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The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy and Other Essays
The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy and Other Essays
Hilary Putnam
Harvard University Press, 2004
208 pp., $28.50

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Rational Man
Rational Man
Henry Babcock Veatch
Liberty Fund, 2003
202 pp., $12.00

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by Ric Machuga


Getting From Is to Ought

Why there is no dichotomy between facts and values.

Over the past 35 years I've sat in countless church services in which the pastor (often a youth pastor) has held up his Bible and referred to it as "the owner's manual" for operating God's creation. A little over five years ago, I was sitting in a lecture hall at the University of Santa Clara with more than 500 people. The occasion was the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the publication of John Rawls' A Theory of Justice. Rawls himself was present for the celebration, as were five other world-class political philosophers.

During his public address, Michael Sandel, himself from Harvard University, compared current abortion practices in the United States to our treatment of slaves in the 19th century—neither, he suggested, was sustainable over the long haul. Last year, another Harvard professor of philosophy, Hilary Putnam, published The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy. Though the pastors I listened to all these years might be surprised, it appears that leading philosophers are now endorsing their contention that the care of humans involves rules that are just as "factual" as the proper grade of motor oil to put in one's car or the amount of fertilizer to put on one's lawn.

In Putnam's account, the difficulty for the objective, factual nature of morality began in the 18th century with David Hume. Hume famously argued that it is impossible to derive an "ought" from an "is." Statements of fact tell us what is the case. Statements of value tell us what we ought to do, say, or approve. According to Hume, "facts" and "values" are related in the same way as apples and architects. No matter how long people study apples, they will never learn anything about architects. Thus, "fact is fact and value is value and never the twain shall meet."

But wait a minute. While it's true that "silver melts at 533.6 degrees Celsius" and "Thou shall not commit adultery" are different kinds of statements, that doesn't mean that facts and values constitute a hard-and-fast dichotomy. Hume ...

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