Fact–value distinction

The "fact-value distinction" appears to be rational common sense, similar to distinctions between practice and theory and between means and ends. Facts are commonly assumed to be objective truths humans know by reasoning in their heads or brains or minds. Facts are means or tools that “work” practically to achieve any ends, good or bad. Values are assumed to be subjective preferences humans know by intuition in their hearts or guts or souls. Values are ends or rules that are theoretically “right,” legitimate in themselves independently of practical facts. David Hume identified fact as what “is” and value as what “ought to be,” and asserted that rational humans must respect their autonomy.

But distinguishing knowledge of fact from knowledge of value contaminates rationality by turning one kind of knowledge against the other. The head notoriously disagrees with the heart, and each denies the other is rational. Distinguishing them encourages partisanship, pitting “realists” who trust facts against “idealists” who trust values. Reason is powerless to decide. Consider a modern situation in which fact confronted value.

Former Senator Daniel Moynihan stated the realist denial that the heart's value is rational: "You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts."”[1]

Stating Moynahan's meaning in fact-value terms: Value, as everyone knows, is fact-free: purposeful but groundless opinion, powerless to correlate social action. By contrast, instrumental means are rational tools that work to correlate social action. Fact is TRUE! Obey facts!

TV humorist Stephen Colbert sarcastically stated the idealist denial that the head's fact is rational:

"I don't trust books.--They're all fact, no heart ... Face it, folks, we are a divided nation ... divided between those who think with their head and those who know with their heart ... Because that's where the truth comes from, ... the gut."”[2]

Stating Colbert's meaning in fact-value terms: Fact, as everyone knows, is value-free: grounded but purposeless data, powerless to guide social life. By contrast, intuitive ends are legitimate rules that correlate social action. Values are JUST! Obey value.

History records endless recurrence of this paradoxical distinction. Scholars repeatedly proclaim the autonomy of fact from value, but find themselves inescapably joining what they have distinguished. This article presents examples of this rational paradox from David Hume to modern scholars.

David Hume (1711-1776), philosopher

Hume took for granted the ancient distinction between fact and value, known in his day as the distinction between reason and passion. But he was appalled by misunderstanding of the distinction. He rejected theologians’ claims that revelation dictates virtuous behavior. He rejected secular scholars’ claims that facts dictate virtuous behavior. He found everyone ignoring the natural power of the heart's virtuous feelings, and sought to eliminate these reasoning errors in his Treatise of Human Nature published in 1739.[3]:49-50, 114-16[4]:161–3

Nothing is more usual in philosophy, and even in common life, than to talk of the combat of passion [value] and reason [fact], to give the preference to reason, and to assert that men are only so far virtuous as they conform themselves to its dictates ... On this method of thinking the greatest part of moral philosophy, ancient and modern, seems to be founded;... In order to show the fallacy of all this philosophy, I shall endeavor to prove first, that reason alone can never be a motive to any action of the will; and secondly, that it can never oppose passion in the direction of the will.[5]:413

He gave his own labels to these two kinds of knowledge, naming modern facts ideas and modern values impressions.[5]:1–2, 459 He viewed ideas as the head's passive understanding of life experiences, and impressions as the heart's active sensations of those experiences.

These premises led Hume to the skeptical conclusion that inert facts cannot be proven. Cognitive ideas can never be deductively established as true; they are merely inductive opinions, memories of impressions the heart has experienced.[6]:158-9

But despite accepting the necessity of distinguishing fact from value, he argued that some sensations are more than fact-free impressions. They are valuable because they are instrumentally fit: they work to correlate social action. They are spontaneous judgments of vice or virtue inherent in life experiences, known in the head and felt in the heart. They are moral facts, "internal actions of the mind" known in human breasts. "Now 'tis evident our passions, volitions, and actions ... are original facts and realities compleat in themselves,..."[5]:458 Emotional perceptions reveal moral facts about the "eternal immutable fitnesses ... of things,..."[5]:468–9 Human reasoning works in two ways: by "the comparing of ideas and the inferring of matter of [moral] fact;..."[5]:463

Hume observed this unity of fact and value in his neighbors' satisfaction when complying with community institutions—prescribed patterns of correlated behavior—then called moral sentiments thought to embody natural virtue. Following politically correct rules of right behavior correlates social action because it brings communal joy; it works because it is moral. He called this unintended group satisfaction "virtue" but, for ages, philosophers have called it "utility"--the collective label for want-satisfying consequences of experience.

