical observation. For example, the sentence “there are possums in India” is meaningful because it could be verified or falsified by actually checking whether there are possums in India.
One important implication of the principle of verification is that evaluative judgments are strictly meaningless. The sentence “murder is wrong” cannot be confirmed or disconfirmed by empirical experience. We may find that people believe that murder is wrong, or disapprove of murder, but there is nothing in world corresponding to ‘wrongness’ that could be investigated by empirical science. Therefore, according to the logical positivists, all evaluative judgments are meaningless and so they do not state facts.
Emotivism and prescriptivism may be understood as attempts to make sense of evaluative language while adhering to the principle of verification. If all evaluative judgments are meaningless, then what are people doing when they say that kindness is good, or that cruelty is bad? Emotivists take the view that if evaluative judgments do not state facts, then they must have some other function. Ayer’s suggestion is that evaluative language is intended to express attitudes and emotions. Similarly, Hare’s suggestion is that evaluative language is intended to influence people towards certain choices.
Another historically important argument pertaining to the fact-value distinction derives from David Hume. Hume (1739/1740) famously argued that ‘is’ statements do not follow from ‘ought’ statements. Hume’s point is that any set of factual statements, such as, that killing causes pain, killing is disapproved, etc, does not logically entail that one ought not to kill. The inference from “killing causes pain” to “you ought not to kill” is invalid. This view that ‘ought’ statements cannot be logically inferred from ‘is’ statements has become known as Hume’s law.
Some moral theorists (e.g. Hare 1952) have argued that the fact-value distinction explains why ‘ought’ statements are not deducible from ‘is’ statements. One problem with Hume’s law as formulated above is that any ‘ought’ statement can be converted into an ‘is’ statement. For example, “you ought not to kill” may be converted into “killing is wrong.” In general, any ought statement may be converted into an ‘is’ statement by predicating an evaluative term such as ‘good’ or ‘right’ of that object (or state, etc). However, this need not be a counter-example to Hume’s law because it still seems impossible to derive any evaluative conclusion from a set of factual premises. The inference from “killing causes pain” to “killing is wrong” is, for example, invalid.
According to Hare (1952) if one assumes a sharp distinction between evaluative and descriptive terms, then the invalidity of inferences from ‘ought’ to ‘is’ is only to be expected, since ‘ought’ judgments are one type of evaluation. If evaluations are of a logically different type to descriptions, then we should not expect descriptive premises to entail evaluative conclusions. So assuming the fact-value distinction provides an explanation for Hume’s law.
Another way of drawing the fact-value distinction focuses not on language—evaluative judgments—but the nature of values. J.L. Mackie (1977) argues (contrary to Ayer, Stevenson, and Hare) that evaluative judgments have descriptive and not only emotive meaning. Mackie’s view on values is called an "error theory." Error theory says that evaluative judgments purport to make factual claims but do not succeed because values are metaphysically dubious entities. Consider in analogy that all statements about witches, such as “every witch owns a broomstick,” are descriptive—purport to state facts. Moreover, accounting for the truth of statements about witches commits us to the existence of witches—facts about witches would make statements about witches true. The trouble is that witches don’t exist, and so all statements about them are false.
Similarly, Mackie argues that ethical discourse is committed to the existence of objective values. However, the values required to make evaluative judgments true are too strange to be accommodated by any plausible metaphysics and epistemology. For one thing, values (properties such as goodness) cannot be perceived by the senses, and so human beings would require some mysterious sixth sense in order to perceive them. This Mackie holds to be implausible. Secondly, values seem intrinsically connected to motivation. Consider that a person who comes to see that kindness is good must be motivated, in some sense, to behave in a kind manner. According to Mackie, this shows that values have action-guiding force, quite unlike natural properties such as being square or blue. Mackie concludes that values are too strange to exist and adopts an error theory of our evaluative discourse. There are no objective values. Since every ethical judgment commits us to such values, all ethical judgments are false. Mackie’s error theory opens up a fact-value distinction: facts are real states of the world—presumably of the world as described by physics, whereas values do not exist.
Moral realists reject the fact-value distinction. Against the emotivists and prescriptivists, they argue that evaluative judgments aim to represent the world in some way. Moral realists argue that evaluative statements purport to represent facts. So the claim that “Smith did wrong in killing his wife” purports to say something appraisable as true or false. Against Mackie, they argue that properties such as rightness and wrongness may be real features of the world even if they are not the subject matter of empirical science. This opens the possibility that evaluative judgments may be true since the properties to which they refer (e.g. goodness) really exist. Moral realists are likely to be intuitionists in epistemology: if value-properties are not discovered by science, then they must be known by intuition of some sort.
Moral realists reject the fact-value distinction because they believe in moral facts. From the other direction, some philosophers, especially those influenced by pragmatism, reject the fact-value distinction because they believe that science, with all its claims to neutrality and objectivity, is ultimately an evaluative endeavor. If scientific language is not purely descriptive, then any sharp contrast between factual and evaluative language will be misconceived. Hilary Putnam (1981) is an important critic of the fact-value distinction, arguing that that science does not support the fact-value because evaluative norms are themselves present in the fact-finding enterprise.
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