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11.2.03

The fact-value distinction is one of those bits of modern philosophical thought that is often maligned by the cutting edge today. In its time, it was seen as an important advance over religious and mystical ways of looking at the world, which assumed that a sort of natural morality existed -- that you could discover a code of behavior grounded on the way the world is. But the fact-value distinction showed that, short of a direct command from God, such a project was impossible. You can't derive an "ought" from an "is." This has remained a powerful analytic tool. But it has come under fire from thinkers who challenge the ability to separate objective, innocent facts from our values.

On the surface, this seems like a retreat, back to the days when there was no fact-value distinction. But in a sense it is also another step forward. In premodern thought, both facts and values were considered factual -- characteristics of the world. Modern thinkers realized that values aren't factual -- they are meanings that people bring to the world. Postmodern thought seems to be saying that facts aren't factual, either. Thus the break with one aspect of premodern thought is made complete by restoring another.

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