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Fact And Value

  Philosophers often distinguish between statements of fact such as ‘there are three chairs in the next room’ and evaluative statements such as ‘the chairs in the next room are beautiful’. The former simply describes the contents of the next room while the latter evaluates them. Evaluative judgements may involve ethical terms (‘good’, ‘generous’), assessments of rationality (‘prudent’, ‘wise’, ‘justified’), points of etiquette (‘polite’, ‘crass’), as well as aesthetic and other vocabulary (‘pretty’, ‘funny’). However, it is not entirely clear why counting the chairs is just stating the facts while saying that they are beautiful is to go beyond the facts. The distinction between fact and value has been further explained in a number of different ways.

First, it is said that people must agree on the facts about the chairs (such as their number), while they need not agree on whether they are nice-looking chairs. People can have different opinions about whether the chairs look good without anyone being wrong, but there is only one right answer to the question: ‘how many chairs are there in the next room?’ But this way of contrasting facts with values seems to presuppose the truth of relativism about values, a controversial doctrine.

Second, it is said that anyone who can see the chairs can see how many of them there are while they cannot simply see whether they are nice looking or not—one needs to evaluate their appearance. In general, we can discover the facts through our senses, but an evaluative judgement requires more than sensory input, it also requires that we apply our aesthetic or other values to assess our experience. However, one could equally well say that in order to learn how many chairs there are, we have to apply our understanding of what a chair is. One could reply that a chair is objectively a chair while a chair is only subjectively nice-looking, but this way of making the distinction presupposes that value judgements are subjective, another controversial doctrine.

Third, it is said that a statement of fact is not, by itself, a reason for doing anything, while an evaluative judgement is. Knowing the number of chairs in the next room will not drive me to act unless I want to do something with those chairs, while knowing that the chairs are nice-looking gives me reason to prefer them to other chairs when furnishing my room. But someone might respond that knowing the chairs in the next room are nice will give me reason to prefer them only if I want nice-looking chairs in my room. This way of distinguishing facts from values presupposes that value judgements are prescriptive rather than descriptive, another controversial doctrine.

It seems that the distinction between facts and values arises only when we adopt one of a number of doctrines about so-called evaluative judgements; it is not a neutral datum. AJ

See also emotivism; ethical intuitionism; ethical relativism; descriptivism and prescriptivism.Further reading J.L. Mackie, Ethics, chapter 1.; , B. Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, chapter 8.



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