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the fact/value distinction

Better understood as "what is" (fact) and "what ought to be" (value), the fact/value distinction is the thin line between what is truth and what is right. It is the source of conflict between science and ethics. In its most basic sense, fact can be defined as the inarguable truths of our physical world - the material surroundings which one detects via the senses. By examining our reality through scientific methods, we hope to empirically and logically verify truths and thus to compile a collection of "knowledge". Value, on the other hand, is not accessible via the senses; it can only be derived through one's own subjective reasoning about ethics. Unlike fact, value cannot be proven true or false by any sort of scientific method. Rather, it must be compared against one's own faith or ethical worldview in order to draw personal conclusive results.

The inability to scientifically prove the Boolean value of what "ought to be" has brought about a view that what science can tell is limited. Because science has access to the tangible materials of our world, it only seems logical to conclude that if matter is all that truly exists then all value may be explained through science with future techniques which are yet undeveloped. The moderate outlook on science, however, recognizes that value may certainly never be explained purely through knowledge of the material world. It appears that this latter moderate view is more accurate, for it can be shown that every argument of value must somehow rely upon a separate "ought statement" which has already been deemed true prior to the matter at hand.

Consider the following logic:
-A mother cannot survive without a transfusion of her son's rare blood type. (what is)
-It's only right for the son to help his dying mother. (what ought to be)
-Giving blood involves no risk whatsoever. (what is)
-The son ought to donate blood to his mother. (what ought to be)

The final claim is reached through a series of logical steps. Though the final idea seems to derive from sound reasoning, it is still based in part on the premise that it's only right for the son to help his dying mother. All "ought to" statements, like this one, can only be reached through previous value judgments.

What is right or wrong, or what should be held with regard above other things, is purely subjective. It is worthwhile to note that ought-statements differ from fact-statements in that factual assertions hold the ability to inadvertently create cause and effect in everyday life. For example: Because it's true that somebody set fire to my house, I am in danger and my reality has been directly affected. However, whether or not I believe it is acceptable for someone to burn down my home, it does not affect the fact that I am in great danger.

The fact/value distinction is an important element in our modern world, for without value there would be no culture. As science slowly progresses in gaining knowledge about issues where religion or cultural norms once dominated, it is affecting ethical decisions by helping us understand what is physically possible or impossible. However, there will always remain ethical frameworks which cannot themselves be proven or disproven by science.

--Charlie Tronolone


Greene, Joshua. "From neural 'is' to moral 'ought'." Nature Reviews: Neuroscience, Oct 2003: 847-50.

O'Hear, Anthony. Philosophy, the good, the true, and the beautiful. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Welsh, Paul. Fact, value, and perception : essays in honor of Charles A. Baylis. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1975.