To have the sense of virtue [value], is nothing but to feel a satisfaction of a particular kind from the contemplation of a character. Nothing can be more real, or concern us more than our sentiments of pleasure ...; and if these be favorable to virtue,... no more can be requisite to the regulation of our conduct and behaviour.[5]:469, 472

Hume commits the rational paradox of contradicting himself: claiming values are moral facts while facts are value-free and values are fact-free. If facts can have moral meaning, and values can have instrumental meaning, the fact-value distinction is a mistake. Ignoring this contradiction, he continued to treat ideas—inert facts—as value-free, and fiercely attacked colleagues who drew moral inferences from them.

To discourage this flawed reasoning, he reframed his ideas-impressions distinction as an "is-ought" generalization: Facts—what "is" now known—are powerless to prescribe or produce values—ends that "ought" to be achieved in the future. Facts can only describe what is observable. They can never prescribe what is desirable.

Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.[5]:415; emphasis added

This negative generalization is paradoxical. Its statement of a principle denies the principle it states, affirming as a moral fact that instrumental facts cannot be moral.

Ignoring the paradox, his generalization became popular enough to be named "Hume's law."[7]:14, 28;[8] It continues to persuade scientists that their facts are value-free means, simply descriptions of "what is" known to work regardless of personal preferences. Scholars avoid values as fact-free ends, emotional judgments of "what ought to be" ungrounded in conditions or actual consequences. Hume made the distinction between fact and value absolute.

Lionel Robbins (1898–1984) economist

Lionel Robbins was appalled by the irrationality of the fact-value-distinction as understood in his day. He accepted Hume's law that the head's knowledge of instrumental means cannot prescribe valued ends. But he found his fellow economists violating that law by using their scientific facts to prescribe value-laden public policies. He sought to provide instrumental evidence to eliminate this error in An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science, published in 1932.

His preface appears to eliminate the distinction, asserting that economic generalizations—value-free facts that solve problematic situations—are also interpretations of reality fit to prescribe fact-based political practice—valuations.[9]:xli But his analysis contradicts his preface. He continues to divide human knowledge into objective fact and subjective valuation. Given irrational preferences, reason can find instrumental means to satisfy them.

.. the propositions of economics ... are positive rather than normative. They deal ... with values; but they deal with them as individual or social facts. The generalizations which emerge are statements of existence or possibility. They use the words is or may be, not ought or should be. ... there are no economic ends. There are only economical and uneconomical ways of achieving given ends …[9]:xviii, 90, 145

Robbins denied the existence of economic ends, but accepted Hume's belief in the generic human end of utility.[9]:15 note 1 But his utility is no longer Hume's moral fact of unintended group satisfaction with efficient institutions. It is the intended satisfaction of individuals pursuing their heart's desires. Rational humans pursue individual utility, and experience satisfaction in every transaction.

After referring to Hume's is/ought law, he affirmed it in his own words.

Economics deals with ascertainable facts; ethics with valuations and obligations. The two fields of enquiry are not on the same plane of discourse. Between the generalizations of positive and normative studies there is a logical gulf fixed which no ingenuity can disguise and no juxtaposition in space or time can bridge over, .... Applied Economics consists of propositions of the form, If you want to do this [fact-free value], then you must do that [prescription as value-free fact].[9]:73, 105, 148-9

Robbins showed no awareness that Hume's principle that facts cannot prescribe values is, paradoxically, a fact. His analysis prescribes value-free facts that "work" to achieve fact-free consequences that are “right.” Rational humans join head to heart to maximize utility.

[Economics] relies upon no assumption that individuals will always act rationally. But it does depend for its practical "raison d'être" upon the assumption [fact] that it is desirable [value] that they should do so. It does assume that, within the bounds of necessity, it is desirable to choose ends which can be achieved harmoniously.[9]:152

He proceeded to show the "bounds of necessity" by placing human pursuit of utility in the universal situation of scarcity, where limited resources can satisfy only some of every agent's multiple subjective ends. Economic laws are rules for practicing the human propensity to exchange valued objects. Market prices are evidence of immediate accomplishment of that rational human end: maximize individual utility.

The economist studies the disposal of scarce means. He is interested in the way different degrees of scarcity of different goods gives rise to different ratios of valuation [prices] between them and he is interested in the way in which changes in conditions of scarcity, whether coming from changes in ends or changes in means—from the demand side or the supply side—affect these ratios. Economics is the science which studies human behavior as a relationship between [autonomous] ends and scarce means ....[9]:16

If means can be predicted to lead in fact to valuable ends, and the fact of scarcity influences the relative value of ends, and market transactions can maximize utility, then valuations are not fact-free. The fact-value distinction disappears. But Robbins denied that economists' prescriptions of rational behavior violate Hume's law. Values are irrational preferences, while facts are rationality itself.[9]:150-57

Today most scholars accept Robbins's prescription that self-interested pursuit of utility is the value-free means to achieve subjective ends.[10][11] His value-free science, today labeled Microeconomics--employing value-free theories of rational choice and revealed preference--has become the model of instrumental rationality for multiple scientific disciplines and schools of philosophy. All believe that science can and ought do no more than produce value-free facts, instrumentally useful for whatever ends, while scientists avoid committing themselves to any value other than fact-free truth. Robbins reenforced the fact-value distinction.

Hilary Putnam (1926–2016) philosopher

Hilary Putnam was appalled by the irrationality of the fact-value distinction as understood in his day. He did not deny that people act as if their knowledge includes facts and values, which may be usefully distinguished. But he found the flaw in Hume's law prescribing a factual gulf-fixed between things known in the head and in the heart. In 2002 he published three lectures arguing that the fact-value distinction is philosophically unjustified. He based his critique on flaws in the reasoning of Hume and Robbins.

I began by describing the way in which the notion of a "fact," which underlies Hume's distinction between "matters of fact" and "relations of ideas" as well as Hume's dictum that an "ought" can never be derived from an "is" (later to become the fact/value dichotomy) was a narrow one in which a fact is something that corresponds to a sense-impression [value].[12]:28

He argued that modern thinkers had made Hume's is-ought distinction into a logical gulf between objective facts that are rational and subjective valuations that are irrational. "... ‘statements of fact’ are capable of being ‘objectively true’ ... while value judgments, according to these thinkers, are incapable of object [sic] truth. .... Value judgments, according to the most extreme proponents of a sharp ‘fact/value’ dichotomy, are completely outside the sphere of reason.”[12]:1

To eliminate the distinction, he provided logical evidence for a new kind of knowledge he labeled "epistemic value,” meaning valuations that are factual. It appears in words scientists use expressing value-laden and emotionally-charged facts, eliminating the distinction in practice . They describe theories as factually good or bad, depending on whether theories meet standards of efficiency, which they feel bound to prefer. Values can be objectively efficient; means can be normatively legitimate: "... value and normatively permeate all of experience. ... judgments of "coherence," "plausibility," "reasonableness,"simplicity," and ... the beauty of a hypothesis, are all normative judgments …”[12]:30-1

Theories—symbolic tools of science—are examples of the entanglement of fact and value. They are "epistemic values," known intellectually to be instrumental tools and known emotionally to be goal-accomplishing rules. They are factual values, which science cannot escape.

... the claim that on the whole we come closer to truth about the world by choosing theories that exhibit simplicity, coherence, past predictive success, and so on, ... guided by the very values in question in our reflections upon records and testimonies [facts] concerning past inquiries. .... There are many sorts of statements ... amenable to such terms as "correct," "incorrect," "true," "false," "warranted," and "unwarranted"--that are not descriptions [value-free facts], but that are under rational control, governed by standards [factual values] appropriate to their particular functions and contexts. .... Not even David Hume would be willing to classify, for example, "generous," "elegant," "skillful," as concepts [values] to which no "fact" corresponds.[12]:32-3, 35

Putnam criticized the practice of economists who follow Robbins in treating utility as a universal value: "the idea that value judgments are subjective and that there cannot really be reasoned argument about values has had wide influence (as we see, particularly with the example of Lionel Robbins) ....[12]:61

He concluded that assuming fact and value to be different kinds of rationality contaminates our instrumental capacity to recognize that every fact involves valuation and every valuation requires facts. Reason relates the head's facts to the heart's purposes when factual operations work to achieve legitimate ends. The fact-value distinction does not work and must be discarded.

The moral is clear: when we are dealing with any important value disagreement, we assume that facts are irrelevant at our peril. No convincing logical reason can be given for the "logical" irrelevance of fact to value judgments,...[12]:78

Putnam's optimism that destroying its logical grounds would lead to the distinction's abandonment continued in a book published in 2012: The End of Value-Free Economics. But the subsequent stream of books maintaining the fact-value distinction is evidence that his optimism was unwarranted.

John Dewey (1859–1952) philosopher

John Dewey came to think of facts and values as identifying two necessary steps in reasoning rather than two kinds of rationality. His evidence was logical, linguistic, and practical.

Logically, he argued that neither "facts-known" nor "values-known" by disembodied heads or hearts exist. Human rationality neither begins nor ends with knowledge that is unconditionally efficient or legitimate. Reasoning is contaminated whenever instrumental means are separated from valued ends. Humans have a single form of reasoning that requires two steps but not two independent sources. They reason endlessly by picking ends-in-view and seeking situation-dependent means to achieve them.

Dewey sometimes called competent reasoning "instrumental rationality." Every action, regardless of intent, has factual consequences. Actors evaluate consequences as they are experienced. Each valuation stimulates a search for new actions to perpetuate or counter consequences experienced. Effective action leads to more effective action.

Practically, his most direct critique of the fact-value distinction itself came in A Common Faith in 1933. He opened that essay by acknowledging the distinction.

Never before in history has mankind been so much of two minds, so divided into two camps, as it is today. .... Today there are many who hold that nothing worthy of being called religious is possible apart from the supernatural. .... The opposed group consists of those who think the advance of culture and science has completely discredited the supernatural….[13]:3

Dewey argued that supernatural knowledge is simply contaminated instrumental knowledge. Early humans, trying to control their mysterious environment, imputed ends to spirits that became supernatural rule-givers commanding human ends. Religious faith was an imagined source of legitimate social ends. He suggested how to reverse that contaminated inference into a "religious function" for valuation as visualizing legitimate social ends. He observed that religions claim to prescribe behaviors that "lend deep and enduring support to the processes of living."[13]:12 He recognized that "Facts are usually observed with reference to some practical end and purpose, and that end is present only imaginatively.”[13]:14 We can stop calling imagined desirable ends fact-free values. Consider them as a moral compass providing perspective: "... reverse the ordinary statement and say that whatever introduces genuine perspective is religious,..."[13]:17

The inherent vice of all intellectual schemes of idealism is that they convert the idealism of action into a system of beliefs about antecedent reality. .... Understanding and knowledge [can be] religious in quality. Faith in the continued disclosing of truth through directed cooperative human endeavor is more religious in quality than is any faith in a completed revelation.[13]:17-18

Dewey recognized that selfish and group interests bias instrumental reasoning, but they are never proper criteria for social means or ends. The instrumental criterion is satisfying "demands" of situations rather than of humans: how to maintain and develop social life, given present situations, by imagining and testing new patterns of behavior to restore disrupted correlation. Institutional adjustment is necessary to achieve developmental continuity of social life.

Dewey called community-wide imagining and testing ideals "a common faith." It joins head and heart, eliminating the fact-value distinction. By locating ideal possibilities in actual processes of knowing, he eliminated the head's claim to know what will work forever, and the heart's claim to know what is moral forever. Patterns of belief and behavior, found efficient and legitimate in the past, remain successful and approved only as long as conditions permit, never as natural kinds of "truth" known.

