|Grateful acknowledgement to Bannor Toys for the image|
Philosophy may begin to solve a problem as soon as it has identified it. All too often, it has not. This post, then, is about defining a problem—no more. It is one of the most urgent problems of philosophy.One of the most important aspects of philosophy is ethics. Yet there is an issue which is prior to ethics, which has to be addressed first. It is the problem of the fact-value distinction—a problem which, since it first appeared on the philosophical map, has cut a divide between fact and value, and more importantly, philosophy and ethics. In the words of Ludwig Wittgenstein, ethics has become ‘what we cannot speak about’. Yet ethics is all that we do, from morning until night, from year to year. Today, this problem has filtered through to the common person, and has caused profound disorientation in our time. On a social level, we are conflicted and confused with multiple ethics, while on a global level, our ethics increasingly seem to have come apart, with widespread poverty, social disintegration, and environmental destruction.
It seems easy to describe the philosophical problem, yet far from easy to offer a solution. Should I take a walk in the woods today, or should I write letters instead? Should I be a ‘bachelor girl’, or should I marry Joe? Should we travel to Mars? Should we drop the Bomb? On the surface of it, our reasons for choosing one course of action over another might seem obvious, yet it is not something we find ourselves able to decide on the basis of facts. The problem is basically this: we know that this is how the world ‘is’—yet how should we know how it ‘ought’ to be? The philosopher David Hume gave the problem its classical formulation: it is impossible to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. It is impossible to establish any value amidst an ocean of facts—and on the surface of it, Hume would seem to be unimpeachably right. The facts cannot tell us what to do.
As we seek a solution to the problem—because we must solve this problem if we are to find our way through to any discussion of ethics—Hume’s conclusion would seem to mean only one of two things: either he identified a problem which cannot be solved, or he was thinking in such a way that he created his own problem. What, therefore, if Hume laid the very foundation on which the fact-value distinction rests?
Hume considered that all knowledge may be subdivided into relations of ideas on the one hand, and matters of fact on the other. That is, one begins with a handful of facts, then relates them to one another. It is the simple matter of a world where facts exist, and these exist in a certain relation to one another—yet one finds no basis on which to determine what that relation ought to be. Generations later, the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote that many philosophers, following Kant, have maintained that relations are the work of the mind, while things in themselves have no relations. While Russell was not saying precisely the same as Hume, he was not far off. A similar view is reflected in the theory of language. The philosopher Rudolf Carnap considered, in the words of philosophy professor Simon Blackburn (specifically about the ‘material mode of speech’), ‘Speech objects and their relations are the topic.’ Wittgenstein, too, held this view, in his own unique way, through his multiplicity of language-games.
A pebble is a thing. A house is a thing. Even gravity, ideology, taxonomy are ‘things’ in a way (we call them constructs), which in turn may be related to other things. In a sense, even a unicorn is a thing, although we are unlikely ever to find one. Things, then, may further be involved in what we call truth conditions—which means that they may be inserted into statements, which can be affirmed or denied. And when we affirm such statements, we call them facts. For example, we insert the thing ‘pebble’ into a statement: ‘A pebble sinks’—or we insert the thing ‘unicorn’ into a statement: ‘The Scots keep unicorns.’ Our things are now involved in truth conditions, which means that our world is filled with facts. And if not facts, then denials of facts.
Here, I think, is where the problem lies—and the way ahead. To say that there is a fact-value distinction means that we have first divided up our reality into things on the one hand, and relations on the other. On what basis, then, might we find our way back to a ‘grounded’ ethics? Personally I believe the solution lies in the direction of levelling both fact and value to value alone—or things and relations to relations alone—in all fields, including science and mathematics. Yet even then, we would not finally have reached the goal. Even if we should be able to see everything in terms of value, which values should then be true, and which false? And having once solved which values are true, we would need to establish on what basis I should—or could—submit to them.