Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Terminology Tuesday: Fact-Value Distinction

Fact-Value Distinction: In philosophy, the ontological distinction between what is (facts) and what ought to be (values). David Hume gave the distinction its classical formulation in his dictum that it is impossible to derive an “ought” from an “is.” See also naturalistic fallacy.1

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.2

1. Encyclopedia Britannica; 2. rit.edu; For more, see wikipedia here.


MaryLou said...

I'm currently reading Lesslie Newbigin's Foolishness to the Greeks. He talks about the dichotomy between facts and values and how the former are discussed in the public arena while the latter, along with the religions that spawn them, are a private, individual matter. Facts are considered to be either true or false, but values are negotiable.

He insists that we must bring religions out of the private domain and make then public. They must be compared and scrutinized like everything else because they do involve facts that are either true or false and it is, of course a life and death matter to determine what is correct.

It is interesting that, when two scientists disagree, they don't just look at each other and go, "Well, that's okay. You could be right." They continue to study, do experiments, and try to determine what the truth is.

Yet we live in a culture that expects people of different religions to just agree to disagree and not bother to determine the truth because people have been lulled into believing there is no absolute truth to be found when it comes to spiritual matters.

The Newbigin book, while published in the 1980s, still has much to say to the world today.

Ex N1hilo said...

The discussion of the fact-value distinction from the Encyclopedia Britannica has a number of problems. But I'll address only the biggest one; which is implicit, I think, in what MaryLou has written about Newbigin's _Foolishness to the Greeks_. Although–and I have never read the book myself–it seems from the summary given that Newbigin may have fallen into the same rut.

I cringe when I hear of or read of “Christian values” or “biblical values” or “the values we ought to hold as Christians.”

Values are subjective things about which reasonable people can and do differ.

Some of the things I value are: time spent with family and friends; a good biblical sermon that causes me to think in a fresh way about what the Lord Jesus has done for me; those late-in-the-evening summer sunsets when things are finally starting to cool off from the heat of the day; birds; and, any time I get to enjoy some Italian food that is half as good as what my Grammy Liz used to make.

These are some of my values.

On the contrary, commands, such as: “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain;” “Thou shalt not bear false witness;” “Love one another, as I have loved you;” and “Pray for them which despitefully use you;” are objective moral standards against which everyone will be judged. They are not mere values. Values vary from one person to another. God's commands (excepting those which are specific to a particular covenant) are universal.

I believe it was Nietzsche who popularized the term “values” as a replacement for “moral obligations.” This displacement of terms was intended to change our thinking; that we should reject biblical morals in favor of individual preferences.

And so, I wish Christians would stop referring to the obligations that we creatures have to our Creator as “values.”

jeremy said...

Well said, Ex N1hilo.

jeremy said...

Brian, is your email working?

MaryLou said...

Those are interesting thoughts, ExN1hilo.

I don't see a problem with using the word "values" to refer to what is right and wrong. When I use the word and when Newbigin uses the word, we're talking about those enduring standards or ideals shared by a culture about what is right and good. In other words, we're talking about ethics.

You can certainly say that, as an individual, you value certain things over others, that is, prefer them or think them more important, enjoyable, worthwhile, etc. and, yes, those will differ from person to person.

But when the word is used collectively, as a noun in the plural form, as in "Biblical values", we're talking about those absolute moral truths that God has given us in his Word. That's different than using the verb "value" and simply saying that I value peace and quiet.

Does that make sense?

Ex N1hilo said...


Thank you.


Yes, I understand that the term "values" is being used by many people in just the way you describe.

However, the term is not used this way in scripture and I think you would be hard pressed to to find it used in this way in either the theological writings or everyday speech of Christians prior to the 20th century.

But, it's true; the meanings of words do change over time. "Biblical values" and similar terms are used frequent to denote the moral truths God has given us. So, when I hear this terminology, I know what is meant by it. Nevertheless, I am convinced that such use can be confusing to many people. "Values" can and often does carry the connotation of preference and subjectivity. I don't use it and I encourage others to abandon its use.

Unless we are talking about the monetary or practical worth of an object. ;)

MaryLou said...

Yes, ExN1hilo, I agree that, if people are going to understand values as a matter of personal choice and, therefore, not as universal truths, the word can be misleading and we would be wise to choose another word.

It's somewhat similar to the problem with the word "faith" as it is misunderstood by non-Christians to mean belief without evidence or warrant. As Greg Koukl says, let's use the word "trust" instead when referring to our relationship with the Lord instead as it carries a different connotation.

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