Philosophy 143 - 8.1.3 Objections to the Fact-Value Distinction

Not all philosophers agree that there is a strict distinction between facts and values. Moral realists argue for a more objective concept of morality. They feel that there are certain moral facts about the world that are objectively true, such as the claim “murder is immoral.” Moral skeptics, on the other hand, often use the fact-value distinction to argue against an objective basis for morality by emphasizing that moral values are not factual and involve a different mode of thinking that is distinct from logical or scientific reasoning. Disagreements with the fact-value distinction come in different forms.

Putnam’s Objection to the Fact-Value Distinction

Some philosophers reject the concept of empirical facts by demonstrating that scientific reasoning uses values to establish facts. In his 1982 article “Beyond the Fact-Value Dichotomy,” American philosopher and mathematician Hilary Putnam (1926 – 2016) argues that scientists frequently must choose between conflicting theories and use desirable principles like simplicity or coherence to devise an explanation for complex observational data. To illustrate his point, he explains that Einstein’s theory of gravity was accepted over competing theories because it was simpler and preserved other laws of physics. Putnam argues that science’s creation of facts is an evaluative practice and does not necessarily stand on a firmer ground than conclusions about values like goodness or kindness. This approach to refuting the fact-value distinction is provocative because it challenges the idea that science is an objective presentation of facts.

Lack of Distinction Claims

Another approach to challenging the fact-value distinction is to emphasize how people connect them in their everyday ways of speaking. Some philosophers argue that certain types of descriptive claims imply an evaluative claim, especially if they are linked by the concept of purpose or function. For example, if a person says, “This knife is too dull to cut anything,” then you can assume they also mean “This is a bad knife” because it does not fulfill its function. If you understand the purpose of function of the knife, you can follow this implication easily. Since people make these types of connections easily in everyday speech, the distinction between facts and values may not hold much meaning.

Claims of Objective Moral Reasoning

Finally, some philosophers reject the fact-value distinction through the concept of telos (purpose, end, or goal). They argue that values are based on the fulfillment of a goal. You can objectively assess whether an action does or does not fulfill a goal. For example, if your goal is to help others in need, an action will be good if it fulfills that goal, like volunteering at a homeless shelter. Using this goal, you can objectively determine whether any action is good, bad, or neutral. Telos, therefore, establishes an objective morality.

To investigate the is-ought distinction further, you must explore what a value is. The following section will take up this question.

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