Are There Moral Facts?

Are There Moral Facts? March 19, 2015

ECG 2014 83When I was a child I was constantly asking “why?”  Sometimes it was a not-so-subtle form of disagreement (“why do I have to go to bed now?”), but more often it was a genuine desire to understand.  Well reasoned explanations usually satisfied me even if I didn’t particularly like them (“because you have school tomorrow and you need to be rested and alert in the morning”) but appeals to authority (“because I’m your mother and I say so!”) never did.

This New York Times opinion piece from Justin P. McBrayer keeps popping up in my Facebook feed.  It’s titled Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts.  It’s getting a lot of shares but not a lot of comments, at least in my networks.  I think that’s because it raises a valid concern but it does so in an ineffective way.  It starts off

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.

That’s a shocking statement designed to get a response, especially from those who believe the right-wing propaganda that public schools are tools of liberal indoctrination.  McBrayer references the widely unpopular Common Core standards, then concludes by saying

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.

Like so many political commentators, McBrayer screams “ain’t it awful” but then fails to offer a viable alternative.  He desperately wants moral facts to exist but he doesn’t tell us how we can identify them, other than “it’s hard.”

Well, yes.

A fact is something that exists independently and can be verified objectively:  water freezes at 0˚C and boils at 100˚C.  Barack Obama is President of the United States.  Animals will die if deprived of oxygen, water, or food.

Opinions are value judgments.  They are subjective and cannot be verified:  chocolate is better than vanilla.  Barack Obama is a good President.  Cats are better pets than dogs.

Perhaps at no other time in history has it been more necessary to teach children (and adults) the difference between facts and value judgments.  We are constantly bombarded with advertising that uses sophisticated psychological cues to tell us some product is good and will make us healthy and attractive.  We may be past the days when an actor in a white coat could lecture on the benefits of smoking, but we’re still told a car will keep us safe, drinks will bring us friends, and a pill will get us laid.

Politicians don’t debate policy any more – they use buzzwords to say “I’m one of you – my opponent is one of them.  Vote for me and all will be well.  Vote for him and the world will go to hell.”

We like to think we’re rational creatures.  We’re not.  We’re emotional creatures who make decisions intuitively and then use our intellect to rationalize why what we want is good and right and true.  As Emily Dickinson said “the heart wants what it wants.”  When done mindfully that’s a good thing – we aren’t robots and we aren’t Vulcans.  We just need enough logic and enough objectivity to keep ourselves out of trouble… and to make sure our short-term desires are balanced against our long-term needs.  Teaching children to separate objective facts from subjective value judgments is critically important.

Some value judgments are so universal and so helpful that they may seem like facts, but they are not.  I don’t want to get into a semantics debate, but precision is important.  “Stealing is wrong” may seem like a fact, but as the classical moral question asks, is a starving person wrong to steal a loaf of bread?  Libertarians argue that taxes are theft.  Progressives argue that payday lenders steal from the poor.

Teachers who are burdened with demands for high test scores and parents who are just trying get everyone fed before collapsing for the evening may be forgiven for trying to make things simple by saying “stealing is wrong.”  But that doesn’t mean they’re correct, and it doesn’t mean we don’t need to do the hard work of teaching how to determine right from wrong.

We no longer live in a monoculture, if we ever did.  It’s no longer sufficient to pretend your culture, your religion, and your morals are objectively better than everyone else’s – you have to demonstrate why your moral standards work better, not just for you and yours but for everyone else as well.

As a Pagan, my answer is to teach virtues:  qualities and practices that have been demonstrated to be helpful in promoting healthy and sustainable individuals and communities.  There are many lists – this one is mine.

Integrity – keeping your word and doing what you said you’d do, which builds trust based on actual performance.

Reciprocity – returning a favor for a favor, which makes future cooperation more likely.

Hospitality – welcoming strangers and treating them as guests, which affirms our shared humanity and increases the chances diverse groups of people will cooperate peacefully and not oppose each other violently.

Courage – doing what is right instead of what is easy, which encourages us to deal with difficult situations before they become impossible situations.

Justice – insuring that all receive fair and equitable treatment.  Justice recognizes that we are not simply individuals, we are also families, communities, and nations.

Reason – a commitment to the integrity of facts and of cause and effect (remembering that correlation is not causation), which helps insure we don’t waste time and energy fixing the wrong problems in the wrong way.

As you might imagine from the opening paragraph, obedience is not on this list.

Arete – the Celsus Library, Ephesus – 2012
Arete – the Celsus Library, Ephesus

There are many other virtues – these are the ones that are most important to me.  They are all bound up in what the Greeks called arête, usually translated as “striving for excellence.” We recognize that we are imperfect humans who will never fully embody any of these virtues, much less all of them.  There are times when multiple virtues are in tension or even in opposition.  But we do our best to embody them as fully and as honestly as possible.

Virtues are not moral facts.  They are not true because they are self-evident or because some sacred text says they’re true.  They are good because they have been proven to be helpful.  You don’t have to think on them for long before you realize that killing people for fun or cheating on tests aren’t good things to do.

Justin P. McBrayer did a good job of driving traffic to the New York Times website with a cheap shot on public schools and pearl-clutching on moral relativism.  Children need all the help they can get in learning to separate fact from opinion – and they need to be taught how to live virtuously.

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