Since the “Darwinian Revolution” in the 19th century, many naturalists have attempted to bootstrap a morality from the bare existence of nature, to make sense of an emergent pattern within a fundamentally chaotic system. A principle called the fact-value distinction aims to put an end to this ethical conjuring. For the uninitiated, the fact-value distinction says that there is a categorical difference between facts and values—facts being objective, empirically verifiable things, and values intangible, normative concepts—which prevents any jump from simple observations about nature to obligations about how we should behave within nature. Formulated by the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume as the “is-ought problem,” this provides an obstacle to those who would look to science as a way of giving purpose to human life.
While it may in effect limit a dogmatic reliance on science which the Christian would oppose, it is our aim to examine the legitimacy of this distinction, and how it might fit into a Christian worldview. On face value, Hume’s assertion would appear to be correct. After all, when we say that the dog is brown, it is hard to see how we might conclude from this whether or not the dog ought to be brown. When the college admissions board observes that affirmative action policies make a student body more diverse, we are not any closer to knowing whether the admissions board ought to follow these policies. This kind of “ought” is what we mean by “value” in the context of the fact-value distinction.
The fact-value distinction comes under fire from all parts of the philosophical spectrum. The Christian critique of the fact-value distinction gets to the heart of the matter. First of all, the fact-value distinction clearly puts a wedge between what is true and what is good. Although seemingly innocuous, the Christian must hold that these two, truth and goodness, are ultimately unified in the being of God. Why should they be split up in nature? However, the Christian view of nature gives a reason for why there might be such a wedge. The continued transgression of men against God has spread throughout the whole universe in the form of sin, and as a result nature imperfectly accords with God’s plan for it.
However, we must be careful with our use of the term “fact.” In nature, there is no such thing as a “brute fact,” an un-interpreted proposition. Having been ultimately created by God, all of nature is latent with interpretive meaning—our job is to discover what this meaning is.
Some ideas from Aristotle will help us put this more concretely. If the things we observe around us—take a moose, for example—have a built-in purpose to them, then they have some normative goal for what being a good instance of that particular thing looks like. When a moose is living up to its proper function, we may say it is flourishing as a moose. By way of having specified function, all things too have an “ought” associated with that function. Most people would agree that a good instance of a moose is one that likes eating leaves over squirrel meat. We might even say that a properly functioning moose ought to prefer vegetation to meat in its diet.
Intrinsic in this built-in function is the obligation which things have to fulfill their functions. When a clock fails to live up to his function, it is not just less of a clock, but a bad clock. As A.N. Prior has noted, the fact that a man is a sea captain logically implies that he ought to behave as a sea captain.1 The classification of some person as a sea captain is enough to give him moral obligations.
Let’s see how this might enable us to transpose facts into values, “is-statements” into “oughts.” Take the example of the “factual” statement, “The mother asked her child to clean up the dishes after dinner.” If we believe that there is something such as a “good mother” or a “good child,” then all mothers and children have an obligation to behave as such. Given a full enough definition of the terms in this statement (“mother” or “child”), we should be able to evaluate what the child ought to do in this situation. Our definition of “child” would likely include children’s purpose of growing into adults. That growth, undoubtedly, necessitates them listening to those in authority over them—we do not expect a child to always find the best line of action on his own. So, we might conclude, that in order to be a good child, this child ought to clean the dishes after dinner. Of course, there might be extenuating circumstances in which the child should not clean the dishes—if the house was burning down, for example—but those exceptions could always be derived from a rich enough definition of what a child’s purpose is, what it means to be a flourishing human.
The attentive reader has noticed that we did not in reality start with the “facts” given in the proposition alone. From the beginning, we assumed a metaphysical order which facts inhabit. Herein lies the major divergence from the fact-value dualism of Hume. Thankfully, the Christian has the luxury of seeing the world as inherently structured, not just a mass of cohering atoms, or a chaotic barrage of sense perceptions. Nor is it possible to strip the world free from these assumptions.
Having established the way in which facts and values are linked, we can make sense of the ways in which truth and goodness are artificially separated in nature. Rather than creating an impassible division between the world of facts and values, though, sin simply adds another layer of interpretation to the facts which we observe in nature. When accounting for the intended purpose, the telos, of any entity, we must correct for the way in which sin obscures true purposes. In a world with sin, it is still possible to narrow down the function of a thing, though it is not as easy as observing the behavior of any given instantiation of that thing.
Compounding upon to the Christian/Aristotelian critique, the secular anti-realists of the 20th century give us reason to doubt Hume’s division. Thinkers like Hilary Putnam point out that in practice, the concepts of “fact” and “value” are hopelessly intertwined. To separate them is impossible. The problem starts with Hume’s narrow classification of facts. For him, a fact is anything that can leave a pictorial sense impression in the mind.2 Therefore, an abstract concept, like “cruelty,” cannot be a fact. However, in reality, words like “cruel” seem to avoid the neat fact-value distinction. It can be used both descriptively, as in “He is cruel to his dog,” while also having normative implications, namely that he is a bad man in that regard. Facts are laden with values. Putnam calls the fact-value distinction-blurring of these complicated words “entanglement.”3 As it turns out, these words can be found all over the place, whether with “rude” or “crime.” The dichotomy is not as black and white as Hume would have us believe.
On the other side of the divide, G.E.M. Anscombe argues that it is difficult to examine values without looking at all the facts of the situation. In the case of the child asked to wash dishes, the “brute facts” would be the mother’s request. Anscombe believes that we too often hastily apply to the brute facts absolute moral laws such as, “Children should obey their parents.” Instead, she would look at the applicable contextual facts of the situation, and make her pronouncement from a wider perspective.4 Accordingly, “values” are not disembodied concepts, but obligations which grab hold of us within the messy complexity of the world.
Certainly, we have seen how the fact-value distinction has come under fire, and might not serve as a convincing attack on naturalistic ethics. Indeed, the Christian cannot draw such a distinction between facts and values without surrendering ground to naturalism.
Yet, the 20th century philosophers like Putnam have demonstrated that science is not as naturalists would hope. When we do science, we are not just dealing with brute facts. It is impossible to put aside value assumptions and “get to the bottom” of nature with neutral objectivity. Thus, it is not viable to derive values strictly from facts; more often, it is from our values, epistemic and otherwise, that we get our facts in the first place. This leads us to reject philosophies which claim to believe only that which is empirically demonstrable, or provable by science.
For theists, the is-ought problem should only be used as a reductio ad absurdum of life without metaphysical order. The Christian should never believe that God asks us to behave a certain way—giving us values—yet obscures them when we look at nature. Without a metaphysical justification to make assumptions about the orderliness and purposefulness of the world, Hume would be correct. As we have seen, though, a meaningful understanding of the world, and a healthy view of science, sees “facts” as contingent on our own assumptions, and on a universal structure that underlies and supports those facts.
When Christians invoke the fact-value distinction, they are rightfully drawing attention to the limits of science’s purview. But in exchange, they are surrendering ground to the naturalists by splitting categorically the true and the good, ignoring the purpose and moral meaning that is to a greater or lesser extent latent in the world. This robs our experience of the universe—including science—of its natural richness. Everything around us has been created for a particular function, and most flourishes when it fulfills that identity.
While we can diverge from full-fledged support of David Hume’s dualizing principles, we must also take heed of its caution against basing any obligations on a world devoid of structure. The truth is, science is a tool to get more than facts, but obligations too, but only with a metaphysic assumed.
Bryce McDonald ‘21 is a sophomore in Leverett House studying Classics and Philosophy.