December Discussion Group: The fact-value distinction

“Water is H2O.”
“Murder is wrong.”

Are these the same kind of fact?

December’s* discussion focused on the fact-value distinction. It goes back centuries; many have tried to solve it. This month we looked at Sam Harris’ attempt in his book, The Moral Landscape.

First, the problem. When we say water is H2O, that’s a fact. We can test it in various ways, examine water with powerful tools, and find the truth about its composition. We also say it’s a fact that murder is wrong. But where’s that ‘fact’? It doesn’t seem true the way water is H2O, or I am 5’11”, or 2+2=4. We can’t prove it the way we prove those other things. But is there a fact at all, if it seemingly can’t be shown? This led philosophers like A.J. Ayer to say there are no moral facts—just expressions of emotion.

Harris says the solution is quite simple: There is no fact-value distinction. Moral values are simply facts about human flourishing. If something promotes human flourishing, that’s an observable fact and good. If it promotes the opposite, that’s an observable fact and bad. Science, measuring these things, can thus ground morality. Harris isn’t alone: Steven Pinker, for instance, says virtually the same thing.

With a solution so simple, you’d think someone would have thought of it already. As pointed out in the discussion, someone has. It even has a name: utilitarianism. Happiness, utilitarians say, grounds morality; ‘happiness’ means pleasure and the absence of pain. Using words like ‘flourishing’ or ‘well-being’ goes back even further: to Aristotle’s eudaimonia, also translated ‘happiness.’ This view has a history.

Not that Harris notices. If he did he’d also notice the debates, discussions, and myriad problems involved. Perhaps the biggest problem comes before all that, though: what does that key word ‘flourishing’ mean? Or ‘well-being,’ or ‘happiness’? Harris asserts, for instance, that the Muslim veil cannot be a part of a flourishing life. Is that an empirically verifiable fact? What, scientifically, constitutes someone’s flourishing anyway? Harris doesn’t say, nor Pinker. The 19th-century utilitarian John Stuart Mill, whose view Harris is closest to, is more honest. He doesn’t claim to know what constitutes anyone’s happiness. Therefore, he says, promote freedom to pursue happiness except when it interferes with another’s pursuit. But Mill, notice, is denying that happiness is a measurable thing; this is the basis of Mill’s political theory. Not for Harris, who thinks science will tell us. (Harris’ book, it’s worth mentioning, was not well received.)

This needn’t imply facts are irrelevant to values, or that there are no values. Harris’ real target, I suspect, is moral relativism. That’s a target worth going after in a world with true moral evils; but ‘scientific’ moral absolutism, which Harris unabashedly supports, is not necessarily the way. He ironically points out in his TED talk that only religious fundamentalists seem to follow him here; that should give him pause. The history of colonialism, if nothing else, means that a little self-skepticism is fair.


*Which met a week later, so also kind of January

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