Fact–value distinction

The fact-value distinction appears to be rational common sense, similar to the distinction between practice and theory. Facts are commonly assumed to be objective truths humans know In their heads or brains or minds. Facts are objective means or tools that “work” practically to achieve ends that may be good or bad. Values are assumed to be subjective preferences humans know in their hearts or guts or souls. Values are moral prescriptions that are theoretically “right”—legitimate in themselves independently of practical facts. David Hume identified fact as what “is” and value as what “ought to be,” and asserted that rational humans must recognize their autonomy.

But distinguishing knowledge of fact from knowledge of value contaminates rationality by turning one kind of knowledge against the other. The head notoriously disagrees with the heart, and each denies the other is rational. Distinguishing them encourages partisanship, pitting “realists” who trust facts against “idealists” who trust values. Reason is powerless to decide. Consider a modern situation in which fact confronted value.

Former Senator Daniel Moynihan stated the realist denial that the heart's value is rational: "You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts."[1]:epigraph

Stating Moynahan's meaning in fact-value terms: Value, as everyone knows, is fact-free: purposeful but groundless opinion, powerless to correlate social action. By contrast, instrumental means are rational tools that work to correlate social action. Fact is TRUE! Obey facts!

TV humorist Stephen Colbert sarcastically stated the idealist denial that head-known fact is rational:

"I don't trust books.--They're all fact, no heart ... Face it, folks, we are a divided nation ... divided between those who think with their head and those who know with their heart ... Because that's where the truth comes from, ... the gut."[1]:4

Stating Colbert's meaning in fact-value terms: Fact, as everyone knows, is value-free: grounded but purposeless data, powerless to guide social life. By contrast, emotional ends are right rules that correlate social action. Values are JUST! Obey value.

History records endless recurrence of this paradoxical situation. Scholars repeatedly proclaim the autonomy of fact from value, but find themselves inescapably joining that which must be distinguished. This article presents examples of this rational paradox from David Hume to modern scholars.

David Hume (1711-1776), philosopherEdit

Hume took for granted the ancient distinction between fact and value, known in his day as the distinction between reason and passion. But he was appalled by misunderstanding of the distinction. He rejected theologians’ claims that revelation dictates virtuous behavior. He rejected secular scholars’ claims that facts dictate virtuous behavior. He found everyone ignoring the natural power of the heart's virtuous feelings,[1]::49–50, 114–16 and sought to eliminate these reasoning errors in his Treatise of Human Nature, published in 1739.

Nothing is more usual in philosophy, and even in common life, than to talk of the combat of passion [value] and reason [fact], to give the preference to reason, and to assert that men are only so far virtuous as they conform themselves to its dictates ... On this method of thinking the greatest part of moral philosophy, ancient and modern, seems to be founded;... In order to show the fallacy of all this philosophy, I shall endeavor to prove first, that reason alone can never be a motive to any action of the will; and secondly, that it can never oppose passion in the direction of the will.[1]:413

He gave his own labels to these two kinds of knowledge, naming modern facts ideas and modern values impressions.[1]:1–2, 459 He viewed ideas as the head's passive understanding of life experiences, and impressions as the heart's active sensations of those experiences.

These premises led Hume to the skeptical conclusion that inert facts cannot be proven. Cognitive ideas can never be deductively established as true; they are mere inductive opinions, memories of impressions the heart has experienced.[2]:158-9

But despite accepting the necessity of distinguishing fact from value, he argued that some sensations are more than fact-free impressions. They are valuable because they are instrumentally fit: they work to correlate social action. They are spontaneous judgments of vice or virtue inherent in life experiences, known in the head and felt in the heart. They are moral facts, "internal actions of the mind" known in human breasts. "Now 'tis evident our passions, volitions, and actions ... are original facts and realities compleat in themselves,..."[1]:458 Emotional perceptions reveal moral facts about the "eternal immutable fitnesses ... of things,..."[1]:468–9 Human reasoning works in two ways: by "the comparing of ideas and the inferring of matter of [moral] fact;..."[1]:463

Hume observed this correspondence of fact and value in his neighbors' satisfaction when complying with community institutions—prescribed patterns of correlated behavior—then called moral sentiments thought to embody natural virtue. Following politically correct rules of right behavior correlates social action because it brings communal joy; it works because it is moral. He called this unintended group satisfaction "virtue" but, for ages, philosophers have called it "utility"--the collective label for want-satisfying consequences of experience.

To have the sense of virtue [value], is nothing but to feel a satisfaction of a particular kind from the contemplation of a character. Nothing can be more real, or concern us more than our sentiments of pleasure ...; and if these be favorable to virtue,... no more can be requisite to the regulation of our conduct and behaviour.[1]:469, 472

But claiming that values are moral facts contradicts Hume's assertion that facts are value-free and values are fact-free. It turns valuations into effective instruments and observations into grounded preferences. If facts can have moral meaning, and values can have instrumental meaning, distinguishing fact from value is a mistake. Means are inseparable from ends.

