Making Good?

The Fact/Value Split Denies the Realities We Seek

For some time now, the standard academic way of undermining attempts to articulate notions of objective good and evil has been to appeal to what is called "the fact/value distinction." This distinction is rife in the academy, and it can be found everywhere in the general culture—in opinion columns, legal judgments, and so forth. But what is this distinction, and why is it so influential? What are its possible weaknesses, and, assuming there are such, is there an alternative moral language that avoids them?

For help in this matter, I turn (as I often do) to old books—in this case to books by the late Canadian philosopher George Parkin Grant (1919-1988).

In "Value and Technology"(Collected Works, vol. 3, 235-236) Grant explains the meaning of the fact/value distinction:

What is meant by this distinction is that there is a world of facts which we do not make but which we discover and about which we can make objective judgments. On the other hand there are values which are made by human beings, who are not part of the objective world and about which our judgments are subjective, that is, relative to us. Man in his freedom makes values—they are what he does with the facts. To illustrate: those who make this distinction would say that when I state that Bessie Touzel weighs 135 lbs. I am stating a fact; but when I state that she is a noble human being I am simply expressing my value preferences. . . . Value is seen as something external to the facts; something which is created by man and not given in the world.

In his book Time as History (Collected Works, vol. 4, 36-37), Grant indicates the connection between the fact/value distinction and the doctrine of cultural relativism:

We are taught early to use the language of values, to say that our values are dependent on our historical situation and that this generalization proceeds from any objective study of the past. Civilizations and individuals have lived by different values. As there is no way of judging between the value of these values, we are taught early a very simple historical relativism.

So the fact/value distinction proceeds not only from individual preferences, but from cultural differences. Thus, since individuals have different tastes, and cultures have different standards, there will be no agreement on "values" among either individuals or cultures. Such a situation seems likely to produce an "anarchy of values," in which disagreements over good and evil will prevent any social cohesion. Why, then, is the fact/value distinction so widely endorsed?

The Appeal

In his Nowlan Lectures (Collected Works, vol. 3, 611-613) Grant explains the appeal of the doctrine. First, it facilitates social pluralism:

The free society demanded that reason should not be able to judge that certain human ends are higher in themselves than others, because if a hierarchy of ends was asserted this would immediately put limits on the freedom of the individual and the possibility of building a pluralistic society. It must be remembered that the deepest rhetoric of the North American establishment is the belief that we live in a pluralistic society in which the individual is free to pursue his own life. . . . The assertion of the fact-value distinction was the first step towards building a pluralist society.

Second, it facilitates the uninhibited development of science (including social science) and technology:

[A]ny teleological view of man or of anything else in the world stood in the way of objective science. First physics and later geology and biology under the influence of such men as Lyell and Darwin had become objective by being freed from teleology. The social scientists desired also to be objective scientists and this required the elimination of all teleological ideas; and in the science of human things this required the fact-value distinction.

For Grant, just as modern natural science had abolished the idea of normative "ends" toward which natural objects tend, so modern social science had to abandon any quest for normative ends, any search for "oughts," regarding human action. Social science was henceforth to be descriptive, not prescriptive; it was to describe how individuals and societies do behave, not how they ought to behave, and what businessmen, statesmen, parents, and so forth did with the findings of social science was to be left to their own private "values."

Freeing both natural science and social science from any notion of ends gave free rein to the development of advanced technological society, with its ever-increasing mastery of techniques to control human as well as non-human nature. And technological progress (despite certain recent misgivings) has long been assumed to be one of the great virtues of modern Western civilization, and therefore something to be fostered.

The Shortcomings

Despite these apparent advantages of the fact/value distinction, it has for Grant very serious shortcomings. First, it treats concepts of good and evil, virtue and vice, as merely matters of private (or cultural) taste. "But," Grant protests, "justice and beauty are not values which we subjectively 'create'" ("Faith and the Multiversity," Collected Works, vol. 4, 393); they are as objectively real as facts are. Further, to say that value is created by man is "to deny that the world apart from us is valuable"; and "to deny that the world is in itself good [cf. Genesis 1] is the heart of blasphemy" ("Value and Technology," 236).

Second, as Grant points out in chapter 5 of Time as History, even when the language of "values" is used by Christians with Christian intent (e.g., "I hold to Christian values"), it tends to subtly undermine Christian truth; for to speak of holding a set of values, rather than of recognizing an objective good, is to speak in a Nietzschean rather than a traditional manner:

Everybody uses the word "values" to describe our making of the world. . . . The word comes to us so platitudinously that we take it to belong to the way things are. It is forgotten that before Nietzsche and his immediate predecessors, men did not think about their actions in that language. They did not think they made the world valuable, but that they participated in its goodness. What is comic about the present use of 'values' . . . is . . . that it is used also by "religious" believers who are unaware that in its employment they are contradicting the very possibility of the reverence they believe they are espousing in its use.

Man's Task

Thus, Grant asserts that the fact/value distinction has led us down the wrong path. He believes that another moral language is needed, one that he finds in the Classical-Christian tradition of the West. That language includes the words "justice" and "love," and, above all, the word "good."

For Grant, there is an objective good, the reality of which is as assured as the reality of any of the facts to which natural or social science attest. This good exists independently of human taste or will, and its value is not given to it by human judgment, but belongs to it by nature. Further, human beings can come to know of this good (from philosophy and revelation), and participate in it (through emulation and obedience). It is through participation in this inherently valuable good, rather than through the adoption of a merely posited set of values, that we can restore wholeness to our lives and societies.

received his Ph.D. in Religious Studies from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. He writes on education, politics, religion, and culture.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #38, Fall 2016 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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