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Philosophy & Public Affairs 31.3 (2003) 211-245

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Facts and Principles

G. A. Cohen


In this article, I argue for a thesis, which I state in section d below, about the relationship between facts and normative principles (or, as I shall call them, for short, "principles"). A normative principle, here, is a general directive that tells agents what (they ought, or ought not) to do, and a fact is, or corresponds to, any truth, other than (if any principles are truths) a principle, of a kind that someone might reasonably think supports a principle. Note that, under the foregoing stipulations, it is not excluded that normative principles might themselves be facts in a different sense of "fact" from that which is here stipulated. Principles might, that is, be facts in the broader sense of "fact" in which all truths, including, therefore, true principles (if there are any), represent facts. I myself believe that there exist true normative principles, but the thesis about principles and facts to be defended here is, as I shall explain at q below, neutral with respect to whether any normative principles are truths. [End Page 211]


I shall also explain in q why the very little (almost nothing) that I just said about what constitutes a fact suffices for my demonstrative purposes. I am happy for facts to be whatever my opponents in this debate, whose position I shall presently describe, (reasonably) understand them to be: my argument, so I believe, is robust across permissible variations in the meaning of "fact," and it is also neutral across contrasting conceptions of the relationship of fact and value. Nor does my view about facts and principles, or so I argue at l below, require me to take a position on the famous question of whether an "ought" can follow from an "is." It bears emphasis that the question that my thesis answers is neutral with respect to controversies about the objectivity of principles, the relationship between facts and values, and the "is-ought" question, and, let me add for good measure, the realism/anti-realism/quasi-realism/a-little-bit-of-realism-here-not-so-much-realism-there controversy. The question pursued here is distinct from those that dominate the meta-ethical literature, and, so far as I know, it is hardly discussed in that literature. You will inevitably misunderstand me if you assimilate the thesis I shall state to one within those familiar controversies.

The independent status of the issue canvassed here in relation to long-standing controversies makes the present discussion less interesting than it otherwise might be, in that it has a limited effect on those popular philosophical controversies, but also in one way more interesting than it otherwise might be, in that it addresses a relatively novel and, I think, consequential issue, an issue which philosophers don't argue about much, but about which most of them, either spontaneously or when appropriately provoked, display strongly opposed and unargued views, which each side finds obviously true: that circumstance suggests that there is something of a philosophical problem here, about which most philosophers are at least [End Page 212] in part mistaken (because a view is unlikely to be obviously true if a goodly number of reflective thinkers believe it to be obviously false).


The thesis to be defended here contradicts what many people (and, I believe, most moral and political philosophers) are disposed to think, to wit, that our beliefs about matters of normative principle (including our beliefs about the deepest and most general matters of principle) should reflect, or respond to, truths about matters of fact: they should, that is,—this is how I am using "reflect" and "respond to"—include matters of fact among the grounds for affirming them. So, for example, many find it obvious that our beliefs about principles should reflect facts about human nature (such as the fact that human beings are liable to pain, or the fact that they are capable of sympathy for each other) and they also think that our beliefs about principles should reflect facts about...


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pp. 211-245
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Archived 2003
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