Justin P. McBrayer, an ethics and philosophy of religion professor, has an opinion piece in the New York Times bemoaning the fact that students are showing up for college not believing that moral rules are facts.
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.
…A few weeks ago, I learned that students are exposed to this sort of thinking well before crossing the threshold of higher education. When I went to visit my son’s second grade open house, I found a troubling pair of signs hanging over the bulletin board. They read:
Fact: Something that is true about a subject and can be tested or proven.
Opinion: What someone thinks, feels, or believes.
McBrayer obviously intended his post to be an alarmist piece, and perhaps a call to arms. But I have to admit to finding it reassuring. If students are showing up for college understanding the distinction between facts and opinions, including values, then that says a lot about the caliber and open mindedness of today’s college students. (Unfortunately, I tend to think McBrayer is exaggerating how many student do actually show up with these views.)
McBrayer points out that a fact is also an opinion, which is true enough, but it’s also true that it’s not just an opinion. He asserts toward the end of his piece that facts are just opinions that are true. Well yes, but what he is either missing or choosing to ignore is the issue of how we know that an opinion is true, that it is a fact. The definition above that he finds so disturbing is not perfect, but as a working definition to separate fact from mere opinion, I find it far superior to his definition.
McBrayer asserts that understanding this distinction is inconsistent with enforcing ethical rules, particularly school rules on cheating. I think that’s silly. Whether or not ethical rules are right or wrong may be relative to a society (or in this case a particular school), but within the scope of that society, their existence as rules are facts that students have to deal with. McBrayer asserts that understanding of the fact-value distinction is responsible for the increase in student cheating and other immorality. But he offers no evidence for this assertion, no test or proof that his assertion is, well, a fact rather than just an opinion.
I can certainly understand the strong desire for moral precepts to be facts similar to mathematical truths or scientific conclusions. I wish they were myself. It would make ethical debates so much easier. It would merely be a matter of testing a proposition or perhaps putting together a logical proof. But moral values can only be proven in relation to other moral values. Eventually, as you dig down through the moral axioms, you unavoidably hit a wall of subjectivity.
Now, I’ve written before why I think seeing moral rules as arbitrary whimsical opinions is wrong. Moral conclusions are often deeply felt, visceral, intense reactions. They arise from various moral foundation instincts, evolved biological impulses fine tuned by culture, that are often contradictory. Unfortunately, the strengths of those various foundations vary among individuals and societies, which means that different people will conscientiously disagree on matters of morality. Moral values are more than just whimsical opinion, but they don’t rise to the level of being absolute facts.
Often, many of the people insisting that moral precepts are facts are arguing for their particular moral values. There are considerable dangers in that approach. Ask any gay person currently living in a state that bans gay marriage, for instance. Understanding that moral imperatives aren’t absolute facts makes a person far more open minded, and reduces the probability of discriminating against people whose outlooks don’t match their personal worldview.
Ultimately, fundamental values can’t be proven, they can only be advocated for. If moral values are facts, we appear to have no reliable way to ascertain them. We have no choice but to do the hard work of finding social rules that the majority of us can live with. Accepting this reality isn’t decadence, it’s maturity. And I’m happy to hear that at least a portion of the current generation of college students has it.