… the only assurance of birth of better [institutions] is the marriage of emotion with intelligence. The unification of what is known at any given time [facts], not upon an impossible eternal and abstract basis but upon that of its bearing upon the unification of human desire and purpose [value], furnishes a sufficient creed for human acceptance, one that would provide a religious release and reinforcement of knowledge.[13]:53, 57

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) theologian

Reinhold Niebuhr was appalled by the irrationality of the fact-value distinction as justified in his day. He addressed problems with the distinction in 1932 in Moral Man and Immoral Society. A Study in Ethics and Politics. He considered himself to be a realist, despite his faith in supernatural moral law. He sought to provide instrumental evidence that fact-free value doesn't work to correlate social action efficiently. Niebuhr judged that liberalism--the then-current label for idealistic faith that instrumental reason can establish social harmony—overestimated the power of both fact and value.[14]:13 Liberals

... completely disregard the political necessities [fact] in the struggle for justice [value] in human society by failing to recognize those elements in man's collective behavior which belong to the order of nature and can never be brought completely under the domination of reason [fact] or conscience [value].[14]:xii

Ironically, Niebuhr attacked liberalism in the person of John Dewey, the movement's popular face in the 1930s. He seemed unaware that Dewey rejected both the rational egotism of realists and the supernatural altruism of idealists—the latter being Niebuhr's own position.

Niebuhr blamed Dewey for believing that inefficient institutions can be fine-tuned by reason and education to satisfy group interests instead of individual or moral interests. He thought Dewey's faith was just naive middle-class political correctness. Trust in instrumental facts "... easily assumes a premature identity between self-interest and social interest and establishes a spurious harmony between egoism and altruism.”[14]:35, 261

A realistic analysis of the problem of human society reveals a constant and seemingly irreconcilable conflict between the needs of society [fact] and the imperatives of a sensitive conscience [value]. This conflict, which could be most briefly defined as the conflict between ethics and politics, is made inevitable by the double focus of the moral life. One focus is the inner life of the individual, and the other is the necessities of man's social life ....[14]:257

He never rebutted Dewey's evidence that valuations can be fact-based instead of supernaturally authorized. His "realist" arguments maintained that human nature causes value-free facts to overpower fact-free values. "Rational" self-interest fails to coordinate behavior. Only a supernatural moral compass can overcome the political strife caused by fact-free value. Religious value "makes disinterestedness an absolute ideal without reference to social consequences. It justifies the ideal in terms of the integrity and beauty of the human spirit."[14]:263. Niebuhr quoted Hume on the utilitarian value of social virtues, but rejected Hume's conclusion that natural moral facts can prevail over self-interest.[14]:265.

Since reason is always to some degree the servant of interest in a social situation, social injustice cannot be resolved by moral and rational suasion alone, as the educator and social scientist [i.e., Dewey] usually believes.[14]:xiv-xv

We live in an [industrial] age in which personal moral idealism [political correctness] is easily accused of hypocrisy and frequently deserves it. It is an age in which honesty is possible only when it skirts the edges of cynicism. .... For what the individual conscience feels when it lifts itself above the world of nature and the system of collective relationships in which the human spirit remains under the power of nature, is not a luxury but a necessity of the soul.[14]:276-7

Niebuhr's challenge to liberal idealists made him an idol of realist social scientists, who themselves believed in value-free fact. But his religious arguments for the spirit of altruism left him vulnerable to attacks from more consistent realists. Niebuhr left the fact-value distinction intact.

Jonathan Haidt (1963--) moral psychologist

Jonathan Haidt was appalled by the irrationality of the fact-value distinction as understood in the 1970s. He rejected the realist consensus in psychology and economics that rational individuals act on instrumental knowledge. He rejected the consensus in anthropology that social knowledge is learned from cultures. He accepted the cognitive science consensus that an unconscious intuitive brain starts working before the rational instrumental brain.

In part motivated by Hume's praise of the heart's intuitive knowledge, Haidt set out to reinterpret the fact-value distinction. He published his findings in 2012 under the title The Righteous Mind. Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. He intended to provide factual evidence that intuition reveals instrumental valuations.

Haidt quoted Hume's law that facts can neither prescribe nor produce valuations, and he claimed to have obeyed that law with his value-free findings: "entirely descriptive. ... empirical, factual, verifiable propositions …"[3]:315 But he reinterpreted the fact-value distinction, eventually replacing it with a "strategic reasoning-moral intuition" distinction.[3]:xx

He kept the traditional fact-free value pole of ends-known, which he identified with politically correct institutions—prescribed patterns of correlated behavior. He redefined the value-free fact pole by proposing that the brain is source of two kinds of instrumental facts. Cognitive science has demonstrated that the brain's traditional objective-but-purposeless knowledge of technology is accompanied by objective-and-purposeful valuations labeled "intuitions," moral facts produced by "psychological mechanisms."

