Philosophy 140 - 8.1 The Fact-Value Distinction

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Articulate the fact-value distinction.
  • Distinguish between descriptive and evaluative claims.
  • Explain the is-ought problem
  • Describe the naturalistic fallacy
  • Evaluate objections to the fact-value distinction.

Values are woven into how you live and relate to others. The ideals that guide your life decisions, the morals that shape how you treat others, and even the choices that define your personal aesthetic all express your values. Values signify judgments about the way people ought to think, feel, or act based on what is good, worthwhile, or important. For example, you might think you ought to read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man because it is considered a great American novel or because you believe that reading about anti-Black racism in the United States is important for forming a more just worldview. Here, your reasoning for a course of action—reading Invisible Man—is based on value judgments about the novel’s greatness and the importance of understanding racial injustice.

Values describe how people think things should be, not necessarily how they are. Philosophers describe this difference as the is-ought distinction or, more commonly, the fact-value distinction. The fact-value distinction distinguishes between what is the case (facts) and what people think ought to be the case (values) based on beliefs about what is good, beautiful, important, etc.

The line between facts and values is not always clear. It can be easy to mistake a value for a fact, especially when a person feels strongly about something and believes it is truly good or bad beyond any doubt. For example, the statement “killing an innocent person is bad” may seem like a fact, but it is not a description of how things are. This statement describes the way people think things should be, not the way the world is. For this reason, the fact-value distinction is an important place to begin. This section will give an overview of the fact-value distinction by examining the types of claims you can make about facts and values and how facts and values are related to or distinct from each other.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax