Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Why Our Children Don't Think There Are Moral Facts

Excerpt of Justin McBrayer's opinion piece in the NY Times with my commentary throughout:

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?
TB: No.
I was. 
TB: You shouldn't have been.
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 freshmen in their classrooms view moral claims as mere opinions that are not true or are true only relative to a culture.
TB: That comports fairly well with my own experience.  
What I didn’t know was where this attitude came from. Given the presence of moral relativism in some academic circles, some people might naturally assume that philosophers themselves are to blame. But they aren’t. There are historical examples of philosophers who endorse a kind of moral relativism, dating back at least to Protagoras who declared that “man is the measure of all things,” and several who deny that there are any moral facts whatsoever. But such creatures are rare. Besides, if students are already showing up to college with this view of morality, it’s very unlikely that it’s the result of what professional philosophers are teaching. 
TB: It is true that most philosophers seem to be moral realists and not relativists (relativism may or may not be a species of anti-realism depending on how one defines moral realism).  But it could be that there are a few intellectuals who hold a large degree of sway over the intelligentsia more generally.  Richard Rorty comes to mind as an anti-realist (not just about moral truths but truths more generally) whose writings have been  quite influential even if not in philosophy.  In addition, though it is true that most students entering college are not influenced directly by philosophers, that does not rule out that they have been influenced indirectly way downstream.
So where is the view coming from?

A few weeks ago, I learned that students are exposed to this sort of thinking well before crossing the threshold of higher education.... 
[S]tudents 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.... 
How does the dichotomy between fact and opinion relate to morality? I learned the answer to this question only after I investigated my son’s homework (and other examples of assignments online). Kids are asked to sort facts from opinions and, without fail, every value claim is labeled as an opinion. Here’s a little test devised from questions available on fact vs. opinion worksheets online: are the following facts or opinions?
— Copying homework assignments is wrong.
— Cursing in school is inappropriate behavior.
— All men are created equal.
— It is worth sacrificing some personal liberties to protect our country from terrorism.
— It is wrong for people under the age of 21 to drink alcohol.
— Vegetarians are healthier than people who eat meat.
— Drug dealers belong in prison.
The answer? In each case, the worksheets categorize these claims as opinions. The explanation on offer is that each of these claims is a value claim and value claims are not facts. This is repeated ad nauseum: any claim with good, right, wrong, etc. is not a fact.

TB: This fact-value dichotomy is nothing new and was perhaps argued for most forcefully by the Early Modern philosopher, David Hume.  The fact-value dichotomy is certainly not being invented out of whole cloth.  The trick, though, for those who deny moral facts is to give an account of why we should believe that there are no moral facts while still believing that there are other normative facts (i.e. facts about what ought to be or should be). 
In summary, our public schools teach students that all claims are either facts or opinions and that all value and moral claims fall into the latter camp. The punchline: there are no moral facts. And if there are no moral facts, then there are no moral truths.

The inconsistency in this curriculum is obvious. For example, at the outset of the school year, my son brought home a list of student rights and responsibilities. Had he already read the lesson on fact vs. opinion, he might have noted that the supposed rights of other students were based on no more than opinions. According to the school’s curriculum, it certainly wasn’t true that his classmates deserved to be treated a particular way — that would make it a fact. Similarly, it wasn’t really true that he had any responsibilities — that would be to make a value claim a truth. It should not be a surprise 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.
TB: Though McBrayer makes a strong case (at least based on anecdotal evidence) that certain practices are responsible for influencing students early on to believe that there are no moral facts, what he never gets around to answering is why these practices are being implemented in the first place.  Why does the educational establishment make the fact-value distinction in the first place?  Could it be, in part, that it is a result of moving religion out of the public sphere and public discourse?  Could it also be attributable to our society more generally prizing as the chief virtues such things as tolerance, pluralism, and the pantheon of politically correct virtues--principles not bad in themselves-- but touted as unquestionable (though ungrounded) brute-facts? 

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