Hume ignored his evidence against the fact-value distinction because it contradicted his original premise that ideas—inert facts—are powerless to activate the will. He continued to treat objective facts as value-free, and fiercely attacked colleagues who drew moral inferences from inert ideas.

To discourage this flawed reasoning, he reframed his ideas-impressions distinction as an "is-ought" generalization: Facts—what "is" now known—are powerless to prescribe or produce values—ends that "ought" to be achieved in the future. Facts can only describe what is observable. They can never prescribe what is desirable.

Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.[1]:415; emphasis added

This negative generalization is paradoxical. Its statement of a principle denies the principle it states, affirming as a moral fact that instrumental facts cannot be moral.

Ignoring the paradox, his generalization became popular enough to be named "Hume's law."[3]:14, 28;[4] It continues to persuade scientists that their facts are value-free means, simply descriptions of "what is" known to work regardless of personal preferences. Scholars avoid values as fact-free ends, emotional judgments of "what ought to be" ungrounded in conditions or actual consequences. Hume made the distinction between fact and value absolute.

David Hume's skepticismEdit

In 'A Treatise of Human Nature' (1739), David Hume discusses the problems in grounding normative statements in positive statements, that is, in deriving ought from is. It is generally regarded that Hume considered such derivations untenable, and his 'is–ought' problem is considered a principal question of moral philosophy.[5]

Hume shared a political viewpoint with early Enlightenment philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) and John Locke (1632–1704). Specifically, Hume, at least to some extent, argued that religious and national hostilities that divided European society were based on unfounded beliefs. In effect, Hume contended that such hostilities are not found in nature, but are a human creation, depending on a particular time and place, and thus unworthy of mortal conflict.

Naturalistic fallacyEdit

The fact–value distinction is closely related to the naturalistic fallacy, a topic debated in ethical and moral philosophy. G. E. Moore believed it essential to all ethical thinking.[6] However, contemporary philosophers like Phillipa Foot have called into question the validity of such assumptions. Others, such as Ruth Anna Putnam, argue that even the most "scientific" of disciplines are affected by the "values" of those who research and practice the vocation.[7][8] Nevertheless, the difference between the naturalistic fallacy and the fact–value distinction is derived from the manner in which modern social science has used the fact–value distinction, and not the strict naturalistic fallacy to articulate new fields of study and create academic disciplines.

Moralistic fallacyEdit

The fact–value distinction is also closely related to the moralistic fallacy, an invalid inference of factual conclusions from purely evaluative premises. For example, an invalid inference "Because everybody ought to be equal, there are no innate genetic differences between people" is an instance of the moralistic fallacy. As for the naturalistic fallacy one attempts to move from an "is" to an "ought" statement, with the moralistic fallacy one attempts to move from an "ought" to an "is" statement.

Nietzsche's table of valuesEdit

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) in Thus Spoke Zarathustra said that a table of values hangs above every great people. Nietzsche points out that what is common among different peoples is the act of esteeming, of creating values, even if the values are different from one people to the next. Nietzsche asserts that what made people great was not the content of their beliefs, but the act of valuing. Thus the values a community strives to articulate are not as important as the collective will to act on those values.[9] The willing is more essential than the intrinsic worth of the goal itself, according to Nietzsche.[10] "A thousand goals have there been so far," says Zarathustra, "for there are a thousand peoples. Only the yoke for the thousand necks is still lacking: the one goal is lacking. Humanity still has no goal." Hence, the title of the aphorism, "On The Thousand And One Goals." The idea that one value-system is no more worthy than the next, although it may not be directly ascribed to Nietzsche, has become a common premise in modern social science. Max Weber and Martin Heidegger absorbed it and made it their own. It shaped their philosophical endeavor, as well as their political understanding.


Virtually all modern philosophers affirm some sort of fact–value distinction, insofar as they distinguish between science and "valued" disciplines such as ethics, aesthetics, or the fine arts. However, philosophers such as Hilary Putnam argue that the distinction between fact and value is not as absolute as Hume envisioned.[11] Philosophical pragmatists, for instance, believe that true propositions are those that are useful or effective in predicting future (empirical) states of affairs.[12] Far from being value-free, the pragmatists' conception of truth or facts directly relates to an end (namely, empirical predictability) that human beings regard as normatively desirable. Other thinkers reject an absolutist fact–value distinction by contending that our senses are imbued with prior conceptualizations, making it impossible to have any observation that is totally value-free, which is how Hume and the later positivists conceived of facts.

