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07) Evaluate the claim that moral values cannot be derived from facts (50 marks.)
The claim that values cannot be derived from facts was held by Philosopher David Hume. Facts are descriptive and can be empirically discovered, whilst values tend to guide practice. Hume asserted that there is no logical way that we can use facts about the world to ascertain our moral judgements.
In a similar way, Hume purports that there is an is-ought gap. We cannot no descriptively, from what is, what ought to be - what we ought to prescribe. Moral realists or cognitivists argue that there are real natural facts about the world that can help us reach moral judgements and thus guide our actions. An example of such is found in the ethical debate surrounding abortion. Moral realists would typically claim that a foetus is a person, abortion is the killing of a foetus, killing people is wrong and so women ought not to have abortions. We might, conclude, however, that this is a logical leap and that our stance on moral endorsements such as an abortion is merely our emotional reaction to the action, rather than derived from natural facts that bring us to a logical conclusion.
Hume's law further expands on the fact-value gap to demonstrate how values cannot be derived from facts and vice-versa. Imagine that a wealthy businessman passes a homeless man on the way home from work - the man is cold, hungry and dishevelled. In such a situation, some would argue that morally the right thing to do is to give the man money, as this would make him happier. However, there remains a logical gap between the facts of the situation and what we ought to do. One way of addressing this problem, might be to view the facts as reasons for making a moral actions. Though the fact that the man is cold, hungry and dishevelled are not relational facts that justify what we ought to do in themselves, if we use them as reasons, they do become relational facts in the context of building a moral case. If we recognise a natural fact as a reason, then arguably we can weigh up the multitude of reasons, both for and against helping the man, and use our reasoning abilities to make a moral decision. If we follow this course of action, we have bridged the fact-value gap and could argue that values can be derived from facts, if we use the facts relationally as part of the reasoning process.
Is this argument truly satisfactory, however? It could be said that reasons themselves relate to human beings and human beings are exposed to numerous different biological, psychological and sociological factors that determine our perception. Therefore, whether facts are reasons depends entirely on how we interpret them. Natural facts as relational reasons may not provide an objective truth, but merely reflect what we care about the most. If we believe that a homeless man being cold and hungry is reason to give him money, we will use this to build up a moral case for supporting him. However, if we believe he is cold and hungry as a result of his own foolish actions, likewise, we will use this to stigmatise the homeless.
This leads us to another reason supporting the thesis that values cannot be derived from facts, in the form of emotivism. David Hume, was once more the father of this sceptical position, which states that whilst facts describe states of affairs (such as whether it's raining), whereas values express an attitude (whether we enjoy the rain). If emotivism is to be believed, values cannot derive from facts because the basis of all morality is our emotions. For instance, if we were to feel disturbed or pitiful at the sight of a woman being beaten in an alley and her belongings stolen, this is a strong case for the argument that our emotions guide our moral judgements.
Logical positivists such as A.J. Ayer expanded on Hume's philosophies with his verification principle - he argues that since moral judgements are not analytically or empirically verifiable then they cannot inform us on morality. Judgements of facts, for example, the fact that a homeless man is cold and hungry can be measured and verified using the principle. whilst the value judgements, such as the idea that he may be happier if the businessman gave him money, cannot be measured in such a way. This is a key issue with ethical statements concerning morality - as was argued by Hume, they express feelings. By saying "murder is wrong", we are in the crudest terms saying "Boo! Murder!" - it is logically the equivalent of an exclamation, stating that murder is wrong in every case. Again, this exemplifies the fact that we cannot discern values from facts, as values themselves are likely to be a subjective response.
R.M. Hare's philosophies advocated a similar idea, showing that moral judgements cannot describe reality. He argued that moral statements are a combination of descriptive and prescriptivism. A prescription in terms of moral commands tells us what we ought to do. So when Peter Singer says that "there is no relevant difference between the suffering of animals and that of human beings", he is endorsing a particular perspective, although not necessarily emotionally. He is prescribing a certain view - an equivalent would be to say "Treat animals equally to humans" or "Do not cause animals suffering." Again, in this instance, values do not derive from facts, because instead of claiming that x (the fact that animals are sentient and can feel suffering) = y (it is wrong to kill animals,) he is merely recommending a course of moral action.
Nevertheless, we might question whether there are flaws in these antirealist theories themselves and the ways in which they deny a possible link between values and facts. The verification principle denies the link because values are not empirically or analytically measurable. However, the verification principle itself is flawed, as the statement "a statement is only true if it analytically or empirically verifiable" is neither analytically or empirically verifiable and is therefore meaningless. If the verification principle is meaningless, then its criticisms of the fact-value distinction are arguably also undermined. In a similar way, emotivism perhaps oversimplifies morality - once all the facts are secured, our only action-guiding principle is that of our emotions and since emotions are subjective, this could lead to anything being considered under the umbrella of morality.
However, this does not necessarily undermine the thesis that moral values cannot be derived from facts. It remains clear that morality can differ culturally - whilst certain tribes in Africa consider female circumcision the norm, to those in the West the practice is deemed abhorrent. The fact that females are harmed physically only entails the value that the practice is abhorrent in certain countries and democracies. The irresolvable nature of many ethical issues such as abortion and euthanasia, where a multitude of religious and ethical factors must be considered, also perhaps points to the conclusion that values remain distinct from facts.