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Right, Wrong, Fact, and Value

Monday morning as I was getting ready for work, my mind was wandering. Mundane stuff always does that — in this case, inspiration struck while I was brushing my teeth. I suddenly thought it was curious that in the English language we use the word "wrong" both for describing statements of fact and statements of value: "Those calculations are wrong." "Stealing is wrong."

The word "right" has the same curious property: "These calculations are right." "It is right to engage in productive work."

I don't know (or particularly care) whether this property of English is common in lots of other languages. What strikes me is how appropriate this word choice is. Leave your fears about equivocation aside for the moment. In fact, let's embrace it. This will be easy if you're a consequentialist, and hard otherwise.

Metaphysically, facts are primary and values are secondary. Facts simply are. Values are more complicated. The realm of values is really the realm of a particular kind of relationship: the relationship between a living entity and all the things that affect its life. Things that enhance its life are good, and things that undermine its life are bad. Actions of moral agents are right (good) or wrong (bad).

The correct identification of facts is good, is right, because as human beings our mind is our chief tool of survival. The correct identification of facts is, to express it one way, the very foundation of science. All our life enhancing knowledge and tools are ultimately a product of the correct identification of facts. It is good to be correct; it is right to be right.

The opposite is true for "wrong": To mis-identify facts is fundamentally anti-life because it makes our minds impotent to aid our lives, or worse, leads us to actually self-destructive behavior. It is bad to be incorrect; it is wrong to be wrong.

The relationship between is and ought, between facts and values, isn't esoteric. Rather, the relationship is embedded in common usage of the English language.

The political concept of "rights" is similarly rooted. Rights are things that are good, that are right — freedoms that people ought to have because those freedoms do (I'll say it: "in fact!") enhance their lives.

Tiny Island