Lesson 9: Fact and Value

It was David Hume who offhandedly wondered how it was that arguments whose premisses feature Is should be thought to yield valid conclusions featuring Ought. How from observations about the way things are can we conclude anything as to what should be, or what we ought to do? The doubt once admitted, it soon is extended to the claim that there is no logical link between descriptive and evaluative statements. If there is any assumption that dominated twentieth century ethics it is this notion of a fact / value split.

G. E. Moore's Principia Ethica appeared in 1903 and introduced the notion of the Naturalistic Fallacy. This newly discovered fallacy consists in holding that such moral terms as good and ought are grounded in truths about the way things are. If one were to say that 'good' means xyz, where xyz are natural properties of the thing called good -- imagine the thing is an orange and its goodness is said to consist in sweetness, juiciness and tartness -- then, because a definition can always be substituted for the definiendum, to say that x is good means xyz because xyz is xyz, substituting xyz for 'orange.' In other words, any attempt to define what is meant by calling something good by appeal to its natural properties will end in a tautology.

The example Moore considers is identifying good with pleasant. But on his understanding of definition, this leads to the tautology 'the pleasant is pleasant.'

So what do we mean when we say that an orange is good? If 'good' does not pick out any of the natural properties of the orange, what does it mean? Moore suggests that it means a non-naturalistic property that we intuit in the way in which we intuit the naturalistic property yellow. Either you see it or you don't.

There were those who were flattered by the suggestion that they and their friends just knew what 'good' means. The fact that this could not be explained to someone who lacked the putative intuition merely drew attention to the perhaps lamentable but doubtless inevitable chasm between Them and Us. It is not too much to say that 20th century English speaking moral philosophy was dominated by the fact / value split. Whatever the variation in accounts of morality, there was avoidance of any suggestion that evaluations were grounded in truths about ourselves and the world.

Thomas and the Split

So influential was this assumption that there were those who sought to protect Thomas Aquinas from the charge that he had violated the fact / value dichotomy. This was somewhat anachronistic, of course, but the undertaking attests to the assumption that any account of moral action, its goodness and badness, that is anchored in the way things are is fallacious and vitiated. Holding this, friends of St.Thomas undertook to show that he had not committed the fallacy.

It is doubtless unwise to accept the fact / value split as good money and apply it to past thinkers as a kind of touchstone of acceptability. A moment's reflection would suggest that Hume had a very different understanding of the natural than Thomas or, for that matter, most classical thinkers. For Hume, nature seems to be inert, just there. On that basis it does seem daunting to ask what this or that inert blob should be. But what nature means is an inner principle of activity. A thing tends toward that which is fulfilling of it, and that is the aim of its natural tendencies. When we ask how the digestive system ought to work we ask what its nature is, what it is for. Intuitions of goodness seem singularly irrelevant.

Of course the committed fact / value dichotomist, so to speak, is unimpressed by this. Such uses of oughts are not at all like the moral ought; they can, as suggested, be linked and grounded in descriptive truths but that is because such a use of ought is itself just a disguised descriptive phrase. When I say that the digestive system ought to operate in a certain way I am merely calling attention to the way in which by and large it operates. The moral ought, moral goodness, are left untouched by this analysis.

The Fallacy of the Fallacy

Peter Geach eventually pointed out how the supposed naturalistic fallacy is itself based upon a fallacy. Geach draws attention to the difference between what he calls attributive and predicative adjectives. A predicative adjective he exemplifies by "That is a yellow bird" which comes down to saying that That is a bird and it is yellow. The attributive adjective can be exemplified by "He is a good cook." This does not come down to saying that he is a cook and he is good. A sign of this is that we would not conclude from "He is a good cook" and "A cook is a person" that "He is a good person."

Subjects have a claim on the predicative adjective independently to the noun it modifies. But the attributive adjective adheres to the substantive it modifies and takes its meaning from that adherence. Bernard Williams has summed this up as follows.

Since 'good' in this sort of construction is intimately connected with the substantive that it qualifies, the meaning of a phrase of the form 'a good x' has to be taken as a whole; and its meaning is partly determined by what fills the place of 'x'.

Moore took 'good' to be predicative, naming some single simple non-natural property whatever the make-up of the thing called good. Geach reminds us -- only philosophers need such reminders -- that to call something good is inextricably linked to what that something is. If you are assured that a given car is a good one and within a block of the dealer's the wheels have rolled off, the transmission has dropped to the street and the steering wheel comes loose in your hands, your lawyer will scoff at the wily dealer's suggestion that he wasn't thinking of any of these things when he called the car good. What was he thinking of? He wrist goes limp, he rolls his eyes and lisps, "A simple non-natural property." The answer makes clear that the book in his office is the Principia Ethica swaddled in the dust jacket of Tom Sawyer.

In claims courts, the naturalistic fallacy is committed every day. This suggests that it isn't a fallacy to think that when we call something good we are recommending it because of certain natural properties it has, properties which stir the will. The Moorean alternative is fantastic.

When Geach talks of attributive adjectives like 'good' he makes clear that the substantive it modifies plays a role or function. A car may have many attractions but basically it is a vehicle and to call it a good one is to imply that it does well what a vehicle is expected to do. So too with good cooks and bakers and candlestick makers. And so too, Aristotle said, with men, with human agents.

The human function is rational activity and that is polyvalent: there are many constituents of the human good, as our remarks in the previous lesson about natural inclinations show.

The Point

Why dwell on this old theory of Moore? Geach's essay did not stop the slide toward moral relativism and nihilism. What remained and intensified is the assumption that our value judgments cannot be justified by appeal to the way things are. (Some generalized this over all judgments, theoretical as well as practical). But then what does justify our saying that X is good rather than X is bad? Nothing. Such judgments are arbitrary, expressions of will.

Dealing with such philosophical views is painstaking. My point here is simply to indicate the kind of intellectual context in which we now find ourselves. To say that Thomas's views are countercultural is an understatement.


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