Photo by Taylor Kopel on Unsplash

The Fact-Value Distinction is a Disaster: and there is an Alternative

If your dog is hungry, should you feed him? In practice, as an embodied human being, you are likely to feel that you should. From the disastrous disembodied perspective pushed by analytic philosophers (and followed by many others), though, these two points are seen in complete isolation from each other. You may feel that you ought to feed your dog, they say, but this is entirely distinguishable from the facts of the situation. Instead, it’s due to the extra values you bring to the situation that you feel an ethical responsibility towards your dog. Some disembodied philosophers have even described ethical claims as ‘queer’ — in the sense of inexplicably different from ‘ordinary’ factual ones.

The fact-value distinction

This separation of facts from values has been disastrous, because it entrenches the idea that facts can be justified and ethics cannot. Facts are supposed to be ‘objective’, checkable by scientific observation, but values are assumed to be ‘subjective’, either just random whims, or at least just social conventions.

The originator of this perspective was the eighteenth century philosopher David Hume, who wrote “Tis not unreasonable for me to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.” The disembodiment of this viewpoint is breathtaking. Hume’s distinction is a merely logical one, that facts do not necessarily imply values. Yes, if you were a completely disembodied mind there would be nothing to choose between these two outcomes, but this is (one would have thought, obviously!) not our situation. But philosophers, scientists and others have usually taken this perspective, and assumed that this is how we should understand both science and ethics in practice — to the detriment of both. If they have tried to question the distinction at all, it is usually in a way that reduces values to facts or facts to values — actually leaving the underlying distinction intact.

Why the fact-value distinction is a disaster

This is a disaster for ethics, because it has left it as an institutionalized failure. It has left people treating ethics either as a matter of personal preference (for instance, vegetarianism as an option on the menu) or as a social construction (for instance, arranged marriage is OK for Hindus — but not others). That makes it impossible to treat ethics normatively, as an ‘ought’, which is the whole point of it. If vegetarianism is right, everyone in the restaurant should be eating that way, and if arranged marriage is wrong, then Hindus shouldn’t be doing it any more than anyone else. If ethics is just an option or a heritage, then it has no genuine force for us. We can then happily cease to take it seriously — even using the terms ‘wicked’ and ‘evil’ to slangily describe what we think is good, because there is, apparently, no difference.

It is also a disaster for science, because it leaves us with an expectation that scientific theory will be ‘factual’. Don’t get me wrong: I take scientific justification very seriously. The supporting of a view with evidence makes a huge difference to how we should regard it, but it doesn’t make it value-free. On the contrary, scientists have been motivated to test their beliefs against evidence by scientific values. I believe them when they offer overwhelming evidence (as in the case for human-made climate change, for instance), but not because their conclusions are absolute. Instead, factual claims are justified because of the values we bring to them. Not understanding this is increasingly leading to people not taking science any more seriously than they take ethics — that is, assuming that it is merely a matter of preference or convention. Welcome to the world of ‘post truth’ and ‘alternative facts’. But we don’t get out of this just by asserting that our set of facts is absolute: that’s a piece of bluster that can be readily seen through.

The alternative: focus on judgement

There is an alternative to the fact-value distinction: but one that unfortunately doesn’t seem to be widely understood by philosophers, scientists, or anyone else. Rather than focusing on the claims made out of words that make up ‘facts’ or ‘values’, and whether they represent reality or not, we need to focus on the process by which we judge both facts and values. When we look at the process of judgement, rather than the propositions that language-obsessed philosophers have focused on, we find that there is barely any distinction between facts and values, if any. Both are responses to experiences.

We come across a situation: the dog is showing signs of hunger. We make a judgement in response to that situation. Normally, if you own the dog, that won’t just be “The dog is hungry, isn’t that an interesting fact?”. Instead it will be, “I ought to feed the dog”. But either is possible. Both are judgements. The relevant question we need to ask is not “is this statement true or false?” but “how justified is my judgement?”.

Your judgement about the dog being hungry is not, in embodied practice, infallible — he may be pretending. There is always some doubt about predominantly factual judgements just as there is about predominantly value ones. But nevertheless, you can confidently believe in your judgement based on long experience.

Your judgement that you ought to feed him, like your observations of the dog, arises from your specific situation, where social obligations, empathy for an animal’s feelings, a feeling of connection with others, and an individual sense of responsibility are all part of the picture. Your value judgement is not infallible, but it’s well justified in those specific, embodied circumstances, just like your observations of the dog.

What’s more, there’s no way at all that you can separate the facts and values in your situation from each other: each of them is interlocked with the other. You make the observations because you care about the dog, and you feel you should feed the dog because of your observations and the assumptions you have made when interpreting them.

Provisionality in both facts and values

It is when we focus on the process of judgement rather than on claims that we can also distinguish provisionality as the most valuable feature of both scientific judgement and ethics. Scientists usually offer highly credible beliefs because their judgements have been made in a provisional way — one that is open to the consideration of alternative views, and to alteration if the evidence changes. Exactly the same point applies to ethics. For instance, I might believe that it’s OK to eat meat because it’s ‘normal’ or ‘natural’, before I become aware of the environmental effects and unnecessary suffering I’m contributing to by doing so. My new understanding of why I shouldn’t eat meat is not necessarily the whole story, but it’s my continuing capacity to question my assumptions that makes my new response better than my previous one.

Provisionality is an aspect of the Middle Way, the general approach I’ve developed as response to absolutization (see my earlier blog post). Absolutization, assuming that we have the whole story, is responsible for a wide range of dogma, repression and conflict in human experience, and one example of it, I would argue, is the fact-value distinction (or more precisely, the use of that distinction at the basis of how we think about ethics and science). To overcome it, we need to look deeply and critically at the assumptions we have been making in our civilization over the last few hundred years, which very often have become entrenched and formalized in the beliefs philosophers take for granted.

For more information about the Middle Way, its application to science and ethics, and the idea of provisionality, please see the website of the Middle Way Society. A more detailed and referenced academic account of Middle Way ethics can be found in my book series Middle Way Philosophy, particularly volume 1 section 7.

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Multi-disciplinary practical philosopher. Author of around 20 books on Middle Way Philosophy and founder of the Middle Way Society

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Robert M. Ellis

Robert M. Ellis

Multi-disciplinary practical philosopher. Author of around 20 books on Middle Way Philosophy and founder of the Middle Way Society

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