Righteous human minds have three poles of knowledge intent on promoting the adaptive mission of homo sapiens: survival. Moral systems are interlocking sets of 1) values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions [all fact-free valuations], 2) technologies [outside-body value-free facts], and 3) evolved psychological mechanisms [sources of inside-body factual valuations] that work together [as means] to suppress or regulate self-interest [subjective fact-free ends] and make cooperative societies [evolution's factual means] possible.[3]:314

Haidt's intuitions, like Hume's impressions, are moral facts known by both head and heart. They may appear as emotions or gut feelings about right behavior, but they originate in psychological mechanisms in the unconscious brain. They are cognitive information-processing programs which provide each species member with unconscious but objective knowledge of means to achieve the evolutionary end of survival by adaptation.[3]:228, 64-5, 324 They supply moral knowledge "organized in advance of experience"[3]:5, 146, 153, which makes intuitions both unconscious and experience-free but, nevertheless, factual. Evolved mechanisms "appraise something that just happened based on whether it advanced or hindered your goals [unconscious evolutionary ends]."[3]:52

Intuitions are not, like technology, observable factual means consciously understood. They are unconscious and unobservable prescriptions of behavior pre-known to promote species survival. They feel so right that they completely overpower outside-body facts.

Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second. Moral intuitions arise automatically and almost instantaneously long before moral reasoning has a chance to get started, and those first intuitions tend to drive out later reasoning.[3]:xx

After quoting Hume's paradoxical law that outside-body facts cannot—but inside-body facts can—prescribe moral action, Haidt expressed similar generalizations of his own. He prescribed ignoring purposeless and powerless outside-body facts: "I'll show that reason [fact] is not fit to rule; it was designed to seek justification, not truth."[3]:86 "Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason. .... [Reasoning] evolved not to help us find truth but to help us engage in arguments,..."[3]:104 "... the worship of reason ... is an example of faith in something that does not exist."[3]:107

All these propositions repeat the paradox in Hume's law. Value-free outside-body facts are powerless to prescribe virtuous behavior. But intuitions containing pre-knowledge of consequences-to-come have that power; consequences affirm precedents. Haidt reached these conclusions by contradicting himself, using the very outside-body facts and strategic reasoning he denigrates. As a value-free scientist, he values truth.

While presenting evidence for the existence of mental mechanisms and intuitions they produce, Haidt gave examples of how this species-specific righteous mind actually works. He used principles of moral psychology to explain how instinctive lying—generally judged immoral—and religious faith—generally judged irrational—actually work instrumentally to help human societies survive. He explained the instrumental function of lying by applying his first principle—intuition comes first, strategic reasoning second—to a personal experience. His mind made him a chronic liar.[3]:37

When his wife asked him not to leave dirty dishes on the kitchen counter, rather than taking her request as a desire to correlate behavior, he took it as criticism. His righteous mind felt a threat to his integrity, and he began making excuses.

So there I was at my desk writing about how people automatically fabricate justifications of their gut feelings, when suddenly I realized that I had just done the same thing to my wife. I disliked being criticized, and I felt a flash of negativity ... .... I finally understood—not just cerebrally but intuitively and with an open heart—the admonition of the sages ... warning us about self-righteousness.[3]:61-4

He claimed that his unconscious instinct was to lie to defend his reputation as a responsible mate. A psychological mechanism told him that lying can protect a virtuous reputation, which is more important than truth.

Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second. We lie, cheat, cut ethical corners quite often when we think we can get away with it, and then we use our moral thinking to manage our reputations and justify ourselves to others. We believe our own post-hoc reasoning so thoroughly that we end up self-righteously convinced of our own virtue.[3]:220

His lying excuses succeeded in convincing both him and his wife that he was not a liar. "Mission accomplished: dishonesty is the best policy." He recognized that his automatic response looks like a Pavlovian conditioned reflex,[3]:387 note 6 but argued that his righteous mind did not make a mistake; it required him to lie to protect his reputation: "an obsession with righteousness (leading inevitably to self-righteousness) is the normal human condition. It is a feature of our evolutionary design, not a bug or error that crept into minds that would otherwise be objective and rational."[3]:xix-xx

Haidt explained the instrumental function of religion by applying his third principle—morality binds and blinds. His explanation depends on the fact-value distinction.

Let’s continue the debate between rationalism [fact] and social intuitionism [value] as we examine religion. To understand the psychology of religion, should we focus on the false beliefs and faulty reasoning of individual believers? Or should we focus on the automatic (intuitive) processes of people embedded in social groups that are striving to create a moral community? That depends on what we think religion is [as social fact] and where we think it came from [as value][3]:291

He chose to define religion as a moral fact—a false belief that supernatural agents cause observable consequences. He found an unintended consequence of this contaminated instrumental thinking to be a valuable evolutionary consequence. Religion solves the evolutionary problem of getting people to cooperate without kinship. "Irrational beliefs can sometimes help the group function more rationally,..."[3]:229 Religious myths and rites are among "a variety of mental mechanisms that make us adept at promoting our group's interests, in competition with other groups."[3]:221, 225-6, 231. They work by making individuals feel parts of wholes bigger than individuals or families.[3]:287, 298

Haidt recognized that early humans mistakenly identified supernatural forces as causal agents—contaminated instrumental thinking. He explained this quirk as an accidental failure of instinctive psychological mechanisms, not an instrumental-but-mistaken imputation of fact. And, mistake or not, false values "work."

Our ability to believe in supernatural agents may well have begun as an accidental by-product of a hypersensitive agency-detection device [psychological mechanism], but once early humans began believing in such agents, the groups that used them to construct moral communities were the one that lasted and prospered.[3]:xxiii

Haitd felt that his factual analysis of moral mechanisms proved Hume's paradoxical case for the joint rationality of head and heart. Although neither true nor moral, both fact and value work to promote species survival. Since patterns of correlated behavior work whether true or not, moral conflicts are not resolvable by reason, and rational humans will doubt all truths. The take-home message of The Righteous Mind is "the realization that we are all self-righteous hypocrites."[3]:xxiii Haiti's righteous mind leaves the fact-value distinction intact: "We are deeply intuitive creatures whose gut feelings drive our strategic reasoning. This makes it difficult—if not impossible to connect with those who live in other [moral] matrices."[3]:370-1

Jerry Coyne (1949– ) evolutionary biologist

Jerry Coyne was appalled by the irrationality of the fact-value distinction as practiced in the 21st century. He was disgusted that rational educated people still treat irrational myths as truths, and blamed it on the habit of believing that value is a rational kind of knowledge. He presented his case in Faith vs. Fact. Why Science and Religion are Incompatible, published in 2015.

… religion and science are engaged in a kind of war: a war for understanding, a war about whether we should have good reasons for what we accept as true. .... I argue that the toolkit of science, based on reason and empirical study, is reliable, while that of religion—including faith, dogma, and revelation—is unreliable and leads to incorrect, untestable, or conflicting conclusions. Indeed, by relying on faith rather than evidence, religion renders itself incapable of finding truth.[15]:xii

Coyne accepted Hume's is-ought distinction. "Most philosophers ... agree that 'ought' can't be derived from ‘is.'[15]:121, 190 "The findings of science are morally neutral;…”[15]:219 He continued the tradition of treating fact as synonymous with objective truth and knowledge.[15]:28-9 He narrowed the meaning of value by labeling it faith: "the form of belief that replaces the need for evidence with simple emotional commitment."[15]:xv, 238, 259

... are there objective moral "truths" [values] to be discovered? I think not, for ultimately morality must rest on preferences: something seems "right" or "wrong" because it is either instilled in us by evolution, or conforms or fails to conform to how we think people should behave for their own good and for the good of their society.[15]:89

… knowledge isn't knowledge unless it is factual, so "private knowledge" that comes through revelation or intuition isn't really knowledge,...[15]:186

But Coyne endorsed Hume's paradox that preferences can be both factual and valuable, eliminating the distinction by contradicting himself. He identified himself as a consequentialist, meaning one who believes that preferred actions can have factual consequences that are testable. There are moral facts.

