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Fact and value

In today’s world it’s natural for there to be a great many accepted turns of thought that encode liberalism and modernity. An example is the “fact/value distinction.” That distinction involves the belief that two quite different sorts of things are involved in the way things are for us: facts, neutral statements about a world that’s just there, and values, human attitudes based on our projects and preferences.

Given the distinction, it’s natural to conclude that the two are radically separate and independent, so that neither can imply the other. Facts don’t determine how we evaluate them, and values—our attitudes and desires—don’t determine what the facts are. To most educated people today all that seems obvious and basic to rational thought.

Nonetheless, the view has its problems. If you accept it, it’s hard to see how there could be objective goods—things we ought to take as goals whether our attitude toward them is favorable or not. Perhaps for some such reason many people today accept, or believe they accept, the subjectivity of all values. “If you think it works for you, go for it” is the most that can be said about what’s good and what isn’t. A more pressing problem, from the standpoint of theoretical consistency, is that given the fact/value distinction it’s not clear how we can know facts. After all, knowledge is a kind of justified belief, and justification is a kind of evaluation, so if evaluation and therefore justification is independent of the facts of the case it seems the same would be true of knowledge—which seems wrong somehow.

For such reasons and others, the fact/value distinction is now old-fashioned, even though it hangs on among practical men, the scientifically-inclined, and the half-educated. Postmodern sophisticates, who say that everything has an ideological component, snicker at it. The consequences of postmodern denial of fact/value can be somewhat surprising. The distinction was always basic to the position of the “scholars” and “experts” whose voice counts as that of neutral expertise and therefore carries the only kind of authority liberalism is really happy with. One might therefore think that the denial that there are facts apart from ideology would debunk the authority of experts and therefore weaken liberalism. In fact it enhances it enormously, because it deprives ordinary people of the right to appeal even to obvious facts when their views differ from those of their presumed betters. Any fact to which they might appeal is debunked in advance as an ideological construction, and only neutral experts and therapists can unravel all the complications and judge how to proceed without riding roughshod over important considerations. The actual effect of postmodern abolition of fact/value is therefore the same as that of all recent developments in official culture: to make it impossible for anyone to question the managerial liberal state.

So what does one do if it is impossible to accept in good faith either the fact/value distinction or the manner of its recent denial? The basic problem is the claim that what is good and what is not can’t be a matter of true and false. From that claim those who accept the fact/value distinction infer that values are subjective attitudes. Far from contesting that conclusion, their postmodern successors extend the logic and infer that facts are also subjective attitudes, since every fact depends on a justification. What’s needed, then, is a restoration of the older view that good and evil are matters of fact, that they’re aspects of knowable reality independent of our desires and purposes, and that modern physics cannot possibly be a comprehensive description of reality, because taken by itself it has no place for justification or therefore truth. In the end, the view that purpose is an essential feature of the world must be closer to the truth of things.