Commentary on “Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts”

Justin P. McBrayer recently argued in the New York Times that our children don’t think there are moral facts. Here’s what I take his argument to be:

Argument 1:

  • Premise 1: Common Core defines ‘fact’ as something that is true about a subject or something that can be tested or proven.
  • Premise 2: Common Core defines ‘opinion’ as what someone thinks, feels, or believes.
  • Premise 3: Common Core says all sentences are either facts or opinions.
  • Premise 5: Common Core labels all value judgments (any claim with good, bad, right, wrong, etc) as opinions, never as facts.
  • Conclusion: Common Core teaches that there are no moral facts.

Argument 2:

  •  Premise 1: Common Core teaches that there are no moral facts.
  • Premise 2: The school teaches that students have certain responsibilities such as “do your own work.”
  • Premise 3: Premise 1 is inconsistent with premise 2.
  • Premise 4: Outside of school, if there is no truth of the matter about whether cheating is wrong, then we cannot hold cheaters accountable.
  • Premise 5: We do (and should) hold cheaters accountable.
  • Conclusion: Outside of school, there is a truth of the matter about whether cheating is wrong (i.e., there are moral facts).
  • Conclusion: We should reject the Common Core teaching that there are no moral facts.

I agree with most of McBrayer’s argument. It is a rather elegant one. But his argument has come under serious attack by Daniel Engber over at Slate. In what follows, I shall defend McBrayer’s argument against Engber’s attack. I think Engber has built an elaborate strawman, but when he takes him down, McBrayer’s argument still stands tall. 

The fundamental problem for Engber is that he doesn’t address any of McBayer’s premises above. Not a one.

Instead, Engber addresses the following claim from McBayer,

“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” (McBrayer).

I didn’t even include this as a piece of his argument; I saw it as a way into the argument—a prologue of sorts—not as a premise.

Engber says McBrayer is speaking nonsense:

“The problem starts with McBrayer’s mode of inquiry. To establish his baseline claim, that modern college students are more than ever moral relativists, he relies on the philosopher’s favorite tools: anecdote and intuition. He noticed that his students don’t hold absolutist moral views, and he’s heard the same from friends in his department. Are there any data to support his claim? Nope, not at all, not important, he doesn’t care” (Engber).

Engber is criticizing McBrayer’s method (as well as his character, which we’ll ignore). But he’s also criticizing McBrayer’s “conclusion” that college students are more relativist now than ever (something you’ll note was absent in my presentation above because McBrayer never says it).

But then Engber does something curious. He cites the experimental philosopher Beebe, who conducted a survey of 2,500 people in Buffalo, New York. I thought Engber was doing this to prove McBrayer wrong. But Beebe proves the very same conclusion McBrayer draws: overwhelmingly, college students are moral relativists. Beebe found that the strongest instances of moral relativism, across all age groups, was from age 17 to age 29. So, I’m not sure what Engber’s angle here is. McBrayer says college students are relativists; Beebe proves college students—all the way up to age 29!—are relativists. So how does Beebe help Engber’s case? It seems to me that McBrayer was pretty spot on, and Beebe’s evidence confirms the armchair philosopher’s conclusion.

I guess Engber is really questioning the supposed causal connection: Common Core is not causing our college students to be moral relativists. He expresses this thought by saying, “There’s no evidence that public school lesson plans are changing how we think (and besides, the Common Core hasn’t been around that long).” The studies he cites by Beebe and others confirm that college students have always been moral relativists. We’re objectivists as young children and as older adults, but everyone has and always will go through a relativist “stage.” Common Core has nothing to do with it.

Maybe. Maybe not. We don’t have any evidence for or against the causal claim at this point. It is too early to tell. I think McBrayer fully admits that. His claim is a conjunction: Common Core is teaching that there are no moral facts AND college students are moral relativists. I don’t take his main conclusion to be that if Common Core teaches this, then college students will become moral relativists. By the same token, the causal connection can’t be ruled out. Common Core is new.

