In Search of Moral Knowledge: Overcoming the Fact-Value Dichotomy

R. Scott Smith
Published by IVP Academic of InterVarsity Press in 2014

Reviewed by Dennis L. Sansom, Philosophy, Samford University

R. Scott Smith primarily argues that the supposed fact-value split (that is, between scientific truths and religious-ethical truths) is philosophically unfounded because it rests on the mistaken notion that we do not have direct cognitive access to reality. Consequently, the many ethical theories and approaches that presume the fact-value split also suffer serious flaws and should be dismissed. In their places, Smith offers a certain understanding of Christian ethics based on the objective moral claims of the Bible as the only reliable ethical approach.

Smith offers the reader an analysis of ethical theories starting with biblical ethics, then Plato and Aristotle, followed by Augustine and Aquinas, then the Reformation and Enlightenment, but he scrutinizes the most contemporary Naturalism, Relativism, and Post-modernism. They suffer the same effect as was left over from the rise of nominalism during the Enlightenment period – that is, since we cannot say anything directly about the way the world is independent of our minds, ethics hence becomes indeterminate and relativistic either to individuals or a community. For an ethic to offer truthful information about moral truths, it must be based on an ontological realism that actually fulfills human nature, and, according to Smith, Christian biblical ethics alone provides this ethic.

Even though Smith’s conclusion is somewhat harsh against the last 250 years or so of philosophical reflection, he is fair in his presentations of the various approaches. The reader suspects at the beginning of each chapter that Smith is opposed to naturalism, relativism, John Rawls’s political liberalism, Korsgaard’s constructivism, and Alasdair MacIntyre and Stanley Hauerwas’s narrative ethics, but Smith gives a charitable reading of each. He works hard to let each define his position. In a manner, Smith does philosophy the way it ought to be done – that is, engage the history of philosophical investigations on an issue, listen carefully to each move, and then offer one’s own contribution. Smith does this and, hence, in this regard, we should take him seriously.

The linchpin argument to his agenda is the defense of ontological and moral realism (primarily found in pages 283 to 326). We can know objective, universal truths about the world and morality, and, thus, the fact-value split is overcome. At the risk of oversimplification, here is his defense of ontological realism:

  1. We know things about the world (for example, scientific, medical, and mathematical knowledge, 286ff).
  2. We make intentional, representational claims about the world (293).
  3. These are true when they “match” with the intentions (that is, the internal content) of what is claimed (295).
  4. This matching occurs not between the physical or historical properties of what is claimed and the mind but between the essence of what is known and the essence of mind (303-312).
  5. There is, hence, a dualism of the material world and the immaterial mind (309ff).
  6. Moreover, when the matching occurs, we experience a unified, holistic cognitive event (298 and 310).

Smith then reasons that because we are certain of ontological realism, we are also certain of moral realism, of objective moral truths. Here is his defense in brief:

  1. We know moral truths (for example, that murder is wrong, rape is wrong, torturing babies for fun is wrong, love is a virtue, justice is a virtue, and so on, 312ff).
  2. These moral truths are mind independent and thus have intrinsic, essential natures (316).
  3. We know these in the mental assent to their essential nature (316).
  4. Moral truths hence are objective and universal (322).
  5. Because moral truths are intended for persons and fulfill persons, they come from a personal agent, which is God (325).
  6. God communicates objective, moral truth through the Bible (328-342).

In a book review of this length, we cannot critique each of these steps, but we need to examine Smith’s confidence in realism and also his use of the Bible as a source for objective moral truths.

First, one of the strengths of realism is that it admits the obvious. We do have knowledge of the world, and consequently we can make truthful claims about it and also identify false ones. The logic of nominalism forces us to consider counterintuitive possibilities, of whether reality is just linguistically constructed, or we are “brains in a vat,” or we live in a computer-generated matrix or a “malicious-deceiving demon” has deceived us. Although each of the possibilities raises important philosophical considerations (for example, the role of intentionality and the relationship of the mind to the brain), they still do not erase the obvious – we know aspects of the world. In this sense, Smith is on the right side of the conflict between realism and nominalism.

