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.

6 thoughts on “Fact and value”

  1. The eternal and the physical
    Isn’t there a difference between the eternal and the merely perpetual? Physics is what it is because it is exactly unable to produce anything eternal, i.e., anything that exists outside and independent of space and time, such as the laws of logic or God. All of physics is is strictly provisional and empirical, which is why modern conceptions of morality are so skewed. In order for something to be true, it must be true perpetually and empirically verifiable. Thus, if ONE substance is found that were not made up of atoms, all of atomic physics is thrown into question, the way that one variation in the orbit of Mercury by itself disproved Newtonian Physics. Thus if ONE human being is a homosexual, the fact that humanity is essentially a heterosexual being and that homosexuality is a problem is obliterated. Heterosexuality becomes stricly provisional, and not an essential part of the way people are. To appeal to the normalcy of heterosexuality is not to appeal to “common sense” but to appeal to the existence of what is truly eternal, i.e., the eternal soul. The Eternal Scribe built men as heterosexual. It is written in the stars, so to speak, and not related to the strictly temporal and provisional world of physics, where the only possible definition of a human being is a statistical one involving chromosomes. It is only this concept of definition that makes the fact/value distinction so concrete. Once a human being is defined in eternal grounds, what a human being ought to be becomes clear: the definition in perfected form. A rational being ought to be perfectly rational. A manly being ought to be perfectly manly, etc.

    • I’d agree that to talk about
      I’d agree that to talk about human life one has to be able to talk about the way things are essentially or by nature, and distinguish that from the way they are in fact. In modern physics of course the distinction makes no sense. In physics things have properties but not natures, and it does seem to make sense to say that a property has duration (lasts a long time) but an essence is eternal (does not exist in time).

      Rem tene, verba sequentur.

      • Dualism.
        Have for a long time been thinking that the is /ougth distinction was causing a major problem for postmodernism and neodarwinistic materialsm, mainly because it points to a fundamental dualism that is nonexisting in their view.
        A valid inference must nessecarily include a fact realm where 1) the physical world is teleological in nature, including immateial prinsiples that are in some way related to our rationalty, and maybe some other more mysterious capasities, which is the origin (at least to some level) of our norms. A philosophical deep digging exposition of human nature should reveal its dualistic nature as a fact and from that allow moral inferences, like that of imposing a society based on a true understanding of human happiness, qualities and ulimate goals.
        Or 2) The physical world including the human body is dead matter, working side by side with some immaterial property, like a human soul. On this view we could have a justified human ethics, values derived from facts about human nature. But how do we include the rest of the world?
        If all that exists is dead matter governed by natural laws, formed by natural selection, how can there be anything else than personal random preferences and ethical relativsm, where norms form according to the requirements of the habitat?
        The fact that we live in a reality where we are free to discover universal moral standards independent of any cultural/historical contex points strongly in favor of dualistic human nature.

        Rune Solheim, Norway

  2. The Bp. Berkeley solution
    “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…”

    There doesn’t seem to be a resolution of the fact/value problem on the horizon, to put it mildly. The only option for the rest of us would seem to be along the lines of Dr. Johnson: “Thus I refute Bishop Berkeley!” Such a tactic, as it seems to me, has the advantage of being more comprehensible to the average man than the chit-chat of the po-mo’s and their allies.

    • How would you do the Johnson/
      How would you do the Johnson/Berkeley maneuver here? An issue like this is so basic it’s hard to stand back from it enough to argue about it. Still, it’s the basic points that determine in advance what the outcome is going to be. So we do need a popular way of dramatizing why fact/value doesn’t work.

      Rem tene, verba sequentur.

  3. Coincidentally…
    David Morrison at Sed Contra had an eloquent quote on facts vs. values, by Monsignor Peter Magee (in Friendship and Holiness: Some basic ingredients)

    • Facts belong to the realm of happenstance and circumstance, the realm of the visible and the ephemeral; truth belongs to the realm of meaning and values, the realm of the invisible and the lasting. No one dies for the sake of a fact; many have died for values. Facts are often measurable by statistics; values defy such scientific scrutiny. A fact states what does take place; a value both promises what can take place and demands what must take place.
    • The human person passes through the stream of facts around and within him, sometimes, to be sure, only with great suffering; but genuine values proceed from, and reach to, the very roots of being itself and, with the urgency of the true and the good, draw us both inward to true self-knowledge and outward in search of knowledge of the ultimate truth. Since nothing in creation compares with the value of the human person himself, it is as natural as it is necessary that the human person is to be reached most deeply by other human persons. It is thus to other human persons that the truth, the value and the meaning of oneself reach out to attain communion, to find fulfillment, to vanquish the living death of loneliness. And it is thus by other human persons that one is known, affirmed and loved for who one really is. That is the real meaning of history, personal and interpersonal.

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