But just because Common Core is new, that doesn’t mean we cannot make educated guesses about the future. I was just speaking to my own 14-year-old daughter, and I asked her what the difference between fact and opinion was, and she gave verbatim the definition McBrayer’s son did. These definitions have penetrated their young, malleable minds. Children from age 6 to age 18 practice the skill of separating fact from opinion nearly every day. And moral judgments are always on the opinion side—no matter how awful. My daughter even said that “poking needles in an infant’s eyes for fun is wrong” is just a matter of opinion. When I asked her what she would think if someone said it was right, she said, rather uncomfortably, “well, I mean, I know that would be wrong, but it’s still a matter of opinion, not fact.”

We don’t know for certain that Common Core will fundamentally change people’s moral attitudes. But there is reason to suppose that with this new mantra, they might never become objectivists. The relativism stage could last forever. Saying, “it’s just a matter of opinion” that many times surely won’t dissipate over night. And that’s what frightens me. I’m okay with college students being open-minded about the world, which often drives their relativism. But they eventually accept that some things are just plain wrong (interestingly, according to Beebe, this happens right around the time you become a parent). What would a world look like in 50 years if no one came around to that view? It would be a world where no one is held accountable for his or her actions. It would be a free-for-all race to profit and greed. It would be a place where so-and-so can mutilate his daughter, and we couldn’t tell him not to. It would be a world without moral progress because no one has the vocabulary to challenge the status quo. Raising a generation of kids to think there’s no fact of the matter about what’s right and what’s wrong is scary. It’s bound to have disastrous effects.

It’s important to remember, however, that McBrayer never really argues that Common Core causes college students to be relativists. And he certainly never directly argues that Common Core causes college students to be immoral. But many have taken him to argue this. People have taken McBrayer to be saying that Common Core teaches kids that “cheating is wrong” is a matter of opinion, and this lesson will encourage kids to actually cheat. I think Engber understood McBrayer to be saying exactly that.

I believe there’s one place in McBayer’s argument where he slips up and suggests this reading, although it is definitely not part of his main argument. I do not think that his main conclusion is that college students today are immoral because they were never taught that there are indeed moral facts. But he hints at such a conclusion when he says, “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.” One might take this to mean that college students today are worse people than those who came before.

But look again at what McBayer actually says. He doesn’t say that Common Core’s teaching that there are no moral facts causes college kids to cheat. No, he says that if we taught them there was no fact of the matter about cheating, then we cannot—on pain of consistency—hold them accountable for cheating. If they’re taught their whole lives that it’s just a matter of opinion that cheating is wrong, then how can they even think that cheating is wrong? They’d always have the cop-out, “well my professor thinks cheating is wrong, but I think it’s no big deal, so…I’ll cheat.”

Not unsurprisingly, McBrayer might be right about cheating. According to U.S. News and World Report, cheating among high school students is on the rise:

“A whopping 64 percent of high school students surveyed by the Center for Youth Ethics at the Josephson Institute in Los Angeles said they had cheated on a test at least once in the past year, up from 60 percent in 2004. Thirty-eight percent said they had cheated two or more times, while another 36 percent said they had used the Internet to plagiarize an assignment, up from 33 percent two years ago.”

Kids these days do in fact cheat more. If kids are already cheating more, and we’re also teaching them that it’s just a matter of opinion whether cheating is wrong, it would be no surprise if the cheating trend continues to soar. While I do not believe this is a part of McBrayer’s actual argument, he may still be on the right track. Only time will tell.

The moral of the story, I think, is McBrayer’s ending remarks:

“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.”

Like McBrayer, I too have encountered many college students who say, “There’s no right answer. It’s just a matter of opinion.” And I see my teenage daughter being taught the same thing: there are no moral facts; it’s just a matter of opinion. I don’t take this to be a moral failing. Thinking that “cheating is wrong is just a matter of opinion” may not lead people to cheat. Rather, I take it to be an excuse. A cop-out. It’s a symptom of intellectual laziness.

We are not simply saddled with our moral beliefs like we’re saddled with who we find attractive or what kind of ice cream we like. We form our moral beliefs over time, through experience and the input of others. We are in charge of our moral beliefs. We are responsible for them. And to say “it’s just a matter of opinion” is to shirk that responsibility. It is to lose a piece of our humanity.

 

 

 

 

2 comments

  1. My first one – great stuff – as usual, I have lots of dumb questions that are more about definitions than anything else.

    Like

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