Supplement on facts, values and naturalism. David Horacek I – Fact-statements and value statements

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Supplement on facts, values and naturalism. David Horacek
I – Fact-statements and value statements
Consider the following lists:

(Natural) Facts



Evaluations, Norms



  • I’m tall.

  • The Pope disapproves of abortion.

  • The Earth is 4.5 billion years old.

  • I feel guilty when I eat meat.

  • The quark is a fundamental particle.

  • Tom has devoted his life to charity.

  • Murder is wrong.

  • Abortion is morally permissible.

  • Slavery should be outlawed.

  • People should eat meat only when there’s no alternative.

  • Tom is a good person.

Both columns seem to have true, false and controversial claims. Don’t be distracted by this and instead focus on the sort of claims that they are. Wittgenstein described the natural facts as being the sort of thing you would be able to know if you had the whole “book of the world,” which would contain the descriptions of all the particles at every moment in history and every thought ever had by any thinking creature.

This is a useful way to think about natural facts: If a statement would appear in Wittgenstein’s worldbook, or if it could be directly inferred from it, then it is a natural fact. If, however, the statement includes a value judgment, then it is an evaluation.

There are complications: How to we classify thoughts about evaluations, like “Tom thinks that murder is wrong”? The answer is that this statement is about the content of Tom’s thought, and there are natural facts about the thoughts of all thinking creatures. This makes it a statement of natural fact and not an evaluation. Likewise, there are facts about people’s opinions. Even if the opinion itself is an evaluation, a statement about the opinion is merely factual. “Tom believes that murder is wrong” is a fact even though clearly, “murder is wrong” is an evaluation. The former claim says something about what Tom believes, and the second says something about the moral value of murder.

Don’t get tripped up by thinking that facts are somehow “straightforward” while evaluations are always controversial: Neither of these is right. The claim “Murder is wrong” is not controversial, but it is clearly an evaluation. There are also many factual controversies, for several distinct reasons. Whether the star Betelgeuse has any planets is controversial mainly because we don’t have the power to detect them if they’re there. Whether our solar system has more than eight planets is controversial because we haven’t settled what counts as a planet. Whether it’s true that I’m tall depends on who you compare me to - I’m not tall for a basketball player. Whether or not String Theory is correct depends on matters that we cannot measure. Clearly there are many controversies about natural facts – some arising from our ignorance about reality, some from the vagueness of terms like “tall” and “planet”, and some from genuine disputes about how to best interpret the information we have. I say all this to make it clear that while normative claims always seem to require a “judgment call,” so too do many natural facts. This is not a reliable strategy to tell them apart. Ask yourself instead: If I knew the whole worldbook, would I know enough to settle this?

Distinguishing facts from values is further complicated by the existence of borderline cases. Consider the following:

“Ludwig is a good runner” is a way of saying that Ludwig runs fast.
However, “Ludwig runs fast” is clearly a matter of natural fact. (Again, don’t get tripped up by the vagueness of terms like “fast” and “tall”.) Wittgenstein held this up as a case of a relative evaluation – we say of Ludwig that he exceeds some standard of speed when we call him a good runner, so he’s good relative to a standard. Perhaps the standard is that he can run a mile is less than six minutes, though it will typically be something less precise. Importantly, this standard is described in factual terms. The lesson we learn is that some sentences with the evaluative word “good” are statements of natural fact masquerading as evaluations. But we can make the case more controversial:
“Ludwig is a good teacher” is a way of saying that ________________________.
It is more difficult to fill in the blank here than in the runner case. I still think we can: If you got a government contract to distinguish good teachers from bad ones, you might start with testing how much their students have learned while under their supervision (controlling for how much they knew going in, their talent, initial motivation and other circumstances). Maybe the sentence should say ‘“Ludwig is a good teacher” is a way of saying that his students learn and retain a lot.’ If you’re reading attentively, I hope you thought: “That’s not all it takes to be a good teacher; you also need to x, y, z, etc.!” Good then, feel free to append x, y and z to my proposed sentence. You should then be satisfied that you have captured the meaning of “Ludwig is a good teacher” in terms that consist purely of natural facts.

The task gets much more difficult when we are asked to capture the meaning, in natural facts, of “Ludwig is a good father” (try and see if you are satisfied – I tried and failed). I claim that it is impossible to capture “Ludwig is a good person” in terms of natural facts.

Sometimes we encounter borderline cases of facts/evaluations in sentences with loaded and ambiguous words, like discrimination, injustice, torture. “Waterboarding is tortue” can be interpreted in two ways: If it says that waterboarding meets the standard for being torture (like Ludwig meeting the standard for being a good runner), then it’s a statement of fact. Just as plausibly, though, the statement can be read as a condemnation of waterboarding, which would make it an evaluation. This is because “torture” is a loaded word that typically connotes a certain moral badness.

Many words simultaneously have a factual and an evaluative meaning, and interpreting these words correctly depends on context. When I say “We made a fair trade” should probably be taken to mean that both parties are satisfied with the outcome without either being deceived. If this is all I mean, then “We made a fair trade” would again be a sentence that appears evaluative (because of the value-judgment word “fair”), but is really a statement of fact. Plausibly, “The test on Thursday is fair” is a way of saying that it covers only material that we have discussed and that grades will closely correlate with how well you discuss that material. The word “fair” often indicates a genuine evaluation (“a fair judgment”), but not always (“a fair die” – as opposed to a loaded one).

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