Recently, a Facebook friend who is a Professor of Philosophy posted an article titled, “Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts.” In this article, Justin P. McBrayer observes how his son’s school is teaching him that there is no such thing as a moral fact. After citing several examples from his son’s curriculum, he shares these two concerns.
So what’s wrong with this distinction and how does it undermine the view that there are objective moral facts?
First, the definition of a fact waffles between truth and proof — two obviously different features. Things can be true even if no one can prove them. For example, it could be true that there is life elsewhere in the universe even though no one can prove it. Conversely, many of the things we once “proved” turned out to be false. For example, many people once thought that the earth was flat. It’s a mistake to confuse truth (a feature of the world) with proof (a feature of our mental lives). Furthermore, if proof is required for facts, then facts become person-relative. Something might be a fact for me if I can prove it but not a fact for you if you can’t. In that case, E=MC2 is a fact for a physicist but not for me.
But second, and worse, students are taught that claims are either facts or opinions. They are given quizzes in which they must sort claims into one camp or the other but not both. But if a fact is something that is true and an opinion is something that is believed, then many claims will obviously be both. For example, I asked my son about this distinction after his open house. He confidently explained that facts were things that were true whereas opinions are things that are believed.
But one need not investigate our educational system to see the cultural indoctrination into moral obfuscation. This short clip from the popular TV series Blue Bloods tells the whole story.
However, the most interesting part of this was the ensuing discussion on Facebook. Here is the unedited discussion, excepting some spell-checking, between my friend, the Philosophy Professor, and me.
FB FRIEND: When it comes to morality, I think we can begin reasoning from the belief that, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood,” (Article 1 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights). All reasoning rests upon basic assumptions, whether we are talking about science, morality, etc. (we call these metaphysical first principles). There is a reason why rape and slavery are always wrong. Always. Everytime and in every culture. Rape, slavery, etc. violates the statement of truth expounded in Article 1 (and the rest of the UDHR totally rocks too!)
ME:Very interesting article. It raises a question the average student may ask, “who gave the UN authority to declare moral facts?” More than 20 years ago at Penn State I had a fellow-student tell me that Hitler was only wrong from our modern perspective, but he could not judge if Hitler was absolutely wrong for all cultures and all times. In his view, what Hitler did was not “wrong” his actions were simply not culturally acceptable. ISIS, as another example, is a collection of people who find rape, slavery and torture acceptable, and possibly encouraged, in their religious-worldview. In their view, the UDHR is just a moral opinion of a wrongheaded and corrupt and godless culture. So how does one decide who is right? Who decided the UN had universal authority of moral facts for all cultures and all peoples of the world?
MY FRIEND: Good questions, Joe. As for the declaration, it was put together at the end of World War II, in the wake of the crimes against humanity. Many counties contributed to the writing and passing of the UDHR, including Russia, China, and many Middle Eastern countries where Islam is the dominant religion. As to who gives it moral authority? In a quick fb post, my answer is reason. Those who put together the document agreed (for the most part) about the content, but not about the philosophical underpinnings.
ME: FB does have its limitation. I would just make two observations. One, if reason is the guarantor of moral-fact, then moral-fact will, of necessity, change as worldview transforms the process of reason. This post I made some time ago about Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID) gives some idea of where I am coming from. http://www.morethancake.org/archives/2203 Two, if moral-fact requires the consensus of countries, what happens when those countries cease to exist? A look at a world-map shows that many of the countries that existed when we were young have passed into history. So in the end, moral-facts, rooted in governmental authority, are no more transcendent than the governments who enforce them.
MY FRIEND: Good points. Joe, what do you think of Aquinas’ natural law? I suppose that’s how I’d respond to #1. And as to #2, the idea is that we are humans first and citizen second. That’s the idea behind human rights.
MY FRIEND: Joe, I suppose the reason I admire the UDHR is because I see it as a way to talk about morality in a pluralistic society. When we don’t all hold the same religious beliefs, what are we to do? I think we can still reason together, and the UDHR is a great place to start.
ME: I suppose my quick, and probably unsatisfying, answer to both of your queries is that it depends upon how one defines nature and interprets its “laws.” If nature evolves, so then do her laws. If nature is ever-changing, then moral law must be ever-changing. Eg. Hitler, inspired by Darwin, saw some races as superior and therefore he had a natural right to eliminate the inferior races (survival of the fittest and all). Margret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, was a strong advocate of eugenics and advocated abortion as an easy way for society to eliminate blacks whom she saw as the inferior species. Or, as others have proposed, to prevent global warming, eliminating humans is okay since the rights of nature = the rights of all animals = rights of human-animals. I address this latest issue in this post. http://www.morethancake.org/archives/5912 So the ablity to reason together still assume a shared wordlview and as society becomes more bulkanized through pluralization, reason becomes much less reasonable.
My friend offered no more replies, but my final observation took back to the original dilemma regarding the fiction of moral fact.
ME: Back to the original post, “Fact” vs “Opinion”. Another confusing part of your people is how these terms are used in a scientific context. Check out this definition of “Fact” from the National Center for Science Education, “Fact: In science, an observation that has been repeatedly confirmed and for all practical purposes is accepted as “true.” Truth in science, however, is never final and what is accepted as a fact today may be modified or even discarded tomorrow.” http://ncse.com/…/definitions-fact-theory-law... So in this sense, a Fact is just an opinion that a lot of people accept, but may change later. Right?
- How did the conversation go?
- How would you respond?