Secularists like myself are often consequentialists, claiming that what is "moral" is what promotes a situation that you prefer, like harmonious societies, the well-being and flourishing of other peoples, and so on. And those preferences can (and must) be informed by observation and study—science,[15]:189

Admitting that scientists prefer facts on factual grounds requires factual valuations. "The notion that knowledge is better than ignorance is not a quasi-religions faith, but a preference: we prefer to know the truth because accepting what's false doesn't give us useful answers about the universe."[15]:211. If preferences can be predicted and judged factually to "work," then values are not fact-free and facts are not value-free: "opinions can be supported—or derailed—by empirical observation."[15]:200 The fact-value distinction has disappeared.

Coyne did not recognize the paradox. He maintained the fact-value distinction as he argued that value is irrational and fact is value-free, completely contrary to Haidt's trust in intuitive value. Both men believed that contribution to species survival is the proper criterion for what is truly valuable for humans—an objective instrumental valuation. But their judgments of which means "work" to accomplish this mission were conflicting and untestable. This appears in their contrary view on the instrumental efficiency of dishonesty and religion. Coyne referred to but did not judge Haidt's endorsement of both.

He recognized some adaptive power of dishonesty: "Nobody is more convincing than a liar who believes his own lies, so inflated self-presentation in our ancestors may have gained them leverage with others—and a reproductive advantage."[15]:180 But his central argument was the opposite—denying Haidt's claim of adaptive power for religion as well as dishonesty.

While our view of the world is filtered through our senses, evolution has, by and large, molded those senses to perceive the world accurately, for there is a severe penalty to be paid for seeing things wrongly. That holds not only for the external environment, but also for the character of others. .... Natural selection doesn't mold true beliefs; it molds the sensory and neural apparatus [Haidt's psychological mechanisms] that, in general, promotes the formation of true beliefs. But of course we've seen that not all our beliefs are true. That's because while natural selection has given us a pretty good truth-detecting apparatus, that apparatus can also be fooled ... And religion could be one of the false beliefs that piggybacks on evolution.[15]:182

Coyne was noncommittal also on Haidt's argument that social benefits of group membership validate religions and outweigh the falsity of dogma.[15]:61–2, 167 But his entire work rests on the conviction that evolution doesn't support falsehood: false beliefs lead to extinction. He failed to recognize that Haidt's "scientific" denial of objective fact is precisely the behavior of the religious faithful clinging to subjective value. Coyne also failed to recognize that his faith in value-free facts rests on Hume's paradox, accepting some facts as moral while denying morality to facts. His conclusion ignored the distinction by appealing to an undefined secular morality. "Secular morality and nonreligious forms of communal experience are perfectly able to fill in the gaps when religion wanes."[15]:261

These two modern scholars, well-acquainted with modern neural research and endorsing Hume's law, end up unable to agree on the the value of practical facts and the legitimacy of theoretical valuations. The fact-value distinction remains untarnished, human rationality remains divided.

See also


  1. Andersen, Kurt (2017). Fantasyland. Randomhouse. p. epigraph.
  2. Andersen, Kurt (2017). Fantasyland. Random House. p. 4.
  3. Haidt, Jonathan (2013). The Righteous Mind. Vintage Books.
  4. Rawls, John (1999). A Theory of Justice. Harvard University Press.
  5. Hume, David (1992). Treatise of Human Nature. Promethus.
  6. Johnson, Oliver A. (1995). The Mind of David Hume. Illinois University Press.
  7. Putnam, Hilary (2002). The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy. Harvard University Press.
  8. Cohon, Rachel. "Hume's Moral Philosophy". In Zalta, Edward N (ed.). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  9. Robbins, Lionel (1984). An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science. New York University Press.
  10. Thaler, Richard (2015). Misbehaving. The Making of Behavioral Economics. Norton. pp. 5, 25–7.
  11. Lakoff, George (2014). Don't Think of an Elephant. Chelsea Green. pp. 9–17.
  12. Putnam, Hilary (2002). The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy. Harvard University Press.
  13. Dewey, John (1986). John Dewey, the Later Works. 9. Southern Illinois University Press.
  14. Niebuhr, Reinhold (1960). Moral Man and Immoral Society. Charles Scribner's Sons.
  15. Coyne, Jerry A. (2015). Faith vs. Fact. Penguin Books.


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