Skepticism About the Fact Value Distinction

At the beginning of my philosophy training, I was taught the basis for the sharp distinction between fact and value. The philosophy classes convinced me of the correctness of the fact/value distinction which seemed to be a dogma in my University of Minnesota humanities course. From David Hume I learned that we cannot infer and “ought” from an “is.” Statements of fact do not logically entail a claim about what ought to be done. From G.E. Moore I discovered that “good” cannot be defined with any factual characterization. We can always ask of any X allegedly defining “good” “Is X good?” The word “good” should add something to whatever else describes X. This open question shows that our language does not permit reducing the value good to any set of facts.

In my previous post, I made a case that we should not take seriously pictures of how reality gives us truth. I traced taking such pictures seriously back to an assumption that structural features of our thinking gives a picture of the structure of reality. Taking the fact/value distinction as reflecting a fundamental feature of reality is unnecessarily projecting a structural feature of our thought on reality. It’s unnecessary because we can believe there is a reality making our thoughts correct or incorrect without having any account of how this comes about.

There is a bias accompanying this assumption of thought’s fact/value distinction mirroring reality. The first statement of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus forcibly expressed our “fact bias.” Die Welt ist alles, was der Fall ist. Reality is everything which is the case. There is the vast domain of facts with values being projected upon the facts by humans. We do not have to take this metaphysical picture seriously as showing some fundamental feature of reality. Indeed, if we choose to talk of structural features of thought being projected upon reality, we could talk of the fact/value dichotomy as being a projection.

What is the significance of setting aside the fact/value distinction as reflecting a fundamental feature of reality? For me it increases immensely the intellectual respectability of moral and religious thinking. Of course, even if moral and religious thinking with the intention of “getting it right” is in principle as capable of “getting it right” as scientific thinking, there can be greater danger of being stupidly and dangerously wrong in moral, and especially, religious thinking. Religious thinking is always in danger of leading us into superstition and fanatism.

Perhaps, on another occasion, I will argue that the fact/beauty distinction is not fundamental. Perhaps, what is true, what is good, what is beautiful are all equally fundamental in reality although I could never picture how this could be the case.

I close with four remarks on what I am not proposing.

First, I am not proposing setting aside the law of non-contradiction as fundamental. For what, though, is it fundamental? Inconsistent thinking can never “get it right.” This is not because we project consistency on reality as a fundamental feature. Consistency is fundamental to our operation of thinking to “get it right.” Inconsistency frustrates our intentions to think we have truth because we deny we have a truth when we have one.

Second, I am not sure that the law of excluded middle is fundamental to our thinking.

Third, I am not recommending any changes in how we speak except for not speaking as if the fact/value distinction is a fundamental truth about reality. I prefer to say that a moral law is valid rather than true.

Finally, I am not totally dismissing the fact picture of truth conditions. I believe that the picture of reality as a vast domain of facts may be a valuable heuristic for scientific thinking. At least for me this fuzzy picture of reality layed out as objects and processes in a vast domain of which natural science keeps giving us an ever more clear picture is a valuable heuristic for believing natural science “gets it right.”