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Moral Certainty Is Both Overrated and Dangerous

Moral Certainty Is Both Overrated and Dangerous September 28, 2021

Do moral absolutes exist? Is human engagement with moral principles more like a treasure hunt, where we search for something that is already there but perhaps is deeply hidden, or are moral principles something that we creatively construct from various pieces of our individual and collective experiences as well as from the world around us? These are the sorts of questions that I always spend the first few weeks of any ethics course exploring with my students.

On the first day of the semester, I write two truth claims on the board:

A: 2 + 2 = 4

B: The Mona Lisa is a beautiful painting.

Statements A and B both claim that something is true, but what are some of the differences between them? In short order, my students tell me that Truth Claim A is objective, factual, universally true, and provable, while Truth Claim B is subjective, a matter of opinion, and primarily based on feeling rather than reason. With A there is a fact of the matter—it is true whether you like it or not. Two people could vigorously disagree about whether B is true or not, then leave the discussion with their conviction intact feeling that the disagreement, although real, is not worth getting upset about. After all, whether the Mona Lisa is a beautiful painting or not is a matter of opinion. There is no fact of the matter.

I then ask my students to think about moral truth claims, claims that include words like “right,” “wrong,” “ought,” “should,” and so on. Statements like “Stealing is wrong” or “You should always tell the truth” are truth claims just as A and B above are. But are moral truth claims more similar to A or B? More like “2 + 2 = 4” or “The Mona Lisa is a beautiful painting”? Take a moment before reading on to answer that question for yourself.

I estimate conservatively that I have used this exercise on opening day of an ethics course at least two dozen times over the years. With no exceptions, the vast majority of my students (at least 90%) in each class say that moral truth claims are far more similar to B than to A. Moral truth claims, in other words, are subjective, based in feeling, and matters of opinion rather than rooted in fact. My mostly junior and senior ethics students over the years, in other words, have been unabashed and straightforward moral relativists.

This phenomenon was the topic of an essay my students and I discussed this past week, Justin McBrayer’s “Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts.”

McBrayer, a philosophy professor at Fort Lewis College, has experienced the same relativism among his students that I have. Reporting that college students tend to be moral relativists is nothing new, but McBrayer’s explanation is unusual. He does not blame the rampant moral relativism he finds in his undergraduate students on godless post-modern academia, nor does he accuse parents of not doing their jobs (common explanations that have been offered).

Rather, McBrayer blames it on common core standards in primary education, which specifies that students as early as second grade should be taught to distinguish between facts and opinions as follows:

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

Opinion: What someone thinks, feels, or believes.

Using his own eight-year-old son as an example, McBrayer notes that as the youngsters learn to categorize various claims in their proper categories, they are taught that any claim with a normative term in it such as oughtmust, or should is an opinion and not a fact.

Which means not only that a moral truth claim cannot be proven to be true (one can only do that with facts), but such claims are not truth claims at all (notice that the word “true” doesn’t even show up in the definition of “opinion”). If there are no moral facts, there are no moral truths and all moral claims are mere feelings and matters of opinion. It is no wonder that, ten or twelve years later, these children have grown into morally relativistic college students. As McBrayer writes, “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.”

I was, of course, very anxious to find out what my fifty ethics students spread over two classes thought of McBrayer’s essay. Many of them vaguely remembered having been taught the distinction between fact and opinion when they were kids, although none thought that this had the impact on their moral development that McBrayer claims. A number of my students found the essay rather insulting with its claim that college students have no moral compass other than their feelings, although none pushed back very strongly against the notion that college students are moral relativists. My students had, after all, just three weeks ago told me that moral truth claims are more like matters of aesthetic taste than anything factual and provable.

For purposes of discussion, I raised McBrayer’s observation that cheating is rampant on college campuses (noting that this “observation” was anecdotal and lacked any supporting data in his essay). I have no idea whether this is true at my college—it’s not the sort of thing I expend a lot of energy trying to track, other than seeking to design my courses in ways that would make cheating difficult. But, I suggested to my students, suppose for the sake of argument that cheating is rampant at Providence College. McBrayer says that this is because none of you know that cheating is wrong, because you were never taught that there are such things as moral facts. Is that the only possible explanation? Or are there other stories that might be told to account for this?

The ensuing discussion in both classes was both fascinating and illuminating. Not a single student suggested that a person who cheats is unaware that cheating is morally (and factually) wrong. It’s very possible that a person who cheats does so because she believes that, under certain circumstances, moral principles can be overridden in the interest of other important factors. How, for instance, is one to weigh the importance of doing the “right thing” with the impact that failing an important final might have on one’s GPA and future prospects for graduate school and career? Easy to determine from the uninvolved cheap seats perhaps, but hardly as straightforward when buried in the details. Whatever decision the student makes, the issue is not a matter of ignorance that a moral truth is in play.

More broadly, we also reflected on ways to explain the attraction of college students to moral relativism other than supposing that it could be traced back to having been taught poorly in second grade. My ethics students are juniors and seniors who, with at least a couple of years of college under their belts, recognize that as young adults college provides them with the opportunity—one that many people never have or never take advantage of—to take conscious ownership of what they believe and of their moral commitments.

Our discussion reminded me of something Richard Rorty once said about the American system of public education. Rorty suggested that the purpose of K-12 education is to acculturate children and adolescents to the norms, practices and expectations of our society and culture, while the purpose of higher education is to directly question and challenge those norms, practices and expectations. This is precisely what I am doing as a college professor—helping my students identify, then learn how to use the critical tools of lifetime learning, among which questioning everything is perhaps the most important. That process often looks a lot like relativism. So be it.

I suspect that my friends and colleagues, if asked to choose, would describe me as more in the relativist than the absolutist camp when it comes to moral facts. I’m fine with that, since I believe that the dangers of unwarranted certainty far outweigh the pitfalls of relativism. A person can be certain about the truth of anything, including some pretty odious and diabolical beliefs. The question is not “Are there moral facts?” but rather is “On the assumption that there are moral facts, what are they?”

Which tips my hand in this debate—I want to have my cake and eat it too. I believe in the existence of moral absolutes, but also believe that they are far more difficult to identify than most of us imagine. The lifelong search for moral clarity and certainty will often look and feel like relativism. The temptation is very strong to stop along the way and declare one’s current beliefs as moral absolutes—but this temptation must be resisted. At all costs.

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