Yet, accounting for how this knowledge occurs is the rub. Naturalism takes the simplistic way out of this problem. In reducing the mind to physiological operations, it makes knowledge purely passive (the physical event impacts the brain), but in doing so, it cannot satisfactorily explain mental intentionality and the representational workings of the mind, and consequently cannot accurately explain how we know the world (or even ourselves). People are beginning to see this weakness in naturalism, and Smith ably contributes to this growing critique.

It is thus understandable that substance and property dualism have become attractive again, and Smith adds to this interest. It may be unavoidable to claim that the mind is different qualitatively from the material world, but this admission does not make our efforts to explain how knowledge works any easier. For instance, take Smith’s contention that we know the world when in the mind our intentional, representational claims “match” with the essential nature of what we claim about the world. “Match” is a metaphor and suggests an accurate correspondence between the mental state and the state of the world.

However, when do we know this correspondence takes place? For example, when a toddler identifies an apple (his example on page 288), the mind forms an idea that fits the space, color, and type of the experience. However, on closer examination the apple is more than that. It is a collection of certain kinds of cells, and more so, molecules, and then atoms, and even deeper electrical forces. With what does the match occur?

Smith says that the match is between the essence of the apple and the mind’s mental idea of the experience. However, the essence of an apple would depend on the essence of fruit, which relies on a long list of more comprehensive essences, all the way to being-itself. Does all knowledge then match to the essence of being-itself? This explanation is traditional Platonism and is a serious metaphysical and epistemological contender in philosophy.

However, it suffers the lingering Platonic problem (best told in Plato’s own dialogue, Parmenides) – that is, how can we match the universal essence of something with the particular through or in which we know the essence? Essential realism (Smith’s view) begs this question, and to use the metaphor “match” to account for this knowledge is not necessarily wrong but it still does not explain enough. For this reason, realism must always have a humble side to it.

The second concern is Smith’s use of the Bible to derive universal, objective moral truths. He makes a case that the Gospels are reliable and thus we can trust their historical claims about Jesus’ crucifixion, the empty tomb, and resurrection (338ff). Consequently, we should trust what Jesus says about morality.

However, Smith does not give the same argument for the reliability of the rest of the New Testament, nor the Old Testament. Instead he assumes they are also reliable, and thus contends that whatever the Bible says ethically (for example about justice and love) is objective, moral truth. He spends only eight and half pages in the opening chapter on biblical ethics, briefly outlining several ethical virtues, which is not enough to explain why they are objective, moral truths.

He concludes the book by defending certain biblical passages against the charge that God commanded evil actions. For instance, Smith says that God was just to kill all of the Canaanites because murder, rape, and child sacrifices permeated its culture, and justice demands their punishment, and furthermore because God knows the future, God knew their children would also become rapists and commit child sacrifice. Thus God was just in killing them as well.

Frankly, this use of the Bible (and in particular the account of the destruction of the Canaanites) seems ad hoc, lacking a defensibly systematic and comprehensive justification. Smith’s explanation of how the Bible yields objective moral truth is the most underdeveloped part of the book.

Although these two concerns are significant, they do not nullify the book’s importance. Smith definitely contributes to the discussion of the merits of realism (that is, the legitimacy of exploring dualism), of overcoming the fact-value divide (that is, ethics is grounded in reality), and of critiquing the unwarranted dominance of naturalism (that is, it cannot fully account for knowledge). For these reasons, Smith’s book should be read.

Cite this article
Dennis L. Sansom, “In Search of Moral Knowledge: Overcoming the Fact-Value Dichotomy”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 44:4 , 417-420

Dennis L. Sansom

Samford University
Mr. Sansom is Professor and Chair of Philosophy at Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama.