Most of my college philosophy students are moral relativists without justification. That is, they seem scandalized by the idea that there are moral facts but, if asked, can give no coherent reason as to why moral facts do not exist. In addition to this they contradict their disbelief in moral facts by expressing outrage that anyone would push their morality on someone else. They believeIt is wrong to push your morality on someone else, which is itself a moral fact. Some students even seem to want to push this moral fact on others.
Most moral relativistic students, when pressed, seem to agree that certain moral facts exist. For example, most would concur that It is wrong to rape and torture little girls for fun.
How did my students come to be inconsistent moral relativists? Philosopher Justin McBrayer answers this in “Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts” (New York Times, 3/2/15). McBrayer writes:
“What would you say if you found out that our public schools were teaching children that it is not true that it’s wrong to kill people for fun or cheat on tests? Would you be surprised?
I was. As a philosopher, I already knew that many college-aged students don’t believe in moral facts. While there are no national surveys quantifying this phenomenon, philosophy professors with whom I have spoken suggest that the overwhelming majority of college freshman in their classrooms view moral claims as mere opinions that are not true or are true only relative to a culture.”
Where did this idea come from? While there are academic philosophers who are moral relativists, none of my students are familiar with them (OK, maybe .001% have at least heard of a philosophical moral relativist). McBrayer says this incipient-yet-unreflected-on moral relativism comes from our K-12 educational system.
To demonstrate, when McBrayer visited his son’s second grade open house he saw a pair of “troubling” signs hanging over the bulletin board. They read:
Fact: Something that is true about a subject and can be tested or proved.
Opinion: What someone thinks, feels, or believes.
These signs represent the norm, not the exception. McBrayer writes:
“Hoping that this set of definitions was a one-off mistake, I went home and Googled “fact vs. opinion.” The definitions I found onlinewere substantially the same as the one in my son’s classroom. As it turns out, the Common Core standards used by a majority of K-12 programs in the country require that students be able to “distinguish among fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment in a text.” And the Common Core institute provides a helpful page full of links to definitions, lesson plans and quizzes to ensure that students can tell the difference between facts and opinions.”
The fact-opinion distinction is wrong. Why?
- The definition of a “fact” associates it with “proof.” But this is wrong, since “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).”
- Students are taught that claims are eitherfacts or opinions.”But if a fact is something that is true and an opinion is something that is believed, then many claims will obviously be both.” What a person believes can be a fact. I believe George Washington was the first president, and it is afact that he was the first president.
Working from this false distinction the K-12 educational program places moral value claims as “opinions.” Which means, according to the above false distinction, moral value claims are not “facts.” So, there are no moral facts. “And if there are no moral facts, then there are no moral truths.” By this confused, false reasoning the moral statement It is wrong to rape and torture little girls for fun is only an “opinion” and therefore is not true. So “it should not be a surprise,” says McBrayer, “that there is rampant cheating on college campuses: If we’ve taught our students for 12 years that there is no fact of the matter as to whether cheating is wrong, we can’t very well blame them for doing so later on.”
My students, and our children, deserve better than this. McBrayer concludes, correctly:
“Our children deserve a consistent intellectual foundation. Facts are things that are true. Opinions are things we believe. Some of our beliefs are true. Others are not. Some of our beliefs are backed by evidence. Others are not. Value claims are like any other claims: either true or false, evidenced or not. The hard work lies not in recognizing that at least some moral claims are true but in carefully thinking through our evidence for which of the many competing moral claims is correct. That’s a hard thing to do. But we can’t sidestep the responsibilities that come with being human just because it’s hard.
That would be wrong.”