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Moral Truths and The Fact/Opinion Dichotomy


Moral Truths and The Fact/Opinion Dichotomy

Thomas Whitley

The New York Times' Opinion Page from Monday included a piece by Justin P. McBrayer, associate professor of philosophy at Fort Lewis College, that has been making the rounds. The piece, Why Our Children Don't Think There Are Moral Facts, is McBrayer's attempts to link his son's second grade homework assignments and the fact/opinion dichotomy to moral truth. At issue are two signs hanging above a bulletin board:

Fact: Something that is true about a subject and can be tested or proven.

Opinion: What someone thinks, feels, or believes.

A problem presented by this approach for McBrayer is that these are presented as mutually exclusive; something is either a fact or an opinion. McBrayer points out that someone can believe something that is also a fact (or would this person know this thing rather than believe it?). He then turns to his son's homework, which asks the student to determine whether the following sentences are 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 "correct" answer is that all of these are opinions because they are value claims. I agree with this answer because each statement speaks from a particular normative point of view and does not express any universal truth. To take but one example, a founding principle of this country is that "all men are created equal." It is a principle to which we have yet to live up in any meaningful sense, but most in this country do strive for it. If McBrayer had his way, this would be classified as a fact, but on what grounds? If facts (or things that are true) need not necessarily be provable, then by what measure are we to judge whether something is a fact or not? There are at least three problems with the statement that "all men are created equal." First, it is androcentric. Second, are men (or human beings, if we are offering an inclusive reading) "created"? Doesn't this imply a "creator"? Some people believe in a creator while others do not. There is nothing about the creation of humanity by a creator that should be classified as a fact. Third, human beings are not created (or born) equal. The location and socio-economic means of a child's family play a significant role in the health, life expectancy, and opportunity of a created/born person. Indeed, we would likely be on more solid ground stating that "all men are not created equal," as this would at least speak to the reality of our circumstance. That we may think or believe that human beings are equally deserving of worth, value, fair treatment, and opportunity does not simply make that so.

McBrayer thinks he has found the fatal inconsistency in the system when he juxtaposes his son's homework assignment and the school's student rights and responsibilities handbook.

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.

McBrayer's reading of the code of rights and responsibilities is actually right. It is not a fact that his son's classmates deserve to be treated in a certain manner. That the school enforces such a rule does not tell us that this is actually a fact, but rather speaks to the school's power of enforcement. That is, the school, with the backing of the state, has the power (some would say hegemony) to craft a code of conduct and to require its students to abide by it. If a student does not, the school, again with the backing of the state, has the power to punish that student. That McBrayer believes that the existence of such a system means that it is a fact that classmates should be treated with respect speaks to the success of the school system to naturalize itself. In other words, what a person does or does not deserve is not based on moral facts but rather on arbitrary (and self-serving) decisions made by social actors over a long period of time and the subsequent implementation of a policy that states what one does and does not deserve. This system then presents itself as natural, as obvious, as "they way things really are," as fact. Indeed, the success of the system is predicated on its ability to self-present its rules as facts. This simply makes it that much easier to police the behavior of students, now with buy-in from their parents and, of course, the backing of the state.

McBrayer attempts to further make his point that there really are moral facts by referencing the Charlie Hebdo attack, among other things that appear to him to be self-evidently wrong.

If it’s not true that it’s wrong to murder a cartoonist with whom one disagrees, then how can we be outraged? If there are no truths about what is good or valuable or right, how can we prosecute people for crimes against humanity? If it’s not true that all humans are created equal, then why vote for any political system that doesn’t benefit you over others?

It is just this outrage that McBrayer references that is so interesting to study. For many were outraged at the Charlie Hebdo attack, though are decidedly less outraged at the killing of civilians in other countries by our government. Just as McBrayer believes that it is wrong to kill cartoonists who offend a religion, so too did the attackers believe that it was wrong to depict their Prophet, not to mention the depiction of their prophet in intentionally provocative and demeaning manners. One man's terrorist attack is another man's religious war. The relativism becomes clear when groups (religious or not) begin to talk about their own past. Think of the narrative around how we can differentiate between Christian violence and Islamic violence. Think of the narrative of manifest destiny in our country. What our ancestors did was to divinely displace Native Americans; it is other countries who commit genocide.

McBrayer ends with a call for us to do the hard work of determining which moral claims are true.

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.

I will end by suggesting that that is precisely not the sort of work in which we should want our schools engaged, but rather that the hard work in which we must engage is self-reflectively realizing the ways in which we justify and present as true and natural our existence, our beliefs, and our behaviors while attempting to call out our opponents for engaging in exactly the same project.


Image: Immanuel Kant, 18th century German philosopher who who is well-known for his moral philosophy, via Wikimedia Commons.