The Fact/Value Distinction



I am writing this in 2003, the centenary of G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica. I do not wish to commemorate this book, but rather to help to bury a theme which it re-introduced to the English-speaking philosophical world: the fact/value distinction.1


Moral Philosophy Paradigm Case Natural Goodness Factual Question Attributive Adjective 
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  1. 1.
    The major themes of this chapter are developed from a couple of pages of an article of mine, ‘Virtues, Motivation, and the End of Life’, in L. Gormally (ed.), Moral Truth and Moral Tradition: Essays in Honour of Peter Geach and Elizabeth Anscombe (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1994): 112–14.Google Scholar
  2. 7.
    Cf. the point made by Anscombe in ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’, in her Ethics, Religion, and Politics: Philosophical Papers, Vol. III (Oxford: Blackwell, 1981): 31. Let me here express my debt to Anscombe’s writings for so much in my own thought and writing on ethical questions — a debt that cannot be tied down to detailed mention or quotation. Likewise, I owe an immense amount to the writings of Peter Geach, Philippa Foot, and Rosalind Hursthouse. None of them are, of course, responsible for the use or distortion I may have made of their ideas. There is currently, in academic circles, a flurry about ‘plagiarism’. I am convinced that this is just a fashion, what the sociologists call a ‘moral panic’. Some authors stand so much above their generation that one can no more plagiarise them than one can plagiarise Virgil. But out of conformity with current mores, let me here declare that any too-close reflection of any other author in what follows is to be attributed to sloppy memory, sloppy footnoting, or both.Google Scholar
  3. 8.
    J.O. Urmson, ‘Saints and Heroes’, in A.I. Melden (ed.), Essays in Moral Philosophy (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1958). Alasdair Maclntyre, in Against the Self-Images of the Age (London: Duckworth, 1971), makes much the same point.Google Scholar
  4. 12.
    For an academic account of the result of scientific quizzes and po11s, see J.D. Miller, ‘The Measurement of Civic Scientific Literacy’, Public Understanding of Science 7 (1998): 208. More accessibly, the Economist magazine regularly publishes results of such polls. Even more accessibly, one can find anecdotal results in the column ‘Dumb Britain’, in the British satirical magazine Private Eye, where quotations are given from quiz shows in which contestants have claimed that mercury is red, that the animal that builds dams is the sheep, and that Hadrian’s Wall was built to keep out the Zulus. Compare Geach, The Virtues (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977): 15.Google Scholar
  5. 15.
    Anscombe, ‘What is it to Believe Someone?’, in C.F. Delaney (ed.), Rationality and Religious Belief (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1979). Oddly enough, George Orwell — no philosopher — spotted it long before: ‘As I Please’, in Tribune, 27 December 1946.Google Scholar
  6. 16.
    Geach, Truth and Hope (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001): 47.Google Scholar
  7. 23.
    Geach, ‘Good and Evil’, in P. Foot (ed.), Theories of Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967): 64–73. Foot herself has recently referred to this article as ‘sadly neglected’, in her Natural Goodness (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001): 2.Google Scholar
  8. 26.
    Foot, ‘Utilitarianism and the Virtues’, Mind 94 (1985): 196–209.Google Scholar
  9. 28.
    David Lewis, On the Plurality of Worlds (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986): sec. 1.1, esp. at 5, and 1.9, esp. at 92–3.Google Scholar
  10. 30.
    ‘Are Moral Considerations Overriding?’, in her Virtues and Vices (Oxford: Blackwell, 1978): 186.Google Scholar
  11. 39.
    Geach raises moral objections to some of Socrates’s dialectical practices, even in the last weeks of his life, in ‘Plato’s Euthyphro’, in his Logic Matters (Oxford: Blackwell, 1972): 31–44.Google Scholar
  12. 40.
    On voluntarism in pre-Reformation thought concerning God’s law, see the summary in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ‘Religion and Morality’. On the Catholic/Protestant split after the Reformation, see Council of Trent, Session VI, Decree on Justification, Chapter 11, in H. Denzinger, The Sources of Catholic Dogma (St Louis: Herder, 1957): sec. 804 (see Anscombe, ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’: 31n). Admittedly, there are the counterexamples of Catholic voluntarists such as Descartes and Pascal, and it is not easy to find Protestant voluntarists who cannot be suspected of other extreme views, such as antinomianism. But on the connection between medieval voluntarism and Luther’s thought, see A. Maclntyre, A Short History of Ethics, 2nd edn (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1998): 119–22.Google Scholar
  13. 44.
    Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), entries right (sb) (1) and (2), and wrong (sb) (2).Google Scholar

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© Christopher Martin 2004

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