Functionalist counterexamplesEdit

Several counterexamples have been offered by philosophers claiming to show that there are cases when an evaluative statement does indeed logically follow from a factual statement. A. N. Prior points out, from the statement "He is a sea captain," it logically follows, "He ought to do what a sea captain ought to do."[13] Alasdair MacIntyre points out, from the statement "This watch is grossly inaccurate and irregular in time-keeping and too heavy to carry about comfortably," the evaluative conclusion validly follows, "This is a bad watch."[14] John Searle points out, from the statement "Jones promised to pay Smith five dollars," it logically follows that "Jones ought to pay Smith five dollars." The act of promising by definition places the promiser under obligation.[15]

Moral realismEdit

Philippa Foot adopts a moral realist position, criticizing the idea that when evaluation is superposed on fact there has been a "committal in a new dimension".[16] She introduces, by analogy, the practical implications of using the word "injury". Not just anything counts as an injury. There must be some impairment. When we suppose a man wants the things the injury prevents him from obtaining, haven’t we fallen into the old naturalist fallacy?

It may seem that the only way to make a necessary connexion between 'injury' and the things that are to be avoided, is to say that it is only used in an 'action-guiding sense' when applied to something the speaker intends to avoid. But we should look carefully at the crucial move in that argument, and query the suggestion that someone might happen not to want anything for which he would need the use of hands or eyes. Hands and eyes, like ears and legs, play a part in so many operations that a man could only be said not to need them if he had no wants at all.[17]

Foot argues that the virtues, like hands and eyes in the analogy, play so large a part in so many operations that it is implausible to suppose that a committal in a non-naturalist dimension is necessary to demonstrate their goodness.

Philosophers who have supposed that actual action was required if 'good' were to be used in a sincere evaluation have got into difficulties over weakness of will, and they should surely agree that enough has been done if we can show that any man has reason to aim at virtue and avoid vice. But is this impossibly difficult if we consider the kinds of things that count as virtue and vice? Consider, for instance, the cardinal virtues, prudence, temperance, courage and justice. Obviously any man needs prudence, but does he not also need to resist the temptation of pleasure when there is harm involved? And how could it be argued that he would never need to face what was fearful for the sake of some good? It is not obvious what someone would mean if he said that temperance or courage were not good qualities, and this not because of the 'praising' sense of these words, but because of the things that courage and temperance are.[18]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h [[cite book|last=Hume|first=David|title=Treatise of Human Nature|publisher=Promethus|date=1992}}
  2. ^ Johnson, Oliver A. (1995). The Mind of David Hume. Illinois University Press.
  3. ^ Putnam, Hilary (2002). The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy. Harvard University Press.
  4. ^ Cohon, Rachel. "Hume's Moral Philosophy". In Zalta, Edward N (ed.). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  5. ^ Priest, Stephen (2007). The British Empiricists. Routledge. pp. 177–78. ISBN 978-0-415-35723-4.
  6. ^ Casimir Lewy 1965 - G.E. Moore on the naturalistic fallacy
  7. ^ Putnam, Ruth Anna. "Perceiving Facts and Values", Philosophy 73, 1998. JSTOR 3752124 This article as well as her earlier article, "Creating Facts and Values", Philosophy 60, 1985 JSTOR 3750998, examines how scientists may base their choice of investigations on their unexamined subjectivity, which undermines the objectivity of their hypothesis and findings
  8. ^ Smart, J.C. "Ruth Anna Putnam and the Fact-Value Distinction", Philosophy 74, 1999. JSTOR 3751844
  9. ^ Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Book Two "On the Virtuous": "You who are virtuous still want to be paid! Do you want rewards for virtue, and heaven for earth, and the eternal for your today? And now you are angry with me because I teach that there is no reward and paymaster? And verily, I do not even teach that virtue is its own reward."
  10. ^ Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Book Four "On Old and New Tablets": "To redeem what is past in man and to recreate all 'it was' until the will says, 'Thus I willed it! Thus I shall will it!' - this I called redemption and this alone I taught them to call redemption."
  11. ^ Putnam, Hilary. "The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy and Other Essays, Cambridge, MA : Harvard University Press, 2002" (PDF). Reasonpapers.com. Retrieved 2013-10-03.
  12. ^ "Pragmatism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)". Plato.stanford.edu. 2008-08-16. Retrieved 2013-10-03.
  13. ^ Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (1984), p. 57
  14. ^ ibid., p. 68.
  15. ^ Don MacNiven, Creative Morality, pp. 41–42.
  16. ^ Philippa Foot, “Moral Beliefs,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, vol. 59 (1958), pp. 83–104.
  17. ^ Foot 1958, p. 96.
  18. ^ Foot 1958, p. 97.